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For a long time Irish politics and culture have been married to Catholicism. Now we seem to be witnessing the beginnings of a very public divorce. The Diocese of Cloyne has been the center of attention. Roiled by revelations of decades of clerical sexual abuse, in 1996 the Irish bishops put together a framework for dealing with criminal clerics. The bishop of Cloyne did not apply the framework, letting abusive priests keep abusing children and others, for which he’s rightly been condemned.

Following the release in July of an official government report about the diocese, the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, gave a sharply worded speech that charged the Vatican with obstructing justice in Cloyne. The Vatican recalled the papal nuncio to Rome to prepare a response, which came out in early September. Many commentators, including Fr. Raymond de Souza writing on our website, have detailed the misrepresentations in Kenny’s speech and defended the integrity of the Vatican’s efforts to reform the Church in Ireland.

But more is at issue than sexual abuse. Kenny’s speech offered a broad condemnation of the role of the Catholic Church in Irish culture and politics. The Cloyne report, he intoned, does not simply expose the Church’s failure to deal with clerical sexual abuse. Instead, it “excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican today.”

He’s all in favor of Catholicism, as long as it exhibits “the radicalism, the humility, and the compassion,” which the politician turned Church historian tells us are its founding principles. But one needs little expertise in reading between the lines to see in the speech a determined effort to use the issue of sexual abuse”one on which the Catholic Church is certainly very vulnerable”to lever the Church out of her longtime role as a major player in Irish public life.

Which, given the history of modern Irish politics, is not surprising. Two major parties emerged after the war of independence, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, Fianna Fáil became predominant, and from the 1930s onward Ireland functioned as a de facto one-party state. De Valera’s 1937 constitution did not make Catholicism the state religion, but it did give the Church a “special position.”

At a practical level, ecclesiastical institutions were integrated into the party’s interlocking network of logrolling, favoritism, and protection as well as into government institutions. For the most part the Church ran hospitals and schools (as it had before), functioning as a quasi-governmental bureaucracy that was the largest provider of social services in Ireland (which included the notorious “industrial schools” for orphans from which have come the most harrowing stories of abuse). And the Church has been not just chief social worker but also the national moral conscience. Fianna Fáil sponsored strict laws on abortion, contraception, divorce, and pornography, all in accord with Church teaching.

It was Fianna Fáil, with its system of patronage, that was recently crushed in the election that brought Kenny and his Fine Gael party to power in a victory that most commentators regard as marking the end of an era in Irish politics. The economic crisis of 2008, which effectively bankrupted Ireland and exposed the close and self-serving relations between government officials, financiers, and real-estate speculators, was the central issue in the election.

But politics is always about culture as well as economics. In recent decades, the Fine Gael party has come to stand for liberal or progressive ideals. During a brief stint in power in the 1980s, Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald liberalized laws on contraception and tried, unsuccessfully, to liberalize divorce laws. As Ireland became wealthier and a member of the European Union, Fine Gael oriented itself toward the new class in Ireland, those whose cosmopolitan sensibilities made them keen to bring Ireland into greater harmony with prevailing European attitudes and social mores.

Now FitzGerald’s successors are in power. Kenny and his allies want to get on with secular modernity and the triumph of progressive cultural values, which requires getting the Church out of the way. Because the Church is so profoundly identified with the old order”the Fianna Fáil order that voters so decisively rejected at the polls last winter”odds are good that he’ll succeed.

He certainly thinks so. His speech was a frontal assault on the Church’s role in public life, something that in earlier decades would have been political suicide. Now striking a blow against the Church has the opposite effect. It burnishes the political image of an Irish politician eager to be seen as sweeping away a corrupt and regressive ancien régime, a progressive, compassionate David standing up to the rule-bound, authoritarian Goliath.

Kenny’s harsh words reflect one of the most important social dynamics of the last two centuries in modern European history: the dissolution of Christendom, the end of an integrated world in which the beliefs, rituals, and institutions of Christianity functioned at the center of the political and social imaginations”and calculations”of Europeans. This secularizing trend has not necessarily meant the end of the Church’s status and influence, at least not immediately. Sometimes by default, and sometimes because she serves the interests of modern secular leaders, the Church has retained a degree of political power, as well as control over social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages.

The Church in Ireland certainly played such a role. For centuries she was a bulwark of Irish resistance to British colonization and served as a defining feature of Irish national identity, as well as running schools and other civic institutions after the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. The Church was an integral part of the Irish cultural and political establishment, a role made explicit in the corporatist philosophy of Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil.

Now those in power want to expel the Church from their political and cultural establishment. Kenny’s speech insinuated that Catholicism”at least in its official, magisterial form”is incompatible with a modern democratic culture. Symbolic of this attempt to demote the Church is the Minister of Justice’s desire to require priests who hear confessions of sexual abuse to report them to the police, and this in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that the seal of confession played any role in past cover-ups.

The assault upon the sacramental life of the Church is unlikely to succeed, and in fact the government has recently backed down, but, as I said, the odds are in favor of Kenny’s larger goal of pushing the Church aside. The archbishop of Dublin recently reported that fewer than one in five Dublin Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday, a steep decline in one generation. It’s hard to stand firm as a pillar of the establishment when your base of support is crumbling.

This cultural disestablishment may not lead to an official change in the Irish constitution or even to changes in the day-to-day role of various church-run institutions. But it involves an important shift in the social consensus, a shift that has occurred in various ways and at various times in modern European history. Christianity in the last three centuries has lost political, social, and cultural power (and this includes the Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church), in large part because Christian teaching no longer commands widespread assent. Even where the Church continues to enjoy a privileged legal status, it has been functionally disestablished.

For example, the German government collects a special tax on behalf of the Catholic and evangelical churches, but Germany’s decision makers are unaffected by the religious doctrines of the Catholic Church (or for that matter any other church, synagogue, or mosque). They can become positively hostile to the moral teachings of the Church, which lack, to say the least, the qualities desired by Enda Kenny: the “radicalism” of cultural progressives, the “humility” of moral relativists, and the “compassion” of a postmodern sentiment that shrinks from moral judgment. The churches exist in a public sense mostly as large social-services agencies, not as the source of social legitimacy and the sacred center of an integral Christian culture.

There is a dangerous temptation in this loss of cultural influence and, therefore, of social status. It has often tempted church leaders to join arms with modern political movements and parties that promise to maintain or recover old prerogatives and restore influence. To a certain extent this dynamic was at work in Ireland during recent decades, with the Church supporting the political establishment and the political establishment supporting the Church as each tried to extend its grip.

Therein lies the danger. The terms of these alliances tend to be dictated by secular powers”party politics, nationalist sentiments, economic interests”rather than the Church. Moreover, as is always the case in the city of man, these movements and parties eventually falter and fail, often taking the Church down with them.

The history of Catholicism in modern France provides a case study, one that should serve as a warning to the Irish hierarchy. The deep and violent rupture of the French Revolution traumatized the Church, and afterward the defenders of the old order and the ecclesiastical authorities created a close and mutually beneficial alliance. This altar-and-throne conservatism gained the upper hand after the defeat of Napoleon, and was reinforced by bourgeois fears of the turmoil of urban riots and revolutions in 1848.

When this conservatism was discredited, the Church was punished for her close alliance with it. The Dreyfus affair in the closing years of the nineteenth century brought into the open not only an anti-Semitism among the conservative French elite but also their callous disregard for justice and ruthless desire to hold on to power. These revelations implicated the Catholic Church, and she suffered greatly in the moral and political collapse of French conservatism, which culminated in the condign punishment of the radical agenda of laïcité in a 1905 law that effectively banished the French Church from public life.

The cycle then repeated itself, this time with perhaps even more dire consequences for the Church. In reaction to the liberal and progressive forces behind laïcité , after World War I many powerful prelates in the French Church entertained the fascist ideology of Charles Maurras (even though it was eventually condemned by the Vatican), and the hierarchy closely associated itself with the Vichy government of Marshall Pétain after the German defeat and occupation of France in World War II, motivated in large part by the hope of returning Catholicism to a central role in French life. But of course the end result was the opposite. The collaboration with Nazism profoundly damaged the reputation of the Church in the postwar years, so much so that today not only French progressives but also modern French conservatives keep the Church at arm’s length. Laïcité has become a universal French commitment across the political spectrum. Disestablishment has become complete.

There is an alternative to the sad French story, one that sets about to restore the Church’s role from the ground up. George Weigel has argued that John Paul II gave definitive form to a change in modern Catholicism, one that has put the Church at a more proper distance from the city of man. As a priest in a Church that had been stripped of her institutional inheritance and political power by Poland’s communist overlords, John Paul II saw clearly what Pius IX and Leo XIII saw dimly in the final decades of the nineteenth century: The Church’s power lies in her universal gospel message, not in whatever institutional power she temporarily manages to acquire and that she holds precariously at the permission of others. Nations can only be Catholic or Christian if the lives and decisions of their citizens are animated by the truths of the faith.

It’s as true for America as for Ireland, France, or Germany. Our history has of course been very different. But this has not stood in the way of an intermingling of religious, cultural, and political authority. The old liberal Protestant consensus functioned for a long time as an establishment, and the close link of American Catholicism to urban ethnic neighborhoods and their ward bosses created a different but also powerful establishment. For more than a century the mayors of Boston were eager to kiss the cardinal’s ring”or at least give the appearance of doing so.

These particularly American forms of establishment have come to an end. The editors of the New York Times sound a lot like Enda Kenny. They express sympathy for the victims, of course, but they also see the clerical abuse scandals as an opportunity to promote their American agenda of laïcité , which means asserting in one way or another that the Catholic Church is too morally compromised and internally corrupt to function as a legitimate voice in American public life. We see something of the same in treatments of the “religious right” and the enthusiastic evangelical piety of various Republican politicians. An ardent faith, it is suggested, makes one unfit to govern.

We live, as many have said, after Christendom. Our age is secular. The old establishments have been replaced by others, ones that have no need for alliances with religious leaders. In the West, the churches are no longer permanent members of the social and cultural equivalent of the Security Council of the United Nations. The churches did not seek the divorce, but it is nonetheless now a largely accomplished fact. With the loss of the status and influence once bought by integration into political power, however, comes an opportunity to engage the city of man in a new way.

The Church’s power, as I said, lies in her universal gospel message. In our secular age, it’s not so much Christianity that will carry weight in the public square as Christians, faithful men and women whose moral and social ideals are shaped and formed by the Church. Today, it is what the churches bear witness to, what their pastors say from their pulpits and their people say in their lives, that will ensure Christianity’s continued influence in modern secular society”and perhaps expand, deepen, and refine that influence.

A Proposal: Tax Divorce

Roll back no-fault divorce,” I said when a friend asked what we could do about marriage in America. He laughed. “That’s a nonstarter. Society has changed. People don’t want society telling them what they can and can’t do.” True enough, but I asked him to hear me out.

In 1969, California was the first state to legislate no-fault divorce. It quickly swept through the nation, and we were promised that it was a great improvement on the adversarial system of the past. People could get out of failed marriages without painful court battles and costly legal fees, and children would be happier because they would no longer have to endure their parents’ conflict and unhappiness.

But the facts ended up contradicting the promise. No-fault divorce broke up millions of families, and the consequences have been devastating. Gone are the heady days when divorce was declared a win“win, with unsatisfied adults moving on and children flourishing in an environment unstained by grown-up unhappiness and conflict. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote in her groundbreaking 1998 book The Divorce Culture , “The truth is that divorce involves a radical redistribution of hardship, from adults to children.”

A study commissioned by the Institute for American Values tried to put a price tag on the social costs of this radical redistribution, which are high, because the hardships show up in behavior problems that are more prevalent among the children of divorced parents than those who grow up in intact families. These behavior problems require social workers, mental-health professionals, and sometimes also policemen and prison guards. And they lead to lower achievement in schools, less productivity for workers, and so forth. Adding it all up, the study concluded that the social cost of divorce in America is $112 billion annually.

So, yes, people today want to be free to make their own “lifestyle choices,” which is why it is probably politically impossible to restore the old divorce laws. But at the same time our attitudes toward the social costs associated with “lifestyle choices” have changed.

Take the examples of drinking and smoking. Nobody thinks we can go back to Prohibition, nor do any but zealots wish to ban tobacco. But we’ve ring-fenced drinking and smoking with regulations and imposed high taxes. The arguments for these policies are not based on old-fashioned, puritanical morality but instead on social costs. In New York City a pack of cigarettes costs eleven dollars, most of that in taxes. Smokers grumble, but most people allow that somebody needs to pay for all the health-care costs associated with smoking, and people need to be discouraged from making destructive choices other people have to pay for. Why not take the same approach to divorce?

Thus my proposal. Couples who get divorced should pay 5 percent of their net worth to the state as a tax. This will discourage divorce and help compensate society for the social costs of divorce. Call it a sin tax if you’d like, though that conjures moral judgment, which our age shrinks from making. Better, perhaps, to think of it along the lines of the tax on cigarettes, or proposed taxes designed to reduce the emission of dangerous pollution. Divorce pollutes our marriage culture, so why not tax it accordingly?

Struggling middle-class families need all the resources they can get to help their children avoid the worst effects of divorce. To keep the tax from harming children, it will kick in at 1 percent for couples with children and assets of at least $500,000 and rises by a percent for every $100,000 up to $900,000, where it is capped at 5 percent.

Which brings me to my Public Square for last month. Many have argued that fighting for same-sex marriage is “pro-marriage.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2008 when the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Jonathan Rauch wrote, “America needs more marriages, not fewer, and the best way to encourage marriage is to encourage marriage, which is what society does by bringing gay couples inside the tent.”

I doubt that New York’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage will do anything other than undermine our already weakened marriage culture. But I want to take Jonathan Rauch at his word and ask him to support my proposal. He should. It creates an incentive for what he claims to desire: more marriages.

I won’t be expecting a call from Rauch. After all, one key principle that motivates the “right” to marry also requires support for a “right” to divorce: When it comes to sex and intimacy, people should be able to do what they want, and only for as long as they want to do it. That’s a good reason, however, to put my proposal before the New York legislature. Voters need to know whether those who were so solicitous of marriage when they pledged support for same-sex marriage are in fact supporters of marriage.

Mea Culpa

In the same Public Square last month I observed that few sermons get preached these days on sexual morality. Well, count me corrected. I was in Omaha only a few days after the last issue went to press, and at Mass what did I hear? Fr. Mark McKercher at St. Cecilia Cathedral preached a fine sermon that defended and commended Humane Vitae , the 1968 encyclical that clarified and reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s prohibition of artificial means of contraception.

The readings lent themselves to the topic. From the Old Testament we heard Jeremiah lamenting his fate. He has prophesied as the Lord directed him, but his fellow Israelites have responded with derision and reproach. That, Fr. McKercher observed, pretty much describes how many responded after Paul VI promulgated Humane Vitae .

Jeremiah is like most of us. He would prefer to be silent, for the contempt of the world can be difficult to bear. But the Word of God burns like a fire in his heart. Much as Jeremiah would like to be conformed to the world, he cannot. God has the last say. Jeremiah has to speak.

Just so the Church, Fr. McKercher continued. Paul VI did not “decide” that the pill constitutes a violation of the moral integrity of the union of male and female. The Church teaches what she must, what accords with the moral and spiritual truths entrusted to her, not what she wants. And for that we should be thankful, for if we allow ourselves to sail this way and that in accord with the ever changing winds of worldly opinion, we’d be shipwrecked. Which is what Paul VI predicted when he itemized the disarray and disorder that would follow from a wholesale embrace of modern contraceptive ¬technologies.

Of course, as Fr. McKercher pointed out, we let ourselves be blown around by winds of worldly opinion, some of us on questions of sexual morality but all of us in some area. The temptation”one he said he often falls victim to”is to focus on the Church: “How could the Church be so stupid, so retrograde, so out of touch?”

However, St. Paul would have us think differently. “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” That shifts the question: “Why are we so wayward, so irreformable, so out of touch?” Doubtless there are specks in the Church’s eye, but item number one on our to-do lists should be removing the beam from our often worldly eyes.

Age and Wisdom

I recently saw an older friend who has suffered from some health problems. I asked him how he was doing. He shrugged and sighed, “Sometimes wisdom comes with age, but more often than not it’s just age that comes with age.” Then he shuffled away, limping a bit from the lingering effects of a stroke.