Catholics need not obey laws contrary to faith, Archbishop says

Martin surprised at Pope replying to Zappone letter about mother and baby homes

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: “The Minister himself has recognised the place of conscientious objection. We’ll wait and see exactly what comes out as to whether the solutions the Minister presents are going to be adequate.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish TimesPhotograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Catholics cannot be forced to obey laws which go against the basic principles of their faith, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said.

He has also expressed surprise at learning for the first time through the media that Pope Francis had replied to a letter from Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone about mother and baby homes in Ireland.

Concerning the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill, which goes before the Seanad this week, Archbishop Martin said, "There's a clear Catholic teaching that if legislation is against the basic principles of faith of people that they can't be forced to carry it out.

“The Minister himself has recognised the place of conscientious objection. We’ll wait and see exactly what comes out as to whether the solutions the Minister presents are going to be adequate.”


Asked whether this right of Catholics not to obey laws in certain circumstances also included legislation on divorce, same-sex marriage and family planning, Archbishop said: “There’s a hierarchy of truths in Catholic teaching and the centrality of some aspects. If people have conscientious objection it’s a very important thing to remember it. For me, very often social change comes from people who stand up for their commitments.”


Last week, in a strongly-worded statement, the Catholic bishops said they were “dismayed that, for the most part, the voices of those who voted against abortion in May’s referendum have been ignored. Even what many people would have deemed to have been very reasonable legislative amendments seeking to provide women with information and to prohibit abortion on the grounds of sex, race or disability, have been rejected.”

Repeating what they said in a statement last October, following their autumn meeting, they said, “Irish society must have respect for the right of conscientious objection for all healthcare professionals and pharmacists. They cannot be forced either to participate in abortion or to refer patients to others for abortion.

“Every one of us has a right to life. It is not given to us by the Constitution of Ireland or by any law. We have it ‘as of right’, whether we are wealthy or poor, healthy or sick. All human beings have it. The direct and intentional taking of human life at any stage is gravely wrong and can never be justified.

“Women’s lives, and the lives of their unborn children, are precious, valued and always deserving of protection. Any law which suggests otherwise would have no moral force. In good conscience it cannot be supported and would have to be resisted.

They also offered their “prayerful solidarity with everyone dedicated to the sanctity and protection of human life at all stages. We ask everyone of goodwill – whether at home, in parish, in school or at work – to continue to choose and to celebrate the preciousness of life.”


Asked whether he was aware of the letter sent by Pope Francis to Ms Zappone, Archbishop Martin said: “No. I’ve never seen it. I’m surprised that I should learn contents of a letter which I think effects my position from the newspapers.”

Ms Zappone spoke to Pope Francis when he visited Ireland last August and wrote to him about the history of mother and baby homes in Ireland, the high mortality rates, and the burials of children on the grounds of the former home at Tuam, Co Galway.

She asked the Pope whether the church would “accept its responsibilities and make reparation for its part in a very shameful chapter of Irish history”.

In his brief letter, Pope Francis said he prayed “that efforts made by the Government and by the local churches and religious congregations will help face responsibly this tragic chapter in Ireland’s history”, but he made no reference to a financial contribution by the church where the mother and baby homes were concerned.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times