There was a time when Ireland was for all practical purposes, a Catholic state. Divorce, homosexuality, abortion and contraceptives were all illegal. Books and films had to be approved by a censorship board which banned anything that was contrary to Catholic teaching (which turned out to be a lot). The Church ran almost all schools, hospitals as well homes for “fallen women” and forgotten children. Acting contrary to Catholic teaching meant shame and banishment. The state was guided by Catholic principles to such an extent that it was hardly noticed or commented on. That was just the way things were.
But times have changed. Since the 1970s, the power and influence of the Church has gradually waned. Censorship was removed, contraceptives were gradually made legal, married women were allowed to work in the public sector, homosexuality was legalised and same-sex marriage was passed by referendum. Church attendance has declined rapidly since the 1990, dropping from 85% to only 30% today. The fastest growing religious group is non-believers, who at 10% of the population are now the second largest religious group in Ireland. Immigration means that Ireland is no longer an exclusively Catholic country, now there are citizens of other religions entitled to equal rights.
In many ways, we are secular, at least in practice if not in name. Religion is no longer a major element of society and God is not at the centre of our lives or decisions. Political decisions are not made based on the Bible or other religious laws, nor is the will of God a goal we aim for. Legislation no longer requires the approval of the Catholic Church and actions contrary to Catholic teaching are not condemned. We just elected an openly gay Taoiseach without any religious complaint about his sexuality.
Schools should not promote religion
Yet the institutions of the country have failed to keep up with the changes in modern Ireland. Our education and health services are still largely under religious control. Primary schools in Ireland are technically owned by private patrons (over 95% of which are religious, mainly Catholic) but receive their funding from the state. This means that although the state pays the salaries and building maintenance, it is the Church that runs the schools. They are allowed to enforce a “Catholic ethos” and reject students on the basis of their religion. These Catholic schools openly declare that Catholic students should come first and non-Catholics may only enter after if there is still space. There is no state guidance or curriculum on religious education, it is decided by the patrons. This means they are free to instil a Catholic ethos in all students – or indoctrinate everyone into the Catholic faith (depending on how you phrase it). This is the main reason why the Church runs schools, in order to make more Catholics.
Schools should not be used to promote one ideology or agenda, especially among children who are too young to have much critical thinking. As a child in school, I was taught Catholicism as if it were an unquestionable fact and description of the world like geography or maths. At that age, you accept and believe what you are told, which is why the Church tries so hard to reach children while they are young. It would be unacceptable if schools taught one political ideology, so why is it acceptable to teach one religious ideology? The state should not promote any religion because it gains nothing from it. Giving children a Catholic education doesn’t make them better citizens or create a better state. If parents wish to raise their children as Catholic, that’s their business, but it’s a private matter not a public one. The public interest is not served in the promotion of any religion.
In our diverse modern society, denying equal opportunity to non-Catholics is contrary to our ideals of equality. All children have an equal right to education, it is an injustice for some to get an advantage due to their religion. It is wrong for non-Catholics to be treated as second class citizens in regard to such an essential human right as education. The state should not pressure parents to enrol their children in the Catholic religion just so they have a better chance at a place in the local school.
A situation that was unforeseen at the creation of our education system is the growth of Islam. There are currently over 60,000 Muslims in Ireland and the community is growing. If schools are to be religiously run, then it is only natural that eventually Islamic schools will be opened. As with Catholic schools, they will be free to manage their affairs and teach religion as they wish. This separation and segregation will only cause problems and suspicion. The Muslim community suffers from enough suspicion, if they have separate schools, this will only add fuel to fire. I can already imagine the sensational tabloid headlines.
In a secular state, religion could still be a school subject, so long as all religions are taught and none are given preference. Personally, I don’t think this is possible. Any Irish teacher will naturally know far more about Christianity than Hinduism, so it’s highly unlikely that both will receive equal attention. There is also the problem with selection bias, as religious people are far more likely to become religion teachers and therefore likely to give their religion (i.e. Catholicism) special favour. After all, a devout Catholic who believes they have a mission to spread faith is more likely to become a religion teacher than a secularist with no strong religious beliefs. It is therefore far more equal if the state remains neutral and leaves religious study to individuals.
The constitution has more in common with the Ireland of 1937 than that of 2017. Now some of you might not care or see any importance in the Constitution or that it has any relevance on our daily lives. However, the Constitution has enormous symbolic value, it is a statement of the ideals of the Republic, of what kind of country we live in. The Constitution declares the rights and responsibilities of all citizens and reflects our position in the world. Unfortunately, it better reflects the Catholic country we once were, rather than the secular state we should be. The opening preamble which introduces the document and states its core principles, no longer represents modern Ireland.
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ,
This is a shocking statement. According to our constitution, the main priority of the state is not the welfare of the citizens, but the Trinity. The duty of citizens is not to the Republic or each other, but to God. The governments right to rule does not come from the consent of the people, but from God. I thought the Divine right to rule died out centuries ago, but it seems to be still alive in Ireland. It also declares that all the people of Ireland have an obligation to Jesus, as does the government. What does this mean for non-Christians, should they also acknowledge their obligations to Jesus? Or are they not part of the people of Ireland? This point is reiterated in Article 44, which covers religious freedom:
“The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. it shall hold his name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”
Even core human rights are conditioned by religion. The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, assembly and association, but Article 40.6 states that this is “subject to public order and morality”. I was stunned the first time I saw this. Public order is understandable (although vague) but public morality could be used to massively suppress human rights if they clashed with religious law. In 1937 someone might have considered a Pride parade as contrary to public morality and not worthy of the protection of free assembly. There was massive censorship and suppression of free speech for decades because it wasn’t in line with public morality. This detail is elaborated on:
“The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the state shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the state.
This means that censorship of anything deemed contrary to morality is constitutional. Anything critical of religion or religious teaching is not entitled to the full protection of the law. Furthermore blasphemy is also forbidden, in such a vague manner that could have a massively chilling effect on the freedom of expression.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
All ideas and opinions, including religious ones, should be open to criticism and debate. No one should be punished by the law for expressing an opinion. This limitation to our rights has no place in our constitution.
Is a woman’s place in the home?
The influence of the Church is evident in Article 41.2:
“the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
In essence this means that a woman’s place is in the home and the state’s role is to ensure she stays there. This is an absurdly archaic article that few people still agree with. Ireland is not a country where women stay at home cooking and cleaning for men, it is a place of equality where everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to fulfil their potential. Both men and women have duties in the home, working women are not neglecting anything.
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” (Article 40.3)
Abortion and the 8th Amendment is another area where the legacy of religion is still clinging on. While abortion is not officially a religious issue, there is no denying that most of the opposition comes from religious people. The major anti-abortion groups are openly religious and the Church will certainly play a role in the upcoming referendum. In a secular republic there will still be debate about abortion, but these should be based on the medical and social effects, rather than religious belief. The priority should be the will of the woman, not the will of God.
Becoming a Secular Republic does not mean that Ireland will be an Atheist state or that religion will be outlawed. People will be free to practice their religion as before, just now the state will be neutral. There will be no obligation to worship any God or follow any one set of beliefs. A Secular Republic would make people the priority of the state, not Gods or Popes. The welfare of the citizens, all citizens regardless of religion, should come first.