A deeply pious and conformist Catholic country has become a secular one

Having parents who both came from Ireland (although in my father’s case it was via a Catholic enclave in Glasgow), I have been reading with interest a new book published by the Columba Press entitled Catholicism and Me. This is a collection of twenty essays by Irish people from all walks of life, describing their Irish background, upbringing and influences and how they now regard their faith. They include a bishop, academics, a writer, a couple of MEPs and The Catholic Herald’s own veteran journalist, Mary Kenny. Her contribution is an amusing distillation of a characteristic kind of “Irishness” in the form of 30 “proverbs” illustrating typical responses to the problems thrown up by life, such as “If you’re too sick to go to Mass, you’re too sick to go to the pictures” or “If you’re having a bad time offer it up. You’re in a valley of tears – get used to it.” Anyone acquainted with Irish people of the older generation will instantly recognise this outlook.

I use the phrase “the older generation” deliberately. In their introduction to the book, the editors, John Littleton and Eamon Maher, describe a country that has changed enormously in the last few decades, commenting that “the status of religion in an increasingly secularised society has deteriorated to a significant degree.” They go on to say, “From being a model of orthodoxy, a country where the various institutions of the State were strongly influenced by Catholicism, where loyalty to Rome or deference to the dictates of bishops informed the behaviour of people in their public and private lives, we have now reached the point where religion has been relegated to a private, personal concern.”

This transition from a deeply pious and conformist Catholic country to a largely secular one with, in some city parishes, a catastrophic decline in Mass attendance, was reflected by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, whose book, Everybody Matters I blogged about recently. From a close-knit and devout family in County Mayo, Robinson, who became a successful barrister in Dublin before entering public life, campaigned for the legalisation of divorce and contraceptives as an increasingly liberal agenda got underway in the 1970s.

She also relates in her book how hard it was for her parents to accept her decision as a young woman in the 1960s to stop practising her faith.

In Catholicism and Me the editors do make the point that “the disconnection between official church teachings and the way in which Catholicism is lived and practised by ordinary church members should not result in a denial of the cultural attachment that still exists in Ireland to the majority religion.” This attachment certainly still runs deep when it comes to pro-life matters. While a pro-life event in this country, such as the marking the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Abortion Act of 1967, cannot raise a significant number of participants despite all the hard work of the pro-life societies, in Ireland on December 4 over 10,000 people are estimated to have participated in a candlelight vigil outside the Dail (the Irish Parliament), calling on the government not to legalise abortion.

They petitioned the Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, to “keep his pro-life promise” which the Fine Gael party leader had made in the 2011 election. Several Catholic bishops also attended the vigil. A lawyer, Caroline Simons, a member of the Pro Life Campaign which organised the huge gathering, reminded the crowds that if the government did implement legislation “there is no going back….Any reassurance that you’re going to be given over the next two months that abortion won’t be introduced and they’re going to talk about medical intervention on limited grounds is false,”, she said. No doubt the pro-life campaigners in Ireland are acutely aware of what has happened since the passage of the UK’s Abortion Act: whatever is said to the contrary by ministers of health and others, we have abortion on demand, a situation that all the subsequent efforts of pro-life groups have not been able to change.

According to a report in CNA/EWTN News, controversy over the proposed government legislation exploded after the tragic death on 28 October of a young Indian woman in a Galway hospital; Savita Halappanavar died of an infection following a miscarriage after reportedly asking for an abortion. It now appears that “the first reported version of the story may be based on faulty recollection on the part of the woman’s husband.” Despite this, the pro-abortion lobby in the Republic was very quick to exploit the possibilities of the case for their own purposes. A member of the Irish pro-life group, Life Institute, appealed to “the media and the political establishment [to] look at the cynical exploitation of this tragic death of a young mother, and seek to find the facts.” An investigation into what actually happened at the hospital, as opposed to the slant given by pro-abortion campaigners, is currently underway.

Meanwhile, despite the increasing secularisation of the Republic, noted in Catholicism and Me, there is clearly still a strong groundswell of revulsion at the possibility of future abortion legislation.