A reflection on the Irish referendum

The national flag of Ireland. Photo: Flickr The national flag of Ireland. Photo: Flickr

I will confess that as a person of Irish heritage on both sides of my family, I found the events in Ireland last week particularly dispiriting. Not only did the nation vote, by a two-to-one margin, for the legal prerogative to kill their children in the womb, but they also welcomed and celebrated the vote with a frankly sickening note of gleeful triumph. Will I ever forget the unnerving looks and sounds of the frenzied crowd gathered to cheer their victory in the courtyard of Dublin Castle? As the right to abortion now sweeps thoroughly across the Western world, I am put in mind of Gloria Steinem’s mocking remark from many years ago to the effect that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. I say this because abortion has indeed become a sacrament for radical feminism, the one, absolutely sacred, non-negotiable value for so-called progressive women. 

One of the features of the lead-up to the vote — and this has become absolutely commonplace — was the almost total lack of moral argument on the part of the advocates of abortion. There was a lot of political talk about “rights,” though the rights of the unborn were never mentioned; and there were appeals to “health care,” though the lethal threat to the health of the child in the womb was a non-issue. There was, above all, an attempt to manipulate people’s feelings by bringing up rare and extreme cases. But what one hardly ever heard was a real engagement of the moral argument that a direct attack on a human life is intrinsically evil and as such can never be permitted or legally sanctioned. 

Accompanying the entire process, of course, was the subtext of the Catholic Church’s cultural impotence, even irrelevance. Every single story that I read in advance of the vote and subsequent to it mentioned the fact that overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland had shaken off the baleful influence of the church and had moved, finally, into the modern world. How sad, of course, that being up-to-date is apparently a function of our capacity to murder the innocent. But at the same time I must admit — and I say it to my shame as a Catholic bishop — that, at least to a degree, I understand this reaction. The sexual abuse of children on the part of some Irish priests and brothers, not to mention the physical and psychological abuse of young people perpetrated by some Irish nuns, as well as the pathetic handling of the situation by far too many Irish bishops and provincials produced a tsunami of suffering and deep injustice. 

And we must remember a principle enunciated by my colleague, Father Stephen Grunow — namely, that the abuse of children in any society, but especially in one as insular and tight-knit as Irish society, has a tremendously powerful ripple effect. When a young person is sexually abused, particularly by a figure as trusted as a priest, that child is massively and permanently hurt; but once the abuse becomes known, so are his siblings, his parents, his friends, his extended family, his parish. Now multiply this process a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times — again, especially in a country as small as Ireland — and you will find that, in very short order, the entire nation is filled with anger, indignation and a legitimate thirst for setting things right. I do believe that what we witnessed last week was a powerfully emotional reaction to the great crimes of the last several decades. The deeply sad truth is that the abuse of young men and women has given rise to an even more dramatic abuse of unborn children. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.

Is there a way forward for Ireland? I think a significant sign of hope is the considerable number of people who took the extremely unpopular stance against this legislative innovation. Knowing full well that they would likely lose and that they would be subject to ridicule and perhaps even the loss of their professional positions, they courageously argued for life. On that foundation, much of value can be built. But what Ireland most needs at this moment — and indeed for the next hundred years — are saints and mystics. Moral arguments can and should be made, but if the church wants to recover its standing as a shaper of the Irish culture, it has to produce men and women who give themselves radically to the Gospel. It needs figures in the mold of Teresa of Calcutta, Oscar Romero, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day — indeed of St. Patrick, St. Brendan, St. Columbanus and St. Brigid. And it requires men and women of prayer, like the founders of the great Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Cistercian and Trappist houses that still dot the Irish countryside — and like the strange denizens of Skellig Michael, who for six centuries clung to the edges of the world off the coast of Ireland and lived in total dependence upon God.  

Finally, only prayer, witness, radical trust in divine providence, honest preaching and the living of the radical Gospel will undo the damage done last week.

Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Contact him at www.wordonfire.org.

Website: www.wordonfire.org