This moment, when the principle of life has been removed from Irish law, is ominous. The Irish have a history of disproportionately affecting events in what used to be known as Western Civilization.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who fought to keep Ireland a pro-life country, and whose fight will continue. As one of their leaders stated after the devastation: “Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known.”
Ireland’s formal admission to the bien pensant ranks of pro-abortion countries is unsurprising. In 2015, Ireland introduced same-sex marriage, also by referendum. Both changes had enjoyed growing support long before their formal adoption.
Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy was in no position to sway either debate. In 2010, Benedict XVI censured their collective malfeasance in the child-abuse scandal. He told the bishops, “you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously,” noting that their “grave errors of judgment” and “failures of leadership” had “undermined your credibility and effectiveness.” The Irish faith has brilliant and energetic lay defenders and many wonderful priests and religious, but little ecclesial voice.
In a pastoral letter to the Irish that same year, Pope Benedict called attention to the civilizing role that Irish Catholics played in the West:
Historically, the Catholics of Ireland have proved an enormous force for good at home and abroad. Celtic monks like Saint Columbanus spread the Gospel in Western Europe and laid the foundations of medieval monastic culture. The ideals of holiness, charity, and transcendent wisdom born of the Christian faith found expression in the building of churches and monasteries and the establishment of schools, libraries and hospitals, all of which helped to consolidate the spiritual identity of Europe.
Irish monks, including those in monasteries founded by the Irish in the British Isles and on the continent, preserved what was worth preserving in the West after the fall of the Roman Empire – the original “Benedict option.”
The Irish vote does not initiate anything new but seals something that has been underway for decades. The taoiseach’s (prime minister’s) claim that the referendum marks “a quiet revolution” is wrong; it’s a noisy consolidation of decades of carefully contrived progressive social change and secular relativism.
If the moment seems especially ominous, what might we compare it to? There are many cases in Western history where someone sought to throw off the repression of an old order: Luther’s Reformation; Descartes and Bacon jettisoning final causes in the physical sciences; Machiavelli and Hobbes doing the same in politics; the storming of the Bastille in France and the substitution of unhinged reason for supernatural faith; Catholic Quebec’s abandonment of the faith; Roe v. Wade– and the recent fate of Alfie Evans.
The fact that Ireland, almost alone in the West, held its law strictly to principle – i.e., the illegality of murder at all stages of life – was very important. The law, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is “an ordination of reason for the common good promulgated by the one who is in charge of the community.” Ireland was the last major champion of a fundamental law that commanded and taught the common good according to reason, the last bargaining chip that denizens of the long-corrupted West might use to negotiate with the Lord, as Abraham did when he begged mercy for Sodom if a few righteous could be found there.
This moment also bears comparison with the fall of Rome, a process that proceeded over centuries but saw a critical milestone in the Visigoth sack of the city in 410, which prompted St. Augustine to write City of Godand would shape the landscape into which, a century later, St. Benedict would introduce the monasticism that the Irish would take up, cultivate, and extend.
Rome had seen corruption and had suffered setbacks and sieges long before the sack. But the sack itself was the decisive end of Roman order. It was the “final beginning” of the disorder from which the monks of Ireland would, with painful effort, prayer, and penance, help draw a new order, not out of direct intention but simply by seeking God.
St. Jerome, on hearing of the sack, broke down in tears and would write of the spiritual and moral, more than the physical, fall of Rome:
The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile. Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes; and yet we have our minds set on the desire of gain. We live as though we are going to die tomorrow; yet we build as though we are going to live always in this world. Our walls shine with gold, our ceilings also and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ dies before our doors naked and hungry in the persons of His poor.
“His poor” in our day will now include some infants of Ireland, and their parents who have been deprived of the reasoned understanding of what those children are.
Today’s West is not the Rome of 410. “This time,” as Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in his 1981 After Virtue, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” Our circumstances differ from those that brought the Irish to save civilization, in Thomas Cahill’s phrase, and MacIntyre might be aghast that he’s become the source of what is loosely called the new “Benedict option.”
But in this ominous moment, we would do well to be alert to MacIntyre’s possibility of “another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” Not a political strong man, not a charismatic messiah, perhaps not one person but several, or a community that in the ruins of the moment points the transcendent way through the darkness.
Maybe even someone from Ireland, whose message will be the ancient one, renewed for another age, once carried to the world by the Irish for centuries.
*Image: Massacre of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez, c. 1860 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]