Comment & Analysis

Slaying the sectarian dragon
The tone of discussions about the Catholic Church in Ireland increasingly reminds me of growing up in the North surrounded by sectarianism, writes Michael Kelly

Growing up in the North in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to see graffiti on walls proclaiming “F*** the Pope”. Hard-line unionists seemed to have a pathological fear of all things Catholic and Roman and the Pope was – in their minds – the visible manifestation of all they feared and loathed. Of course, it was fed to them by firebrand clerics who regularly trotted out terms like ‘Popery’ and ‘Papist’.

The peace process has mellowed things…slightly. Now, it’s more common to see acronymised versions like KAT (Kill all Taigs) or FAP (F*** All Papists). It’s an improvement, perhaps, but sectarianism and anti-Catholic sentiment remain as a cancer.

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, provoked controversy three years ago when he said that his experience in Dublin has been that “sectarianism, although polite in speech and smile, is alive and well”.

Dr Jackson went on to refer to the prevalence of “deeply pejorative remarks” against the Catholic Church in Ireland because of its firm stand on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

His remarks came to mind as I read exchanges in Leinster House last week in response to the Taoiseach’s recent meeting with Pope Francis. I was left with the deep impression that there’s more than a hint of truth in Archbishop’s Jackson’s impression – particularly from some politicians.

Can it really be that the sectarianism and anti-Catholicism we associated with the North has seeped in to political discourse south of the border?

The Dáil has never really been known for the high standard of debate in the chamber. Deputies regularly read from scripts – something frowned upon in other legislatures. But, debates around the Catholic Church are usually worth watching for the level of ignorance and, sometimes, vitriol.

Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) TD Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach on Wednesday to “report on his visit to the Vatican City State and his meeting with Pope Francis”. Enda Kenny duly obliged and outlined the nature of his discussions with both the Pope and senior officials in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

Answer

Deputy Coppinger appeared unimpressed by the Taoiseach’s answer which included a reference to the fact that he had discussed the citizens’ assembly on abortion with the Vatican.

It’s worth publishing Ms Coppinger’s reply in full:

“I have no problem with any religious leader visiting a country, but I have a number of issues with the Taoiseach’s visit and the impending visit by the Pope in 2018. The Taoiseach has reportedly said Church-State relations are in better shape now than they were ever before. However, we still have religious discrimination in schools and the Church is still not teaching aspects of sex education. We still have the church vetoing the teaching of religion, beliefs and ethics in schools. 

There is church teaching on abortion. The Taoiseach has said he met the Vatican Prime Minister and the Vatican Foreign Minister. If Muslims had an all-male state, there would be an outcry in this country. The idea that they have titles such as “Prime Minister” and “Foreign Minister” and their own state is something a lot more serious and merits more serious discussion.

“I am amazed that the Taoiseach is reporting to the Dáil that he discussed the Citizens’ Assembly with the Pope. Why? What does the Citizens’ Assembly have to do with the Pope? Is he going to discuss with any other male leader of any other religion for what he is going to legislate in relation to women’s bodies? The timing of this visit is the subject of a lot of discussion on social media. 

“A lot of people are saying it is very coincidentlal that the Pope’s visit is being planned for 2018, the year in which a referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment is expected to be held, albeit no one is holding his or her breath waiting on the Taoiseach’s Government. Already the Foreign Minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has told the Taoiseach and the world that the result of the referendum on marriage equality was a defeat for humanity. 

“Are the Pope and the Church going to intervene in the referendum in 2018 because if they are, that is serious? That they would arrange a visit to intervene in a referendum expected to take place in the same year is something about which a lot of people have questions. If it is a private visit to attend the world meeting of families, why was it announced after the Taoiseach’s visit? 

“Why would the Church not just announce it without the Taoiseach having to go over and without having a ceremonial event? It was only then that it was announced. I am very interested in hearing what the Pope had to say about the Citizens’ Assembly. Did he welcome the Taoiseach’s delaying tactic in dealing with the issue?”

Now, where to begin. Deputy Coppinger’s intervention is so filled with ignorance and presuppositions, it’s hard to know which point to address first.

Her opening remark seems to be directly contradictory. She first claims she has “no problem with any religious leader” visiting Ireland. But in her next sentence she admits to having “a number of issues” with “the impending visit by the Pope in 2018”.

Ms Coppinger refers to what she describes as “religious discrimination in schools”. I take it she is referring to the fact that Catholic schools – when they are over-subscribed – have a policy of admitting Catholic children first. 

It hardly seems unreasonable that a Catholic school, set up to provide a Catholic education would prioritise children of that religious tradition when it is over-subscribed. Surely the deputy’s concern would be better placed asking the Department of Education why it is unwilling to provide more places where schools are over-subscribed.

Ms Coppinger goes on to say that in schools “the Church is still not teaching aspects of sex education”. I assume what she really means is that Catholic schools are teaching children about sexuality in line with the Catholic ethos. Again, it’s hardly controversial that a Catholic school is, frankly, Catholic.

Later in her remarks, Ms Coppinger also states: “There is Church teaching on abortion”. She doesn’t elaborate on what exactly she means by this statement. Presumably, since Ms Coppinger is a vocal supporter of making unlimited abortion legal in Ireland, she is opposed to Catholics’ views on abortion in principle. It’s hard to imagine another parliament in the developed world where a legislator would see fit to use parliamentary time to attack the religious beliefs of a large number of Irish citizens.

The deputy’s firebrand speech then descends in to farce as Ms Coppinger appears to revel in her ignorance rather than be embarrassed by it. 

She insists: “the Taoiseach has said he met the Vatican Prime Minister and the Vatican Foreign Minister.” The Taoiseach, of course, said no such thing. The Vatican doesn’t have a prime minister or a foreign minister. One can only assume that the deputy is referring to the meeting with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

But, if your face isn’t red for the deputy’s embarrassment at this stage, it gets worse. She went on to say: “If Muslims had an all-male state, there would be an outcry in this country.” At this stage Ms Coppinger has evidently entered a parallel universe where she is not so much attacking the Vatican or the Holy See, but attacking a caricature of it that she has constructed in her mind. As a matter of fact, Vatican City is not an “all-male state” – many of the employees of the Vatican are women.

Ms Coppinger then adds “the idea that they have titles such as ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘Foreign Minister’ and their own state is something a lot more serious and merits more serious discussion”.

The idea of a Dáil deputy calling for “serious discussion” about things she is so clearly ignorant about would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

It would be lovely to see a day when discussions about the Catholic Church and Church-State relations in Ireland would be characterised by maturity, rather than the foaming-at-the-mouth so reminiscent of the bad old days in the North.