Kenny’s stance on Bill brings closer the realisation of O’Connell’s aspirations
Hierarchy’s strong position is provoking hostility rather than agreement
Daniel O’Connell by Sir David Wilkie: favoured the separation of church and state
Last Monday Enda Kenny visited Bobbio in northern Italy to see one of the great shrines of Irish Christianity, the tomb of St Columbanus, who brought the message of the Gospel back to continental Europe during the Dark Ages, 1,400 years ago.
Kenny was in Italy to meet the country’s prime minister, Enrico Letta, as part of his duties during the Irish EU presidency , but he went out of his way to visit Bobbio with an old school friend, Fr Tommy Murphy, a Columban missionary who was head of the order for the past five years.
Just two days later Kenny spoke passionately in the Dáil about how he reconciled his duties as a political leader with his religious beliefs. “I am proud to stand here as a public representative. As a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”
Kenny was speaking in the context of the fierce criticism being levelled against him and his Government by leading members of the Catholic hierarchy over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which provides for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is in danger.
The fact that he is a practising Catholic in an increasingly secular society is what gave Kenny’s statement such force. It stood out in stark contrast to the speech to the Dáil on April 12th, 1951, of his Fine Gael predecessor as taoiseach John A Costello, who famously said: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.”
Ireland was a very different country when Costello made his response to the hierarchy’s objections to the mother and child scheme of Noel Browne, which was abandoned by the government.
Ire of the hierarchy
Costello’s was the most open political capitulation to the hierarchy but it was by no means the only one. Successive governments were terrified of provoking the ire of the hierarchy.
Eamon de Valera’s Constitution of 1937 was drawn up in consultation with senior Catholic Church figures. That was reflected not only in the article conferring a special position on the church but also in a range of other provisions.
Things are very different now, and the political clout of the hierarchy has been in decline for decades. Still, during the 1980s it threw its weight into the scales against Garret FitzGerald’s liberal crusade and helped to ensure that the pro-life amendment was incorporated into the Constitution in 1983 and divorce rejected in 1986.
In 1992 the hierarchy helped to scupper Albert Reynolds’s attempt to remove the suicide issue from the abortion debate by encouraging people to vote No to a constitutional amendment of the Pro-Life clause. While it took a different view in 2001 when Bertie Ahern’s government made a second attempt at it, a number of conservative Catholic groups helped in the campaign to defeat the measure.
The irony is that had either of those two referendums been passed the question of a threat of suicide as a ground for abortion would not have arisen. However, the decision of the people not to remove it left successive governments with the quandary of finding a way to deal with the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the X case.