Conscience, a last bulwark against totalitarianism

The attempt to suppress dissent on the abortion Bill marked a new low

Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer TD played a central role in getting the Bill passed. Photograph: Eric Luke

Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer TD played a central role in getting the Bill passed. Photograph: Eric Luke


The passing of the abortion Bill in the Dáil, it was said, marked the end of the old cosy church-State relations. But is this true? One of the main reasons, it seems, why many senior priests and bishops were personally silent on the Bill is the fact that many clerics and their families have long histories of being supporters of Fine Gael. Another reason for the lukewarm support of the bishops’ position was theological in nature.

The kind of fundamental moral theology taught in seminaries in recent decades is one that, contrary to church teaching, denies there are any moral actions, even abortion, that are intrinsically wrong. The moral evaluation of an action depends rather on motive and circumstance. Such a theology also distinguishes between the moral and legal/political spheres, allowing Catholic politicians to put politics above their “private” moral convictions. This theology, though widespread, is radically at variance with church teaching.

Moral quagmire
The apparent “neutral” stance on the Bill taken by the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) illustrates the moral quagmire caused by this kind of fundamental moral theology. The ACP leadership refused to take a formal position. One member, Fr PJ Madden, stated his personal belief that “there is no need for legislation on abortion”. Two other leadership members, Fr Tony Flannery and Fr Brendan Hoban, when asked, would not state their positions. But the ACP website did publish an article by Margaret Lee in which she wrote: “I believe that a woman is entitled to choose termination when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.” In other words, abortion is in principle allowed in certain circumstances.

This kind of moral theology undermines conscience, reducing morality to a “personal belief”, a private conviction. Conscience is regarded as a subjective conviction, rather than something objective, namely our capacity to recognise what we ought to do, especially when we are not inclined to do so.

Jerry Buttimer TD, chairman of the Oireachtas committee on the Bill, played a central role in getting the Bill passed. As a seminarian at Maynooth, he was exposed to the kind of fundamental moral theology that denies moral absolutes, such as direct abortion, and places politics superior to (supposedly private) moral convictions.

Whatever the rationalisations used, the net effect of all this was the attempt by the Taoiseach, Minister for Health and chief whip to put pressure on anti-abortion colleagues to vote for legislation they knew to be wrong. Legislators, in a word, were forced to act against their conscience. That itself is gravely immoral.

Attempted suppression
The neutering of the legislature by the executive has been a feature of Irish democracy for many years, but the attempted suppression of parliamentary dissent on a matter of fundamental moral significance marks a new low.

One senior party figure offered it as his view “that Enda Kenny showed personal courage and political skill”. I see a lot of evidence of political manipulation but . . . of personal courage?

The Taoiseach had nothing to lose. His Government had not only a huge majority, supported by Labour (the real motivating force behind the Bill), but there was no concerted opposition from any other political party. Fine Gael TDs knew that the price for following their conscience would be expulsion from their party.

The imposition of the whip in such a debate on life and death crushes the small voice of conscience more effectively than any torture chamber. The fact that five TDs defied the whip is what gives cause for hope that our present greatly enfeebled legislature might, one day, mature into a real democratic parliament.

It is well to remember that, in the aftermath of totalitarianism, the German people in 1949 wrote the primacy of the conscience of elected representatives into their constitution. Those representatives are expressly instructed that they are not bound by orders or instructions; they are answerable only to their conscience. Conscience is the last bulwark against totalitarianism.

It is not without significance that the Government parties want to get rid of the Upper House, the only chamber they cannot completely control. This week Senators were given an opportunity to demonstrate to the nation their limited but indispensible role in Irish democracy – provided they are true to their conscience.

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