By Grainne Treanor - 08 April, 2018
Senator Catherine Noone, chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment, raised eyebrows this week with a tweet criticising a priest for expressing a pro-life opinion from the pulpit on Easter Sunday. She tweeted: “Easter mass in Knock Basilica this afternoon with my parents – an octogenarian priest took at least three opportunities to preach to us about abortion – it’s no wonder people feel disillusioned with the Catholic Church.”
The eagle eyes of the Twittersphere were not going to let Noone off with a gaffe of this magnitude, with commentators immediately pointing out the ageist, not to mention inaccurate nature of her tweet – the priest in question being in his sixties according to online reports.
Others expressed concern at Noone’s lack of respect for freedom of speech even in those with whom she disagrees. As Michael Kelly of the Irish Catholic newspaper put it, “she appears to see it as her role to object to a Catholic priest teaching Catholics the Catholic faith in a Catholic church”. Noone later apologised for the tweet, saying that “discourse is vital”.
For many, this seemed to be too little too late. Noone’s tweet seems to sum up many of the attitudes being put forward by pro-repeal campaigners. With political groups like People Before Profit bemoaning “right-wing Catholic groups” who “want to take Ireland back to the dark ages” on Facebook, this latest appears to have spurred people of faith to speak up in defence of life and freedom of speech.
Many have commented that the Church hierarchy hasn’t been as vocal in the public debate as might have been expected, something which seems to have been deliberately done. When asked by Brian Dobson if individual bishops would be issuing pastoral letters “seeking to influence the course of the debate”, Bishop Alan McGuckian of Raphoe gave a clue as to why this has been the case. In pointing out the role of the bishops “as teachers, not campaigners”, his words were in continuity with the approach by the Church in recent years to “propose, not impose” – an approach which has resulted in the Choose Life newsletters which are circulating online. In these newsletters is proposed the same thing that was proposed in Knock on Easter Sunday to the consternation of Senator Noone – nothing more or less than “the sacredness and preciousness of every human life”.
This is conveyed in stories such as those of Tracy Harkin, whose 10-year-old daughter has Trisomy 13 and was not expected to live more than a few days; the story of Melissa Ohden, who is the survivor of an abortion herself; Cliona Johnson’s story of the life of her son John Paul who had anencephaly and lived for just 17 minutes after birth – stories that would change the debate if people heard them.
Indeed, the Church is making sure that people can hear the voices of the unborn and the stories of women; since last summer, volunteers (usually women, this author included) have been speaking in churches across Ireland about the Eighth Amendment, sanctioned by the bishop of each diocese and warmly welcomed by priests and people alike.
Most of the bishops are expected to release pastoral statements to complement their statement, Two Lives One Love, a well-reasoned document focusing on the importance of human dignity and rights being accorded to each person: “Fundamental rights are ‘acknowledged’ in constitutions and charters and ‘vindicated’ in the application of the law. They are what the United Nations refers to as the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.’”
Canvassers are encouraging people of faith to speak up to prevent an abortion regime less restrictive than the UK’s, where one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. They say that while faith is often talked about at the doors, arguments from a faith perspective aren’t the most relevant.
Marie, a nurse from Kerry, says that while she is Catholic, she doesn’t relate the issue of abortion back to faith when speaking to people. “I don’t talk about faith when canvassing because I don’t think it’s useful. A lot of the time pro-abortion people bring up the Catholic Church and I always tell them this is a human rights issue.”
Luke from Galway has had similar experiences and says that discussions need to be brought back to what will be on the ballot papers. “I quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not the Bible. I’m not looking for a debate or discussion on religion, but on constitutional recognition of the Human Right to Life.”
With polling day quickly approaching, campaigners are encouraging everyone to speak to their neighbours, relatives and friends and remind them that what is being proposed is abortion on demand up to three months, as a result of the removal of the last remaining protection in Irish law for the unborn child.
This emphasis on human rights being accorded to every human being regardless of their stage has been echoed by a joint statement from Christian leaders in Donegal. “We hold that all human life is precious … That gives every human being immense dignity, worth, value and meaning, regardless of size, shape, gender, ability or colour.”
Sandra, a student and canvasser from Waterford, is encouraging everyone regardless of creed to make their voices heard. People, she says, are often surprised to learn that she is a pro-life atheist, but she thinks people of faith should not be apologetic about their beliefs. “Whether an atheist, agnostic or a person of faith, we are all fighting for the same cause, because we all see the same value in a human life.”