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Full text of Senator Martin Mansergh's article on religious freedom

Below is the full text of Senator Martin Mansergh's article on religious freedom. With kind permission of the Irish Catholic.

The 1916 Proclamation guarantees religious and civil liberty. Until recently, religious freedom in Ireland would have been taken for granted, but in fact there are increasing signs that it is being fundamentally challenged. Religious freedom is the freedom individually and collectively to profess and act on religious beliefs, without being coerced into actions contrary to conscience.

Handel’s late oratorio Theodora based on a 17th century novel by Robert Boyle, the famous chemist born in Lismore Castle whose statue flanks Government Buildings, is the story of the martyrdom of a princess of Antioch, who refuses to attend a sacrifice to Jove in honour of the Emperor Diocletian. Her political loyalty as a Christian is brushed aside with the comment, ‘they are not Caesar’s friends, who own not Caesar’s gods’. Substitute secular norms for Caesar’s gods, and one can detect in some quarters an increasing impatience with those whose religious beliefs prevent them from giving their full cooperation, without of course the threat of barbaric punishments.

In today’s Ireland, the religious faith still professed to a greater or lesser extent by a large majority of the people places few constraints on personal freedom or choices, but equally no person or organisation should be forced by legislation or agencies of the State to act in a manner contrary to their conscientious religious beliefs.

Today, there are influential voices that want to overthrow that equilibrium. In the name of equality, human rights or the rights of minorities, the demand is that unrepresentative views be entitled to supplant the democratic wishes of a majority of the people. Secular humanism, instead of being one minority view among others, is being promoted as the embodiment of neutrality and therefore should rightfully become the norm at a stroke.

Catholic pregnancy advisory agencies in Ireland have been threatened with a withdrawal of funding, unless they are prepared to engage in abortion referral at one remove. Catholic adoption agencies in Britain must be prepared to accept same-sex couples as suitable to adopt, or also be forced to close through loss of State funding, with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s scruples overridden. The Angelus on RTE and Oireachtas prayers should be withdrawn, on the grounds that they might be offensive to Jews, Muslims and others. Derogations from the EU equality directive negotiated by the Government at the request of all the Churches, which allows them to protect the ethos of their schools, hospitals, and charities, should be removed, we are told, even though it would then become impossible to maintain a religious ethos in any institution. In short, religion is to be privatised and removed from the public sphere in a (proudly?) post-Christian Ireland.

Two factors give this movement a certain momentum. In Ireland, the child abuse scandals involving priests are deemed to have weakened the legitimacy of the Church by its opponents. In Britain, it is the fear of international terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism.

Every State, country and society needs a set of democratically determined core values. They do not have to be exclusive or impervious to change or unaccommodating of alternatives within limits, nor does everyone have to subscribe to all or most of them, provided that the right of the people to determine the nature of their own society is accepted. Naturally, society should be as inclusive as possible without losing its (evolving) identity or all the characteristics that give it stability. A pure multicultural relativism will not answer those needs, and it is not fair of those who purport to speak for various kinds of minority to demand in the name of equality that Ireland should not just adapt but simply abandon or surrender large parts of its distinctive political and religious heritage. Certainly, religious minorities would get short shrift, if this were ever granted, and most of them know it.

Those who value that heritage, needless to say, should not seek an unattainable return to the conditions of fifty years ago, but rather to maintain a reasonable balance between the respect for and reflection of religious beliefs and values, and openness to other influences. Fortunately, the Constitution, with its requirement that fundamental changes be first put to the people for their approval directly in a referendum, poses a significant barrier to some élites who want to reshape Irish society according to their lights with least possible reference to the people.

This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the Irish Catholic.


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"The child...shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents."

Article 7. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.