As you have no doubt read, Ireland’s population recently voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. The island that once upon a time was the largest source of Catholic priests in the United States, the very symbol of Catholic perseverance against oppression and poverty, rejected the teachings of Holy Mother Church and embraced the full personhood of womankind. And as I wonder how this came to be, my mind settles upon two significant factors:
- The primacy of the Catholic Church. Here in the United States, we are rather accustomed to our so-called marketplace of ideas, and it is not unknown for a person to switch denominations–or entire religions–several times during the course of one life. I was raised secular but joined a Baptist church in high school, found myself depressed with its limited intellectual engagement in college and became Catholic, found the Catholic Church an offense to my own conscience and joined an offshoot Ecumenical Catholic Communion a few years later, and then cycled around to my secular origins several years ago. Which rather raises the question–how much does the proliferation of options blunt rejection of the system that makes those options available? Here in the United States, disgust at the policies or theology of your particular congregation need not result in the rejection of the religious paradigm in its entirety. People who find their local congregation can always move to another church of the same denomination, and if the denomination upsets them, they can strike out for something similar–any number of Baptist varietals on the market–or something entirely different, depending upon their taste. It’s how people protest here in the United States. If Coke does something spectacularly offensive, drink Pepsi–you don’t call into question the reason a market exists for some fizzy beverage that tastes, as Berkeley Breathed once quipped, like malted battery acid. But in Ireland, there was one Church to rule them all. And so when the Church misbehaved, when its pedophilic past was revealed, when local historians discovered that nuns dumped the bodies of “illegitimate children” in septic tanks, well, the only protest available was the rejection of the one Church. Here in the United States, there are more flavors of churches than colors in the biggest crayons box, but they all hold to a similar general message, and so church-hopping or church-shopping keeps you still on a pretty tight leash. In Ireland, questioning the Church cuts the leash.
- James M. Smith in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment places Ireland’s Catholic obsession with purity within a colonial context, observing that British stereotypes of the Irish during their long rule of the island induced a popular demand for a culture of respectability as a means of regaining individual and collective self-esteem. Thus, women who became pregnant out of wedlock were offending not only religious tradition but also the nation itself, for they risked confirming to the British what sort of people the Irish were. Containing and punishing these women, therefore, was not only a Catholic project but a nationalist one. And so I wonder how much the decreasing salience of Irish nationalism has played a role in the nation, by popular referendum, signing off on gay marriage and now female bodily sovereignty. The tentative resolution of the Northern Irish “Troubles” in the 1990s, combined with the softening of the border due to the European Union, means that the British no longer serve as the ultimate bugaboo against whom propriety and purity must be maintained. And with the British as the enemy of all enemies vanquished, Ireland may now progress naturally, no longer reacting to the imagined prejudices of someone else.
Granted, there are no doubt many other factors that play into developments in Ireland, including a large Irish diaspora that is more comfortable with life outside the looming shadow of the Church, but these are two factors that, for me, deserve more attention in the popular and scholarly analysis of the recent Irish vote.