Why Ireland needs Church-State separation

'A high proportion of younger people are taking exception to the enforced religious laws that have penetrated the State historically'

Crisis situations can often lead to unresolved issues being brought to the fore, and while the worst extremes of the financial and political crisis facing Ireland have been temporarily papered over, a host of other issues have reemerged to expose the social, political, and operational contradictions of the State.

In recent times we have witnessed the continued failure of the political and economic system to overcome major crises in our health service; the worst housing and homelessness emergency in living memory; and a raft of corruption scandals to have rocked An An Garda Síochána to its very core. Couple this with the recent wave of industrial unrest that has taking place in transport, education, and retail; as well as the social movements against water charges/privatisation; and the growing movement for repeal of the Eighth Amendment and for women's bodily autonomy; and we see just how these internal contradictions within the State come through, and how workers, women, and young people are fighting to overcome them.

It is on this question of the role and function of the different sections and institutions of the State that Insider seeks to analyse this week, or more specifically on one key institution which has played a major role in Irish society throughout our history, and maybe even more so since independence - that is the role of religion and of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

Let Insider start by stating that the purpose of raising such a debate has absolutely nothing to do with undermining religion or trampling on anyone's right to practise or believe whichever religion they see fit. In fact, Insider has stood alongside and fought for the rights of people to practise and express their beliefs without fear of persecution or xenophobia, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever.

That is the principle that is held equally for all religious, cultural or ethnic groups within society as well as those of no faith. It is for this very same reason Insider also opposes the domination and unbalanced power of any one group over any other.

nun of that

Separation of church and state has been a basic guiding principle in all modern and progressive states since the Enlightenment, and was a key value fought for during the French and American revolutions which helped form the basis of modern western democracies. However in Ireland, due to the complicated and difficult circumstances in which the State came into existence, this basic tenant of liberal democracy was never achieved.

It is only in recent times that we, as a society, have really begun to confront the abuses which took place at the hands of the Catholic Church. Insider is not going to list off the long line of offences committed by the Church as they are well known, and is not the focus of this article. What it does expose however, is the abuse of power which occurs when in undemocratic body, such as the church, is given control over people via the organs of the State.

It is exactly this undemocratic and unaccountable authority that is central to the debate around separation of church and state. The state, in any properly functioning democratic society, has to be (in theory at least ) accountable to it citizens and therefore the institutions of the state such as schools and hospitals governing bodies, and the legal system have to be free of such undemocratic interference.

Not only has the church interfered in State affairs but it has been allowed and encouraged to by the conservative political parties in the Dáil, particularly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and despite an ever-growing progressive social mindset by the bulk of the population (expressed most recently in the recommendations set out by the Citizens Assembly, which looked into the issue of repealing the Eighth Amendment ) these parties continue to make accommodations for Church interference in State affairs.

In recent times we have seen the enforcement of a Christian prayer upon all TDs regardless of religious belief (or lack thereof ) at the beginning of each Dáil session; we have witnessed plans to handover the new €300 million maternity hospital as a gift to the Sisters of Charity (a religious order which still owes €3 million in redress to the survivors of the Magdalen laundries ) - though public outrage at this idea appears to have forced a bit of a rethink; and we have seen a bizarre blasphemy law (which dates back to the 1800s and which was amended by Fianna Fáil in 2009 to make it compatible with the Constitutional right to religious equality ) used to try and prosecute Stephen Fry for giving his opinion on the existence of God (or lack thereof ) on an RTÉ programme in 2015.

Religious instruction

These examples show clearly the influence the Catholic Church still holds in Irish society, this is despite the fact that the Ireland of today is a much more multicultural society with a growing number of people identifying as non-religious or of other religious faiths. The domination of religion within education sees 96 per cent of our primary schools owned or under the patronage of religious orders (90 per cent of which are Catholic ). This clearly shows how religion is imposed upon children in an unfair and unbalanced way.

It is not an exaggeration to say our schools are religious indoctrination centres, and while Insider excepts that it is down to the will of parents to determine whether their children participate in that indoctrination or not, it is clear the lack of a proficient secular alternative provided by the State that makes that choice much less realistic. Is it any wonder more than 75 per cent of the population still identify in some sense as Roman Catholic (despite many not practising or adhering to the actual dogma )? Surely if parents want their children to be brought up with the values of the church, then the best place to impart those values is in the church itself.

Similarly within our health and legal system, the domination of religion is still persistent - the outright ban on abortion, the ban within certain hospitals on vasectomies, female sterilisation, and IVF, are all clear examples of how religion still holds sway over people's lives within our society.

repeal 8th protest dublin

It is worth highlighting at this point that secularism is not a byword for being anti-religious. It is an acceptance and understanding that we live in a world where many different people believe in many different things, each with their own value and substance. What secularism is about is affording a common space within society were all ideas can engage, by not allowing any one institution an unfair advantage to dominate via the mechanisms of the State.

It would appear a high proportion of younger people in particular are taking exception to many of the enforced religious laws that have penetrated the State historically, the recent marriage equality referendum being a case in point. We are also witnessing a wave of support particularly amongst younger people for repeal of the Eighth Amendment (which equates the life of a woman with that of a foetus ) despite the church having very clear opposition to this.

In many countries where separation of church and state has been achieved for generations many churches welcome the divide as it insures all those who participate do so out of actual real faith, belief, and adherence to religious teachings, and not as a result of enforced indoctrination or some sense of social guilt. It is Insider's belief that the time has come in 21st-century Ireland to implement what most other western democracies achieved in the 19th century - that is a real secular democratic society free of interference from religious or any other unaccountable institutions.


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