Article from Church & State, No. 76

Answer To A French Secularist Questionnaire 
by Dave alvey

The Campaign to Separate Church and State recently received a letter and questionnaire from Julia Coudurier, a French student engaged in research into Irish secularism. Ms Coudurier has taken the trouble to study past issues of Church & State, so it is only fair that her questionnaire should elicit a serious response. Her questionnaire raises some highly pertinent questions and affords an opportunity for taking stock of what this journal about. Before answering her questions it will be instructive to outline the somewhat unusual history of Irish secularism.

The First Phase of Irish Secularism

The first phase started in the early seventies when a number of individuals founded the magazine, Church & State. From the beginning the journal eschewed a doctrinaire approach in its editorials and core articles. The relationship between Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church was recognised as different from the general experience in Catholic Europe. Original historical research therefore became an important part of the magazine's output. Alongside the historical and political articles which developed editorial themes, articles critical of published articles, and traditional secularist articles were also included.

The editorial policy of Church & State rested on the belief that the way to challenge Catholic social power was to understand it. And to understand it, it was necessary to put aside the presumptions of secularist movements elsewhere. Thus the introduction to an influential pamphlet published in September 1979 to mark the Pope's visit to Ireland (The Rise of Papal Power in Ireland) explained how the great secret of Irish Catholicism was its age. It stated that the Church had created a general opinion about itself that it was one of the oldest Churches in Europe whereas it was actually the youngest. It had been remade between the 1820s and the 1840s as an integral part of the social movement that became Irish Catholic-nationalism; it had no associations with monarchy or the forces of reaction like the older Church organizations elsewhere in Catholic Europe. The introduction concluded:

'The articles which compose this pamphlet, and which provide the key that unlocks Irish history, were first published in the magazine Church & State in 1973. The position that is stated in them has not been publicly disputed by anybody. If it was not soundly based it would undoubtedly have been knocked down. We can therefore confidently say on the occasion of the Pope's first visit to one of his newer Churches that we have his measure.'

The task of getting the measure of the Catholic Church in Ireland did not end in 1979. The magazine continued to develop an historical and political understanding of its subject even when that meant taking positions which secularists elsewhere would have considered heretical.

The Second Phase

In the late eighties the problem posed by Catholic power in the Irish Republic could not be easily hidden. The insertion of an absolute ban on abortion into the Constitution following a referendum in 1983, together with the failure of an attempt, also by referendum, to remove the Constitutional ban on divorce in 1986, gave the Catholic lobby an appearance of invincibility. It was in these circumstances that in 1988 the Campaign to Separate Church and State (CSCS) was formed and what might be styled a second phase of Irish secularism began. Half of the executive committee was comprised of individuals who were also involved in the production of Church & State. As the Campaign started to publicly criticise the subservience of the Irish State to the Catholic Church it attained a notoriety which helped to gain it publicity. A journalist considered sympathetic to the largest political party, Fianna Fail, Gerald Barry, described the Campaign at this time as "the most analytical of pressure groups".

As the Campaign locked horns with the Catholic Hierarchy during the nineties, the value of the habit of independent thought associated with Church & State became more and more apparent. Had the representatives of CSCS been doctrinaires or bigots, it would have been easy for the Church to read their tactics and get the upper hand against them. But the habit of thought acquired from reading Church & State made them tolerant and even strong-minded. Rather than mouthing slogans and disparaging the Church, they were able to focus on specific injustices and appeal to a wide audience. In short they usually had something interesting to say and they won respect accordingly.

One of the successful methods used by CSCS was to collect and publish case histories from families who had experienced discrimination in the education system. A first batch of case histories was published in Irish Education—The Case For Secular Reform by David Alvey (Athol Books and Church & State Books 1991) made a persuasive case and won widespread publicity for the Campaign. A second batch was published in 1993 in a pamphlet called, Intolerance in the Irish School System. There has been no dramatic transformation of the education system since these publications were produced, but many of the grievances highlighted then have since been removed. For instance, the statement that a religious spirit should permeate the primary curriculum as a whole has been dropped from official documents, there is now more understanding for the concerns of families from minority backgrounds; and there are currently 31 multi-denominational primary schools with an additional four expected to open in September 2004, compared to 10 in 1991.

Eventually, to the chagrin of the Catholic Church authorities, the Department of Education recognised CSCS as a representative pressure group. Representatives of the Church bodies made their feelings known at a meeting with Education officials by slamming down a copy of Church & State on the table, but it was to no avail: a political decision had been made that the Campaign to Separate Church and State was to have full participation rights in the consultative process then proceeding in relation to an Education Green Paper (a preparatory document for a proposed legislative reform of education). The presence of CSCS representatives in all the deliberations of the Education Convention, as it was called, was one of the most significant features of the Convention.

CSCS achieved a lot through agitational lobbying, but its main achievement was to create the public space for individuals and groups to criticise the Catholic Church.

In the early nineties a trickle of complaints about clerical sex abuse of children began to be heard in the courts and in the media. As the decade progressed the trickle became a flood in which the social standing of the Church was all but swept away.

By the end of the nineties the stranglehold which the Church had held for so long over Irish society was broken. The taboo by which the media prevented itself from exposing scandals involving the Church was also broken. RTE broadcast a number of documentaries, notably, States of Fear, in which the ill treatment of children in the religious industrial schools was exposed. This readiness on the part of RTE to present its mainly conservative viewing audience with compelling evidence of the negative record of the Catholic Church in areas like child abuse had a profound effect in the conservative heartland of Catholic Ireland.

Some of the old reflexes that caused Government politicians in the past to protect Church interests as though they were superior to those of the State, are still acted on, as when Dr Michael Woods, as Minister for Education, negotiated a sweet heart deal with the representatives of 18 religious orders associated with the religious industrial schools. But the huge public outcry against Woods and the religious orders because of that deal illustrates how the old pattern has been transformed.

The Third Phase

While the Catholic Church will remain an important presence in the life of the Irish Republic for the foreseeable future, its star is clearly waning. Popular attitudes to the Church have changed irrevocably. Public representatives speak differently about the Church than they did in the past, even if the new democratic 'plainspokenness' is still a matter of nuance. For its part, the Church is slowly adjusting to the less deferential climate. Bishop Willie Walshe in Clare, by encouraging a stronger role for parish councils with more lay involvement, has initiated a responsive, consultative leadership style inside the Church. When Cardinal Connell is finally replaced by his nominated successor, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin (a Vatican diplomat whose brother, Seamus Martin, is an Irish Times journalist) this trend is likely to strengthen.

While the content of Irish Catholicism is thus changing from authoritarian to accommodating mode, it form has remained the same. Institutionally, Church/State relations are still entangled. But, even at the formal level, there are harbingers of change. It is only a matter of time before the question of Church power in the educational system returns to the political agenda.

The continuing reform of Church/State relations is therefore a primary task for Church & State in this latest phase of secularism. But a number of developments have taken place which demand a broader and less one-track approach:

* the collapse of faith in the Catholic Church has been mirrored by a collapse of faith in the whole of traditional culture;

* Irish society is being systematically Anglicised under the leadership of the media and academic elites;

* the new liberal forces are intolerant of any degree of Church influence in the society;

* and the political establishment has proved unequal to the task of conserving the national tradition.

Under these circumstances the pursuit of a narrow secularist agenda would simply feed into a larger anti-national agenda which has little to recommend it. The two aims that have always lain at the heart of Irish secularism: greater social liberty and greater social diversity would both be diminished.

How should we respond to this? As in most of the other challenges faced by Irish secularists there are no convenient templates of international secularist practice that we can draw on. The strategy that has been proposed for Church & State as a secularist journal was outlined in issue No 70 in the Summer of 2002. The key points were as follows:

* the defence of social freedom coupled with greater diversity as basic secularist principles

* the advocacy of specific secular reforms which have popular support should continue

* the work of drawing attention to individuals who resisted the growth of Catholic-nationalism should continue

* the tradition of inclusive nationalism championed by the Young Irelanders in the 1840s should be revived

* an alternative national culture to Catholic-nationalism, based on the Young Ireland tradition should be promoted

* the journal's main focus should the reconciliation of traditional values with modern life

It will not be easy for Church & State to win support for this agenda but as a secularist response, it at least has the merit of having an historical orientation. The magazine can draw encouragement from the continuing work of Athol Books (the publisher of works like The Veto Controversy by Brendan Clifford in 1985 and The Origin of Irish Catholic-Nationalism edited by Brendan Clifford in 1992). It can also draw encouragement from the success of a local historical society in Cork, the Aubane Historical Society, in attracting an audience for Young Ireland literature. A number of recent titles published by the Aubane Historical Society indicate the type of material that is being produced: Spotlights on Irish History (a series of talks by Brendan Clifford which summarise the whole of Irish history), Thomas Davis by Charles Gavan Duffy (a reprint of a classic biography of the leading Young Irelander), Extracts From The Nation 1842-44 (a compilation of important articles from the journal of the Young Irelanders), Sean Moylan In His own words (a memoir of the Irish War of Independence by a supporter of the Young Ireland/Fenian tradition). The book on Sean Moylan was launched by a Government Minister, Eamon O Cuiv, and its launch was attended by over two hundred people in January 2004. It is still early days but the challenge represented by the third phase of Irish secularism could influence the development of society here in a way that is important for European secularism as a whole.


Do you regard your Campaign as a minority group or do you think that most Irish today are supportive of your action?

The CSCS and the readership of our journal Church & State are small—perhaps less than one thousand people. The group is therefore a minority group.

It is very likely that a majority of Irish citizens would subscribe to the view that the realms of Church & State should be kept separate but a very small number of Irish people could be described as holding secularist convictions.

What are your latest actions?

Our latest action was the production of issue number 75 of Church & State dated Winter 2003. Two articles in that issue describe secularist 'actions': the article on a row over Church owned educational and community buildings in Co. Sligo; and the article entitled Crimes Against Children on the extent of responsibility held by the State for child abuse in the religious industrial schools.

The main focus of activity in recent years has been in the origination of new thinking and the development of this new thinking through articles in Church & State and elsewhere. We have also established a presence on the Internet which can be reached at

What do you think of the current Church and State relationship?

The most recent event showing the relationship between Church and State was the deal signed on June 5th 2002 between Dr. Michael Woods as Minister for Education and the representatives of 18 religious orders associated with the Industrial Schools. In that deal the religious undertook to pay €40 million in cash and €80 million in property to the State for indemnity in the compensation payments to be made to victims of abuse in the religious industrial schools. The State may be liable for as much as €1,000 million. The particular contribution of former Minister Woods is known to have been that he arranged for the indemnity to cover the legal liability of the religious in cases brought before the Government's Redress Board and in cases brought before the courts.

Dr Wood's action typifies the extraordinary subservience of some elements in the political establishment to the Church. What is new is the manner in which the sordid details of the deal have been made public knowledge and the scale of opposition. Not alone has the media chased up the story relentlessly, but the civil servants that participated in the negotiations have been summoned before the Dail Public Accounts Committee to explain their actions. The present Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, risked creating a division between the two governing parties by 'candidly disagreeing' with defensive statements from Dr Woods. The most senior official responsible for monitoring public expenditure, John Purcell, the Comptroller and Auditor General, set a new precedent by referring to the indemnity deal in a report on wasteful public expenditure. (See Church & State No 74)

There is now a public awareness that the traditional Church/State relationship was heavily biased in the Church's favour. The Irish Catholic Church is demoralised and on the ropes but it is not about to give up the ghost. Formally, in a legal and institutional sense, the Church still controls education.

Today what are your main aims?

The aims of Church & State are summarised below:

* the defence of social freedom coupled with greater diversity as basic secularist principles

* the advocacy of specific secular reforms which have popular support should continue

* the work of drawing attention to individuals who resisted the growth of Catholic-nationalism should continue

* the tradition of inclusive nationalism championed by the Young Irelanders in the 1840s should be revived

* an alternative national culture to Catholic-nationalism, based on the Young Ireland tradition should be promoted

* the journal's main focus should the reconciliation of traditional values with modern life

Do you have any links with other associations?

The associations we have links with are: Athol Books, the Belfast Educational and Historical Society, Educate Together, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the National Parents Council. In the past CSCS had links with the Divorce Action Campaign (disbanded since divorce became legal), the Irish Family Planning Association, the Coalition of Frontline Groups (groups providing medical and social services for women with unwanted pregnancies critical of the anti-abortion lobby), Teachers for Pluralism, the Women's Political Association, and Cherish.

In a recent editorial, you referred to 'an alternative national culture' you wanted to promote. But what is it? You seem to have softened your objectives. Talking of the magazine you said "its main focus will be to reconcile traditional values with modern life."

The 'alternative national culture' referred to is a culture based on the inclusive nationalism of the Young Ireland movement. Our reason for wanting to promote it is because it provided the inspiration for the movement that eventually achieved national independence, and at the same time represented an inclusive and secular form of nationalism. The Young Irelanders made a principled stand against sectarianism in a famous dispute with Daniel O'Connell over 'Godless Colleges' in the late 1840s. In 1910 a break-away group from the Home Rule Party, the 'All for Ireland League', basing itself on the Young Ireland tradition, denounced the Catholic sectarianism of the Home Rule leadership and won seven of eight parliamentary seats in the Cork area. The conservation or revival of a tradition is not an easy matter but the roots of the Young Ireland tradition are sufficiently tested and sufficiently deep rooted to form the basis of a revival of national culture.

The Republic of Ireland is currently languishing in a cultural limbo. The ideology that dominated culture for a hundred and fifty years, Catholic-nationalism, has lost its force. The society will either succumb to the lure of globalisation and become a province of Anglo-America, or re-discover its heritage.

We have not softened our objectives. Rather than aligning secularism with the forces currently seeking to Anglicise Ireland we are holding fast to the aims of social freedom and diversity, the true ends of secularism. We did not take on the Catholic Church in Ireland to reduce the society to the status of a demoralised colony where Catholic intolerance has been replaced by Anglo-American liberal intolerance.

The reconciliation of traditional values with modern life is best explained through examples. Divorce is a fact of modern life; its existence should not entail the abandonment of the traditional value of supporting marriage as an institution. Using contraception is a fact of modern life; its existence should not mean the abandonment of the value judgement that sees the family as the basic unit of society. Separating Church and State is a modern political principle; its implementation is not incompatible with a vibrant religious culture.

What is your opinion about abortion? Do you think Ireland will eventually come to terms with this dilemma or will the country keep turning a blind eye to what is going on? Abortion, even though it is carried on in England and not on Irish soil, remains what it is. Isn't it hypocritical to legalise abortion carried out abroad and to prohibit abortion at home?

Abortion is a drastic solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy. Where it is necessary that it should be legalised, strict conditions should curtail its availability. Therapeutic abortion, however, should be legalised.
The current hypocritical arrangement is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Church & State actively opposed the 'pro-life' campaign that resulted in the 1983 constitutional prohibition against abortion. Following the Supreme Court ruling in the X-Case in 1992, a ruling that conceded that a suicidal mother could have an abortion, the Government of Albert Reynolds put three questions before the electorate in a referendum. Church & State pressed for a Yes for the right to travel, a Yes for right to information and No to the removal of the suicide option.

In 2002 the Government of Bertie Ahern initiated another Abortion Referendum seeking to remove the suicide option. On this occasion Church & State supported the Yes campaign. The reason was that unlike Reynolds, Ahern had taken steps to make practical provision for abortions to be carried out to save the lives of mothers. His Government had skilfully outmanoeuvred the pro-life movement, the Catholic Hierarchy and the extremely conservative Irish Medical Organisation ,while giving the appearance of acting in the conservative interest. The theoretical right to abortion would have been curtailed but the practice of medical abortion to save women's lives would have increased. In the event, the proposal was defeated by an unholy alliance of liberals, feminists and extreme pro-life extremists. So the legal mess remains and therapeutic abortion is still unavailable in Ireland.

What do you think about the claim of some European countries, among them Ireland, to add a clause on the Christian heritage of Europe in the prospective European Constitution?

At a time when many European citizens have become alienated from the European ideal it would be absurd to make no reference to the Christian contribution to European civilisation. It should be remembered that the political force that has done most to advance the European cause has been Christian Democracy.

Secularists who have campaigned to erase all references to Christianity from the proposed European Constitution are indulging in ahistorical philistinism.

Today what are the domains still most influenced by the Church? Or has Church power vanished?

Church power has certainly not vanished. The most important areas still requiring secular reform are education, the disposal of publicly funded Church property, the Constitution, and areas of the health service like infertility treatment and therapeutic abortion. It is also important that the Church should be made to pay its debts in the compensation of victims of clerical sex abuse.

Would you like Ireland to carry on evolving towards a completely lay State, or are you satisfied with the present situation in Ireland?

CSCS and Church & State are certainly not satisfied with the present situation. Answers we have provided to other questions will show the issues with which we are dissatisfied.

Secularists need to offer solutions in which common ground with religious communities can be found. A lay state in which no degree of Catholic social influence could be tolerated would be a horror comparable to the Catholic dominated state of the past.

Our secularist ideal is a state where social liberty extends to all citizens regardless of their beliefs, a state that exhibits no religious prejudice. Without succumbing to the illusion that cultural enrichment can be achieved through political means alone, our ultimate aim is the creation of a social climate of freedom and diversity that enriches human life.

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