Breda O'Brien: Ireland is not quite as secular as it pretends to be
We now draw a distinction between the deserving and undeserving believers
The late Fr Tony Coote. His ‘Walk While You Can’ across Ireland brought people out in droves to cheer on this vulnerable and yet somehow indomitable priest. Photograph: Dave Meehan
The death of Fr Tony Coote sparked an outpouring of genuine affection. There was little not to love about Fr Tony. He was brave in the face of a devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease. After the initial shock, he used the time he had for fundraising for research and to help others with the disease. His “Walk While You Can” across Ireland brought people out in droves to cheer on this vulnerable and yet somehow indomitable priest.
His funeral was a reminder that Ireland is not quite as secular as it pretends to be. Irish society still celebrates people like Fr Tony (and not just because you would have to be an irredeemable bigot to object to the man on the grounds that he was a priest). Br Kevin and his confreres in the Capuchin Day Centre and Peter McVerry’s passionate commitment to the homeless are just a few of the many faith-based organisations that people admire.
Similarly, Leo Varadkar acknowledged during Pope Francis’s 2018 Irish visit that what are now the two biggest spending Government departments, Health and Social Welfare, did not exist until 1947. The fledgling State relied on the church to fill the gap. (In fact, there was a Department of Local Government and Public Health before health became an autonomous department. And not even Britain had comprehensive social welfare until after the 1942 Beveridge report. The substantive point still stands.)
In medicine, the State is insisting on a narrow interpretation of individual freedom of conscience and none at all for institutions
In July, at the plenary meeting with representatives from churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations, Varadkar praised “the various faith-based charities and voluntary organisations that do so much good work in our communities”.
He also said that any new approach of the Irish State had to be about pluralism rather than absolute secularism.
But how real is this alleged pluralism? It cannot mean being happy when believers are serving the needs of citizens but not when they insist on the freedom to practice their faith in ways that conflict with the dominant consensus.
The State is increasingly less pluralist when it comes to education, for example, insisting on one particular model of relationship and sexuality education. In medicine, it is insisting on a narrow interpretation of individual freedom of conscience and none at all for institutions.
Increasingly, it looks like that regarding faith, there is a distinction being made that is not unlike the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. For the Victorians, the deserving poor were those who had no means of making a living. The undeserving poor were the idle, who had a moral flaw which needed remedying in workhouses.
The same might apply to the deserving and undeserving believers. The deserving are those who continue to plug the gap where the state is still failing its citizens, or those who embrace causes that chime with the liberal consensus, or who believe faith is a purely private matter. The undeserving believers are just too out of kilter with right-thinking Ireland and therefore need remedying.
The church should not rule the State and neither should the State rule the church. There are responsibilities and boundaries on both sides
But faith can never be a purely private affair, as Archbishop Eamon Martin reiterated at the Kennedy Summer School last week, in his characteristically gentle but firm way. He said that “bringing faith to politics is not an optional extra for a committed Christian”.
He said: “People of faith seek to present a consistent ethic of life based on natural law, which includes, for example, the sacredness of all human life and the dignity of the person, the centrality of the family, the need for solidarity and a fair distribution of goods in the world.” He was also careful to reiterate the distinction made by Pope Benedict, “that the church is not a political agent and cannot and should not replace the state”. But neither should the church stand aloof and the “Catholic politician has a particular duty to uphold the dignity of every human life from conception to death... not just on the grounds of faith but on right reason”.
When believers point out inconvenient truths and thus make themselves awkward to the current consensus, that is when they most need – indeed, deserve – religious freedom.
It is important to remember that originally, the idea of “separation of church and state” arose not so that the churches could be barred from involvement in the political process but to protect churches from the state’s encroachment.
Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” in an 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, responding to their concern that the federal state offered them religious freedoms only “as favours granted, and not as inalienable rights”. Just as the freedom of the press was not designed to protect the civil state from the press but the other way around, Jefferson saw the wall of separation as a way of protecting the inalienable right to practice religion, including in the public square.
The church should not rule the state and neither should the state rule the church. There are responsibilities and boundaries on both sides.
If that separation becomes a way of including the deserving believers and excluding the undeserving ones, it will be no remedy at all.