Lessons from an Epic Vote in Ireland


I have been thinking a lot about Ireland these past couple weeks. Did you see the news about the vote on the abortion amendment? You can see the story here:  Ireland Votes to End Abortion Ban. Since 1983, Ireland has had an amendment to the Constitution that recognized equal right to life for the fetus and mother–basically banning abortion except in the most extreme cases where the life of the mother was at risk.  It was one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, and last week, it was overwhelmingly repealed, by vote of almost 2 to 1.

What is particularly interesting to me is what that vote says about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and the questions it has raised about how the Church has exercised its authority in Irish society, and on whom–and, whether or not it will continue to do so in the future.  Just for a bit of context:  it was only in the early/mid 1990s that “homosexuality” was decriminalized and divorce was made legal; and, as in other places, the credibility of the Church in Ireland been deeply compromised by scandals, some involving predatory priests and the cover-up of their crimes.

I don’t think it is too much of an overstatement to say that in Ireland, as in so many other places, the physical, visible target for the Church’s authority has been bodies, specifically women’s bodies [and non-heteronormative bodies as well, surely].  But in our 21st-century #MeToo context, that chicken is finally coming home to roost, I think.  In the interviews that were conducted around the vote, it was clear that for many people, women especially, the vote was less about abortion itself and more about rejecting the draconian control that the Church has exercised over women’s bodies, as well as the shame and negative stigma that it fostered around unplanned pregnancies.  It is shocking to realize that the abusive practice of forcibly hiding away unwed mothers and basically enslaving them in so-called Magdalene laundries, which were ostensibly meant to reform those whom the Church called “fallen” women, did not end until the mid-1990s.”

I have to say that, to an outsider, it feels that in some ways, the Church staked its entire moral authority on maintaining rigid sexual boundaries; and in the wake of the vote, one wonders if that was the bet that was going to pay off in the long run. Now, like others, I am interested to see what kind of role the church will play in Ireland going forward; if this is a fundamental moment of change, or a time when Church authorities will double-down on outmoded responses.

Some in the Church are clearly clinging to old ways of thinking.  One newspaper reported the following:

Many Catholic voters who opted to vote yes were shocked on May 28 to hear Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin accuse them of sinning by supporting repeal on RTE Radio’s “Today with Sean O’Rourke” program. “If they knew and intended abortion as the outcome — yes — I believe so,” Doran said, referring to voters committing sin. Doran, chair of the Irish bishops’ bioethics committee, also suggested these Catholics should consider going to confession.

Sounds to me like the last, petulant gasp of an old boy’s network rendered impotent.

Personally, the lesson that I take from this moment in Irish religious history is the importance of self-critical reflection on any church’s role in any given society. For example, “On what issues is the church speaking out, and where is it silent?” “What is a church known for, in a given society–what are its hallmarks?” “Who is the church standing with, and what is it opposing?” And, perhaps the most pointedly, “Is the church using its power and authority in a way that furthers peace and justice in a society, and challenges injustice and oppression; or, has the church become a tool of that oppression?”

These are complicated questions and not always easily answered, nor does everyone answer them the same way. I know for many people, abortion feels like a critical issue of injustice, and one on which the church should have a clear voice.

However, this moment in Ireland reminds me that at the very least, a church should not be most known for its conservative position on sexuality, and its control of women’s bodies: not when people are dying, when vulnerable families are being separated, when incarceration has become an epidemic, and when the silent indifference to the church’s very existence is deafening.

Who are we, then, here and now, today?  What do we want to be known for?

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