If you’re interested at all you will probably know by now that the referendum was carried and the 8th Amendment is struck from the constitution, to be replaced by acts of law to be passed in the Dáil, Ireland’s Parliament. There was much consternation in the media, who were surprised, nay, even shocked by the weight of the vote to repeal the amendment.
The expectation had been that the hidden vote, the Undecided of all the polls, would largely be No voters, not wishing to expose themselves to ridicule from the liberal media. One element of this thinking was the feeling that the vote would be divided along rural/urban lines, and that rural folk are old fashioned, deeply religious and conservative and so would vote No.
But I live in deeply rural south west Ireland, and talking to friends and knowing the stories common among the community, it was obvious that everyone was fed up with the clear inadequacy of the amendment to deal with the issue of abortion in the conditions of modern life and the possibilities of modern medicine. One reason for the assumption is because, on the whole, the rural population tend to attend church fairly regularly, and whole towns will turn out for funerals, Christmas and Easter. Everyone assumed they would take instruction from the Church. But they don’t. Going to church and attending funerals and weddings and so on is a community act. The church is as much if not more fundamentally a place where you meet your neighbours. What you believe is no one’s business but yours (and, if you believe in It/Him/Her, God’s).
The Catholic Church has always turned a blind eye to people who err a bit from their dogma if it is to the advantage of society and especially, them. There’s the confession angle that allows the penitent to disburden himself from time to time, while living a civil and social life, and the death bed confession and final absolution has been the popular last retreat of many a “sinful” person.
Religion in any case – in every case – has been the instrument of politics and civil organisation and control for millennia, using the uncertainties of this life and the supposed influence of this or that god to limit the citizenry’s expectations and bolster the rulers’ position. It is probably the origin of government and politics, of social ordering by authority backed by power and might. Every world religion can point to a military victor as the kick off point when they grew out of being a small sect of believers and became a fully fledged religion.
The Christian Church got its break in 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Emperor-to-be Constantine announced that Jesus had appeared to him above the enemy army, beckoning him to attack with the promise of victory. Blah, blah, blah. Just the kind of thing one would expect Jesus to do, “Come on, Connie, shed some blood!” After the battle Constantine claimed the Emperorship in the West, and granted complete tolerance to the previously persecuted Christians. He may or may not have become a convert himself, historians differs on this; it was all a long time ago.
The Romans soon adapted Christ as God (as opposed to philosopher or prophet) to accommodate their own Mithras, the god who had by then displaced all the ancient gods as the common belief system among the population, though the old gods kept their temples and followers. Both Jesus and Mithras were said to be born of virgins; both are said to have ascended into Paradise with their body intact. There are other coincidences. Before Constantine came along, Jesus was portrayed as blond and clean shaven, probably in the image of Alexander the Great, who had impressed everyone from Greece to India as a mythological figure. His was, presumably, taken as the face of the gods (“in Mine own image” etc.). Thus do these stories interconnect and develop.
All of the founding fathers of world religions, including Mohammed (of whom more in a moment) shared the general message best summed up by Jesus as, Be kind to your fellow humans and love God. St. Augustus once said “Love God and do what you like,” his point being that loving God and therefore not wanting to offend him (Him) would guarantee your good behaviour. It comes down to: you can expect other people to treat you pretty much as you treat them so be nice. Whatever I may feel now, I know that I owe a lot to those early lessons in my religion and this is a conundrum I cannot solve. Many religions are beneficent, including the Judaeo-Christian religions. It’s just that, if not unique they are certainly world leaders in the use of their god to excuse their murderous marauding and pillage.
On the whole, as you will know if you’ve been reading these blogs, I try to keep on the fence when it comes to all these belief systems, I am willing to accept that almost anything they say could be true, and I’ll go along with them till I learn that they’re wrong or right (I may have to be dead for this). The truth is, I simply cannot understand how anyone can say they know for certain what their God wants of us, why he put us here or even if he put us here, or what happens once we’re dead (and this goes for atheists too), let alone kill people for not agreeing.
But of course, as per the principle political purpose of religion, that last concession clears the way for war and invasion. Mohammed is an interesting exception to all the other founders of world religions. Where other religions have a great thinker, a supreme spirit as its figurehead, whose message is later picked up by a political leader and thus spread to unbelievers by killing or converting them, and incidentally also taking over their lands and subjugating their people for the leader, Mohammed was both: he spoke the message and he was the political leader in his wars to unite the Arabian Peninsula. The Q’ran is the most command based holy book of them all. He needed to keep those armies on their toes.
Nowadays, in the Christian world, the churches have lost most of their political power. Ireland is, or rather, was one of its last bastions, though religion plays a very sinister role in American politics still, and its political clout there looks like lasting. Around the world religion is being used by governments as a justification for repression, not least in the Islamic world, but in the Buddhist and Hindu world as well.
In Ireland, the referendum rang the final bell on the church for me, and quite possibly most of the population. No more sitting on a fence of tolerance and mild cooperation. Despite, among many other signs, the earlier gay marriage referendum (another shock for the church), the crestfallen face of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the vote, revealed his total failure to see or comprehend the changes in the Irish psyche since the 1980s. And as if to compound this, we were told last week of another scandal, this one from the 1950s and 60s (the last Magdalene laundry closed in 1974), in the way the church performed its role of protector of babies born out of wedlock and their mothers, exposing yet again the church’s cold, cruel, methodical treatment of its congregation, utterly convinced of their superiority – “We know best what’s good for you”. All in all, we have had many lessons in recent years about the true nature of the men and women of the Catholic Church’s attitude to the people they see from their pulpits. In this case, they are revealed to have sold babies (i.e. exchanged them for a “donation to the church”) to American couples and falsified their birth certificates so they cannot trace their birth parents. How arrogant is that?
What it all adds up to is a history of maliciousness and hypocrisy, bitter spirits (many nuns and priests were forced into the church by their parents), a culture of authoritarianism mitigated only by the individual people who do adhere to the generous message of their God on earth, Jesus Christ.
One striking hypocrisy shown up in the referendum and brought to my attention by a friend is this: in the run up to the referendum there was much furious argument between the two teams about when exactly a fertilized egg becomes a human being. Our local TD here in Kerry, who admittedly is something of a national joke, maintained that it was from the moment of fertilization, sperm penetrates egg and Bingo! Others conceded it began at end of the germinal stage, which lasts about 14 days; others put it at the end of the embryonic stage, six to eight weeks; in the end it seems to have been decided (but the Dáil has yet to vote) that the confirmation, as it were, of the foetal stage, at around 10-12 weeks, marks the moment when a baby is a human being, entitled to the full protection of our human rights laws. The Catholic Church, of course, said no stage could be aborted, that we should assume the presence of a soul, and thus humanity, all along.
But if this is so, then why do they not offer mass or a funeral for a miscarried baby? In fact, they used to go so far as to make women who had miscarried present themselves in church to be “cleansed”. Incidentally, they are now telling those in their congregations who voted Yes to confess their “sin”.
It all comes down to the appalling, poisonous distortions the Judaeo-Christian religions have made of human sexuality. I would call it a heresy. It seems to me, if there is a God, sex is one of his most unalloyed gifts for our pleasure and joy that one could imagine. Sex is a method for bonding people to each other in a particularly intimate way, while also (incidentally) being an efficient system for reproduction. Why treat it as practically a sin unless you do your best not to enjoy it, and only do it for procreative purposes? It should be noted that there are no quotes from Jesus on the subject. When Pope Gregory was stripping down all the records of Jesus’s life and sayings, editing them down to the four books we have today in the New Testament, he can only have cut out alternative views to the highly controlling anti-sex tradition we know so well, as surely he would have left in anything Jesus said that did confirm the Tora on such things as homosexuality or sex in general. He told the adulteress not to do it again, so we can assume he agreed to monogamous marriage, but as to out of marriage or who should do what to whom, who knows?
It also annoys the hell out of me that the Church is quite happy to allow modern secular medicine to interfere in the fragile business of birth, to engineer pregnancies in previously barren couples, or to save children who would have died, even fifty years ago let alone a hundred and fifty. But surely, by the logic of their belief, this was God’s way of keeping the population under control? If we accept that we are going to live on this planet as independent beings and not accept it all as God made it, then we are making decisions that to an extent, large or small, that ignore his supremacy. The Church, whether it likes it or not, has been making “modern” decisions and changes to dogma ever since it became a world religion back in the 4th century.
Finally, in a modern individualistic capitalist society, people are just less inclined to be told what to do, and certainly not what to think, by governments or religions.
And here’s a funny thing: Pope Francis is coming to Ireland this summer, and he has promised that everyone who attends his masses will be given a “plenary indulgence”. This is a quaint Catholic concept, in which the Pope tells God to let the recipient off some of their due punishment in Purgatory. They can be collected, there are various ways of earning them, if I remember correctly (I was raised as a Catholic), so that, in theory, when you die and have made your way to your Judgement, you could listen to St. Peter read out all your sins and then hand him a bunch of these vouchers and walk straight through the Pearly Gates. It used to be measured out in days (I’m not sure if they put a time span on them now). The Reformation was caused, among other things, by the corrupt sale of indulgences, Martin Luther’s particular bête noir.
Subsequent to the Pope’s announcement Archbishop Diarmuid Martin announced that due to health and safety concerns attendance at the Pope’s masses will be ticketed.
So here we are again, exchanging indulgences for money! I’d like to think this heralds the second Reformation, and this time let it mean the church is forced to close down, sell all their worldly goods, and give the money to the poor. As I recall, that is what Jesus told them to do.
 from paragraph 3 – My favourite story of this was an English Duke in the 18th century who, when asked if he rejected the Devil and all his works, replied “This is no time to be making new enemies.”