VICTORIA WHITE: The right to life of the unborn is not just an irrational religious diktat

Bishop Of Elphin Dr Kevin Doran

The Eighth Amendment was never about Catholicism. The Catholic Church did not insert it, the political system did, writes Victoria White.

I turned on the Six One news because of the referendum on Saturday and watched the report compiled by RTÉ’s religious and social affairs correspondent, Joe Little, with my jaw on the floor.

Billed as a look at the “key events which had led to this turnaround” in the nation’s attitudes since the insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution in 1983 — described as “the brainchild of Catholic lay activists” — it began with grainy footage of elderly people holding graphic anti-abortion posters.

By contrast, fresh-faced campaigners were seen welcoming the coming of divorce in 1995, which was, according to former Fine Gael minister for justice, Nora Owen, “another slippage in peoples’ belief that they had to do everything the Catholic Church told them to do”.

“The Church was already reeling after a litany of scandals,” announced Little, introducing more grainy footage. The paedophile priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, was led into court. A little boy was hurled out of bed in an institution. 

Then we had the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby homes.

The historian Caitriona Crowe was brought on to give her opinion that the referendum result would be seen as “a watershed moment for the Catholic Church in Ireland. A resounding defeat of something they held dear”.

No-one from the Catholic Church itself was interviewed.

This was not a propaganda film made by the Orange Order. No, friends, this was the considered response of our public broadcaster to the deletion of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

This makes me so angry I find it hard to stay lucid.

The Eighth Amendment was never about Catholicism. The Catholic Church did not insert it, the political system did, led initially by Garret FitzGerald, leader to Nora Owen’s deputy leader of Fine Gael, the party now led by Leo Varadkar.

The Catholic Church did not campaign loudly against repeal. They were, apparently, not asked for any spokesman by RTÉ during the campaign.

I can cope with The Guardian and The New York Times headlining the referendum result as a “defeat” and a “rebuke” for the Catholic Church. 

The historical anti-Catholic bias once held by the Protestant majority in those countries has migrated easily to the secular majority. 

But it is amazing that we in Ireland are content to portray the belief in the right to life of the unborn child as an irrational religious diktat. It is a robust moral position to take and most of us share it to some degree.

Many non-Catholics hold dear the right to life of the unborn. Many Catholics believe in the separation of Church and State and almost a third of practising Catholics voted ‘yes’ in this referendum.

That being said, the belief in the sanctity of all human life is a basic tenet of Catholicism and indeed, of its sister monotheisms, Judaism and Islam. 

It is what inspired Mother Teresa of Calcutta to gather diseased “untouchable” street children up in her arms.

Mother Teresa was vehement in her opposition to abortion. 

If you wanted to illustrate Catholic opposition to abortion with archive footage, an image of Mother Teresa working with street children would be more pertinent than that of Fr Brendan Smyth.

I think the Eighth Amendment was unworkable and misguided. 

I am not a Catholic but speaking from the outside, I think the Catholic Church would do better if it concentrated on campaigning to make Ireland a welcoming place for all born children.

Bishop Kevin Doran’s comment that Catholics who voted yes should consider going to Confession may have been for him a practical suggestion but was a PR disaster. 

Fr Brian D’Arcy
Fr Brian D’Arcy

Fr Brian D’Arcy’s nuanced view as expressed on RTÉ was probably far more representative of priests’ views.

Priests see all sides of life. They are called out at dead of night to comfort the families of kids who have overdosed. They preside at the funerals of our teenage suicides. They are called when a beloved baby suddenly becomes still and lifeless in her cot.

Constantly and quietly, many Catholic organisations work to repair the ravelled sleeves of care in this society. 

Think of the St Vincent de Paul’s volunteers, silently going up front drives and back staircases bringing practical help where it is desperately needed.

Think of the work of organisations like Trócaire, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland, the Capuchin Day Centre, the Little Flower, Penny Dinners and on and on, which were all founded by Church figures.

As I was writing this, the latest bulletin popped through the letter box from the Dublin Dioscesan Pilgrimages to Lourdes, which brought our autistic son Tom away for a whole week. 

I had tears in my eyes as I remembered how the young volunteers sang: “Tom, we love you, we hold you in our hearts” as I led him away from the airport.

How many politicians could look those Catholic young people in the face and say they lack compassion? Isn’t that the subtext of the Taoiseach’s remark that Ireland was now a more compassionate place?

The repeal movement has no monopoly on compassion. It is outrageous to portray a third of the population as compassion-deficient.

I reject strenuously Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s comment that ‘no’ voters should, ‘take a long hard look at themselves’.

Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

His was the party which moved six years ago to start cutting the benefits of lone parents whose youngest child was only seven, a policy which has left a majority of the poorest poorer still, even if they are working.

I’m not saying it’s not useful to turn the Catholic Church into the Bogeyman. It is a mechanism for externalising and consigning to the past everything which ever was wrong in this society.

To the legacy of this Bogeyman can be attributed all unwanted and uncared-for babies, the State denial of adopted peoples’ right to their identity, all cases of child abuse and incest and every woman who ever suffered. 

I am surprised the Catholic Church has not yet been blamed for the misreading of cervical smears.

A cadre of secular leaders are becoming priests more powerful than was John Charles McQuaid, whose influence I do not even remember although I am middle-aged.

A frightened minority — which includes many people in my extended family, ranging in age from 18 to 80 — has no mainstream political representation and is ridiculed and grossly misrepresented by the mainstream media.

They are bound to resent this, and if the example of some other countries is anything to go by, they may yet be radicalised.

Meanwhile, we are in serious danger of abandoning the best weapon any society ever had against marginalisation and radicalism: balanced, evidence-based journalism which demands balanced, evidence-based politics.

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