The Next Steps in the Secularization of Ireland

The fact that more than sixty percent of the Irish electorate supported an amendment to the nation’s constitution recognizing same-sex “marriage” caught many people by surprise last spring. They may have been clinging to an outdated image of Ireland as a bastion of devout Catholicism.

Unfortunately there further disturbing changes that are being advanced.

One is more symbolic. Many, including a former news director of the national radio and television station, are asking that the broadcasting of the Angelus be dropped. It is viewed as an anachronism in an Ireland that has “an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-faith population,” and is “a secular state.”

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Originally the television imagery accompanying the sounding of the Angelus bells had a religious or devotional character, such as of Mary and the Christ Child. In more recent times it was gradually changed to a semi-religious flavor: a young child with a senior citizen feeding ducks, a street artist chalking a religious picture on the pavement, or a memorial in a rural town.

Now the spots will be decidedly secular and will be called a time for reflection, rather than prayer and reflection.

More disturbing than the dilution of the broadcasting of the Angelus is the prospective repeal of the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution, that is the prohibition of abortion. Approved by two-thirds of the Irish electorate in 1983, it had been prompted by fears that the judiciary, which, like ours, has the power of judicial review, might overturn existing legal prohibitions.

Public mood began to soften in 1992.

The Supreme Court had overturned an injunction issued by the Irish Attorney General to prevent a pregnant 14 year old who threatened suicide from travelling to England for an abortion. Subsequently three amendments were put to the electorate. Two were approved allowing public availability of information about abortion and freedom to travel abroad to secure an abortion. A third, disallowing threatened suicide as grounds to allow abortion, was rejected.

In 2002, an amendment allowing termination of pregnancy where the mother’s life was in danger, but not from threatened suicide, failed. Some claim its failure was because of the exclusion of the suicide motive.

Then in 2013, legislation was passed accepting threatened suicide as grounds for abortion. It was curiously named the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act.

The legislation was passed by the present government, a coalition of the Fine Gael Party (affiliated with what had been the Christian Democratic Party in Europe), and the Labour Party. The same government had for a while withdrawn its resident ambassador to the Vatican, nominally for economic reasons, but in reality as a gesture of criticism of what it claimed was the Church’s cover up of clerical abuse.

That government will be up for re-election next year. One of their coalition partners, the Labour Party, has indicated sympathy with repeal of the 1983 anti-abortion amendment. Some of the leading figures in the Fine Gael Party are very soft on the issue, and might well support repeal if returned to power with the Labour Party. Their leader, the prime minister or Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has not included repeal in his projected agenda, but neither had he included the 2013 act in his 2011 electoral campaign.

Among the opposition, the leftwing parties, including Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, are for the repeal. However many members of Fianna Fáil, the party founded by Eamon de Valera which dominated Irish politics from 1932 until 2011, would probably be opposed.

Another issue that has still not made the mainstream in public discussion, but is very alive behind the scenes, is secular primary education.

Most primary schools in Ireland, National Schools, are financed by the government, but are under the control of local managers, usually chaired by the local parish priests, or, in some cases, a Protestant clergy, and have a denominational character. In most cases they are Catholic.

There are also a smaller, but increasing, number of schools in what is called the Educate Together Scheme, which have no specific denominational identity and where religion, if taught, is treated as a subject, like comparative religion, rather than as a part of faith formation.

The Irish constitution and law guarantees that parents have primary responsibility in education. They can have their child withdraw from religious instruction in the school in which they are enrolled. But Irish law also allows a school to use its own denominational character as a criterion for admission of students.

Denominational membership is usually not insisted upon in most schools, especially rural areas where a declining population has left many empty seats in schools. But in urban areas, where population has grown faster than the construction of schools, there is pressure in some neighborhoods to gain admission to the local school. In such cases the administrators use criteria like having siblings in the school and having been baptized for admission.

There are a number of cases, especially with both the influx of non-Christian immigrants to Ireland and the growing number of non-believing native Irish, where children have been denied admission to the nearest school because they were not baptized. Agitation has developed asking that such criteria not be applied.

Equity suggests that there be more schools available for the increasing number of families desirous of non-denominational education, but not at the expense of parents content with the denominational school their children are attending.

Most of the advocates of secular education have an ultimate agenda of making all state supported schools secular.

A lack of alertness might result in an overnight secularization of schools with the same rapidity that same-sex “marriage” gained acceptance. If the chattering classes retain control of the media and have overwhelming access to education department officialdom, such could easily come about, and would not even require ratification by constitutional amendment.

There are certain steps the Catholic Church in Ireland, as well as managers of other denominational schools, should take in anticipation of a secularization drive. One step would be having more demanding criteria for admission. Rather than just a baptismal certificate, there should be insistence on regular family attendance at and support of their parish church.

Another step would be to guarantee that the religious character of the school was a reality and that religious instruction was in fact solid faith formation, more than simply rehearsing children for First Communion and a few years later for Confirmation. All too often the children have no understanding of what they are undergoing in receiving these sacraments. They are seen by them and their parents as simply coming of age occasions and grounds for partying.

There are serious grounds to suspect that the Church in Ireland in this matter, as well as in many other areas, has been willing to rest on an unwarranted confidence from inertia and enrollment numbers and has not undertaken a serious examination of the reality of the faith formation process in the schools.

Just as the church attendance and support from the families should be insisted upon, similar demands should be made of the teachers. Simply having taken a few required courses on religious pedagogy in teacher training schools is insufficient for determining a teacher’s appropriateness for the task of faith formation.

If these steps result in there being fewer Catholic schools, it might be better than having many nominal Catholic schools. Perhaps a distinctly Catholic school system should be established that would free the church schools from the albatross of state support and control.

Tuition would have to be charged, but that could be modified by there being state grants to the families of attending children proportionate to what the state would have to spend if the children attended national schools. Lessons might be learned from the various forms of tuition voucher schemes existing in several American states.


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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