Church takes back seat in Ireland abortion vote

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Dublin (AFP)

Wary of putting off voters with an overly dogmatic message, the Catholic Church in Ireland has taken a relatively low-key stance ahead of a historic referendum on Friday on repealing an abortion ban.

Few members of the clergy have been seen at pro-life demonstrations and Ireland's Association of Catholic Priests has warned churches against giving anti-abortion campaigners a pulpit during mass.

"As leadership of an association made up of men who are unmarried and without children of our own, we are not best placed to be in any way dogmatic on this issue," the ACP said in a statement this month.

While underlining the Church's teaching on the right to life, the statement admitted that "human life is complex, throwing up situations that are more often grey than black and white and that demand from us a sensitive, non-judgemental, pastoral approach".

The ACP, which represents more than 1,000 Catholic priests in Ireland -- around a third of the priesthood, also said in the statement dated May 5 that it would not engage in the debate further.

Linda Hogan, professor of religion at Trinity College, Dublin said the Church had made a "strategic decision" to limit its official pronouncements on an issue in which its position is already well known.

Hogan said this could be a result of the 2015 referendum on legalising same-sex marriage when the Church took a more vocal position and lost.

That referendum was "a wake-up call", Hogan said.

Despite multiple abuse scandals in recent years, the Catholic Church still believed it had "a majority of people supporting their position," she said.

- Hoping for 'resounding No' -

Around 78 percent of Ireland's population declare as Catholics, according to the last census in 2016.

But recent opinion polls have shown around half of the population would favour repealing the abortion law, meaning even believers are divided on the issue.

"The fact that the yes vote is predicted to be about 53 percent does signal that there is a difference between what the Catholic Church teaches and what Catholics believe," Hogan said.

Abortion in Ireland is currently only allowed if the life of the mother is at risk. As a result thousands of Irish women travel to England every year for abortions.

The campaign has been particularly heated and the streets of Ireland are plastered with posters advocating votes for or against lifting the ban.

Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry made a final statement on the issue on behalf of the Catholic Church on Monday in which he thanked both sides for discussing the issue "gently, respectfully and sensitively".

But the message, read out in churches in his diocese on Sunday, said the government's proposed legislation on abortion was "extreme" and told believers: "I am voting 'No' next Friday. I encourage you do to same".

In the final days of the campaign, some pro-lifers have been distributing leaflets outside churches -- to mixed reactions from congregations.

Camapign volunteer Adrienne, a 63-year-old, turned out on Sunday outside a church in the Liberties, a former working-class area of Dublin, to try to win votes.

But some people coming out of the church ignored her or turned down her leaflets. One man wearing a Gaelic football jersey -- muttered that it was "not right" for her to be campaigning in this way.

Despite the opposition she encountered and the uncertainty of the polls, Adrienne said she was still hoping for a "resounding 'No'" in Friday's vote.