An awkward entanglement

Daniel Gilligan analyses the relationship between church and state in contemporary Ireland.

The comments which prompted an investigation into Stephen Fry for blasphemy related to a fundamental and intriguing theological question: If God is all-knowing, all powerful and infinitely good, how can suffering be so ubiquitous?

Progressives might find themselves asking a modified version of that question in the wake of the recent demonstrations of the imperfect separation of Church and State in Ireland: If the State is all powerful, and an institution of social progress, what explains the gifting of the National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity, the vote to retain the Dáil prayer and the Stephen Fry-blasphemy controversy? All are portrayed, in the most exaggerated analysis, as evidence of a malicious theocracy lurking behind a veneer of secularism.


While it is important to exercise a certain circumspection, it is easy to be hyperbolic about these developments. An ever-decreasing number of Irish people identify as Catholic, join the clergy or attend mass. While 78% of the population remain Catholic, religious reasoning for policy is exceptionally rare, both amongst parliamentarians and the general electorate (as evidenced by the result of the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum and the growth in support for less restrictive laws on abortion).

The statutory offence Stephen Fry was being investigated for (contained in the 2009 Defamation Act) was drafted in a deliberately limiting way, with the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern indicating his reluctance in including the provision.

In contrast to the Church’s prior ability to destroy and reshape important government policy while maintaining substantial public support, the news of the National Maternity Hospital’s new home was met with understandable outrage and significant opposition pressure. While the Dáil prayer was retained, 30 seconds of silent reflection were added onto it; presumably in some effort at secularizing it.


Equally, there is limited cause for unsullied optimism. Even if Irish people never feel the full force of our blasphemy law, theocratic states with draconian punishments for blasphemy have used our legislation in the UN as an example of how universal blasphemy laws should look.

The Church still hasn’t fully reckoned with the compounding moral debts which are the result of its failure to prevent abuse in mother-and-baby homes and elsewhere. Despite the increased construction of multi-denominational schools, the overwhelming majority of state-funded primary schools have the Catholic Church as their patron.

What we are left with, as a result of this, is a politics of half-victories. Sporadic examples of awkward interaction between Church and State are reminders of the qualifications progressives are forced to introduce to their optimism. But these controversies are not evidence of the Church pulling strings or putting words in policy makers’ mouths. The days of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid writing constitutions and legislation are over.

The Church was not even consulted about the wording of the blasphemy provision in the 2009 Defamation Act. Huge numbers of people who identify as Catholic vote and live in ways which are contrary to the Church’s teaching.

The Irish State of 2017 has other interests which it must consider and balance. Catholics in 2017 have desires and beliefs more diverse than pursuing a multimillionaire comedian for answering Gay Byrne’s ‘what would you say at the pearly gates?’ question, or making sure our parliamentarians say their prayers.

Religious orthodoxy

Our culture, instead of being a product of current church interference or clout, is primarily a function of the fact that church and state were never meant to be separate in Ireland. Christopher Hitchens, discussing evangelical Christianity’s continued influence in American public life, could correctly remark that it was ‘dismal’ to see ‘present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape’.

But that has never been the nature of religion’s place in Irish political life. Our country was founded to confirm a religious orthodoxy as central to our identity, and not to escape one.

Catholicism was an important part of Irish nationalism, as evidenced by the wording of the 1916 Proclamation and the 1937 Constitution. From the start, the Irish State and the Roman Catholic Church had a codependent relationship. Successive government parties were happy to follow the Church’s line on social policy; banning divorce, contraception, abortion and obscenity.

Meanwhile, the Church provided education, hospital and care services (often muscling out any secular competition in doing so) in the place of a fledgling state. Those services, while plagued with persistent inadequacies and abuses, lifted a burden from the State’s shoulders.

As Irish governments and Irish people began to feel more confident making decisions about morality which ran counter to Catholic doctrine, the influence of the Church, albeit to a lesser extent, remained. The church’s influence became more profound than its appeal.


All of this means the church-state problem in Ireland is not an easy one to solve. At the heart of our most basic institutions lies a belief system which far fewer people identify with than in the 1950s. The fact that our Constitution’s protection of free speech includes a blasphemy exception or that some of our largest hospitals and most of our schools have always been controlled by religious orders mean that the supportive infrastructure of our State is religious, such that separation requires a fundamental, and difficult, change in that infrastructure.

The last time the Irish courts heard a case relating to our law on blasphemy was almost 20 years ago. The case concerned a newspaper cartoon published around the time of the 1996 referendum on divorce. It depicted government party leaders fleeing a rotund priest offering them communion. Riffing on the slogan of popular anti-divorce campaign material ( ‘Hello Divorce. Bye Bye Daddy’), the words ‘ Hello Progress. Bye Bye Father’ were emblazoned across the top of the picture.

The last few weeks teach us that the simplicity of that cartoon doesn’t reflect reality. Secularisation in the Irish context is a process more complex than saying ‘Bye Bye’. We might say ‘Bye Bye’ to the Church, but saying ‘Hello’ to progress requires something more.