The Irish Referendum

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Well, the Republic of Ireland is gone.  Gone to the dark side.  It has repudiated the Catholic religion.  It did this on Friday May 25, 2018, when the citizens of Ireland, the great majority of whom are at least nominally Catholic, voted by an overwhelming majority (roughly 2 to 1) to repeal the article of their constitution (the 8thAmendment) that banned abortion except to save the life of the mother.

After having stood by the faith during hundreds of years of Protestant oppression and persecution, they have succumbed to atheistic seduction.  More than 1,500 hundred years after St. Patrick, they’ve decided that they’ve had enough of Catholicism.

If you’re not a realist, there are several consoling things you might say to yourself in the aftermath of this historic event.

You might say that this vote, while it removes the constitutional ban on abortion, does not preclude a statutory ban.  Given the dimensions of the defeat, however, it is clear that the people of the Republic are strongly sympathetic to the notion that abortion is a human right; and so the Irish parliament is sure to be equally sympathetic.  It is almost certain that Ireland will soon have a permissive abortion law.

Or you might say that the pro-abortion vote is nothing like a total repudiation of Catholicism; at most, it is a repudiation of one small part of the religion. Ireland can henceforth be a Catholic country that just happens to be deficient when it comes to one element of the Catholic religion – just as, for a few centuries, it was deficient in that element of Catholicism that bans drinking to excess.

The stereotypical drunken Irishman may have been a bad Catholic, but he was a Catholic all the same.  Likewise, the young woman who has an abortion may be a bad Catholic, but she’ll still be a Catholic.  Besides, the drunk is in the habit of getting drunk, whereas the young woman is unlikely to get into the habit of having abortions.

This consoling thought, however, fails to take note of two things.

For one, abortion is not a stand-alone thing.  It is part of the modern culture of sexual freedom.  If it were not for the fact that we live in a culture of sexual freedom, there would be very little demand for abortion.  (And when I say “we” here, I mean not just the Irish but Americans, Canadians, and Europeans generally.)  If you endorse abortion, you endorse this culture of sexual freedom; and vice versa.  Likewise, the endorsement of same-sex marriage, which the Irish did in a referendum to amend the constitution in May 2015, is an endorsement of the culture of sexual freedom.  So comfortable are the Irish with homosexuality that an openly homosexual man, Leo Varadkar, is their Taoiseach (Prime Minister).

For another, sexual freedom is not a minor departure from Catholicism.  It is a gigantic departure.  A super-strict sexual code has always been a mark of the Catholic religion.  You can see it in Jesus himself.  You can find it in Apostolic times; it permeates the New Testament.  You can find it in the many Catholic centuries in which monasticism flourished.  To call for a sexually permissive Catholicism is like calling for square circles. There can be no such thing.

Or you can (sardonically) console yourself by saying that the pro-abortion vote shows how loyal the Irish are to the head of the Church.  Remember in the early days of his tenure when Pope Francis said that Catholics shouldn’t “obsess” about things like abortion?  The Irish, I suppose, were obsessive in 1983 when they amended their constitution to include the 8thAmendment ban on abortion.  But the vote last Friday is all the proof anybody could want that they have overcome this obsession.  I wonder if the pope is pleased with the psychological progress they have made in the intervening thirty-five years.

Although they were trounced the other day, there are many “obsessive” Catholics in Ireland who campaigned fervently against repeal.  I wonder what they will do now.  Will they dig in their heels and become more Catholic than ever?  That’s a possibility.  And perhaps it’s better to have a militant minority of Catholics than a lukewarm majority.  Or will they give up and drift in the direction their compatriots have already gone? Will they slide down the gradual slope toward religious liberalism and the atheism that lies at the bottom of that slippery slope?

My own consoling thought is that the other day’s defeat in Ireland will remind many Catholics, and not just those in Ireland but those in once-Catholic places such as Boston and Chicago, that it is quite impossible to blend their Catholic religion with the dominant culture of the modern world – a culture that is highly individualist (or egoistic) and devoted above all to the getting and spending of money.

Though Wordsworth warned us long ago that by “getting and spending” we “lay waste our power,” most of us seem to find this life more or less satisfactory. In the long run, of course, it will destroy us.  But the destruction will be gradual, so much so that we won’t notice it while it’s actually happening.  Besides, we’ll be dead in the long run.

If we attempt – as Irish Catholics did, and as we American Catholics have been doing for more than a half-century now – to blend Catholicism and the culture of modernity, the result will be nineteen parts modernity and one part Catholicism: a very watery Catholic religion.  The salt will have lost its savor.

We have to make a choice – a choice not so much for ourselves as for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Either we make war against the dominant culture of the secular world, or we surrender. Attempts at peaceful coexistence are tantamount to ecclesiastical suicide.

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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