Church and State in Ireland are already separate

A secularist State spells trouble for genuine freedom of religion

National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin. Recent issues under discussion are the Good Friday sale of alcohol ban, the Dáil prayer, the row over the new maternity hospital and church patronage of schools. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin. Recent issues under discussion are the Good Friday sale of alcohol ban, the Dáil prayer, the row over the new maternity hospital and church patronage of schools. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

It’s open season. The last six weeks have witnessed open revolt against church involvement in public life. The focal issues have been the Good Friday sale of alcohol ban, the Dáil prayer, the row over the new national maternity hospital, and, returning to the agenda, church patronage of schools. State institutions are to be cleansed of all religious involvement and influence, while State laws must not exhibit any deference to religious ethos whatsoever.

The revolt has been emotive and many commentators have looked to social circumstances, evolving attitudes and demographics to explain it. At least as important is the question of whether the revolt has good reasons in support of its cause. Slogans are certainly being thrown about but no slogan should be accepted uncritically.

Foremost among the calls emanating from within the secularist revolt is the need to separate church and State. Their separation is a fundamental doctrine of democracy, and yet its meaning and scope are often misunderstood. The doctrine amounts to this: religious bodies do not have authority to make or adjudicate on laws for the State, while the State, unless compelled by public order concerns, does not have authority to dictate the religious-based practices or beliefs of religious bodies.

Secularist arguments

Do invocations of the separation doctrine help advance secularist arguments? It is difficult to see how they do since for each of the disputed issues that have arisen over the last six weeks the authority to alter the status quo lies either with the State’s own democratic institutions or with the public’s authority to amend the Constitution, not with religious bodies.

Perhaps what secularists instead mean by the separation doctrine is that the State should never, directly or indirectly, give support to religion, religious-run institutions or religious consciences. But this prohibition amounts to an attempt to segregate religion and religious-inspired consciences from public life; it is very different from the separation doctrine. Segregation of the religious from the public leads to a secularist State. Yet a State can be secular without being secularist: many European secular States happily offer various supports to religion, religious-run institutions and religious consciences when the common good calls for it. Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Italy are but a few examples.

A secularist State spells trouble for genuine freedom of religion. That right, as outlined in human rights treaties, does not just involve the right to religious beliefs but also the right to honour those beliefs publicly in observance, teaching, worship and practice. This positive aspect of the right to religious freedom requires State support in order to be realised. For example, in the educational context religious freedom translates into the right of parents to educate their children according to their appreciation of religious truth. Human rights treaties recognise this. But for the right to be effective for all parents regardless of their social class the State needs to support it. Yet under a secularist model, as distinct from a secular model, the State would be prohibited from supporting parents’ freedom of religion in this regard.

Another rationale for removing all church and religious influence from public life is that the removal is demanded by the equality of non-believers with believers. But how does the practice of the Dáil prayer, for example, contradict the fundamental equality of all citizens? It is either justified or unjustified, but its practice no more signals that atheists are unequal than its repeal would signal that Christians are unequal.

Compromised

Yet another rationale is that the separation of church and State is indirectly compromised if State laws and institutions bear theological influence or inspiration. But this would not only necessitate the repeal of the Good Friday alcohol ban, it would also require the repeal of other laws indebted to the Christian theological tradition, such as those that enshrine human rights or, paradoxically, the separation of church and State.

Ultimately, what these controversies boil down to is disagreement over the value of the Christian ethos. All institutions and cultures have an ethos. Secularists tend to claim that they have a monopoly on compassion, while at the same time creating a caricature of the Christian ethos drawn from the worst failures of individual Christian and the church as a whole. It’s a neat trick. How would instances of the secularist ethos fare if the trick was played on them? The 20th century has plenty of examples of various secularisms running riot. Even today, many see the Christian ethos as a much better alternative to the materialisms, utilitarianisms, hedonisms, consumerisms and individualisms that dominate secular culture.

The controversy surrounding the National Maternity Hospital largely comes down to ethos too. Specifically, secularists fear that the Sisters of Charity’s ethos could prevent abortions taking place in the hospital. There are many insufficient reasons why the sisters should (if indeed they can) transfer ownership of the new hospital to the State. Neither appeals to the separation of church and State doctrine nor the equality of all citizens logically entail that the sisters should do so. As for the contention that there should be no religious involvement in the operations of State services, we wouldn’t have a health service or an education system to begin with if this contention was State policy.

Rather, a good reason for the sisters to sell up for a fair and charitable price is that they don’t seem to have any intention to honour the implications of their own ethos for what happens within a hospital they own. And so it is difficult to see what they would add to a hospital that is State-funded and ostensibly State-controlled. In time it looks like they would merely acquiesce in a secularist programme of introducing killing into the ethos of healthcare.

Dr Thomas Finegan is a lecturer in theology at Mary Immaculate College.

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