Celtic Crossroads: Ireland's New Model of Church-State Relations

By Buckley, David T. | Commonweal, October 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Celtic Crossroads: Ireland's New Model of Church-State Relations


Buckley, David T., Commonweal


During a parliamentary debate this summer over the Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse allegations, Ireland's Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, railed against the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism" of the Vatican--strong words from any head of government, and unprecedented in Ireland. Kenny's blistering criticism may provide a chance for a needed recasting of Irish church state relations.

As Ireland stumbles toward recovery from the economic catastrophe of recent years, it needs a Catholic Church that can articulately criticize both the lack of accountability and the excesses of individualism that led to Ireland's financial crisis. For its part, the Irish church must stop mourning its lost power and prestige and read the signs of the times in contemporary Dublin--signs announcing a range of pressing issues, from the continuing aftershocks of the housing bubble to the demand for justice for sexual abuse victims. And--just as important--the church must recognize that such signs of the times in Ireland today are more likely than ever to be written in Polish, Chinese, or Arabic.

The church's opportunity to refashion its role in Irish life will be driven not so much by choice as by necessity. In the past two decades, what University College Dublin sociologist Tom Inglis has termed the "moral monopoly" of the Catholic Church over public life in Ireland has crumbled. Under the traditional church state model, Irish bishops tolerated a formally secular constitution because the law of the land enshrined much of Catholic morality and thought. Divorce was unconstitutional, primary education was entirely denominational, and politicians like Eamon de Valera knew how to kiss a bishop's ring. In 1951's Mother and Child crisis, Dublin's Archbishop McQuaid vetoed state public health legislation because it threatened to run afoul of Catholic teaching on the autonomy of the family. In today's Ireland, where sexual cover-ups by bishops seem endless, this kind of controlling clericalism is unthinkable.

Amid the wreckage of the old church state model, the future public role of Irish Catholicism remains to be determined. Many argue that Ireland is simply on the express route to post Catholic Europe. Weekly Mass attendance has dropped to around 40 percent, and even lower in urban areas like Dublin. The Irish press generally praised Taoiseach Kenny's anti Vatican outburst, and the World Atheist Convention held its global convocation in Dublin this June, with Irish Senator Ivana Bacik warning of "creeping fundamentalists" in Irish life. For all these reasons, papal historian George Weigel recently called Ireland "the most stridently anti Catholic country in the Western world."

Yet cries of anti Catholic persecution are off the mark--and moreover won't save Irish Catholicism. The truth is that disgust with large parts of the hierarchy simmers just as hot among observant Catholics as among atheists like Bacik. Fr. Gerry O'Hanlon, SJ, certainly no anti-Catholic, spoke for many devoted believers when he recently asserted that "our current model of church is nonsense." Nearly 75 percent of weekly churchgoers tell the International Social Survey Programme that they think church leaders should not influence government. To oppose aspects of the Catholic Church's historically unchallengeable power in Ireland does not betoken anti Catholicism.

There exists a way forward. At its best, the Irish approach to church state relations is well equipped to chart a middle path between religious rule and assertive secularism. That path would require the state to treat all religious communities equally without driving religion from public life--in the process encouraging religious participation in education and health care, and influence on public policy in such areas as criminal justice, housing, and foreign aid. Catholic officials would exercise influence through persuasion, not coercion, and in conjunction with partners of other faith communities. …

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