Are senior church figures threatening or advising politicians?
Parallels with JFK presidential election campaign
Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s commencement address at Boston College yesterday followed that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the only Catholic elected president of the United States, who delivered the college’s centennial commencement address 50 years ago. Parallels do not end there.
In the lead-up to his election as president, JFK was sharply challenged by the issue that confronts the Taoiseach and many of our TDs and Senators just as starkly: how to reconcile being a practising Catholic with legislating for a pluralist democracy when opposed by a hostile Catholic Church.
Separation of church and state
Fears around this were evoked during the 1960 US presidential campaign. It prompted JFK’s address on September 12th, 1960, in which he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.”
He would make decisions as president “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”
With excommunication talked of as punishment these days, politicians in the Republic might have reason to reflect on those words. The Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh and future Catholic primate Eamon Martin said at the weekend: “If a legislator comes to me and says, ‘Can I be a faithful Catholic and support abortion?’ I would say: ‘No’. Your communion is ruptured if you support abortion. You are excommunicating yourself. Any legislator who clearly and publicly states this should not approach [a priest] looking for communion.”
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has tried to avoid the “excommunication” word. He said at the weekend he feels communion should not be politicised and believed it “should not become a place of debate and contrast and be used for publicity reasons by anyone”.
Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy, pressed on RTÉ radio yesterday on whether he would refuse communion to a politician who voted for abortion legislation, said: “I really would prefer to go down the avenue of dialogue with that politician, ask him or her why did you come to that decision, what were the factors involved.” He too spoke of his “nervousness at politicising the eucharist”.
What can be agreed is that the Catholic bishops are alerting politicians to the gravity of the issues at stake in the current debate and the inevitable consequences of taking a particular route.
Whether that amounts to threat or advice depends on to whom you speak.