College News

Church and state: time for a divorce?

In wake of the recent Tuam Mother and Baby Home scandal, many people have once again called for the complete separation of Church and State in Ireland. The role of the Catholic Church was enshrined in the 1937 Constitution. The future Archbishop of Dublin, Fr John Charles McQuaid, had an influence on its writing. The “special role” of the Catholic Church was recognised, however this was taken out via Referendum in 1972. While this religious outlook was perfectly acceptable in the context of the time, many people feel it is outdated and not representative of modern Ireland.
The legacy of the Catholic Church tarnishes Irish society to this very day. There is nothing wrong with religion in general. However, a conflict arises when the Church’s involvement with the State affects its citizen’s well-being and daily lives. Historically, there has been many instances where the Catholic Church has interfered with the State. The recent discovery of children’s remains on the grounds of a Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours religious order in Tuam, Co. Galway is an example of how the State failed to protect its citizens. This was because of the grip the Catholic Church had over Ireland. There was stigma and shame surrounding single, unmarried mothers. To deal with this problem, these women were effectively incarcerated in so-called “Mother and Baby homes.” A lot of international media are reporting these homes as orphanages, as the idea of societal prisons is incomprehensible to most people. The children and mothers in these homes were not cared for. The mothers were made to work for free, the children were taken and “adopted”, often sold, without their mother’s permission or through coerced consent.
Some children were even subjected to medical trials, as detailed in a 2014 TV3 documentary “A Secret Buried: The Mother and Baby Scandal”. The remains of 796 children were found in the mass grave, according to the Connacht Tribune. Peter Mulryan from Ballinasloe is still trying to find out what happened to his sister who was a resident with him in St. Mary’s in Tuam, 60 years after her death.
The Church, as well as the State, allowed the deaths of these children. This leads to questions about their participation in the abortion debate. Allowing the slow death of innocent children due to disease, poor living conditions, and unsupervised medical trials (which have never been officially acknowledged) is hardly pro-life. It also cannot be denied that the Church has had its fair share of scandals as of late. The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests during the latter half of the 20th century was covered up by the Church and the offending priests were moved to different parishes, continuing to prey on innocent children. In both the Tuam case and the child abuse case, the State should have been the first to intervene and investigate. However, it was historian Catherine Corless’ tireless and thankless work that uncovered the Tuam scandal. And it took years for any investigation to be launched into cases of clerical abuse, both by the State and Church alike. Many people, as a result, feel that the Catholic Church has lost its say in state affairs.
Education is another area where the Catholic Church has played a huge role. While it is great that education expanded in the 1900’s thanks to the religious orders, it is undeniable that this causes some problems today. There are a miniscule amount of non-denominational primary schools in Ireland, something which the UN Human Rights Committee has called the State out on. While there has been more Educate Together schools opened, these are multi-denominational, so effectively, there is no way in this country to get an education without some form of religious teaching or instruction. Ireland has also become a more multi-cultural society, and it must be very alienating to have to leave the room or sit through an hour of religious instruction per day if you’re not Catholic. These children are also excluded from making their communion or confirmation, which is a big social event. Many children who make their communion and confirmation belong to families who don’t practice their religion. It’s merely a social convention and seen as part of the curriculum, and arguably, this dilutes the meaning and importance of the sacrament.
So possibly, it’s time to separate the Church from the education system.
However, I am not sure a completely secular state is the way forward. While a secular education system and state free from religious interference can be beneficial, a secular public society poses many challenges. For instance, is France right to ban people expressing their religion in public? Religious expression is a human right. Religious symbols or attire, such as crosses or hijabs, are not allowed to be worn in public schools in France. A 2010 ban of face-covering headgear also raised questions about the right to wear a burqa or a niqab. However, this ban also applies to ski-masks and helmets, and the law was brought in due to safety concerns and to promote effective communication with facial recognition.
But in Ireland, the Church does seem to be loosening its grip on the State. This can be seen with the introduction of readily available contraceptives and divorce. The process of disengagement is slow, and this can be seen with the current abortion debate. According to a recent Irish Times poll, support of abortion is conditional. 50% of people surveyed believe abortion should be illegal when the mother feels she would be unable to cope, and 44% believe it should be illegal when she is threatening suicide. This may relate to the idea of the sanctity of life in the womb- a Catholic teaching. Even though there are falling rates of religious practice in Ireland, it is clear that people are still being subconsciously influenced by their religion when it comes to divisive political issues.