Ireland’s vote: the fruit of years of Catholic complacency
On the eve of Trinity Sunday, the people of Ireland voted to amend their constitution. Just to put the vote in context, here’s how the preamble to that constitution begins:
In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,...
Did the voters invoke the authority of the Most Holy Trinity when they cast their ballots to allow for legal abortion on demand? Hardly. The referendum was held at a time when the people of Ireland are frantically tearing away any vestiges of the Catholic culture on which their society is based.
Although a doughty band of pro-life activists battled valiantly to the end, the result of the referendum was predictable. With every major political party pushing for the legalization of abortion, and every major media outlet promoting the same cause, the “No” campaigners were confined to the peripheries of the political process. All of “respectable” opinion—and the funding that goes with it—weighed against them.
In the aftermath of their crushing 2-to-1 defeat, some pro-lifers are complaining that the Irish Catholic bishops were too timid during the referendum campaign. Others note that Pope Francis, who has been so outspoken on other political issues, never entered the fray. But would exhortations by Catholic prelates have turned the tide? Not likely. The hierarchy today is massively unpopular in Ireland, and critics of Catholicism would have pounced on any new opportunity to inveigh against the slightest perceived imposition of Church authority.
From the perspective of the Church, then, this political battle was not lost last Saturday; it was lost some years ago, when the Irish bishops chose to be satisfied with a complacent, cultural Catholicism rather than an active and evangelical faith. Ireland has seen the same sad historical progression that we have already observed in Quebec and in Boston, where communities once dominated by believing Catholics have gradually evolved, passing through generations of public figures who nodded politely toward Catholic principles, to later generations who ignored Catholic principles, and finally a generation in full flight from its Catholic heritage, indifferent if not overtly hostile to the faith.
Preserving the essence of the Catholic faith is a challenge, especially in a society where more or less everyone is Catholic, and where Church leaders assure their neighbors that to be a good Catholic is to be a good Irishman (or Quebecois, or Bostonian). Explaining the process in The Faithful Departed I wrote:
In Boston, certainly, the Catholic faith once held unquestioned sway over the local culture, just as it had ruled the broader culture of Europe for generations. But eventually—in Europe and in Boston—Church leaders grew complacent in their authority, sought to align themselves with secular powers, compromised the distinctive characteristics of the faith, undermined Catholic unity, and finally found themselves unable to defend against the encroachment of their secular adversaries.
Now the Church in Ireland must belatedly confront the challenge that should have been recognized long ago: the challenge of missionary work in a post-Catholic society: a society dominated by lapsed-Catholics who have little interest in the faith and or by ex-Catholics who will actively resist the Gospel message. Some of these people may even go to Mass on Sundays, acting from force of habit or social pressure or a vague, vestigial sense that it is somehow the right thing to do. But practicing Catholics—those who take moral guidance from the teachings of the Church—are now an embattled minority.
Realistically speaking, practicing Catholics have probably been a minority for some time now. (Otherwise why would Ireland have allowed divorce, or approved legal recognition of same-sex marriage?) But now they are an embattled minority; anti-Catholic forces are on the march, triumphant, ready to press their advantage. The next grave danger for Irish Catholics—and for the Irish nation generally—is the possibility that all those who take action “in the name of the Most Holy Trinity” will be systematically excluded from the country’s public life.
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