Rite&Reason: Why Irish Catholics voted to remove Eighth

Many are privately unchurched as they resent hegemony of church authorities

Like many committed Catholics who voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, I feel that a weight has been lifted from Irish citizens by the outcome of the recent referendum.

But it can be difficult to explain why it is consistent to accept the Christian vision of life yet at the same time to reject the endorsement of Catholic teaching by the State.

No one wishes abortions to take place and everyone agrees with the aspiration to see an end to the socio-economic conditions that lead women to choose abortion. But the constitutional ban on abortion was misguided and inappropriate.

During the referendum campaign, the stern absolutism and virtue signalling of the anti-repeal side was very troubling. These were the people who opposed the right to remarry in the last century, the introduction of full marriage equality in 2015, and now the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.


The Catholic Church is a broader, more forgiving and kinder space than is reflected in the voices of conservative Catholic lobby groups.

One positive irony of the referendum is that many who voted yes were educated in Catholic schools where their capacity to think for themselves was encouraged rather than impaired.

The Catholic Church is a broader, more forgiving and kinder space than is reflected in the voices of conservative Catholic lobby groups

Now too is the time to call into question the conventional narrative that it is only in recent decades that Irish people have come to reject the domination of their life worlds by the Catholic Church.

Domineering hierarchy

Many people have secretly maintained a detachment from the pronouncements of the domineering hierarchy and took them with a large pinch of salt.

Irish people have always responded to the generous and committed ministry of numerous priests and religious. Yet many Catholics could have been described as privately unchurched because they resented the unremitting hegemony of the church authorities but were intimidated into silence.

My late mother, for example, was a nurse and midwife in the 1940s and 1950s and she found regimes in some Catholic-run hospitals doctrinaire, sanctimonious, misogynistic and oppressive. She was struck by the hierarchical and hypocritical standards that operated.

One consultant was never rebuked for the cheerful atheism he professed, though similar sentiments expressed by a nurse would have led to her dismissal.

She would never have given voice to her views in public though she would be pleased that today medical practitioners were unafraid to advocate repeal of the Eighth Amendment to ensure the health of women was not compromised.

All of this reminds me of the wise words of John McGahern. There is “no simple truth. It is various and complicated.” He believed that “spiritual need will not go away” because religion remains rooted in a human impulse that will never be “abolished”.

My acceptance of the religious impulse as it is expressed in the faith of the Catholic Church is a source of bewilderment to some friends just as my pro-repeal sentiments are a puzzle to others.

Sacred vs secular

This attitude, however, has deep roots in the Irish response to religion and the historian, Colm Lennon, has done valuable work in mapping this for us. In pre-Reformation Ireland, he explains, there existed such an absence of anti-clericalism and such a vitality of religious practice as to lead commentators to note that the "Irish are very attentive to religious matters".

One aspect of the spirituality embedded in the Irish psyche was what, in a memorable metaphor, Prof Lennon refers to as "the seamlessness of the sacred and secular spheres".

This seamlessness suggests one important reason for the failure of state-sponsored Protestantism to take root among the general population. Many Irish people resonate to religion, but they do not want it forced upon them by the organs of officialdom.

Many Irish people resonate to religion, but they do not want it forced upon them by the organs of officialdom

It has taken time for people to be willing to reject publicly the culture of control and to remove Catholic-inspired laws from the civic sphere. In a liberal democracy, Christianity should not be used to curtail civic freedom and no church should expect state law to buttress those of its tenets that are not universally shared in society.

Misguided and ill-judged, the amendment neatly illustrates one of the lessons of history, namely, that laws can have unpredictable consequences.

It is pleasing to no longer to feel complicit in the retention of an illiberal provision that was inimical to the health and welfare of women.

The past is indeed another country and we do things differently now.

Buíochas le Dia.

Dr Kevin Williams is senior research fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Institute of Education, Dublin City University