The words of James Joyce, which were once an offence to the people of his country, now, over one hundred years later, have become stunningly real for the estimated one third of Irish people who vainly tried to halt the tide of a modernity hostile to the unborn in the referendum which took place there on Friday.
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, here is Stephen Dedalus, talking about his country with his friend: “Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” Too strong? No, says pro-life Ireland. What other interpretation is there when the majority in a country knowingly, willfully, declares that the deliberate killing of the unborn in the womb is permissible for no other reason than that it interferes with an individual’s comfort, convenience or life-style?
The Irish government, willingly bowing to pressure, national and international, proposed to the electorate that the right to life of the unborn, guaranteed in its Constitution since 1983, be removed. This was to allow the legislature of the State to enact laws facilitating unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks gestation and up to 24 weeks on grounds which, in practice, will mean abortion on demand. Needless to say, the proposals as presented were less stark than that, but given what has happened in every other country with a liberal abortion law, that will be the reality. All the dissembling in the world will not change that.
But the truth is, the government which put this proposal to the people cannot be blamed any more. The referendum result has clearly shown that it is the express will of the majority of the people of Ireland – about 90 percent of its young electorate – that the child in the womb should not be constitutionally guaranteed a right to life. Choice is the supreme moral norm. The good or evil of what is chosen is, apparently, a matter of indifference. What has shocked the dissenting third of the Irish people is that so many have failed to see that the killing of the unborn is an evil thing.
Unlike the marriage vote, there are no excuses this time
For a world which has habitually looked on Ireland as a bastion of family values and marriage, all this comes as a surprise. The first sign of upheaval came just three years ago. Then, when a similar majority voted in a referendum to allow gay people to marry, there was one question, “How did this happen so quickly?”
Many explained away that rejection of one of the social foundations binding a community They read it as a sympathy vote for a minority. Or a failure to grasp the social consequences, especially for children.. Reason and logic were trumped by emotion and a deceitful misuse of the concept of human equality.
Furthermore the marriage vote was not seen by the majority as an out and out rejection of the teaching of the mainstream Christian churches. The abortion vote is different. It can hardly be seen as anything other than an upfront rejection by the majority of the Irish of the Christian teaching on the sacredness of human life, from the womb to the tomb – and beyond. There is no ambiguity here. There is little basis for a benign response — “they know not what they do.” It has all been done with astounding willfulness.
In this instance the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic leaders were almost all unanimous in the guidance they gave to their followers on the matter of the sacredness of life. On May 16 the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, explained in a statement:
“The Church must always be pro-life. That means that the Christian community must be a beacon of support for life especially at its most vulnerable moments and a beacon of support at vulnerable moments of any woman or man along their path of life.
“Christians must be pro-life when it comes to the unborn and those who are vulnerable at the end of their lives.”
The significance of all this in Irish history is twofold. As a nation the Irish have now abandoned the principle held for at least 1500 years that all human life is sacred. Our country has joined the community of secularist nations where relativism rules and life is allowed to flourish only on the basis of the choice of someone other than the living subject in the womb. This is where Ireland now stands – and if anything good might be said by pro-life people about this, it is only that it is good to know where one stands.
Rebuilding a Christian culture in Ireland
The second and more general significance which this revolution has is what it says about Catholicism and the Christian Faith in Ireland. The Irish people’s traditional culture, derived from Christian culture, is now rudderless. Its values with regard to life and the family – and its grasp of the Catholic Faith which it held firm for centuries in the face of “fire, dungeon and sword” – have “all changed, changed utterly”. For many – approximately 32 percent – something other than “a terrible beauty” has dawned. They now face the challenge of starting again. But one third of a population is not the weakest of bases from which to start. This is the challenge for all the Christian churches.
There was evidence throughout this campaign of anti-Catholic sentiment – despite the efforts of the pro-life organizations to present their arguments on predominantly rational grounds, grounds of scientific evidence of the human nature of the child and of natural rights and justice. A Catholic priest, an American working in Dublin, made this interesting response on social media to a correspondent who said that the vote was nothing less than a vote against the Catholic Church.
“Yes, the vote was a vote against the Church. To my mind, a strange way to think about human rights.” Then, after reflecting for a moment on the undoubted failures of the Church on many levels, and remarking on its servants’ sad record when it “always found the temptation to wed itself to power irresistible”, he concludes, “The Church arose in a pagan culture by being willing to die for truths, not kill for them. Profound humility and joyful witness to the good life is the way forward. The only way forward for the secular West is to figure out how to argue for love when it announces a loveless universe, and for the Church to live love so attractively it is irresistible despite being powerless.”
On Friday the Catholic Church celebrated the feast day of Hildebrand, a great medieval campaigner for truth and rights under the law, whose dying words were, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity. Therefore I die in exile.” They may resonate with the hard-working campaigners for the unborn who have sweated it out on the streets and the doorsteps of Ireland’s cities and towns for the past four months. To be a Christian in Ireland just now will, for many, have the taste of exile about it. It will demand not a little of the mettle of Hildebrand to begin again the mission to which all Christians, by the very terms and conditions of their contract, are indeed committed.
A triumphant liberal pro-abortion columnist in Sunday’s Irish Times declared that “Middle Ireland” was dead. Now there is just Ireland. Without even thinking about the totalitarian implications of that proclamation, one third of Ireland probably begs to differ. They are already promising to make their voices heard loud and clear. Perhaps they will remain in exile for a while, strangers in a moral wilderness. But they believe that eventually, by “living love so attractively that it will be irresistible, despite being powerless”, in the face of the secularist West and its loveless “me, me, me” universe, they can hope to triumph. They know that if it happened before it can happen again.