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The Irish State and the Catholic Church: The Special Relationship

Part 3

Joe Craig 

26 January 2006

‘Inhumane and uncivilized practices which would have been justified in the context of their era are rightly and correctly scorned by succeeding generations against the backdrop of another time.’  So wrote the ‘Irish News’ columnist Tom Kelly in his apologia for child abuse by the Catholic Church.  It does not pay to dig too deep into the idea that child abuse at some time may have been excusable, nay justified, or that the ‘era’ in which this would be so includes the late twentieth century.  What is notable is that such deplorable and inexcusable arguments have not been unusual outpourings from a whole swathe of Irish society which has rallied round in defense of the Church.

Taking their cue from that institution, no pathetic and insulting excuse or obfuscation of the issue is too expendable.  While a bishop attempts to shift blame by asserting that some of it belongs to mental health professionals who promised that abusers could be treated, others hold up the many good works of the Church.  The only relevance of the latter could be within a gruesome calculus of balancing ‘good works’ against the thousands of cases of abuse in order to arrive at some solution of the equation that continues to confirm the divinely privileged nature of the Church.

The most important defense of the Church has come from the State.  It was the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell who, very much like Tom Kelly, appeared to treat the question of abuse as a purely historical one, saying we should be focusing on the future – always, always a warning that the criminal is to be allowed to escape justice.  Thus, he said, there should be no ‘grand inquisition’, his term for a State-wide inquiry into abuse.

One speech

It was his Progressive Democrat TD colleague, Liz O’Donnell, in a speech to the Dail who had the very rare courage of her liberal convictions to spell out the rotten alliance from which all this has sprung, without of course addressing her own party’s and class’s interest or participation.

In the Dail debate on the Ferns Report she denounced the Church’s ‘deafening and unbelievable immoral silence on the Ferns Report’ and stated that ‘the track record is such that we cannot accept that the church will be truthful or capable of self-regulation.’  It was still playing ‘hardball’ with top lawyers.

It was her comments on the role of the State that were most cutting.  The State should adopt a ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy’ approach.  ‘The deference is over.  The cosy phone calls from All Hallows to Government Buildings must end’ and ‘the church’s almost universal control of education’ must be ‘radically addressed.’  She demanded an audit of the church’s wealth, backed by discovery orders forcing the church to open its books.  ‘Central to the church’s self-serving response over the years has been private financial settlements, without liability, as well as confidentiality deals.’  The State should stop consultations with the church on a range of issues including IVF, abortion, contraception and stem-cell research.  The unrelenting deference ‘must end absolutely’ as it was this deference that was the root cause of the Church’s failure to protect children.

The speech touched a raw nerve.  Bertie Ahern responded that in education nothing would change.  He said the State would not be able to manage the 3,200 primary schools owned by religious institutions, mostly (92%) Catholic, despite the fact that the State already pays for them and Ahern had recently pushed through a deal to save religious institutions from bankruptcy on foot of claims from the abused.

As for the ‘cosy phone calls from All Hallows’, a religious group in his constituency, his reply encapsulated the confessional character of the State and why it survives: ‘I am very proud of All Hallows.  Yes I do ring All Hallows.  I will ring All Hallows, my father has worked in All Hallows or did for half a century.  My house is in All Hallows.  It is on the lands of All Hallows so I am going to make apologies to nobody including Liz O’Donnell for being in touch with All Hallows.’

Accused of undue influence from the Church he not only failed to deny it but asserted he went looking for it – he makes the calls!  In the wake of a report that exposed Church abuse and mendacity he brazenly declared the State’s almost personal affiliation to it and with such an open declaration that he more or less silenced critics.  His admission of confessional allegiance exposed the fact that there is no organized force demanding a real – secular – Republic.

His was a statement that the ‘Republic’ we have is what we will continue to have and the allegiance of almost all Dail parties to this republic means defense of its alliance with the Catholic Church.  To those seeking a secular republic, which separates church and state, he was in effect calling their bluff.  Seeking such a state would mean much more than simple separation.  It would mean the radical recasting of the State itself, separation would not be enough.  With such stakes the opposition of liberals like O’Donnell could be easily disregarded.  Her party leader dismissed the import of her remarks by also claiming that the mendacity of the Church ‘was a feature of the past.’

It was to this failure of opposition that Martin Mansergh, the Taoiseach’s special advisor, referred when he stated that ‘there is little appetite for a wholesale secularization of Irish society.’  He followed it up with the sectarian observation, or observation of sectarianism, that being a Catholic ‘is a major component of their (people’s) Irish identity.’

No Change?

This article is not arguing that nothing has changed over recent decades in respect of the power of the Catholic Church or in its alliance with the State.  In some ways the decline in Church power makes the alliance more important to both the power of the Church and the legitimacy of the authority of the State.

But even the arguments used to defend the Church’s role expose changes.  In times past the role of the Church would not have required defending and if it did it would be in the absolute terms of Church dogma.  After Ferns all kinds of arguments have been deployed by the Church’s supporters to defend its role, even those of relativist lineage that the new Pope Benedict so despises.

Thus it is claimed that the contacts between Church and State are on no higher a level than other contacts with civil society while Brian Cowan enlists pluralism and liberalism as principles supporting State –Church relations!

The ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church was removed from the Constitution by referendum in a four to one majority in 1972 but in practice this did not lead to diminution in Church power.  Equality legislation allows the Church to discriminate to protect its ‘ethos’ in religious run institutions.  The Church continues control over the vast majority of primary schools and control over health services allows it, for example, to prevent clinical drug trials for cancer patients.  Its dogmas have led to such scandals as the practice of symphysiotomy, largely carried out for religious reasons, where the pelvis of a woman is permanently widened to facilitate child birth leaving many women with chronic back pain, incontinence and problems with mobility. There is no pretence of democratic accountability in Church control and influence while the State pays the bill for church governance.

All this is a historical legacy of British imperialist control and the position of the Catholic Church as an expression of an oppressed nationality.  That this nationality became so coincident with a particular religion is testimony to the power of imperialism.  The legacy of that imperialism is powerfully expressed in the two States that were the product of the imperialist partition of the country.  This history has meant that there has been no mass anticlerical movement as in some continental European countries and the Irish labour movement has failed to lead one of its own.  Hence the legendary conservatism of the Irish Labour Party and its determination not to offend the Catholic Church.

In the absence of a mass anti-clerical movement demanding a secular Republic (that is a Republic in which religion confers no special benefits, which protects the rights of believers and nonbelievers equally, in which the State and its institutions are separate from religious or church control, and the Church from State subsidy) what we have witnessed is the decay of the power of the Catholic Church.

This decay can be seen in the decline in vocations, in social practices and the popular view of the Church.  In 2001 just thirty young men entered seminaries compared with 164 in 1970.  The number of religious (order priests, brothers and nuns) declined from 23,308 in 1981 to 13,393 in 2001.  Of that figure nearly half were retired and two-thirds over 60.  Only 59 were under the age of 29.  The number of priests in 1970 was 3,944 and 3,592 in 2001 with 616 of them being retired, sick, on study leave or abroad.

In 2002 a survey revealed that weekly church/mass attendance was down to 48%, which can be compared to a poll in 1996 which recorded that weekly mass attendance had been 85% in 1986 and 91% in 1973.  Weekly attendance today is highest among the elderly and rural populations and lowest among the younger and urban populations.    Fifty five per cent of people between 15 and 24 didn’t regard themselves as mass goers at all.  Anecdotal evidence quoted in the press would suggest weekly attendance in some working class urban areas of two per cent.

The population is less deferential and 76% disagreed with the proposition that Catholics should do what a priest tells them to do.  In 1999 only 53% said they tended to trust the Church.  Of course opinion polls are very imperfect measures of popular consciousness and even poorer barometers of political development.  The same poll that recorded the unwillingness of the faithful to obey priests also recorded an almost split decision on satisfaction with the Church, 44% agreeing and 43% disagreeing to a question on whether they were satisfied. Yet a separate poll in 1998 showed that 73% believed the scandals had ‘damaged the Church’s authority a lot.’

But social attitudes have changed.  Thirty-five per cent of Catholics now think gay couples should be allowed to marry in church, more than the percentage (20%) who think divorced couples should not be allowed to re-marry in church.  More important evidence of the decline of the Church’s power can be seen in the fact that births to single mothers now average one in five and the Church has been on the losing side in referendums over divorce in 1996 and abortion in 2002.  Most Catholics still pray once a week and nearly three-quarters still say religion in general is very or fairly important in their lives; but clearly not in the way it once was.

Even in the North where religion is a major determinant of life experiences and there are greater pressures to define oneself in sectarian terms the number of those with no religion has climbed to 11.5%.  The same study recorded that Catholic weekly attendance at mass had declined from 90% in 1989 to 65%.  For both major religious groups combined weekly church attendance had fallen from two-thirds in the 1980s to 50% in 2000.


None of this decline in support for the Church however has led to the breaking of the Church’s power or control over much of Irish society.  The difference between a popular sentiment and a political movement that can achieve real political change is evident in the continuing control of the Catholic Church over education even while the majority opposes denominational education.  A survey carried out for the Department of Education in 2004 found that 61% thought schools should not be denominational but should provide for religious instruction while 49.6% thought they should not be denominational and should also only provide for religious instruction outside school hours.

The institutional power of the Church has never been challenged and despite the scandals the alliance with the State remains as a support for the authority of both.  In the absence of such a challenge and a thoroughgoing secularisation of the Irish State we have instead witnessed the ugly decay of Church power.  Had a strong and organised secular force existed the abuses of the Church would have been prevented or lessened.  It would surely have been severely punished for its crimes.  These crimes are the price paid for this failure and to the degree the forces that should have led the struggle for separation of Church and State failed to do so they too bear their own share of responsibility.  The criminal abuse of children and adults by the Catholic Church is testimony to the continuing importance of this democratic struggle for the socialist movement and the necessity for it to raise an uncompromising banner of opposition to Church privilege and its support by the State.


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