Any signs that the Church is still the forceful patriarchal organisation that can “convince” the political establishment to enact what it believes to be morally correct — for women, in the case of abortion — were done away with by the Taoiseach yesterday.
Enda Kenny, himself a devout Catholic, stood up to the head of the Church in Ireland, standing firmly for “Ireland and its people” who, he said, decide on the Constitution, and whom he has a duty to represent.
He gave a clear signal that personal or private morality is not part of the law.
“We live within the parameters of the Constitution and strictly within the confines of the law. And that’s where the heads of the bill are entirely focused: Within the Constitution and within the law.”
His response came after an earlier suggestion from Cardinal Brady that Catholic teaching was superior to the law of the land when he said legislators “don’t have the power over life” and that it was his duty to “oppose evil” and thereby oppose the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill.
While there is no doubting his duty to preach the moral teaching of his Church to his own flock and the huge percentage of the Irish people who are part of his faith, he has no duty to dictate it to law- makers who represent the country — of all creeds and none — and who must abide by the Constitution which, as the Taoiseach said, is “the people’s book”.
This was not an attack on the Church by the Taoiseach, as was the case when he strongly criticised its role in downplaying the rape and torture of children by clerical sex abusers in a Dáil speech in response to the Cloyne Report.
In what was seen as a watershed moment in the Irish Government’s relationship with the Church, Mr Kenny said in July 2011 that the report highlighted the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.
His comments yesterday were more about laying down a marker that politicians should not be dictated to by the Catholic hierarchy, and drawing a distinction between private belief and public law.
The Taoiseach even made this distinction in reference to himself: “I have my own way of speaking to my God,” he said, but “I have a duty and a responsibility as head of Government to legislate in respect of what the people’s wishes are”.
Mr Kenny made it clear yesterday that the forthcoming abortion legislation is not about morals or ethics, but about the rule of law and legislating what has already been decided by the Supreme Court in the X Case ruling.