Thoughts on the Abortion Referendum in Ireland
I well remember the 2002 referendum in Ireland on abortion. On the day before (5th March 2002) I was present at a meeting in which Cardinal Desmond O’Connell, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, spoke to a gathering of Catholic School Administrators in St. Patrick’s Training College in Dublin. Addressing the subject of the Referendum he said “The referendum on abortion falls on the anniversary of my episcopal ordination, wouldn’t it be a wonderful present to me on this occasion if the people of Ireland voted down this proposal and I would be able to ring the Holy Father and tell him the people of Ireland still have the faith”. Of all the millions and millions of reasons to vote against abortion, this was not one of them. But it was a demonstration of the quality of episcopal leadership at the head of the Irish Catholic Church.
On that day 2,923,918 cast their vote, and a narrow margin voted down the proposal; 50.4% as against 49.6%, and Cardinal O’Connell was able to report Catholicism in Ireland was still intact even if just marginally!
To those in charge it was obvious the issue was never going to go away, but ecclesial leaders were distinctly mute in preparing for the next round of the debate which was sixteen years down the line. When the time came they distributed pastoral letters stating what the teaching of the church was but they never exposed their learned Roman education to public scrutiny. In June 13th 2017 the U.N criticised Ireland’s ‘cruel and inhumane’ abortion laws for the second time in a year, stating they were against the charter of human rights. All the other countries in Europe (except Malta) had introduced abortion with various types of restrictions. Ireland was seen to do what it always did – it exported it’s problems, women went abroad for abortions. This was an issue where men were on the sidelines, it was not their problem; so when the catchphrase “Let’s trust women” took off, all became involved. During the debate the association of Catholic Priests advised that the pulpit should not be used for campaign purposes. For such an emotive referendum the campaigning by both sides were informative, civil and decisive.
The country, even those who wanted change, were not prepared for the results. 1,429,981 voted for change and 723,632 voted NO or 66.4% voted YES and 33.6% voted NO – with a 64.13% turnout. Many see the result as a humiliating blow for the church, certainly by Cardinal O’Connell’s standard.
Personally, I was horrified! As the exit counts began to come in I lay awake unable to comprehend what was happening. Life began at the first moments of conception, it was sacred from the start. The Hunterian Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons had foetuses preserved in jars at various stages of development and for me these had all the marks of being human. Yet, as the ‘Yes’ voters gathered in Dublin Castle to celebrate their victory, they did not look like people who were celebrating the the ability to take an innocent life. There was another dynamic going on that did not make sense to me.
For such an important issue here was an expectation that the Catholic Bishops would be at least as explicit as the Church of Ireland Bishops in condemning liberating the abortion legislation. This was the most serious vote ever put before the people, and the Catholic Bishops, together with their cohort of theologians remained almost mute. What was at stake here was not just the fate of the unborn child but also the competency of the ecclesial leadership. Abortion was an issue even for the early church and was considered as a form of murder, which over the years attached various penalties. But there were also times when it was considered less a problem, with church agencies helping to procure abortions. Even St. Thomas, a Universal Doctor of the Church did not believe the soul was present at the time of conception but was infused some time later. The ‘yes’ campaign made much of this confusion, and suggested in the light of the mute bishops that it was a legitimate stance to take.
In the aftermath, Bishop Kevin Doran (Elphin) said that those who voted ‘YES” had committed a sin and should come to confession. Is it not more likely that the people who voted ‘YES’ did so because they were voting for the lesser of two evils? The pro-abortion campaigners had produced women who related heart wrenching, and life threatening situations where terminations seemed the only reasonable options for them. Bad cases, they say, make bad law, but unless these arguments are shown to be unreasonable then they will carry the day. That is what happened; and I doubt if many people voted ‘YES’ with a bad conscience…..and I should be very surprised if there will be big queues for confession, in spite of what Bishop Doran says.
When historians reflect on the last seventy years of church history, they will write about the disastrous handling of sexual matters, just like matters of faith were mishandled during the reformation. Again, the leadership of the church will be held accountable, and it will be the people in the pews who will pick up the tabs. The church did not advocate a programme of more effective contraception, that option was already shut down, but what has not been estimated is the number of casualties as a result of that policy. Every abortion has a story, every foetus needs a representative. No one is listening. In 2014 the Vatican issued a document called Sensus Fedei asserting the importance of lay people in the understanding and teaching of the Christian message. The referendum debate was about listening. The document says “One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognise ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelisation.” If the bishops thought they had discharged their episcopal duties by sitting in their palaces and writing doctoral pastoral letters then they were wrong. Gone are the days when they can click their fingers and everyone falls in line. They have already squandered the virtues that gave them that ‘entitlement’.
So, if I appear to be walking around with two black eyes, it is not because I have walked into a door. It is far more serious.
Fr Frank Ryan OMI