After a wave of church scandals, the government there is now in the midst of rolling out a plan that would initiate a gradual shift away from having church authorities act as the official patrons of virtually all public schools — something that would limit teachings of Catholic sacraments and theology.
“The country in which religion has strived most strongly is where church and state are separated,” said Ruairi Quinn, Ireland’s education minister, referring to the United States in explaining Europe’s drift away from the church. “The countries where religion is languishing either through neglect or indifference are those European countries which previously were dominated or controlled by the Catholic Church such as Portugal, Italy, Spain, not to mention Ireland.”
After keeping a relatively low profile following abuse scandals, the church has recently sought to raise its voice in Ireland and other parts of the continent, citing what church officials call the need to confront the rise of “aggressive atheism” and more-liberal Protestant faiths.
It has, for instance, strongly inserted itself into the debate over abortion following the death of a woman in Ireland last November. Doctors allegedly refused to terminate her pregnancy for health reasons “in a Catholic country.”
Church officials there have spoken out against a government pledge to pass laws this year that, for the first time, would unambiguously permit abortions under limited circumstances. A leading Irish bishop took to the airwaves last month to denounce the rise of a “culture of death,” while a high-ranking Vatican official suggested in a Catholic newspaper that Irish priests could withhold Communion from politicians and other citizens who support abortion.
“The church has been almost out of the social debate up until quite recently because of the [sex abuse] scandals,” said the Rev.
Brian McKevitt, editor of Alive, an Irish Catholic newspaper that has been running antiabortion editorials. “But if the church does not stand up for this, against abortion, then it has no function left.”
In Britain, which officially broke with the Vatican in the 16th century, the response to O’Brien’s resignation Monday bordered on shock. Born in Northern Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, O’Brien rose to be a pillar of Britain’s still substantial Catholic community, becoming head of the church in Scotland and viewed by religious conservatives of multiple faiths as a devout traditionalist.
He once described abortions as “massacres” and said an embryo stem-cell research bill would allow for “Nazi-style experiments.” Though he became a leading voice against gay rights, his positions were not always easy to define. Last week, the cardinal gave an interview in which he suggested the church might need to revisit the question of clerical celibacy.
O’Brien was already scheduled to retire next month. By officially accepting his retirement Monday, the pope effectively accelerated his exit. Many in Britain, including Catholics, however, were still looking to O’Brien to offer a more detailed response to the allegations, published Sunday in the British newspaper the Observer.
The report cited four men who approached the Vatican’s emissary in London a week before the pope’s Feb. 11 resignation with the allegations against O’Brien.
“The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability,” the paper quoted one of the men — who have remained anonymous — as saying. “If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”
Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.