ALISON O'CONNOR: Bishop Doran has valid point but where does that leave ‘cultural Catholics’?

Bishop Doran.

As things stand, the bishop remains correct in the letter of the law, if not the spirit that currently appears to prevail with this Pope, writes Alison O’Connor

THE Catholic Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran goes on the radio to say Catholics who voted yes to abortion should go to confession to confess their sin. Cue the outrage.

Now we know that Bishop Doran is catnip to the media. He’s the ideal interviewee, almost guaranteed to say something that will push buttons up and down the country. Apparently even his fellow bishops hit the facepalm position whenever they hear he is about to take to the airwaves and deliver yet another fundamentalist message.

We may have — this day last week — voted massively for abortions to take place in this country, and for a woman’s right to choose, and basked in the afterglow of the notion of a changed more liberal, tolerant Ireland. But the steadfast bishop was sticking to his doctrinal guns.

He told Sean O’Rourke on Monday morning that if you voted yes “knowing and intending that abortion should be the outcome” you had indeed “sinned”. The best thing for you then was to “consider coming to confession where you would be received with the same compassion that is shown to any other penitent”.

He went on to say that:

what happens in the confessional, of course, is absolutely between the priest and the penitent. I think it is ultimately all sin, and sin is not just related to this area, but all sin is about decisions and actions that impact on our relationship with God.

To be fair he also said that “nobody gets struck off and God never withholds his love”.

One of my first thoughts was how many people ever actually go to Confession anymore. I understand how this was hugely hurtful to many practising Catholics who voted yes, and seemed ridiculously outdated and conservative.

It always seems particularly rich to have them giving out on moral issues given the Church’s history and handling of child sexual abuse in this country. But surely according to the official rules and regulations of the Catholic Church the bishop was bang on the money.

The RTÉ exit poll showed that a third of people who consider themselves to be practising Catholics voted yes.

But the Catholic Church is against abortion. It makes no secret of that. That message was preached off the altar over the last few months and in pastoral letters from the various bishops.

If you are a fully subscribed practising Catholic might you even have possibly thought of the idea of going to confession yourself?


File photo.
File photo.

I accept there are many, many grey areas in our approach to our Catholicism. In the last census just under 80% of us identified as Catholic.

Many identify as “cultural Catholics” who were baptised, made First Holy Communion, then Confirmation, and then likely got married in a church.

But now they are adopting an a la carte attitude to its teachings. We first saw the actual strength of this approach in the vote in the same-sex marriage referendum.

The range is very broad from the “bouncy castle” Catholics, celebrating the sacraments, turning up at the church at Christmas and maybe Easter, and liking a Catholic funeral; to the Catholics who may be daily communicants and abide by Church law.

Within that is the subset of families who found themselves, not through choice, with a child attending a Catholic school. After all well over 90% of our primary schools are controlled by the Catholic Church.

They made the decision, on religion, then “to go along with it” in order not to make the child feel different from the vast majority of their classmates.

Often they went along to mass, such as Holy Communion preparation and found while they may not have liked some of what they viewed as the dogma coming from the altar, they liked the sense of community this Sunday morning gathering engendered.

All of this takes places in the shadow of the planned visit of Pope Frances in August to Ireland. Thus far we haven’t heard his view on our vote to introduce abortion in Ireland.

Back in 2016 the Pope gave Catholic priests the power to forgive abortions. But having researched it, and as far as I can understand the Church’s complex laws, it considers procuring abortion a “reserved sin” on a par with desecrating the Eucharist or attacking the Pope, or ordaining women to the priesthood.

It carries a penalty of excommunication.


Pope Francis
Pope Francis

So we are left unsure as to where things stand exactly in this area, even more vague is the penalty for a Catholic to vote for abortion, rather than having one.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said Pope Francis was “well aware of the way Ireland has changed. He’ll be coming to Ireland to listen”.

While unbending on issues such as women priests Pope Frances has indeed shown compassion and realism in other areas. Other Catholic bishops in Ireland, particularly Archbishop Martin, attempt to follow suit in their tone, showing a realism around how a prickly population will hear what has been said.

His colleague, the Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan said there was plenty of people with different attitudes in the Church and the bishops had to accept that.

But you can appreciate how Bishop Doran feels he has the weight of canonical law behind him when he makes remarks like those on the need to go to confession.

Bishop Doran does have form here, which is why he is a bit of a PR nightmare for the Church. Back in 2015, during the same-sex marriage referendum, he said “people who have children are not necessarily parents”.

He spoke of the “whole relationship between life-giving and parenthood” being separated. He subsequently apologised.

So what’s the ‘real’ story here — will we continue to be allowed our “cultural Catholicism”, going along to Mass but not paying too much attention to the rules?

What happens when 81-year-old Frances is no longer Pope?

Who is to say his successor does not return to a more fundamentalist approach, where it would be a warmer house for the likes of Bishop Doran, where the approach would be smaller (congregations) but “purer”.

As things stand the bishop remains correct in the letter of the law if not the spirit that currently appears to prevail with this Pope.


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