Ireland to the Left

Ireland is a small country on the other side of the ocean, and of no great interest to most Americans. But a recent “Letter from Dublin” published in The New Yorker (April 3, 1995) may be of interest, not for what it tells us about Ireland, but about the liberal agenda, which is much the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

The author is one Colin Toibin, who is or at least at one time was, a journalist in Dublin. He is typical of the ex-Catholic or deeply disaffected Catholic journalists who hate the Catholic Church but can’t let go of it, like dogs worried about left-over bones. His theme is signs of “extraordinary social and political change” that are appearing in Ireland. He may well be right about those signs; I found Irish Jesuits beginning to be aware of them when I spent a year in Dublin in 1973-74. But Mr. Toibin welcomes them as an end to the grip of the Church on Irish life and a breakdown of “the hypocrisy of the Church’s moral edicts.”

The hypocrisy consists in this, that some Irish priests and even a couple of Irish bishops have not lived up to the moral code that they teach, as recent sexual scandals involving members of the clergy have revealed. By that standard, maintaining that husbands should be faithful to their wives is hypocrisy because it is not unknown, even among professing Christians, that sometimes they cheat. But no matter; the scandals are only a good stick with which to beat the ecclesiastical dog or, as Ronald Knox put it, any stigma is good enough to beat a dogma with.

Toibin’s real object is to crack the influence of the Catholic moral code on Irish law and public policy. He belongs to “the liberal side,” which he identifies as “our side.” It consists preeminently in “journalists, and writers and academics,” those whom Margaret Thatcher in England called “the chattering classes” and in the United States called “the media elite.”

Toibin began secondary school in 1967, that is, in the late 60s, and is a product of that fateful decade. “No one in my circle went to Mass,” he says, “even though the vast majority all around us were devout Catholics.” But he sees hope for a liberal and democratic future as a younger generation loses its faith and progressive forces gain influence in Irish politics.

The “liberal social agenda” is spearheaded by the largely Dublin- based Labour Party, with which both major parties are now forced to go into coalition in order to form governing majorities. Labour insists upon “changes in the laws governing matters like divorce, homosexuality, and the sale of contraceptives.” Oh, yes, and abortion. Since there is a constitutional amendment in place that prohibits abortion, getting rid of it will require another amendment to repeal it. In the meantime liberals may turn to the Supreme Court for ways of getting around it.

In the summer of 1994, when Labour was in coalition with Fianna Fail, there were “two pending vacancies” in the courts, “the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the President of the High Court (the next lower court in the judicial structure).” Dick Spring, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, wanted to make sure that these vacancies “were filled with liberal-minded judges.” But the Prime Minister insisted on appointing his Attorney-General to the High Court.

Then in later October “Labour suddenly found itself in possession of extraordinary new ammunition” against the Attorney-General: he and his staff had failed to act on allowing a priest accused of pedophilia to be extradited to Northern Ireland. This revelation brought down the government. Labour is now in power in coalition with the opposing party, and Mr. Spring is in a better position to push his agenda.

Behind these political details, says Toibin, lies something more significant: a shift in the consciousness of the people of the Republic of Ireland. A majority has begun “to view tolerance as an essential part of democracy.” But tolerance of what? Of contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexual acts. In short, of sexual freedom, which is the substance of the liberal social agenda. If it is successfully carried through, it will turn Ireland into a little post-Christian West Britain or, as Toibin prefers to describe it, “a stronger and more liberal democracy.”

The major obstacle to the realization of this dream is the Catholic Church. Ergo, “écrasez l’infame.” Toibin, however, does not propose crushing the Church out of existence. It can be tolerated, if it learns to stay in its place. “I like to think,” he says, “that there is a new awareness among most Catholics in Ireland that their faith is all the more precious and secure for being private, that it no longer needs to reach out into the public world and control legislation and state policy.” Or, in more popular language, sit down, shut up, and let us high-minded agnostic secularists run the country. The American Civil Liberties Union could not say it better.


  • Francis Canavan, S.J.

    A prominent Catholic intellectual and political theorist, Francis Canavan was born in New York City in 1917, joined the Society of Jesus in 1939, and was ordained in 1950. After receiving his doctorate from Duke University in political science in 1957 (where he studied under John H. Hallowell), Canavan taught at St. Peter’s College and served as associate editor of America before joining the faculty of Fordham University, where he taught from 1966 until his retirement in 1988. He died in 2009.

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