God and the Constitution

Time for a respectful debate

A chara, – “I like to think of myself as unprejudiced”, wrote Fintan O’Toole (Opinion & Analysis, March 21st). It is difficult to reconcile that claim with what he wrote three days earlier (News Review, March 18th), when he used language of serious disrespect in relation to a religious faith which is held deeply by a large portion of the people of Ireland: “the 1937 Constitution is deep-fried in divinity.” “The people prostrate before the big boss in the sky.” “The utterly anomalous persistence of religious doctrine in the Constitution of a secular republic and a multi-faith society.”

Fintan O’Toole has every right to disagree with matters to do with religion, and the Catholic Church, just as he has a right to be critical of policies and actions of the Government of this State, as I do myself. What is out of place is the derision and ridicule with which he expresses it. He wrote (March 21st), “I hope I sloughed off in my early teens the hatreds I imbibed as a child of Catholic Ireland: of Protestants, queers . . . and communists.” It seems he replaced those “hatreds” with an alternative bitterness and anger.

I too am a child of Catholic Ireland. Growing up in my family, and in the years in primary and secondary school with the Christian Brothers in Synge Street, and in my parish then and in the intervening years, I had no experience of imbibing the hatreds he speaks of. Whatever is at the root of his bitterness, it is sad that it still expresses itself in insulting language.

As it happens, I agree with him about the need to re-examine our Constitution for the realities of today. I am a Catholic and a priest, and agree, for example, that the terms of the affirmation made by presidents, members of the Council of State and members of the judiciary should allow for members of different faiths and none.


Such is already the case for witnesses in court cases under the Oaths Act 1888.

In 1990, the Law Reform Commission issued a Report on Oaths and Affirmations, recommending that oaths be abolished, and replaced instead by a statutory affirmation, with suggested wording, but nothing was done.

I suspect that a citizens’ assembly would be of like mind.

The Irish Times supports freedom of expression, but perhaps it also has standards to guide the language in which such opinions are expressed in its pages. Disagreement can be both robust and respectful. Guidelines which discourage derision, ridicule and insult would help in civilised and respectful debate, including when dealing with those whose views and life experiences may be radically different. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.