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Column: Catholic bishops made five mistakes in their opposition to abortion legislation

The Catholic Church teaching on abortion still holds – but the bishops are opposing the proposed legislation the wrong way, writes Fr Tony Flannery.

Cardinal Sean Brady at a National Vigil of Prayer at the Knock Shrine in Mayo yesterday
Cardinal Sean Brady at a National Vigil of Prayer at the Knock Shrine in Mayo yesterday
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE IRISH BISHOPS have made a very strong statement condemning the Heads of Bill presented by the Government under the title Protection of Life during Pregnancy. I asked a friend of mine today, a solid, intelligent older man who is a regular church goer what he thought. “It is just what I expected them to say”, he replied in a weary voice. He was clearly not impressed.

In the unlikely event that they might ask me for advice I would suggest the following:

Firstly, it is still about fourteen weeks before the final vote on this bill in the Dail. There are a number of stages to go through, and plenty of opportunity for discussion and change in the proposed bill. By coming out so strongly, in such an aggressive and black-and-white way, they have effectively ruled themselves out of any real engagement in the process from now on. They will condemn, and they will lobby individual legislators, but their public position is now fixed and unbending. This is not the way to go about influencing a democratic process.

Secondly, the choice of Cardinal Sean Brady as spokesperson for the campaign is a big mistake. Cardinal Brady is a lovely man, warm and friendly to meet at a personal level. But in the media he comes across as stiff and authoritarian. Also, whether we like it or not, he is massively damaged by his involvement in investigating a case of clerical sexual abuse in his early life. This has left him permanently ‘holed beneath the water line’, and as such, he is no longer the proper person to lead such a campaign. Apart from the Cardinal’s credibility difficulties, it appears as if the Catholic hierarchy have not yet recognized that they no longer hold a significant position of influence in Irish society—for two reasons: (a) their reluctance to tackle the clerical child sexual abuse issue and (b) their failure to revoke the church’s teaching on contraception as outlined in Humanae Vitae which is so out of tune with this generation that it makes the Church’s teaching on any sexual matter appear ridiculous.

‘Have the bishops considered that maybe this bill is as good as it gets for those who oppose abortion?’

Thirdly, in the first couple of days of the Church’s campaign against the bill, there is no sign of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin either at the initial press conference or at the gathering in Knock. He is by far the most effective media person in the hierarchy, and the one with most credibility. He is also the most politically astute of the bishops. If they really wanted to mount an effective action against this bill, why is he not fronting it?

Fourthly, considering the fact that the Government is seriously restricted by the 1983 insertion into the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruling on the X case, and the European Court, they have produced a very restrictive bill. Also it is a reality that we have very free access to abortion in this country, though it happens across the water. All the indications are that opinion is changing rapidly, and would seem to be in favour of more access to abortion at home, have the bishops considered that maybe this bill is about as good as it gets for those who oppose abortion? In opposing it in such drastic and dire language are they not in danger of hastening the day when abortion will be freely available?

Finally, I would say to them that it is not appropriate to attack the bill in such a forthright fashion without stating clearly their alternative position, taking into account the actual situation that the legislators face.

In this debate, it is essential to remember that the teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion still holds. It calls on us to respect the life of the unborn child. However, many people in this country no longer follow the teaching of the Catholic Church and it is the task of our politicians to legislate for all citizens.

Fr Tony Flannery is a member of The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). The ACP is an association for Catholic priests who wish to have a forum and a voice to reflect, discuss and comment on issues affecting the Irish Church and society today.


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