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Abortion: Is it really too much to ask to let ordinary Catholics just get on with their lives?


Yes campaigners celebrate at Dublin Castle on Saturday

Yes campaigners celebrate at Dublin Castle on Saturday


Yes campaigners celebrate at Dublin Castle on Saturday

There used to be a saying that you don't hear so often now that "he had head hung lower than a Larne Catholic". I'd say that in the aftermath of the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment most ordinary practising Catholics could identify with that poor anonymous soul in Larne.

As a commentator, faith for me is, by and large, a private matter. I hear the echoes of St Augustine in my life: "Make me pure, Lord but not yet!"

If that makes me an erring Catholic, so be it. Yet so much of me is moulded by my direct experience of Catholicism which came from the positive example of family life, and in particular from my grandmother, my father and my aunt.

I went to Catholic schools for 14 years and was taught by Catholic religious and lay people. There were good teachers and there were those who should never have set foot in any school.

Corporal punishment was the order of the day but mostly it wasn't excessive, though over the years, like others, I have probably embellished the bad for the sake of a good story.

There were eccentric teachers, and we now know that some of those we were told to give a wide berth were also abusers. It sounds naive today but we had no concept of sexual abuse.

Sex never came up as a subject in school or home. Biology books with naked torsos brought titters of adolescent laughter. The ladies section of a Kay's or British Home Stores catalogue was the closest thing we got to porn.

We were innocent, and in some cases that innocence was taken advantage of by evil individuals into whose care children were placed.

In 1979, as a teenager I enthusiastically boarded a bus to go and see Pope John Paul II in Galway, blissfully unaware that two of the most charismatic clergy in charge of the event had been living double lives with mistresses and had fathered children.

I doubt if knowing that would have changed my mind; this pope who came from behind the Iron Curtain was like a movie star.

He, more than anyone else, started to erode the edifice that was Communism. Europe and the world was starting to change. I felt proud of being Catholic.

Somehow I managed to remain a church-going Catholic during my furtive university years.

Even so, dark shadows were engulfing all Catholics.

Brave victims of clerical sex abuse started to speak out. Hypocritical priests and bishops were falling like dominoes. Those running the Catholic Church went into a long period of denial rather than routing out and facing up to the bad.

Instead of de-clericalising the church, they opted for securing blind obedience. They sought submission of will over winning hearts.

It was a battle they were always going to lose.

And last week they lost it in spades in the Irish referendum.

Rather than face up to the truth, some in the leadership of the Church contrived to cover up and protect the institution and in doing so demonised the victims of clerical abuse in the process. That was unforgivable.

Yet still I remained.

Clinging on with that stubbornness which saw my great-grandmother support Parnell against the advice of bishops, I stayed with the same tenacity of my grandfather who remained stoically Catholic though being denounced as an Irish Labour politician in the very churches he was attending Mass in.

Sometimes remaining a Catholic happens in spite of the leadership of the institution. Certainly that applies to me.

But people like me also remain because of the outstanding beacons that the Catholic Church has produced, like Francis of Assisi, Martin De Porres, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, Fr Peter McVerry and the countless thousands who work in the Third World with the poor.

Some in religious orders may have lost the original vision of their founding fathers and mothers in the operation of their schools, but there is also a debt owed to them, particularly in Ireland, where they stepped in when no one else bothered.

Should they be held to account for things that went wrong? Absolutely. But it's unfair to expect younger generations of religious or clergy (or what's left of them) to continually atone for the wrongs of their predecessors.

There is a broad notion about, especially on social media platforms, that every priest against whom an allegation is made is now automatically guilty. Not a thought is given to waiting for justice or due process to be finished.

Some Irish bishops seem increasingly conditioned to repeating the mistakes of past. Some cocoon themselves with supporters who feed on their hard done by mentality.

Many ordinary clergy feel brow-beaten by the relentless media onslaught. And lay people feel often abandoned and betrayed. But they too remain Catholic and faithful.

The heights of media ludicrousness occurred over the past week.

The BBC's Nolan radio show criticised a Catholic priest for advising a Catholic couple who want to marry under Catholic rites in a Catholic church about Catholic social teaching.

How exactly was this news? What advice is the priest expected to give? In fact, these days a couple could get married in Burger King if they so wished.

Then there was an online petition to the Taoiseach, asking him to force the Catholic Church to let those who signed it stop being Catholic?

Seriously? No one is born Catholic. That 75% of all Irish people identify as Catholic doesn't make them Catholic, it's more about cultural identity than religiosity and faith.

I get that many people have been hurt and let down by the leaders of the Irish Catholic Church, particularly those victims of clerical abuse and women who have been treated abysmally by this male-dominated institution.

I get it too that some people are angry, even bitter about their experiences in the Catholic Church and I get too that there are those who just simply don't believe - but is it too much to ask to let ordinary Catholics get on with their own lives?

They too have a right to air their views or shape society as much as anyone else without being labelled as religious maniacs or being written off as being irrelevant.

This Pope in answer to a question replied: "Who am I to judge?"

It's a pity some in the secular world don't ask the same question of themselves.

Tom Kelly is a nationalist commentator

Belfast Telegraph