Ireland: A more liberal present tangled with a Catholic past

4 min

Dublin (AFP)

The heavy double doors at the Irish Family Planning Association are no longer needed to keep out pro-life demonstrators.

Repeated protests forced the clinic to take measures to protect staff and those attending but opposition has tailed off since Ireland voted to liberalise its abortion laws in 2018.

"In the past our clinics have been invaded by anti-choice protestors," said chief executive Niall Behan. "The atmosphere that we're in has much changed."

The lifting of strict rules on terminating pregnancies followed a 2015 vote to allow same-sex marriage, effectively loosening the grip of the Roman Catholic Church on civil society.

But as Ireland votes again on Saturday in a general election, Behan argued that what Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has called a "quiet revolution" is more of a delicate "untangling".

"Ireland has been through a process over a number of years where there's a lot of legacy issues, really from the foundation of the state," he told AFP.

The IFPA was set up 50 years ago at a time of high fertility rates and maternal mortality, and when artificial contraception was illegal.

It now provides family planning, pregnancy counselling and abortion care.

Despite the changes it has fought for, Behan says some stigma remains.

Ireland elected to legislate for a three-day waiting period for abortions, which critics say serves no practical purpose but implies women need to "cool off" before going ahead.

Another issue to tackle is that 90 percent of Irish primary schools and 50 percent of secondary schools are under Church patronage.

- Homelessness -

Elsewhere in Dublin, the church is bolstering the government's faltering efforts to address a homelessness crisis that has been a major issue on the campaign trail.

Some 9,731 people were homeless across Ireland over the Christmas week, according to charity Focus Ireland, out of a population of 4.9 million.

A housing shortage has meanwhile pushed rent and property prices out of the reach of much of the middle class.

Capuchin Franciscan monk Brother Sean Donohoe said church involvement was an inevitable consequence, as modern Ireland was formed less than a century ago.

"The church became very powerful in the past because our state was new, and the structures weren't there," he said, dressed in brown robes.

"In many senses churches were invited or asked to help."

At the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People, which Brother Sean co-directs, it is still fulfilling that role.

The centre feeds about 1,000 people a day. Grateful diners on scattered chairs tuck in to breakfast of porridge, cornflakes, sausages and coffee.

According to Focus Ireland, the number of homeless families has increased by 280 per cent since December 2014.

"It's a major crisis in our state. It's not our issue to resolve, we're only responding to a need," explained Brother Sean.

"The decline of the practice of the faith is enormous but I think a place like this is where church is just in action, not about theological discourse."

- Decline -

According to official state figures, 78 percent of Irish people were Catholic in 2016, down from 95 percent in 1961.

Papal visits in 1979 and 2018 indicate a steeper decline.

A staggering 1.2 million people -- more than a third of the then-population -- attended a mass held by pope John Paul II in 1979.

But it was reported that just 150,000 attended a ceremony by visiting Pope Francis two years ago.

The pontiff's visit was also marked by protests over the church's historic treatment of women and the LGBT community.

"In terms of attendance, the Sunday to Sunday aspect, that has diminished massively," admitted Catholic priest Richard Gibbons, rector at Knock Shrine pilgrimage site in the west of Ireland.

"They return for particular occasions," he said. The church still plays a huge cultural role in births, weddings and funerals in Ireland.

"It's for us to harness that in a way but not to frighten them off either," he added, speculating on how to grow congregations and still keep the bond between civic and religious life.

"To make them feel as welcome as possible. And that maybe by attendance, and by participating and being part of the community -- the faith community -- that it will give meaning to their lives."