Abortion and Our Union… with Christ

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Two of the more interesting responses to the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland were published in the May 30th edition of the Belfast Telegraph.

One by Fr. Patrick McCafferty and the other by Alex Kane; and both, for different reasons, highlight the nature of the new society in Ireland, North and South.

Those who know anything about Ireland will know that until very recently religious and national identity were two sides of the same coin, and, more often than not, those identities fell in the following way: Irish and Catholic, and British/Unionist and Protestant. It may be a crude distinction, but for at least 100 years it has been an accurate distinction—and a distinction which held true even into the increasingly secular 2000’s, albeit whispered more quietly. But the response to the abortion referendum has indicated a change in direction.

We might expect Fr. McCafferty to defend the Catholic Church. As a reformed Christian I am pleased he does; but what was less expected was for him to step so clearly outside this previous stereotypical religious/national parallel. For me, his most notable turn of phrase was:

“free now from any entanglement in the “emperor’s embrace”.” (And it wasn’t the British Empire he was speaking about.)

In context, the entire sentence reads:

“Essentially, we are presented with a new landscape, in which to properly be the Church of Jesus Christ, free now from any entanglement in the “emperor’s embrace”.”

And this follows immediately from the introduction:

“We are in a new situation in Ireland—a potentially lethal one for unborn children. In the referendum, 66.4% of the Republic rejected a fundamental Catholic teaching.”


“You cannot be a Catholic and be in favour of abortion.”

And he calls on Irish Catholics to be honest:

“People who reject such a vitally important teaching of Christ need to be spiritually and morally honest.”

And if this means Irish people abandoning the Catholic Church then so be it.

It is nothing if not clear, and I have sympathy with his position.

And gradually, the Irish nation, or at least that part of it known as the Republic of Ireland, is becoming less than Catholic nation. Indeed it may even be argued that the abortion referendum was also, at least in part, an exercising of the ghosts of Eamonn de Valera and John Charles McQuaid—President and Archbishop of Dublin, and the foremost figures of the Catholic Irish Republic.

And so at least one strand of Ireland’s religious/national identity has been broken: Ireland no longer needs to be a Catholic nation.

Fr. McCafferty continues:

“The sacraments of Jesus Christ, for example, are not mere rites of passage. Therefore, choose a secular education for children, avail of other rites of passage and/or invent new ones.”

“Cultural Catholicism” has little or nothing to do with Jesus Christ.”

And so another of the strands which link Ireland’s religious and national identity is broken, and the Church is a matter of faith in Christ rather than culture or national identity.

Of course, one might have assumed that this ought to be the case, that for the Christian Church, our primary allegiance is to Christ, but that is to ignore the long entanglement of religion and nationality in Ireland—the shift is significant.


In a similar way the piece by Alex Kane, a Unionist commentator and atheist raises questions about the connection between unionism and Protestantism.

If (the Republic of) Ireland was Irish and Catholic, Northern Ireland was Unionist and Protestant.

If anyone should be in any doubt about this, Sir James Craig, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland said during a debate in 1934 in the Northern Ireland House of Commons:

“The Hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.”

And while the above quotation has sometimes been misquoted, it highlights the Catholic Ireland/Protestant Unionist divide.

The 1930’s were important in establishing the idea of ‘Catholic Ireland’. It was during these years that the Republic’s Constitution was written (de Valera and McQuaid were instrumental), and the special recognition given to the Catholic Church added to Northern Protestant fears that ‘Home Rule’ was ‘Rome Rule’. Again, the long history of ‘Catholic Ireland’ and ‘Protestant Ulster’ is confirmed.

As in the Republic of Ireland, however, secularisation continues in Northern Ireland, but with an added complication: that of the existence of the state itself.

Not only are the questions of social and moral change also live issues in Northern Ireland, but another referendum is being encouraged. And this time the question is about whether or not Northern Ireland should remain unionist and British, or choose to become part of a United Ireland.

For unionists, then, another pressing question is how to protect and promote the United Kingdom Union, and increasingly an answer with is being given is for Northern Ireland to become increasingly liberal on the social and moral issues of the day. This, it is argued will bring Northern Ireland into line with ‘Mainland’ Britain, appeal to younger voters, and guard against voters turning to Republic of Ireland to gain such rights.

One of those making this argument is Alex Kane:

And if Fr. McCaffery is now thankful for his freedom “from any entanglement in the emperor’s embrace” in order to focus on the Gospel, Alex Kane is calling for Northern Ireland’s unionists to further embrace the emperor of social change as a way of preserving the UK Union:

 “…if abortion, same-sex marriage et al are legal and equal across England, Scotland and Wales, then no unionist – let alone unionist party in Northern Ireland – should prevent that legality and equality.”

It’s an intriguing statement, and one which sounds as if he is saying that if you want to be a unionist, if you want to promote the UK Union, then you must necessarily agree with the new secularism. If so, then liberalism on social and moral issues is not only a way to secure the UK Union, it is what unionism is.

We can only but wonder if the same embrace of social change would be required if I was living in England and wished to remain a unionist. Is no dissent to be permitted. Is it permissible for one be a unionist and disagree with a prevailing moral or social view?

Or to put it another way, may one be British yet disagree with the emperor?

And I hear the snap of another religious/national strand:

Northern Ireland is no longer a Protestant nation.

And so we might also ask if cultural Protestantism has anything to do with Jesus Christ.

Understandably, this is not a question Alex Kane seeks to address, but it is an important one for those who consider themselves to be unionist and Protestant.

If the best way to support the UK Union is to embrace moral and social change then whither Protestant unionism?

After all, if one “cannot be a Catholic and be in favour of abortion”; and if “Cultural Catholicism has little or nothing to do with Jesus Christ”; and if by implication one’s allegiance to the ‘new’ Irish State is diminished by being a faithful Catholic, then sooner or later someone is going to have to ask the equivalent questions of Northern Ireland Protestants.

And perhaps those questions look like this:

Can one be a Protestant and in favour of abortion?

Does “Cultural Protestantism” have anything to do with Jesus Christ?

And, to what extent will one’s allegiance to unionism be diminished by being a faithful Protestant?

Are Protestants really being told that if they are to support the UK Union then they must adopt a liberal position on social and moral issues?

Whichever way, the parallels between religious and national identity in Ireland are not what they once were, the contrasts are greater, and it may be that Protestants and Catholics no longer have the luxury of a dual identity.

(And, of course, the astute reader will have noted that in this piece at least, the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ are [mostly] interchangeable with ‘Christian’.)


Update: 01.06.18

Articles about the nature of ‘Ulster Unionism’ and its need to liberalise continue apace.

In the past few day, this and this have been written, and again, the course charted is clear: ‘Quite simply, Unionism must evolve to prosper and do it quickly.’

And with this new course, a new mantra has been appearing: Northern Ireland is, “a place apart”, with the implication that we must not be a place apart.

The argument about securing the UK Union in this way, however, seems relatively weak; and in the same way as we have asked ‘religious’ questions, we might ask some political ones:

‘Are, for example, unionists who might contemplate voting for a United Ireland really unionists?’

‘Wouldn’t voting for a United Ireland, for whatever reason, make one less than a unionist?’

But important as it is, securing national identity is not the main concern of this peace, rather it is this, if forced to choose between the merits of different ‘Unions’, I expect that there will be those be those who will choose Union with Christ.


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