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(1/5) Questioning Irish bishops influence on state legislation.

End of Life Ireland (EOLI) is a volunteer-led group seeking to foster conversation about end-of life issues. This is the first of our opinion pieces, where members of our committee take a close look at the arguments for and against the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill. In this series, EOLI committee member Noel Byrne comments on the arguments against the bill as expressed by the bishops of Ireland in their submission to the Oireachtas Committee considering the Bill.

I was delighted to be invited by End of Life Ireland to write this series of blog posts, debunking the myths put forth by Irish bishops in their Oireachtas submission on the Dying with Dignity Bill. The invitation was no doubt extended in full knowledge of my opinions on the Catholic church in Ireland so here it goes!

In the almost one hundred years since the foundation of the state, Irish bishops via the ‘Irish Bishops Conference’ have been a major influence on Irish Society. This influence, particularly up to the 1960’s, went beyond the expected religious domain, stretching into health, education, social welfare, the media and politics. Let us look at their influence to date and consider whether that influence has been for better or for worse.

Early interventions by the church in Irish law include: 1

  • Censorship of Films Act (1923)
  • Censorship of Publications Act (1929)
  • Legitimacy Act (1930)
  • Vocational Education Act (1930)
  • The Constitution of Ireland Act (1937)
  • Public Health Bill (1945)
  • Health Act (1947)
  • Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Bill (1948)
  • Adoption Act (1952)
  • Vital Statistics and Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths Act (1952)
  • Health Act (1953)
  • Agriculture Act (1958)
  • Intoxicating Liquor Act (1960)
  • Charities Act (1961)
  • Adoption Act (1964)
  • Succession Act (1965)

By their influence the bishops have in our young state managed to ban and censor books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers, songs and films. There was the blanket ban on attending Trinity College, and evidencing the misogyny of the bishops, they supported such diverse persecution of women such as the bans on tampons, contraception and married women in the Civil Service.

In addition, the bishops publicly opposed divorce (in two refenda), civil partnerships and marriage equality, abortion (in two referenda) and the Mother and Child Scheme. They still oppose sex outside marriage and now they oppose the “Dying with Dignity Bill”.

In relation to the various scandals within the church including the sexual abuse scandals, the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby homes, the church, through its bishops, has been more interested in protecting itself and its assets. It was only when forced to do so that it showed any remorse and made paltry efforts at sorrow and recompense.

In light of the negative effects of these laws and scandals over the last century we should question the continued efforts of the Catholic church in Ireland to negatively influence state legislation. Sean O’ Faolain, the great Irish short story writer, commentator and critic said: 2 

Further in the quotation Ó Faoláin refers to the Mother and Child scheme of 1948, which proposed modernising the Irish healthcare system and making it free. This opportunity to put a single tier healthcare system in place was brought down by an archbishop, John Charles McQuaid and we still suffer from the effects of that dogma to this day. As Ó Faoláin wrote, ‘The Dáil proposes,  Maynooth  disposes. The Dáil had, when up against the second parliament, only one right of decision: the right to surrender.’  Unfortunately, in 2021 the bishops still try to influence morality at state level in this Republic, despite their waning power and their decreasing flock. The bishops have become accustomed to imposing their beliefs on everyone.

In contrast, the Dying with Dignity Bill legislates for choice, offering our citizens choice and freedom at end of life, and does not in any way impose on anyone.

Why should a misogynistic and homophobic clergy be allowed any more to influence state legislation and decisions? The Maynooth Parliament has lost most of its influence, and despite it’s aging flock and waning influence the bishops continue to fight against offering voluntary assisted dying (VAD) as a choice at end of life.

In my next post I will address the flaws in the apparent biblical justification the bishops give for fighting against the Bill. The Vatican use the ‘The Good Samaritan’ parable in a twisted format to justify their stance.  As the bishops won’t dissent or disagree with the Vatican they have little option but to use the Vatican viewpoint as their background.  The next post will show there is actually no evidence in the Bible condemning suicide in any shape or form.

  1. White, J. H, ‘Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923-1970’, (1971)
  2. Blanshard, Paul, The Irish and Catholic Power’, (1954)

Noel Byrne is a committee member of EOLI. He is a retired Civil Servant and a Humanist, with a principal interest in Philosophy, and a particular interest in Ethics and Morality.