Ireland’s Abortion Referendum: My Contributions in the Washington Post & New York Times

The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution in the Republic of Ireland has now become history. The Eighth Amendment banned abortion in almost all circumstances. But Friday’s referendum resulted in a resounding vote to overturn the amendment, opening up the way for more liberal abortion legislation to be enacted later this year.

I was not surprised by the result; although I was somewhat surprised by the large margin of victory. My work as a sociologist of religion in Ireland had convinced me that the amendment would be repealed, reflecting wider trends of secularisation and liberalisation on the island.

I was interviewed about the referendum for the Washington Post, where I explained some of the long-term trends that have culminated in the repeal, as well as in the 2015 referendum to legalise gay marriage. Here is an extract from the Post article.

Outrage over clerical abuse compounded doubts about religious authority, said Gladys ­Ganiel, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast. People did not cease identifying as Catholic, or believing in God, but became more comfortable following their own conscience over church dictates.

The European Values Study found in 2008 that 92 percent of Irish people believed in God, representing a drop of only 5 percent since 1981. Still, the share of the population identifying as Catholic has diminished markedly, from 92 percent in 1991 to 78 percent in 2016, according to census data.

Ganiel said economic changes, combined with eventual loosening of laws on the sale of contraceptives, undermined an alliance between priests and mothers that was central in maintaining Irish conservatism.

“This begins in the 1960s, but somebody stood on the accelerator in the 1990s when things started coming out about church abuse,” Ganiel said. “The 1990s are also when Ireland becomes economically prosperous for the first time. It’s a perfect storm. Religious authority declines in Ireland from a much higher peak than the rest of the world. It’s quite dramatic, but with hindsight, it’s not as unexpected.”

Eamon Maher also cited my work in his Opinion piece in the New York Times, which has the tantalising title ‘Can Ireland be Catholic Without the Church?’ Maher’s article explores the nuances of religious change in Ireland, outlining a number of reasons for long-term institutional decline but noting that Catholicism persists in a number of ways. That’s how research from my book Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland comes in:

And yet if the dislodging of the church as Ireland’s most important institution has been a longer, slower process that many recognize, the idea that Ireland has simply transformed into another secular Western European country is also a caricature. In 2013, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin published an article entitled “A Post-Catholic Ireland?” in America: The National Catholic Review. In it, he explained that one can “fully define post-Catholic only in terms of the Catholicism that has been displaced.”

The abortion and gay marriage referendums demonstrate that the Irish do not believe that Catholic social teaching needs to be enshrined in the laws of the state. As the institutional Catholic Church continues to adapt to a situation in which it can no longer assert its moral authority on such matters, it’s not entirely clear what kind of faith Irish Catholicism will become. I think it is unlikely that a renewal of Irish Catholicism can come from those at the top of the hierarchy. But it could come from those – both priests and parishioners – who want the public face of their faith to be more about social justice rather than social mores.

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