Being close to Him is not just a plus; it seems to be an imperative. Is the reformed church-going Catholic the real Newt Gingrich? Is Mormonism a cult or really a religion? Strangely to us, American voters are looking at their politicians through the prism of religious belief.
Yet that most religious of countries is also among the world’s most avowedly secular. There is a strict separation of church and state. In an ethnically and religiously pluralist society separation is seen as protecting both religious freedom and individual liberty.
Ireland has no similar traditions of either wide religious plurality or separation of church and state. The established Protestant Church was disestablished in the late 19th century only to be effectively but not legally replaced by the Catholic Church in the 20th century. A formerly, almost Catholic state for a Catholic people, is now in irrevocable institutional retreat. Amidst a modern shattering of nearly all moral authority, the collapse of Church authority is cataclysmic.
The closure of Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See is correctly interpreted as the latest shot in that long cultural war. Incredulous excuses about saving money only underline the point. Irish liberal and left-wing thought has been defined since the 70s by its campaigns against the Catholic Church on social and sexual issues.
In a country with the weakest socialist and social democratic tradition in Western Europe, this was the defining and arguably only major success of the Irish left. It was also a cause that was at times led and continually abetted by liberals of the centre and of the right. Garret FitzGerald’s constitutional crusade and Des O’Malley’s “I stand by the Republic” speech were seminal punctuations in what has transpired to be Ireland’s secularisation.
But secularisation, a shrivelling, even a strangling of any religious sense in the public space, was not the destination advertised. A genuinely liberal agenda of pluralism that enabled freedom of choice and not direction of thought was promised. It is certain that the reach of the Catholic Church in schools and hospitals will be radically reduced.
As vocations decline it no longer has the capacity to keep much more than a name plate on many of its front doors. More importantly, the growing parts of the population who choose a life outside of it are fully entitled to. In reality, there is often no alternative to the Church-run school. There is especially around first communions and confirmations a disconnection between private lives and public rituals. One of the benefits learnt from previous decades is surely that pretending does nobody any good.
In an Irish historical context the apparently traditional model of a church with literally tens of thousands in religious orders leading a country in mass acts of public devotion is an aberration. What we now remember as traditional is the Church of Vatican I, highly clerical and marked internally by its discipline and authoritarianism.
One of the less noticed currents of the Church and the church-state crisis is that subtle forms of anti-clericalism are deeply rooted in sections of the Church itself. The dumbing down of liturgical rites and the virtual disappearance of any visible clerical presence on the public streets are part of a modern stripping of the altars conducted from within. Call this a loss of nerve or a radical repositioning, it can be judged by reactions to it. One of the apparent outcomes of the recent canonical visitation of the Irish Church ordered by Pope Benedict is change at the country’s only seminary in Maynooth. Clerical students will lead in part a more cloistered life sharing but also apart from the general student body. Doors, it seems, are to be erected to mark appropriate boundaries.
One well-known priest, Father Kevin Hegarty, wrote publicly that he is disappointed to hear of this, describing today’s seminarians as “usually so rigidly pious and theologically conservative that, I reckon, they require regular exposure to secular reality rather than incarcerated in a spiritual ghetto“. So the strands of secularisation are a lot more complex than a simple assault of the unbelieving on the sacred.
What is an unknown is how the western world, including Ireland, would cope in a 21st century should the scaffolding of religious belief collapse. If appalling consequences can be attributed to religion, God served a practical purpose. Even kings answered to Him. There was a judgement beyond any human verdict.
It is hardly 50 years since John F Kennedy intoned in his great inaugural address, “... the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God“.
If He is removed then are there even in theory any inalienable rights left? In the context of a planned and substantial revision of the Constitution that will profoundly affect Irish lives for generations, these are deeply practical questions, not just religious ones. Is the secular state or a liberal democracy sufficient of itself to guarantee the rights and the liberties of the people?
There are reasons to doubt if modernity is a form of unstoppable progress. Any society whose deepest insights are found in its own reflected glory is neither a stable nor a secure one.
The catastrophic failings of the Catholic Church have at least as much to do with us as a people as any external ecclesial body. Another irony never resolved, largely because it was never contested, is that an instinctive ill-liberalism is deeply rooted in part of the political left tradition. If Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins blended into a wider liberal continuum, others instinctively have far less regard for the views of others and the space they should be allowed. It is surely right that if the Church is put in its place, there should also be a place for the Church.
In a country that was never very good at accommodating difference we should be careful not to fail again.
* Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant and was a senior government adviser from 1997 to 2007