All the same, the story is all too symbolic of Irish life today

Whatever else it was possible to say about Irish Catholicism and the Irish bishops, at least you knew that the Irish Church (unlike the UK or US Churches) was pretty solidly orthodox. Now, on the face of it, even Maynooth, that great intellectual centre for the defence of the faith, has gone flaky, according at least to the way some reporters are presenting their stories: here, they seem to say, is yet another Irish Catholic nightmare. I begin with a report, under the headline “Abortion a ‘lawful choice’ according to course at leading Irish Catholic university”, from the Rome correspondent of LifeSite News, an American pro-life site:

DUBLIN, July 11, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – This September, the National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth is offering a series of “masterclasses” on counselling women in crisis pregnancies that includes a course on the subject, “Termination of Pregnancy: a lawful choice.” The program will consist of a presentation by Sherie de Burgh, a former employee of the Irish Family Planning Association, an affiliate of International Planned Parenthood.

Pro-life campaigners have pointed out that while the program is being co-sponsored by the government-run Crisis Pregnancy Program, it directly contradicts the law, since abortion remains a criminal act in Ireland under the Constitution.

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“This is a travesty that must be challenged immediately,” said Pat Buckley of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).

Well, true, no doubt, so it should. Niamh Ui Bhriain, of the Life Institute, is reported in the same story as saying that this programme is “part of a deliberate plan to undermine Ireland’s pro-life laws and shut pro-life people out of crisis pregnancy counselling” and that the Crisis Pregnancy Programme, which is sponsored by Ireland’s Health Services Executive, has been “pushing the boundaries further and further” every year, to try to legalise abortion, she said.

There are two stories here: first that this is happening at Maynooth of all places; second (and actually more importantly) that this is happening in Ireland at the present time and in present circumstances.

The Maynooth shock horror first. The story’s headline “Abortion a ‘lawful choice’ according to course at leading Irish Catholic university” is just wrong. There are two quite distinct educational entities now sharing the same set of buildings at Maynooth. The NUI Maynooth is a secular university institution, a constituent college of the National University of Ireland, like University College Dublin (UCD), or University College, Galway (UCG), but unlike Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), the only constituent college of the University of Dublin, which is easily Ireland’s leading university (as a TCD graduate you might think that I would say that, wouldn’t I: that assessment, however, is shared by all the leading university rankings outfits).

NUI Maynooth (well down the rankings) has three faculties: of Arts, Celtic Studies and Philosophy; of Social Sciences; and of Science and Engineering. Theology is not taught: the college has no connection with the Church; it is not a Catholic university. It shares a set of buildings with an institution which once occupied them all, the papal university and Ireland’s only remaining Catholic seminary, St Patrick’s College. Maynooth is also the seat of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

So, at least it’s a secular institution which is running this damnable pro-abortion course, not a Catholic one. The story, all the same, has little comfort in it for those who are worried about the future of the Church in Ireland. For a start, the shrinking of St Patrick’s, Maynooth and the secularisation of a large part of its former campus is in a fairly obvious way symbolic of a deCatholicisation of Irish cultural, social and political life, a process which is, at present, not only widespread but aggressive in the extreme, with the Taoiseach himself openly attacking the Pope and the Vatican, in Dail Eireann itself. That would have been unthinkable 50 years ago in the Ireland I knew, the Ireland that began the long process of my own conversion to the faith.

But the breach between politics and the Church didn’t begin with Enda Kenny: the idea, for instance, of a Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern) openly living with a woman to whom he was not married, would have been unthinkable in my day, too (actually, I think it’s quite difficult to imagine a British prime minister doing it, even now). But above all, most unthinkable of all, utterly unimaginable then, would have been the Ireland, and the Irish Church, of the Cloyne report and its aftermath.

And even without the scandals, the fact is that some readjustment of the relationship between the Church and secular life was long overdue. I was an undergraduate in the time of John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, who ruled the city with a rod of iron. If it was living in a Catholic culture which attracted me to the Catholic faith in the long run, it was in the short run the behaviour of the hierarchy which held me back. In 1963, as the Vatican Council got under way, Archbishop McQuaid set up a (secret) committee “to examine what is now called the public image of the Church in the Dublin diocese”. It reported, to his chagrin and surprise, that his own public image was”entirely negative”, that he was seen as “a man who forbids, a man who is stern and aloof from the lives of the people, a man who doesn’t meet the people”. As Mary Kenny wrote recently, “all power becomes, eventually, overweening, and the clergy’s power grew too great. This new fierce mood of Irish anti-clericalism is all part of the reaction.”

But in the end, she believes that the faith will survive in Ireland (“Ireland, semper fidelis, John Paul II called the country): so on that more optimistic note, I end, hoping and praying that she has got it right:

There are now calls to remove the Catholic Church from every element of Irish public life, and this is supported by a growing secularist movement. Contrary to supposition, though, state and Church in Ireland are already separate: the constitution, although it mentions God, makes no mention of the Catholic Church, specifically affirms that there may be no religious discrimination, and rules that no religion may be endowed by the state.

However, there is a difference between state and culture: the state construes laws, but the culture draws on history, memory, family, folklore. Despite constitutional separation of Church and state, there remain religious traditions, such as the broadcast of the Angelus on national radio, the prayers that open Dail sittings, and the existence – even dominance – of faith-based schools, which secularists seek to abolish.

Such sweeping changes could occur in what was once Catholic Ireland: the state could become as secularist as France, with all allusion to the Almighty officially excised. Yet even in France, the holy days continue, with Pentecost and Ascension and All Saints, and Lourdes attracting millions.

The Church in Ireland will never be what it was, but the faith, at grassroots level, will not disappear. The people will climb the holy mountain of St Patrick, and come in their thousands to the shrine of Our Lady at Knock, and beggar themselves to provide children with first communion regalia; and when there is a tragedy in a small town, the church and parish priest will still be at the centre of the community, offering age-old comforts, not of the Vatican, but of the faith.

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