Varadkar invokes St John Henry Newman in conscience debate

Taoiseach was responding to Labour leader’s call for end to clerics ‘instructing’ politicians

The Taoiseach paraphrased the comment of John Henry Newman (pictured) that ‘I drink to the Pope but first I drink to my own conscience’. Photograph:  The Fathers of The Birmingham Oratory/PA Wire

The Taoiseach paraphrased the comment of John Henry Newman (pictured) that ‘I drink to the Pope but first I drink to my own conscience’. Photograph: The Fathers of The Birmingham Oratory/PA Wire

 

Catholic politicians should look to the comments of newly canonised Saint John Henry Newman when considering issues of conscience, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar made his remarks after Labour leader Brendan Howlin highlighted comments by Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin last month at the Kennedy Summer School.

Archbishop Martin said Catholic politicians in particular had a responsibility to support laws that “uphold the dignity of every person from conception to death”. He also cautioned against politicians leading “parallel lives compartmentalised in to spiritual and secular spheres”.

Mr Howlin suggested that this idea of Catholic politicians “has the potential to be deeply problematic” as Irish society becomes more pluralist and multicultural.

The Labour leader said it was time to leave that era behind “when clerics instructed politicians”.

When he asked if the Taoiseach planned to discuss such comments in dialogue with Church leaders, Mr Varadkar said he was reminded of St John Henry Newman’s remarks when he learned of the new doctrine of papal infallibility.

Mr Varadkar paraphrased his quote that “I drink to the Pope but first I drink to my own conscience”. He added that the saint was encapsulating “that idea in the Catholic faith that allows people to act in accordance with their own conscience, even Catholic politicians”.

He also told People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett that he had had no discussions with senior clergy about their call for the Northern Executive and Assembly to be reformed to avoid the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Legislation passed in Westminster that would provide for abortion in the North will become law if the Executive and Assembly are not back in place by the end of October. They have not operated for more than 1,000 days.

Mr Varadkar said he understood religious leaders may prefer a “different law that wouldn’t go as far” but he said it was a matter for the Northern institutions.

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said just over half of the Republic’s 19 maternity units were providing abortion services and claimed that the conscientious objection clause was being cited even though the units are all State-funded.

“The rights of a tiny minority are preventing the will of the majority from actually being implemented. I think that’s wrong,” the Dublin West TD said.

The Taoiseach said he believed that was the case in one hospital but he stressed that services were never going to start straight away. “It always takes time to phase in new services”.

But it might also be down to the volume of referrals or to training. “Irish doctors and nurses are not trained to perform surgical abortion,” he said. If they are willing to perform terminations they would have to be trained.

He said however that it was encouraging that 340 GPs had signed up to provide abortion services.

He said that about 4,000 terminations a year are sought in Ireland and that would be a ratio of one doctor to 12 patients. He said that if each of the 340 GPs provided perhaps 10 terminations a year “that’s enough to cover it”.