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In July 2011, Ireland’s newly elected Prime Minister (or “Taoiseach”) Enda Kenny launched an unprecedented attack on the Vatican. Another report into child sex abuse by priests had just been published. Kenny decided to place the blame for clerical sex abuse firmly on the shoulders of the Vatican even more than on the local Church. He accused the Vatican of “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism,” and “narcissism.” He said it had “downplayed” the “rape and torture of children” and upheld instead “the primacy of the institution, its power, standing, and ‘reputation.’” He added: “Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’ . . . the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it [child sex abuse] with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”

Nothing like this speech had ever been heard before in the history of the Irish State. Indeed, it was hard to think of any other Western leader attacking the Vatican in such strong terms.

A large section of the public loved it, though, and the whole of the Irish media, too. It struck a chord. Why? Why did so many people in a country that was once so Catholic rise to applaud the speech? The answer is that we were so Catholic.

To a certain extent the history of every country includes periodic reactions against its past. This is especially so when a country was ruled with a heavy hand by those who held power. While Ireland was never a theocracy, the Catholic Church was extremely dominant, especially after we gained independence from Britain in 1922. The first decades after independence saw a fervent reaction against British rule. Anti-British, or more accurately, anti-English feelings ran high.

Embracing a strong Catholic identity was one way of telling Britain that we were independent culturally as well as politically. As a result, the Catholic Church enjoyed huge ­influence, and it was glad to use it. For decades, the Church could act as if it were the social and cultural leader of the Irish people, forgetting the basic fact that it only held that influence because the vast majority of people supported it.

That leadership status began to change in the 1960s, when Ireland fell under the sway of the cultural revolution sweeping across Western Europe and North America. As the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and gay liberation advanced, a rebellion against the influence and authoritarianism of the Church followed. From the perspective of “liberated” individuals, the positions of the Church appeared as undoubted moral censoriousness. Doctrines and sacraments began to wear thin, especially in media and cultural circles that attracted people who lean reflexively liberal. Most important, perhaps, the rate of weekly Mass attendance began to plunge, from 85 percent in 1980 to 33 percent today.

When in the 1990s the crimes of priests against children and teenagers began to come to light, a fierce bitterness was added to the customary impatience and disrespect. Politicians hastened to address it. One report after another was commissioned by the Irish State, all of which garnered international attention, as did the one prompting Enda Kenny’s speech. It reported on an investigation into clerical sex abuse in the Cork ­diocese of Cloyne. With it, and with the speech, the flood of public anger was unleashed.

The result is that the Catholic Church has replaced England as the “villain-in-chief” in the national psyche. Politicians no longer fear attacking it. On the contrary, they know they can gain kudos for doing so. Enda Kenny took advantage of this, and was called “brave” into the bargain.

Kenny is head of a coalition government comprising his own Fine Gael party and the smaller Labour party. Historically, Labour has been at the vanguard of Ireland’s secular revolution, and proud of it, while Fine Gael was once avowedly a Christian Democratic party. Now, on socio-cultural issues, Fine Gael happily dances to Labour’s tune.

Just how badly the dam had burst from a Catholic point of view was revealed in October 2012 when an Indian woman named Savita ­Halappanavar died in a hospital in Galway. She was brought into the hospital while miscarrying at ­seventeen weeks pregnant. She asked for an abortion but was told this could not be carried out because she was not dying. A nurse explained that this was because Ireland is a “­Catholic country.”

When those words were made public, her death became an international cause célèbre. The events ­acquired a simple storyline marking a woman’s rights denied and a life lost. To be precise, it was reported that although her life was in danger, her medical team could not terminate her pregnancy until her baby was dead.

In fact, this was a misinterpretation of the law. Enshrined in our Constitution as a result of a pro-life referendum in 1983, the law does permit a pregnancy to be brought to an end if there is no other way to save the life of the mother. In truth, Mrs. ­Halappanavar’s medical team decided to let her miscarriage follow its natural course, as is common in such cases, because they did not think her life was in danger. Sadly, her medical team did not spot on time that she was developing a deadly infection: sepsis.

Had they spotted this in time, they could have terminated the pregnancy and possibly saved her life. Therefore, the law was not the issue. The failure to diagnose the reason for her distress was. Several later investigations listed a host of signs of a developing infection that her medical team missed. It was a case of bad medical practice, not a law hostile to the lives of women.

By the time the results of these investigations came to light, however, the political die was cast. The public had been convinced by the media that Savita died because of our “Catholic morality” and, therefore, the law needed to be changed. Despite several large pro-life street protests and thousands of people contacting their politicians, the tide could not be turned. In the calculation of the politicians, the protests were simply not big enough.

On the strength of the Savita Halappanavar case, a law called the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed. The law allows a woman to have an abortion when she is deemed suicidal and the cause of her suicidal feelings is her pregnancy. Thus, a psychological ground for abortion now exists in Irish law.

In all of this, the fact that Enda Kenny felt more beholden to the Labour party than to pro-life voters or the Catholic Church signaled clearly just how low Catholic stock has fallen in recent years. A further sign is the promise of a referendum this spring on another issue directly in violation of Church doctrine, namely, a law permitting same-sex marriage.

The Irish Constitution commits the state to guard marriage with “special care,” and although the Constitution does not define marriage as such, courts have always understood marriage in the traditional sense.

Therefore, and much to the annoyance of our political class, a constitutional referendum must be held to change the definition of marriage. If the matter were left to a parliamentary vote, it would be carried overwhelmingly, because public opinion in Ireland heavily favors same-sex marriage.

This is the result of a combination of factors that we can trace, once again, back to the 1960s cultural revolution. With regard to this issue, most people wish to be considered “tolerant” and “modern” and fear being branded homophobes. But polls using simple questions aren’t always borne out by popular votes. In some past referendum campaigns, the “establishment” position started out far in front but was reined in when people were exposed to opposing arguments. For example, two previous referendums on E.U. treaties (the Nice and Lisbon treaties) were defeated despite overwhelming establishment support and twenty- or thirty-point leads at the outset of the campaigns. (Mind you, both treaties were put before the people again and passed. The Lisbon treaty passed the second time around in part because pro-life voters were given assurances that E.U. law would not interfere with our pro-life laws.)

A “children’s rights” referendum—which sought to provide better child protection and to “enshrine the concept of childhood as a valued and important part of life in the heart of the Irish constitution”—took place in 2012, and at the start of the four-week campaign, the “yes” side commanded 74 percent of the vote versus 4 percent for the “no” side. The “no” campaign had almost no money and few personnel and still managed on the day of the referendum itself to win 42 percent of the vote.

This pattern should encourage defenders of traditional marriage to rise up in the public sphere and present their case. How big a part the Church itself will play remains to be seen. Obviously the hierarchy in Ireland, even more so than in other countries, has been badly discredited because of the scandals. Once again, because of the Church’s former dominance, resentment and suspicion of it are strong. When we add to the cultural shift of the 60s the revelations of abuse in the 1990s and 2000s, the opposition can look overwhelmingly strong. Indeed, while the Catholic Church in America went through what was called the “Long Lent” of 2002, culminating in the resignation of Cardinal ­Bernard Law as Archbishop of Boston, the Irish Church has suffered several “Long Lents” that triggered the resignations of no fewer than four bishops.

As a result, the Church has, to a large extent, lost its nerve. Many bishops are reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet. A few did so during the abortion debate, however, an encouraging development that may indicate a new forcefulness. This is partly due to a renewal of the hierarchy brought about through the efforts of our papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, a New Yorker who took up his post in early 2012.

The marriage referendum, scheduled for May 2015, will be a key test. How many of the bishops will be willing to speak out? They might not be able to persuade the general ­public of the Church’s point of view in this matter, but they should at least ­attempt to persuade Mass-going Catholics.

If they don’t, we will have to conclude that the past dominance of the Church in Ireland made the Church hierarchy complacent and arrogant, cultivating lazy habits of mind. When the culture was Catholic and the social norms were Catholic—to a certain extent at least—Ireland didn’t seem to need the work of evangelization. Witnessing to the Gospel in such a climate was easy.

Obviously, the Church can no longer assume its authoritative status, nor can the hierarchy expect automatic respect. The climate isn’t just indifferent. It’s hostile. Sharing the faith and explaining the teachings will take hard work and a new ­attitude.

Nonetheless, it must be done. The Catholic Church has a duty to give witness and to evangelize in season and out of season. The time has now come for the Church in Ireland to fight for itself and for the souls in its care.   

David Quinn is a columnist with The Irish Independent and The Irish Catholic. He is founder and director of The Iona Institute.

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