Does the Catholic Church still influence Irish society?

Aoife O'Brien

The institution of the Catholic church has caused anger and distress for many Irish people in recent times.

People will argue that changes in legislation including decriminalising abortion, blasphemy and same sex marriage reflect a society that is no longer influenced by the Catholic church.

However, our language and customs including phrases like ‘Goodnight and God Bless’ and ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ and rituals around marriage and death hint at a legacy that is left behind by the church.

Having acted as a shadow welfare state for much of our history, many of the concepts and institutions that we rely on for the efficient running of society, exist only because of the Catholic church and its legacy.

However, this level of control means that the consequences of church teaching are often still inflicted on those from other religions or no religion at all.

Hospitals first began as a sustained social initiative via the church in the 4th century with the aim to heal and comfort the lowly, sick and diseased regardless of their religion or social circle.

The Catholic church is still the largest non-governmental provider of health services in the world and own a number of Irish hospitals including the site for the new National Maternity hospital.

By providing the land to the state at no cost the Sisters of Charity and by extension the church is enabling the provision of health care to women in need. However, there are numerous concerns over how the religious ethos could affect patients of the hospital with the church looking to forbid the morning after pill, IVF, vasectomies, sterilisation of women and abortion.

The role of the church in education is equally strong. The first universities globally were pioneered by the church in the 11th and 12th century and it is from these institutions that modern science emerged.

Even today 90 per cent of Ireland’s 3,200 primary schools are owned by the church. This has become an issue in our increasingly multi-denominational society as non-Catholics are often left with no option but to send their child to a Catholic run school.

However, it is also worth considering how far behind our education system would be if the church had not invested in these schools when the state could not.

Even today, religious charities are having to step into areas where the state are failing us. This is particularly evident in the work of the Peter McVerry Trust providing services to the homeless or St. Vincent De Paul providing financial assistance, prison visits and social housing to alleviate the impact of poverty and social exclusion.

Even where society have voted against the wishes of the Catholic church, their influence still remains. For women this means that while abortion is now legal in the country there are still areas where women cannot access the service.

Despite the decriminalisation of same sex marriage, gay couples still cannot be married within the church and while many may not want to be, the stigma that still surrounds it as a result of religious ethos has isolated and estranged many families.

Catholicism never claimed to be a religion for a perfect person. It came to call all sinners. But the institution of the church has a lot to answer for. And the roots of Catholicism both good and bad will be hard dug from the foundations of our society.

Aoife O’Brien

Image Credit: PxHere