The Ballot Be Yours

Writing in the Irish Catholic newspaper David Quinn of the Iona Institute proposed that, with the general election looming and pressure being mounted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the job of the Catholic Church is to persuade a very big majority of Mass-goers to vote ‘No’ in any future (abortion) referendum.
So, he believes, the work of persuading Catholics to vote ‘No’ must begin this year. The bishops, he suggests, should set up a task force to examine what to do as soon as possible.
He doesn’t say how the message would be relayed to Catholics in the pews but presumably it is by way of direction from the pulpit, and he doesn’t say whether this should extend to telling people what parties to vote for or what candidates to support.
Reading Quinn’s thoughts prompted memories of the late Jeremiah Newman, once president of Maynooth College and later Bishop of Limerick, who waged a long war against what he saw as ‘secular modernity’ and who believed that the Catholic Church had a right to influence civil laws regarding both public and private morality.
Newman believed that the rulers in a State comprised almost entirely of Catholics had a duty to influence the legislation of the State in accordance with Catholic teaching. Few Catholics – bishops, priests or laity – would believe that now and those who do believe it would be very reluctant to admit it in public.
Newman, described by Cardinal Cathal Daly as ‘troubled and insecure’, struggled Canute-like to keep out the tide of the modern world, as (in technical terms) theology began to divest itself of scholasticism and philosophy lost confidence in the Natural Law theory. Modernism was at the gates.
Newman, with the ground breaking under his feet, found himself writing as late as 1971 (in his book Conscience versus Law), that Catholics ‘in the post-Vatican Two Church should be prompt to welcome in a spirit of Christ-like obedience whatever decisions their pastors may make’. And he found himself telling Olivia O’Leary in a Magill article (in 1985) that to allow legislation to permit contraception was ‘too high a price to pay for accommodating Protestants’ in a new Ireland.
Nowadays Newman’s many books are only quoted as obvious examples of how the Catholic Church found itself marooned, out of sync not just with society but defending its faith against Irish Catholics who had become increasingly disenchanted with the authoritarianism of the institutional Church.
To paraphrase Professor Bryan Fanning in his book, Histories of the Irish Future, the Irish Church functioned like Albania under Hoxha while the world changed around it.
Extraordinarily, pockets of the fortress mentality still exist on the peripheries of the Irish Church, repeating some of Jeremiah’s Newman’s theories now by common consent well past their sell-by date, and supporting positions that end up damaging the cause they serve, as the recent same-sex referendum demonstrated.
At the time of the 1983 pro-life referendum, two years before the Magill article referred to earlier, the Irish bishops, aware of both the lie of the land and the Vatican II document on religious liberty, had a clear sense of the centrality in Catholicism of freedom of conscience. They knew too that circling the Catholic wagons and mobilising Catholic troops, while it might appeal to those skulking in a Catholic ghetto, was a recipe for isolation and defeat.
It is clear, indeed irrefutable now, that authority and influence are no longer judged in terms of position or numbers but have to be earned in the market-place by responding respectfully and maturely to complex moral and social issues.
Telling people from the pulpit what to do in respect of a constitutional referendum or, even implicitly, who to vote for (or not to vote for) would do incredible damage not just to the cause espoused but to the Catholic Church, in this instance loved not wisely but too well.
We simply can no longer afford to indulge the Catholic right, whether in the pages of conservative Catholic newspapers or through the outpouring of mavericks on the episcopal bench.
Am I the only one who feels it’s extraordinary that, after all that has happened, as Catholics we still cling to the belief that telling people what to do makes any sense to anyone, Catholic or anyone else? That this solution is trotted out time and again as a possible and even as a necessary response, and that some continue to give it credence, is an indication of how, like Jeremiah Newman, we can strive after some kind of Catholic Utopia, cut adrift from the modern world.
At the beginning of the last century, Pope Pius X condemned ‘Modernism’ a catch-all term for a new, approach to theology and philosophy, a significant break with the past. He believed that the only way the Catholic Church could preserve its religion was by turning a blind eye to the intellectual developments of his day. He died depressed, convinced that the new philosophical and theological ideas would sweep away his Church.
But many of the ideas Pius worried about found a home in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and now most church-goers are ‘modernists’, and indeed the same can be said for Pope Francis himself. While some bishops and priests continue to rail against ‘modernist’ targets like ‘individualism’, ‘materialism’ and ‘relativism’, the obvious truth is that unless religion can engage with the culture of the day it contributes to its own decline. And telling people what to do with their votes would be a spectacular way of the Catholic church in Ireland contributing to its own demise.
Maybe it would be better for everyone if bishops, priests and the Iona Institute keep out of the debate altogether rather than the gung-ho approach advocated by David Quinn. Been there, done that in the last two centuries. It made little sense then. It makes even less now.
Title: ‘The Ballot Be Yours’ is from a song of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement from 1871.
“Daughters of freedom, the Ballot be yours,
Wield it with wisdom, your hopes it secures.”

Similar Posts


  1. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Brendan writes: “Authority and influence are no longer judged in terms of position or numbers but have to be earned in the market-place by responding respectfully and maturely to complex moral and social issues.” I agree entirely. There is no way the pulpit, or position, should be used to direct people how to vote.
    It does not follow, however, that “maybe it would be better for everyone if bishops, priests and the Iona Institute keep out of the debate altogether.” There have been, and will be, many other individuals, and media, and interest groups, playing a very vocal part in the discussion on abortion.
    Every citizen and interest group has a right to take part in the debate, including the Iona Institute and ordained persons. This should be always on the basis of “respectfully and maturely to complex moral and social issues.” We should encourage everyone to take part in mature discussion of the issues, not on the basis of a position of authority, but on rational and factual grounds. Nobody should be excluded.

  2. Willie Herlihy says:

    As usual, Brendan is a rock of common sense.
    As an armature student of history, it is plain to me that the Catholic Church is a quasi political organisation, that morphed in and out of Christianity when it suited its purpose.
    On the other hand Christianity is constant e.g.I quote from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians.
    “be ambitious for the higher gifts,and I am going to show you a way that is better than any of them. If I have all the eloquence of men or angels,but speak without love I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal crashing”.
    This will continue to infinity,the same cannot be said about the Catholic Church.
    I will limit my discourse to my own life time;
    I was born on a small farm in west Cork over seventy years ago.
    I grew up in a Catholic Autocracy, this had nothing what ever to do with Christianity,we were told we were the one true Church,we were not to read the Bible, this was for Protestants,all we required were the Precepts of the Church and the Catechism.
    During my formative years the Church ran a regime of fear e.g. Fire and brimstone sermons that put the fear of God into the people.
    I have told this story on these pages before,I am telling it again to illustrate my point.
    My Mother used to the tell this story;she was at Mass one Sunday and sitting  next to her in the seat was a Woman who had recently married while she was pregnant.
    The Priest castigated her by name from the altar for bringing disgrace to the parish.That woman sat there crying and nobody said a word in her defence.
    This Priest and more like him, fostered the culture of exclusion in rural Ireland,that allowed the Mother and Baby Homes and all the other repressive Institutions to flourish and in the process sullied the good name of the honest religious who joined to serve God.
    The monsters who surfaced in the “Care Institutions“ were a direct product of the regime of fear fostered by the Catholic Church.
    The Iona Institute is the unofficial defender of orthodoxy, it is one of the last bastions of the what I have described above,they have cheer leaders in most Parishes. These cheer leaders, as it were, have a direct link to the many conservatives in the Roman Curia.
    Many of these people would love to see the back of Pope Francis.
    May God help the poor Pope to reform these People.

  3. Roy Donovan says:

    I know a number of women who had an abortion. Everybody knows some women in their extended family who had an abortion. I would like to get the message across that everybody is welcome in our Churches. It is the year of mercy – we should lighten up on women who had abortions!

  4. Of course clergy must not tell us how to vote – but why on earth is Catholic social teaching still a no-go area for clergy in Ireland? Principles such as solidarity, subsidiarity, equality of dignity and the need for lifelong repentance all have vital relevance in Ireland’s ongoing moral, political and constitutional crisis.
    David Quinn’s problem is his inability to let go of Christendom – those seventeen centuries of church reliance on the pseudo-Christian state that always buttressed the power of social elites and censored the Gospel.
    No one will ever know how many abortions have occurred because of the alienation of young Irish women (and many men too) from a church that relied on the state to put the most unfortunate women in prison if they broke its rules. Nowhere in the Gospels did Jesus ever say a word about the role of the state – i.e. of coercion – in making people moral – and militant secularism now draws all of its strength in Ireland from the oppressiveness and cruelty of that church state-relationship.
    Maynooth and Maynooth-trained clergy are still hampered by that seminary’s origins in a pact between Anglo-Irish landed aristocrats and the church’s own beanie club. Never a word was said (or is yet said) from the pulpit about the social snobbery that lay behind the shaming of women – a factor that lies still behind the problem of abortion, and diverts so much surplus wealth into mere ostentation and a whole array of 21st century snobberies – when so many are homeless or travelling to the UK for abortions because of the lack of social solidarity at home.
    Still today we get no arresting homilies that recognise what Michael Neary has called ‘the death-rattle of Christendom’ and the need for a new pact between clergy and people. Self-censorship still reigns – for example on the true meaning of covetousness as copying the desires of others, now a rampant addiction all over the West. Before Constantine, teachers like Tertullian could recognise and criticise mere social imitation – covetousness – but all of that stopped when the missionary effort of the church was diverted into flattering power-hungry militarists like Constantine. From then on, as Congar so wisely noted, the only sin that clergy would talk about was the sin of the flesh, and the only virtue they could extol to their people was that of obedience to their social superiors.
    Nothing whatever prevents our clergy from now challenging their people to meet together to discuss the principles of Catholic social teaching, using the work of, for example, Donal Dorr. With the political left in disarray and the ideology of the nation state now also bankrupt, why is David Quinn – the archetypal pro-state-coercion Catholic – the go-to person for media in search of vocal lay people?
    This will change only when we all wake up to the fact that the church is no longer beholden to an Irish socio-economic elite. Even the ACP is behaving as though its only role is to play a losing end-game when we are – in reality – on the threshold of a new post-Christendom beginning. Chinese Christians who have studied the history of the church realise that Christendom was the origin of Western alienation from the Gospels – so why are we in Ireland so far behind?
    Not for nothing did Jesus tell us to stay awake!

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    The pressing crises of our planet can be addressed only by strengthening democratic institutions and making them more effective. The 2 year media binge on the US presidential campaign is an expensive distraction from this. Church social teaching is lame if it has not a well functioning society to address. A deficiency in civics and the ethics of citizenship cannot be made up for by the church.

  6. #5 Quite right Joe. The Incarnation was absurdly premature also. Solutions to problems should never be proposed before they have been fixed by somebody else. The earliest Christians should have realised that before looking after the widows and orphans.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    While Luke-Acts presents a model of a community of sharing (or of the Common Good) that is primarily the church, the whole tenor of Luke’s writings supports civic virtues and values as well. That is, the Kingdom of God is not only an ecclesial enclave, an eschatological community that is not of this world, but involves care for the earthly ciity as well. That at least seems to be how the church’s social teaching views it.
    Care for the earthly city is particularly the responsibility of the laity acting in the world. The “solutions” proposed by the church and enacted by a committed laity are not solutions coming from the outside; they are inherent in the social order itself. That is why I say that the church’s teaching falls flat if there is no context in the social order ready to receive it.
    But there is in fact such a context. Leo XIII did not preach in a vacuum — his teachings resonate with the entire issue of labour and capital as developed in the 19th century. Pius XII’s positive words on democracy would make no sense without the entire debate about democracy since the 18th century.
    The neo-Augustinians who take an anarchist approach to the State and regard all the rhetoric of democracy as empty and illusory place an undue burden on the Church (idealized and glorified in a medieval way) and lame the Church’s capacity to be in dialogue with the earthly city and to offer a beacon in support of its deepest values.

  8. I understand you better now, Joe. But I am still baffled as to why our clergy never talk to us about the relevance of the principles of Catholic social teaching – in the context of ongoing disillusionment with our political establishment, and even with the idealism expressed in the 1916 proclamation.
    You say:
    “Care for the earthly city is particularly the responsibility of the laity acting in the world. The “solutions” proposed by the church and enacted by a committed laity are not solutions coming from the outside; they are inherent in the social order itself. That is why I say that the church’s teaching falls flat if there is no context in the social order ready to receive it.”
    Firstly, the implication here that ‘the committed laity’ and ‘the church’ are two different things is archaic – as is the implication that while clergy are ‘proposers’ lay people are merely ‘enacters’ of those clerical proposals. It is these mistakes that lie behind the general failure of Irish lay Catholics to take ownership of the Gospels. By implication that ownership is never on offer: we lay people must forever remain either mere stooges of the clerical system, or completely uncommitted. Who wants to be a stooge?
    Secondly, how can you say there is ‘no context ready to receive’ Catholic social teaching in Ireland when (1) Maynooth has kept its very existence a virtual secret, and (2) there is an ongoing passionate discussion in Ireland over the state of the island in 2016 – not at all what was hoped for a century ago?
    As ‘church’, all of us inhabit both the heavenly and the earthly cities. Priests and lay people are all both baptised and citizens, tasked with relating our liturgical sacrifice and the texts which frame it to a democratic polity that will also require sacrifice if it is to be renewed in hope. Faced with the mystery of corruption at the highest levels of our democratic system – i.e. the deceptions that politicians and others are also drawn to – all hope is continually challenged.
    The questions then arises: ‘Why does this happen? Where are we to find integrity?’
    The answer is surely on the one hand the original mystery of evil, and on the other repentance and grace.
    My take on the current crisis in the Irish church is that our clergy generally have lost confidence that their liturgy, theology and sacraments could have anything to do with a recovery of democratic hope and energy in Ireland. While Pope Francis is calling for the church (i.e. all of us) to be a ‘field hospital’, (i.e. a place of retreat and restoration), the ACP seems tuned out of that aspiration and almost ready for the care home. You meanwhile are still talking about ‘the church’ on the one hand, and ‘lay people’ on the other – and how there is ‘no context’ for Catholic social teaching.
    It’s time for the ACP and ACI and all other interested parties to apply the principle of solidarity to the whole church itself. The expectation that the state can deliver Utopia if we just find the right slogan is dead as a doornail, and so is the model of church that continues to deny most of us honest vocal communion with one another.
    You yourself could make a beginning here by agreeing that we are all church, and potentially all part of the magisterium too – not ‘the church’ on the one hand and ‘lay enacters’ of what ‘the church’ proposes on the other.
    As for ‘the context’ for Catholic social teaching in Ireland, that is surely those who still come in hope of hearing a vital Gospel preached in church in Ireland, and those who would certainly come if it always was.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    The Church’s social teaching in its modern form has grown up within a context of modern democracies. It is different from the social teaching of the ancient or medieval churches because it is no longer ecclesiocentric but envisions the Kingdom of God, something much wider than the Church. It celebrates secular democratic institutions as building up that Kingdom in one way, while the Church sets itself at the service of the world in another way.
    The State, in the Church’s eyes today, is neither a persecuting enemy, nor a rival power, nor something to be brought back into a church orbit. “Render to Caesar” has become a very positive message of respect for the institutions of modern democracy and for global institutions such as the United Nations. The church cherishes these modern human projects and blesses them.
    Does this leave the Church without a strong role and function? Not at all.

  10. #9 We are agreed then, Joe.
    So that leaves us as church – ordained and unordained – needing to discuss what our different roles should be in a democratic state. Some of us will necessarily be functionaries in that state, as was my own father. And as the state offers emolument, position and even power to its functionaries – and these all can be objects of mimetic desire (covetousness) – it is obvious also that we cannot conceptualise the state as a moral constant – as either always ‘good’ (benevolent) or always ‘bad’ (malevolent) – even if it is a democracy.
    In fact, to add to the complexity, the same state can manifest itself to one person benevolently and to another malevolently. One current advanced democracy can at the same time make one African American its chief executive and put another, unjustly, on death row.
    So why are we Catholics in Ireland not, as church, in constant dialogue on such issues – faced as we are with the reality that political sovereignty is something of a mirage and that the expulsion of an occupying power does not automatically make the rest of us virtuous?
    Homelessness; refugees / immigrants; fairness in education; drug-related extreme violence; political disillusionment; rural isolation and loneliness — all of these issues are in the news here right now. There will be baptised Catholics with responsibilities in all of these areas, but we still lack structures within which, as church, we can together relate them to the wisdom of our ancient and more recent written teachings.
    All of us surely need to be addressing that shortfall – instead of thinking of the state as something that is apart from us and necessarily either good OR evil. The state is simply the organisational mechanism we have for advancing the common good, and, as even the original French republicans recognised, it cannot function well unless its functionaries find some degree of virtue.
    Isn’t ‘virtue’ supposedly in the gift of God, mediated by the clerical church – and shouldn’t our clergy have the confidence to say so?
    If any of this is contradicted by Catholic social teaching, please let us know.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Isn’t ‘virtue’ supposedly in the gift of God, mediated by the clerical church – and shouldn’t our clergy have the confidence to say so?”
    Surely it’s the reverse — we clergy learn virtue by contemplating the lives of good lay people.

  12. #11 Granted, Joe – but you are dodging the issue of specifying the ‘strong role and function’ of the clerical church (#9) in relation to a society in which the state has assumed so many caring, peace-keeping and educative roles – but where there is also widespread disillusionment both about corruption in high office and the shortfalls in that state care for so many.
    The fact is, surely, that the myth of the ‘democratic’ state as saviour and solver of all problems has come undone, both because the wealthiest can manipulate the electoral system to favour their own low tax / high fear agenda, and because power corrupts.
    Granted, it cannot be left to clergy alone to see and say these things, but nor should clergy ignore them and stay in a state of dejected irrelevance on the sidelines. We all need to be discussing these issues – to understand the role of spirituality and sacramentality in addressing them. We need both a renewed and grown-up politics, and a proactive volunteerism at the social base – but we can’t get there until we become a grown-up church.
    What we definitely can no longer tolerate is the typical thirty-minute pro-forma Eucharist followed by lay-clerical interchange focused on sport – and an avoidance of all these important issues. Our clergy need to discover their role in renewing our democracy – for their own sakes too.

  13. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Seán Ó Conaill writes: “I am still baffled as to why our clergy never talk to us about the relevance of the principles of Catholic social teaching.”
    “Never” is a strong word. I have certainly talked in homilies about this; not however describing it as “the principles of Catholic social teaching”, but as vital to living as followers and disciples of Jesus, and as integral to the Good News. I have also heard other priests do so.
    It’s good too that Seán does not leave it just to clergy, but takes up the baton himself!

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    The strong role and function of the clerical church? I said the church, not the clergy. Ireland has relied too much on the church and that has meant on the clergy for moral and civic guidance, at the expense of the due autonomy of adult moral and civic conscience. If these lay political and moral virtues are in abeyance the church does not have a wholesome context for its preaching. When the church tries to make up for a deficit in civic society all sorts of ersatz ideologies spring up — anarchism or fanaticism or clericalism. A liberation theology forged in conditions of dictatorship will not be versed in the values of democracy and the tradition of its institutions.
    So in a well-functioning society, does the church have no role? It tries to give a model of integral humanism by creating a community of sharing, and of course it brings out the spiritual perspectives governing all individual and social efforts, the Kingdom of God.

  15. #13 Thanks, Padraig. However, you leave me still unsure as to what exactly you tried to convey in your homilies.
    It is one thing to recommend the Sermon on the Mount as a guide for all the faithful – and quite another to set out to convey in a systematic manner that since the onset of the industrial revolution and the rise of the democratic state a body of thought has arisen in the church on how the people of God might cope with their own responsibilities in mediating the Gospels to such a society.
    In my experience the latter has never happened – while I hear consistent complaints about homilies that treat lay people as sentimental simpletons who need help in making out “what Jesus is telling us here”.
    If there had ever been a serious attempt by diocesan clergy to mobilise the people of God in that second cause there would already be a permanent forum in every diocese, and another at national level, for discussion of the implications of Catholic social thought for the entire range of problems we are now facing. The continuing absence of these – and the dire state of adult faith development also – tell their own story.
    So does Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s perception of Knock as a centre for ‘spiritualism’!
    What exactly has Maynooth been doing all these years in the cause of equipping clergy for mature dialogue on these matters?

  16. #14 – “Ireland has relied too much on the church and that has meant on the clergy for moral and civic guidance, at the expense of the due autonomy of adult moral and civic conscience.”
    Please refer me, Joe, to an authoritative statement of the episcopal magisterium – Irish if possible – that promotes “the due autonomy of adult moral and civic conscience” among the Catholic laity.
    As you well know, the full weight of that magisterium has always fallen on the entirely opposing position – that we, the Catholic laity, must allow our consciences to be ‘informed’ by that magisterium – even on matters pertaining especially to the particular experience of married people, e.g. marriage and procreation.
    “If these lay political and moral virtues are in abeyance the church does not have a wholesome context for its preaching.”
    So, more than two centuries after Maynooth was established, its alumni cannot find in Ireland ‘a wholesome context’ for their preaching?
    How exactly was the latter to emerge when there was never a squeak from an Irish bishop in response to papal wisdom such as the following:
    “This Church is in essence an unequal society, that is to say a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherds [bishops and higher] and the flock. These categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of the society resides only in the pastoral body [the bishops]; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.” Pope Pius X – Vehementer Nos, 1906
    If you can find for us an Irish episcopal statement favouring on the contrary the autonomy of the Irish Catholic lay conscience, we will all be greatly in your debt.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.