When the Italian government held a national referendum in 1974 on whether divorce should be allowed, the controversial measure passed by a margin of 3 to 2.
When an Irish government tried to do the same thing in 1986, it was defeated by almost 2 to 1. Both countries are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. But the results of the two referendums seem to provide compelling evidence that Dublin rather than Rome is the true heart of the church in the closing decades of the 20th century. Certainly, few Irish politicians would say that they doubt the influence of the clergy. As Senator Donal Lydon—a Dublin psychologist, a devout Catholic and a member of the ruling Fianna Fail party—put it recently: “The church has contacts at every level of society, in every corner. Its influence is everywhere. Any politician who ignores the views of the church would need to be crazy.”
Problem: Indeed, some observers say that the Catholic church in Ireland is so influential that it faces an unusual problem: how to maintain that influence over the 95 per cent of the population who are Catholics, without appearing to control the country itself. Some leading members of the clergy dispute claims of their influence and instead say that the church faces a crisis because the younger generation is less devout than its parents. Declared Archbishop Joseph Cassidy of Tuam in western Ireland: “Young people nowadays don’t take Sunday mass as seriously as their parents.” But opposition Fine Gael MP and former education minister Gemma Hussey says that the religious skepticism of the young has not weakened the church’s political influence. She added, “The sheer weight of numbers means that it has influence, even if it never made a pronouncement.”
Historically, the church has offered the Irish people hope and solace—and provided a sense of national identityin the midst of persecution, famine, poverty and foreign occupation. And even after 66 years of independence from Britain, that debt is not forgotten, enabling the church to maintain its grip on such vital functions as education. Through its religious orders, chaplains and its network of parish priests, the church virtually controls all but 462 of the 3,940 primary and secondary schools. Said Lydon: “Control of the schools cannot be overemphasized in terms of influence on the nation.”
Still, as Ireland industrializes its
agrarian economy to compete with fellow members of the European Economic Community, it has spawned a new generation that appears reluctant to accept church teachings. According to a church survey in 1984, 87 per cent of Irish Catholics regularly attended Sunday mass, compared with 91 per cent in 1974. That was a small drop compared to Canada, where regular at-
tendance among the country’s 11.6 million Catholics dropped to 43 per cent in 1986 from 83 per cent in 1965, according to a survey conducted by Torontobased Gallup Canada Inc. But only 38 per cent of Irish Catholic respondents regularly take communion and, because according to church doctrine a Catholic must be absolved of sin by a priest to do so, the figure is clearly worrying to church leaders.
Critical: Indeed, Cassidy says that the church in Ireland is at a “critical time” and blames the church itself for failing to keep in touch with the young in a country where the majority of the population is under 25. Added Cassidy: “We have lost a whole generation.” Some observers say that many Irish people now attend Sunday mass out of
habit or a sense of duty, rather than devotion. Said former government minister Justin Keating, an avowed atheist who lives in Dublin: “There is a gap between the word and the deed. It’s a bit like St. Augustine [who said] ‘Please, Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.’ ” And some Irish young people openly object to the church’s influence on matters of state. Said Seamus Flynn, 18, a physics student at Trinity College, Dublin: “The church has too much influence on the politicians. They are afraid they will lose votes.”
But although often critical of the church, few young Irish people seem prepared to sever their ties completely. Brenda O’Reilly, a 22-year-old dental technician from Limerick, said that she did not care what her parish priest thought of the fact that she was living with her boyfriend. But she added, “We will probably go back to regular [church] attendance if we get married and have kids.” And 21-year-old Dublin bank clerk Frank Drennan, who said that he had rejected joining the priesthood because “the celibate life was a major disadvantage,” remains a practising Catholic. Said Drennan: “The church is part of the fabric of Irish society.”
Influence: In the 1980s the willingness of the church to wield its influence over legislation has been vividly demonstrated on three occasions. The first was in 1983 when reformist Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald yielded to clerical and conservative pressure to fill a perceived gap in the constitution by an amendment making it illegal for the 166-member Dail (parliament) to allow abortion. After a bitter debate, a national referendum approved the amendment by 841,233 votes to 416,136, making it impossible to obtain a legal abortion in the republic.
Then, in 1985, FitzGerald showed his reformist colors by trying to get a law through the Dail that would liberalize the sale of contraceptives, then only available to married persons on a doctor’s prescription. Only days before the vote, Archbishop Kevin McNamara of Dublin publicly called on Catholic politicians to vote against the measure. That brought a stinging rebuke from Health Minister Barry Desmond, who described the church’s intervention as a “crisis of democracy.” Despite church pressure, the legislation passed by 83 votes to 80, proving that many MPs were prepared to defy the clergy in the face of growing concerns over Acquired Immune Deficiency Syn-
drome, which most experts say can be largely prevented by the wearing of condoms. As Ciara Reid, 17, a student from Malahide, near Dublin, put it, “In this era of AIDS, the availability of contraceptives is essential, no matter what the church says.”
Ill-fated: In 1986 FitzGerald again entered church territory, with an illfated attempt to remove a clause from the constitution making it illegal for the Dail to legislate in favor of divorce. The amendment would also have
secured property rights for abandoned wives never previously recognized. Speaking in favor of the amendment, junior government minister Nuala Fennell of Dublin said that an Ireland in which divorce remained impossible would doom thousands of people to “lonely, celibate lives” or to be “discriminated against under our social welfare and tax codes, forgo legal and succession rights and have their children labelled illegitimate.” In fact, FitzGerald’s proposal—which was sub-
mitted to a national referendum— would have allowed divorce only on the stringent grounds of a marriage breakdown after five years of separation. Still, the church opposed the amendment vehemently, and the voters overwhelmingly rejected it in a 1986 referendum—by 935,843 votes to 538,279.
Some observers say that the influence of the church in Irish everyday life can be judged by the way in which the parish priest is often the object of exaggerated respect. In Athy, 65 km southwest of Dublin, Rev. Philip Dennehy was automatically offered membership in the local golf club— even though he does not play the game. But Dennehy insisted that the offer of membership was no reflection of his stature in the community. Said Dennehy: “The influence of the church and priests generally is totally exaggerated. People make up their own minds.” And liberal Dominican priest Austin Flannery said that the growing independence of Irish youth has combined with the declining influence of the church to create a situation where young people do what they want to without even considering the church.
Affluence: In Cahirciveen, a coastal village in County Kerry, 60-year-old housewife Noreen McKenna blamed Ireland’s newfound affluence for the young turning their backs on the church. Said McKenna: “When people were poor, they prayed more. It was all they had.” Still, she admitted that she did not attend mass every Sunday, although she added that her architect husband, Derek, did. McKenna said that her own strict upbringing may have had a lot to do with her irregular attendance. “It was communion all the time and it turned us off a bit as we got older,” said McKenna. “I’m not that good a Catholic anymore—although at my age, I don’t have much to confess. But I do believe in God.” The true extent of the church’s influence in temporal matters clearly remains a matter of debate. But as the referendums on abortion and divorce demonstrated, the church can inz fluence crucial social legislasi tion. And although the Vatican in Italy remains the world cen| tre of Roman Catholicism, Ire^ land must rank as the most duti2 ful subordinate, o
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