“Corruptio optimi pessima” – that old Latin dictum came to mind when I reflected on the results of last week’s referendum which overturned by a 2-1 margin the Irish constitution’s ban on abortion. In plain English, the phrase translates as “the corruption of the best is the worst of all.”
The Irish church at her best was one of the greatest centers of evangelization in history. Significant parts of the United States, Canada, the Low Countries, Australia, and Africa all can thank the great Christians of Ireland for profoundly forming their experience of the church even to this day. But now that country has largely embraced – not by technocratic decree but by popular vote – a post-Christian future. This left me disappointed, but not surprised.
Many commentators talked about how the changing Irish society had become more “open” thanks this vote (open to what, exactly?). Others – and this seems to hit the mark more – identified the uniqueness of the Irish situation. The Irish held out on abortion long after the rest of Europe had blithely capitulated: that makes it unique. But the about-face is born from a reality even more specific to Ireland: the pervasive and corrosive effect of the explosion of the sexual abuse crisis in Ireland. While elements which stood against both Catholicism and traditional morality in general have long existed in Ireland, it was ultimately the failures of the church which paved the way for this massive generational shift. For this, we must continue to recognize the great wounds which must still be healed from those events.
At the same time, many Irish people of today – including many young people – stood bravely against the tide and boldly defended the right to life against powerful interests and celebrities like U2’s Bono. But the fact is that for much of the Irish populace, Catholicism is just a part of the culture, and a disposable one at that. This serves to prove what seems to me to the be the defining lesson of our age of the church: cultural Catholicism has no staying power – not over the long term.
While the result of the vote deeply bothered me, the media’s reaction to it was almost worse. The New York Times ran with this breathless headline on Saturday: “Ireland Votes to Repeal Abortion Ban in Blow to Catholic Church.” The sub-headline read: “The vote effectively ends one of the world’s most restrictive abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy.” This rhetorical hyperventilation was accompanied by a picture of young women with their arms held high, some dancing in jubilation.
Let’s take this one at a time, shall we?
First of all, the Gray Lady is not wrong to associate this vote with the Catholic Church. Ireland, after all, has been a Catholic country for hundreds of years. It remained so despite long and brutal repression by the occupying British. So yes, “old Ireland” – the one seemingly discarded last week – is intimately connected with the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, it is also true (and sad) that the only organ of culture which stood against the campaign to overturn the amendment was the church. Nevertheless, it seems more accurate to say that the vote represented a blow to the Irish state and its integrity more than the church, per se.
Next, the photograph. I do not consider myself a naïve person. I understand that there are many people who do not like the Catholic Church, and many others who reject the vision of the moral life she (and others) propose. But to stand in St. Stephen’s Green and dance because the rights of unborn children were taken away by popular vote is such a grotesque action that it seems the only appropriate response is to pray for conversion. I know decent people who struggle profoundly with the question of abortion. Even those who think it should be legal often admit to the fact that it is a profound tragedy. To revel in it – even in the name of “women’s liberation” – is bizarre. To print a photograph of such actions is mere provocation.
Speaking of which, there is the sub-headline, which praises (there can be no other word for it) the vote for “sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy.” That this headline was written by someone sympathetic to the result is beyond question, and considering the source, hardly surprising. But surely the most important newspaper in the world can avoid triumphalism in its news reporting? Because that is exactly what this sounds like. The old regime – that stuff about the right of a child conceived to be born no matter what – is dismissed joyously as “conservative patriarchy.” When was the last time you heard the word “patriarchy” used in a non-sinister sense?
Those who see the church only in Machiavellian categories will never truly understand her. Therefore, we should not fall into despair because of the electoral loss or the dancing in the streets or the jubilant headlines. Christ will always be with his church, whether or not she has large-scale political influence in a given time and place. And if we as a community of faith are wounded by recent events in Ireland, then it is to him, the head of the church, we must look for healing. Maybe, by his grace, the snakes will be driven out once again.
Father Eric J. Banecker is a recently ordained priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who serves as parochial vicar at Saint Pius X Parish in Broomall, Pennsylvania.
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