Moments in Church History 1: The Priest, the Mother, and the Influence of the Church on Irish Society

Today, we begin a new series that will be reoccurring for as long as there is interest. Various people, but mostly Jake, will write about important themes or moments from throughout church history. Some will be short and some (like today) will be longer. Our hope is that the series will be not only interesting and educational, but also instructive as we think about and address modern issues facing the church today. For instance, today Jake addresses the evolution of Irish sociological and political ideology, and the historical connection between the Priest (the church) and the Mother (cultural values). There is, of course, an ongoing debate in the United States about the existence and desirability of the church’s influence on society. Does Irish sociohistoric trends have anything to say about the issue in the United States today?

Jake graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Central Florida and is currently a 3L at the University of Florida in pursuit of a J.D.

Religion, rather than linguistic or cultural norms, has historically been the indicia of ethnic differentiation in Ireland. The Anglicization of Irish government during the Reformation led to a cultural and geographic divide, where Northern Ireland was heavily populated by Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans, while other parts of Ireland maintained roots that were both Gaelic and Catholic. Furthermore, the Protestant Tudor monarchy attempted to reinforce the political gains by transferring ownership of lands from Gaelic Catholics to loyal settlers of both English and Scottish descent, who were also (not so coincidentally) Protestant. Gaelic elites recognized the writing on the wall, and many of them switched religions to maintain ownership of their lands, resulting in a stratification of Irish society where a predominant number of landowners and elites were not Catholic. Thus, the rebellious reaction to the Reformation was both nationalistic and Catholic. It was impossible to separate one from the other. By the middle of the 19th century, the one-fifth of the population that was Protestant was overwhelmingly British and/or Scottish in origin, elite in class, and located in northern counties, while the majority of Catholics were Gaelic, lower in class, and spatially concentrated in southern and western portions of Ireland. Religion, then, was a reliable indicator of probable ancestry, social status, and nationalistic loyalty.

Furthermore, religion was an indicator of political ideology. During and after the Reformation, a British national identity based on Protestantism directly led to the formation of a distinctly Irish identity that was positively reactive in its Catholicism. A politically nationalistic Ireland with significantly Catholic dimensions began to be a goal not only of the Vatican but also of the portions of the Irish populace that rejected loyalty to the British crown. There was a convergence of interests between the goal of the cleric to maintain or to gain political influence and elitist power and the goals of nationalistic parties within Ireland to gain an independent and spatially recognized separate government. The link between religion and politics was of course directly realized in 1921-22, with the formation of two new states. The southern sections of Ireland, mostly Gaelic and Catholic, achieved functional independence, while Northern Ireland, significantly Protestant and British or Scottish, maintained nominal connections and fealty to their British brethren.

Eventually, the more Gaelic and Catholic “Ireland” achieved victory in an ideological sense. The Irish Constitution of 1937 evinced significant religious influence, including prohibitions against divorce and abortion, and clarification of Catholicism as holding a “special position” as the religion of the majority. Since that time, however, the tension between national politics and religious ideology reflected in the Irish constitution has slowly begun to fray.

One example of this fraying is the issue of divorce. The 1937 Irish constitution outlawed divorce at a time when recognition of divorce was finding increasing support in the general populace throughout Europe. The prohibition against divorce and the subsequent lack of legislation or referendums attempting its repeal is creditable to “widespread public abhorrence of the dissolution of marriage” in Ireland at the time. This “abhorrence of the dissolution of marriage,” of course, is in some sense a direct result of the religious influence on Irish cultural and social normative thought and behavior. In 1986, a referendum was proposed to eliminate the prohibition of divorce in the Irish constitution. However, opponents of the bill conducted a successful campaign based on the perceived threat to Irish society and its incompatibility with Catholic theology; consequently, the referendum was overwhelmingly rejected by Irish citizens. In 1995, another referendum was proposed and similarly rejected, although the percentage of opposition from Irish citizens dropped from 66% to 50% (Id.) The opposition again developed and implemented several synthesized strategies to defeat the referendum: research from other countries on the effect of legally allowing divorce, the general sociological effect, and Catholic theology. Notably, though, the use of the church to disparage the referendum was somewhat diminished in comparison to 1986. On one hand, of course, it is perhaps significant that after sixty years of constitutional prohibition against divorce and two referendums, Ireland still outlawed divorce, despite the fact that almost the entirety of the Western world allowed it. But cultural transmission and political socialization included religious norms and values – the lack of a fundamental rejection of the constitutional prohibition against divorce is perhaps not surprising given this context. The internalization of such cultural and social transmissions is the key to its continued influence politically, and a change in internalization from generation to generation is a slow process. Throughout the 20th century, the internalization of the social transmission rejecting divorce as a viable option in Ireland slowly deteriorated. As the generational transmission slowly lost effect, the separation of normative religious and cultural belief from sociopolitical ideology became more marked as it pertained to the issue of divorce, until the practice was finally officially recognized in the 21st century.

Similarly, the Offences Against Persons Act officially banned abortion in Ireland in 1861, and the Irish constitution reflects the religious and social values that influence the ban. Unlike divorce, there is still a constitutional prohibition against abortion, absent certain exceptions. Abortion, in fact, highlights the connection between normative religious values and sociopolitical realities – the prohibition against abortion (and divorce), especially juxtaposed against changing laws in the rest of Western society, became a tangible and self-conscious aspect of Irish national identity. However, the discourse regarding national identity and abortion underwent a subtle shift beginning in the late 20th century from rigid ideologically religious values to “liberal articulations of rights.” Even opponents of abortion transformed their arguments from adherence to traditional Catholic teachings to protection of fetal rights in closer accordance to the American pro-life movement. This was probably a result of the fact that “Irish society in the 1960s and 1970s lacked the apparent consensus on moral issues in the 1930s when the Constitution was accepted by a majority of the population.”

Perhaps most directly, the 1937 constitution included a provision describing the “special place” that the Catholic church held in Irish society, stopping just short of declaring Catholicism to be the national religion; this provision was eliminated by referendum in 1972. This elimination reflects the broad trend pertinent to the modern perceived need to re-evaluate Ireland’s constitution. Throughout the 20th century, and particularly in the 1960’s, the self-conscious Irish identity, both internalized and marketed to outside governments and societies, underwent a purposeful and systematic transformation that included an erosion of the social influence of the church. This transformation is creditable to some combination of particularly Irish feminism, the diffusion of secularism, and old-fashioned scandals. This transformation, after a radical progression in the 1960’s, has continued, albeit in tortured fits and starts, throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. As Foster described, the “longstanding alliance between the Priest and the Mother” has slowly declined and been subverted because of the usual conglomeration of multiple contributors: the birth of contraceptive politics, the declining influence of rural agricultural Ireland, abusive conditions in industrial schools and Church edicts that made up in social ignorance what they lacked in self-awareness. More generally, though, the relationship has frayed, in some part, because Christianity is the dominant discourse in religious contexts. One historian points out that when citizenship and basic rights are denied a group on the basis of religion, as occurred in 18th century and parts of 19th century Ireland, one of three things generally occur: conformity, abandonment or a “dogged tenacity may develop in holding firm to the truths of one’s own religion.” The third possibility was actualized in Ireland, leading to a snowball effect that climaxed in an unprecedented level of religious commitment and involvement from 1860-1960. However, beginning in the 20th century, Catholicism dominated the national conversation and discourse regarding religion and politics – the commitment to band together and transmit religion and cultural values to the coming generations was no longer necessary.

[Note: For a list of citations, feel free to leave a comment.  Although because of formatting issues, we couldn't post the 21 citations, Jake would like to point out that the concept of "the Priest and the Mother" comes from R.F. Foster and an article he wrote, "Changed Utterly? Transformation and Continuity in Late 20th Century Ireland" published by Historical Research 80 (2007).]

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