Harsh penalties by church and State on those who have abortions do not work

As Catholics we must now decide on what type of civic society we wish to create

As Catholics we have to recognise that Ireland is no longer a Catholic State for a Catholic people, where Catholic morality and doctrine is enshrined in the Constitution and in the civil and criminal law of the land.  Photograph: Getty Images

As Catholics we have to recognise that Ireland is no longer a Catholic State for a Catholic people, where Catholic morality and doctrine is enshrined in the Constitution and in the civil and criminal law of the land. Photograph: Getty Images

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The forthcoming referendum will present me and other committed Catholics with a dilemma. Do I vote to retain the present constitutional ban on abortion – which results in the criminalisation of women who have had abortions – or to recognise a changing reality where the present Irish population, especially the younger generation, are concerned, and who see opposition by the Catholic Church to repeal of the Eighth Amendment as a threat to their moral freedom to act according to their consciences?

What is emerging is another moral war between a church that has been badly wounded by clerical sexual abuse – worse still, by its continuing cover-up of such criminal behaviour – and a new Irish generation that wants to prevent the Catholic Church from influencing the liberal secular society.

While the church is entitled to proclaim its message to its congregations and to the wider world, it must now recognise that the era in which it was able to exert its traditional influence over a compliant political establishment is almost at an end.

It needs to reorientate itself away from being an enforcer of rigid moral doctrine not alone on its believing faithful but on a largely secular society.

The use of harsh legal penalties by church and State designed to prevent women from having abortions have failed.

The threat of instant excommunication for “those who procure a completed abortion” in Canon Law 1398 did not and still does not deter Catholic women from travelling to England and beyond to access an abortion in the loneliness of foreign clinics or hospitals.

Equally, this threat of being deprived of Catholic sacraments does not stop thousands of Catholic women from using imported abortion pills to induce an abortion without medical supervision.

Draconian

While the church’s penalty of excommunication may seem harsh, the Irish State’s attempt to penalise women who “intentionally destroy unborn human life” with “a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years or both” is draconian by comparison.

It is evident that threats do not work, and it is very obvious that the combined sanctions of Irish criminal law and Catholic Church law have not deterred Catholic women from accessing abortions, especially since the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983.

As Catholics we have to recognise that Ireland is no longer a Catholic State for a Catholic people, where Catholic morality and doctrine is enshrined in the Constitution and in the civil and criminal law of the land.

Irish people had little choice in the past but to accept the existing repressive morality which allowed little freedom of choice. Morality became synonymous with rigid laws enforced by both the church and the State, often in collusion with each other.

Women in particular bore the brunt of these oppressive institutions, especially when they did not conform to such largely misogynistic rules and regulations.

Morality was fixated on sex, and priests were supplied with instruction manuals identifying every possible sexual digression to help them identify whether a confessed transgression was either a “mortal sin” punishable by the eternal fires of hell or a “venial sin” which was punished by a limited time of suffering in purgatory.

Confession became a largely inquisitorial and mechanical exercise, where the priest identified the confessed sin as either mortal or venial and then, after absolution, dispensed the required and proportionate penance.

Moral choice

Catholics are still only emerging from such a past where there was little moral choice, and are finally beginning to experience their God – given freedom of conscience.

We are more than capable of deciding on how to live our lives on a moral level without any imposition from outside.

As Catholics we must now decide on what type of civic society we wish to create for the future. Even if we could we would hardly want to return to the repressive morality of the past and repeat its mistakes by demanding that no freedom of moral choice be made available to other people in our society who don’t share our convictions .

This doesn’t mean denying our cherished beliefs; rather it enhances them.

Brendan Butler is spokesman for We Are Church Ireland which is committed to reform based on the Second Vatican Council. The views expressed are personal

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