On May 25, voters in the Republic of Ireland will go to the polls in a referendum on whether access to abortion should be widened. The Eighth Amendment, which was added to the constitution in 1983, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right,” and so permits abortion only to preserve the life of the mother. It is this amendment that Irish voters are being asked by their government to repeal, with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, calling upon his supporters to “trust women.” This implies that women share a single position on the matter and also implicitly admits that Varadkar did not trust women during the many years he did not support repeal. Whatever the ironies of his campaign, the polling indicates that the Eighth Amendment will be repealed and that legislation will follow to overturn one of the last distinctive features of Catholic Ireland.
This referendum thus marks the end of an era—for Ireland and for Europe, where Malta and Northern Ireland will be among the last jurisdictions to so radically restrict access to abortion. As in those places, legal tradition in the Republic of Ireland has been profoundly shaped by the country’s dominant religion. The Irish Constitution, adopted in 1937, is an emphatically Christian political document. Its preamble begins not with a gesture towards “we the people,” like its American and Indian equivalents, but with an appeal to “the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred.” Its contents acknowledge “all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The constitution reflects what has been the special status of the Catholic Church in Irish life. Article 41 recognizes the family as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.” It acknowledges that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved,” and that “the State shall, therefore, endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” It also pledges to “guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.” Article 42 acknowledges that “the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family,” and respects the “inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children,” with parents free to “provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognized or established by the State.”
Ireland’s constitution has naturally evolved to respond to new challenges, but it has done so within a context that sees the Catholic Church enjoying overwhelming social advantages, controlling almost all primary and secondary schools, and commanding the loyalty of vast numbers of people. As late as 1979, during his papal visit, John Paul II celebrated mass in front of 1.25 million people—one third of the Republic’s population and the largest gathering in its history. Four years later in 1983, Irish voters adopted the Eighth Amendment, guaranteeing in all but the most extreme circumstances the right to life of the unborn.
But the 1980s were a turning point in Irish history, marking both the high point of its Catholic society and the beginning of its end. Ireland’s secularization was sudden. The legalization of homosexual activity in 1993 and of divorce in 1995 were both cause and consequence of a radical reformulation of sexual ethics in opinion and public policy. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage on the basis of a national popular vote, and, in 2017, Varadkar became the country’s first gay Taoiseach. Popular attitudes towards LGBT people in the Republic are now among the most liberal in the world; progressive policies are overwhelmingly supported by very large numbers of younger voters. Their attitudes illustrate how absolutely the Catholic Church failed to instill its moral values in a generation whose education it virtually monopolized, with the result that a culture that never embraced the Protestant Reformation is nevertheless living with its “unintended consequences.” As Mass attendance declines, it becomes ever more obvious that the Catholic Church lost the battle for religious adherence in the Republic, even if the Protestant churches did not win.
There are several reasons that explain Ireland’s rapid secularization. The impact of modernity, facilitated by an internationalizing media, has exposed the moral and cultural isolationism that prevailed for much of the 20th century. Patterns of migration and return encouraged liberal values among many in the middle classes. But nothing did the Catholic Church more harm than the horrific sequence of clerical abuse scandals, with consequences epitomized in such documents as the Cloyne Report (2011), which became the subject of one of the most important speeches in Irish political history. Then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny spelled out the reasons why this report, documenting the “rape and torture of children,” had brought “the Government, Irish Catholics, and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture.” He condemned the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism,” and “narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day,” and exposed the “attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry [into child abuse] in a sovereign, democratic republic.”
This, Kenny insisted, was not “industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world.” Ireland had “neglected its children” for too long, and “as Taoiseach, I want to do all I can to protect the sacred space of childhood and to restore its innocence.” The government’s response to horrific revelations of clerical abuse was to insist upon children’s safety. Of course, there must always be a balance of rights, as the Eighth Amendment puts it, and of course there are always distressing and ethically complex cases that cry against the cold logic of legal doctrines—cases about which participants in the campaign against repeal have not always responded with grace, kindness, or even basic humanity. But it remains dreadfully ironic that one Taoiseach’s extraordinary defense of the “sacred space of childhood” should be followed by his successor’s call for access to abortion to be widened.
Polling shows that a clear majority of voters are backing the motion for repeal, though this lead has slipped by nine points since January. A social media campaign celebrates those who are coming #HomeToVote, using the same hashtag that energized the campaign for same-sex marriage several years ago. The emigrants are returning to chip away at values that were once inviolate, forgetting to whom, and with what consequences, as the constitution puts it, “all actions both of men and States” must be referred. But on May 25, the result of the referendum will almost certainly confirm it: Catholic Ireland is dead and gone.
Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently writing a Christian history of Ireland. You can find him on Twitter at @GribbenC.