BISHOPS AND THE LAW
ON PUBLIC MORALITY
Cardinal Cahal B. Daly
In 1997 the Irish Catholic Bishops published a collection of statements relating to constitutional and legislative change in matters of public morality, issued by them in the period 1973 to 1995. The proposal for such a collection was suggested in the first place by Jim Cantwell, who was at that time Director of the Catholic Press and Information Office; and it was he who wrote the introductory notes, giving the context in which each statement was issued.
The past quarter century has been marked by profound social change in Ireland; and this publication brought together in one cover a series of documents outlining Catholic Church teaching on some of the moral issues associated with that social change. Indeed the collection provided, for Catholics and for other interested parties, a conspectus of Church teaching in this domain. Since Ireland had been in the past three or four decades a kind of laboratory of social change, change affecting State as well as Church and having important implications for Church and State relations, the publication had the further benefit of offering an easily accessible book of reference for historians of the period and for analysts of social change generally, Indeed, the topic has relevance, therefore, not only for Ireland but for similar situations elsewhere.
The social change occurring in Ireland in the period in question, however, has continued since 1995, and the Bishops have issued further statements on these issues since that date. The Bishops have, therefore, decided to reissue the volume, extending it so as to include episcopal statements issued between 1995 and 2005.
Having these statements in one cover so that they can be read collectively makes it easier to discern the basic principles on which Church teaching on these issues is based. It can also help the wider public to make informed judgements about the validity of the Bishops’ case, the nature and the cogency of the evidence which they advance for their conclusions, and the consistency of the bishops’ position on the various issued involved.
Wide Range of Statements
Many of the statements, like many of the proposed constitutional or legislative changes which evoked them, have to do with sexual morality. There is a danger that this could reinforce the common prejudice that the Church is unduly, if not exclusively, concerned with sexual morality. It is important, therefore, to stress (as the introduction to the 1997 edition of this collection stressed) that these texts are only part of the wide range of statements and pastoral letters issued by the bishops over the period covered by the present collection. It is timely to list some of these. From 1973 to the present, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland have issued eleven major Pastoral Letters. Seven of these were collected in a single volume, published by Veritas in 1979, with the title Justice, Love and Peace. Two of these Pastorals were devoted to social justice (The Work of Justice, 1977; and Work is the Key, 1992); three were on prayer and the family (Prayer in the Home, 1973; Handing on the Faith in the Home, 1980; Cherishing the Family, 1994): one was on Change in the Church (1972). Two extensive Pastoral Letters were devoted to marriage (Christian Marriage, 1969; and Love is for Life, 1985). One was addressed to The Young Church (1985). One Pastoral was devoted to the right to life, with an important section on abortion and another section on violence in Northern Ireland (Human Life is Sacred, 1975). In 1998 the Bishops issued a Pastoral Document on Conscience. A further letter on the Right to Life was issued in 2001 to mark the Day of Life proclaimed by Pope John Paul for that year, and further Letters on the same theme were issued in 2002, relating to the abortion referendum of that year. A Pastoral Letter on Euthanasia was issued in 2002 to mark the next Day of Life. In 2003 the Bishops published a submission which they had made to the Government Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. In 2004 Archbishop Sean Brady made a statement on behalf of the Episcopal Conference on Marriage and Family at a Seminar organised by IBC on Marriage and Family Life.
Two major statements were devoted to issues of world poverty and development, (Development, 1973 and 1982). One Pastoral Letter was devoted to the topic of the Church’s missionary outreach (Missions, 1978). During this same period, twelve statements were issued by the Bishops concerning Northern Ireland. Two statements addressed the question of immigration and two further statements related to economic justice (1970 and 1979), with a third statement entitled: Christian faith in a time of Economic Depression, (1983). Questions of war and peace were not overlooked: one major statement was devoted to the morality of nuclear weapons, with the title: The Storm that Threatens (1983). The question of European Unity was addressed in three statements. Two Episcopal Statements related to the abuse of alcohol. Others related to particular wars and conflicts (South Africa in 1986; Armenia in 1988; the Gulf War in 1991; Conflict in Rwanda in 1994 and in Bosnia in 1995.) Two statements were devoted to the problem of Aids (1987 and 1990). A statement was devoted to child sex abuse (1994) and this was followed by many related initiatives by the Bishops, such as the setting up of the Child Protection Office and the Child Protection Committee, the Hussey Commission, the College of Surgeons Report, the Lynott Report. A Pastoral reflection on the issues raised by child sex abuse was issued in Lent 2005 with the title, “Towards Healing”. One statement was directed to Charismatic Renewal (1993) and another to the New Age Phenomenon (1994). At the same time, Agencies of the Irish Episcopal Conference, such as the then Council for Social Welfare, the then Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, the then Commission for the Laity, and Trocaire, all issued various statements related to issues within their respective remit.
Indeed, it would take a number of publications like this one to do justice to the Irish Bishops’ teaching and pastoral guidance in such areas as ‘The Bishops and Christian Faith in a Changing World’, ‘The Bishops and the Family’, ‘The Bishops and Respect for Life’, ‘The Bishops and Social Justice’.
No “State Enforcement” of Catholic Teaching
In the ongoing debate in Ireland about relations between Church and State, a number of misrepresentations about the Catholic Church’s position regularly recur. The texts of the successive statements collected here demonstrate very clearly that these are indeed misrepresentations and are without foundation. One of these is that the Catholic Church is asking the State to enforce Catholic teaching on all citizens; or differently put, that the Church is usurping the place of the legislature. The Bishops have repeatedly made it plain that this is not so. In the first statement printed here, which related to contraception, dated 1973, after stating that “no change in state law can make the use of contraceptives morally right”, the Bishops go on to say:
“It does not follow, of course, that the State is bound to prohibit the importation and sale of contraceptives. There are many things which the Catholic Church holds to be morally wrong, and no one has ever suggested, least of all the Church herself, that they should be prohibited by the State.
Those who insist on seeing the issue purely in terms of the State enforcing, or not enforcing, Catholic moral teaching are therefore missing the point”.
Statements to this effect were frequently made by the late Cardinal Conway, President of the Episcopal Conference from 1963 to 1977.
Openness and Transparency of Church-Government Relations
Cardinal Conway took steps also to correct a further misconception regarding any dealings between Church and Government. It was sometimes suggested that these would typically take place in secret, by the “back door”, away from public notice. The Bishops, in Cardinal Conway’s time, adopted a policy whereby any meeting between a bishops’ delegation and government representatives would be announced in advance and would be conducted, so far as the Bishops were concerned, on the basis of a document prepared by them in advance and subsequently published. Thus all reasonable measures would be taken to ensure that all dealings between Church and Government were as open and transparent as possible.
Nevertheless, various misrepresentation of the Catholic Bishops position continued. In 1976, the Bishops issued another statement, “Restating the Principle”. In this, the Bishops repeated that:
“It is not the view of the Catholic hierarchy, that, in the law of the State, the principles peculiar to our faith should be made binding on people who do not adhere to that faith”.
Instead, the Bishops emphasised, in both the 1973 and 1976 statements, that the question to be decided in matters of this kind – as far as state law is concerned – is the impact on society, which a change in the law would be likely to have. The Bishops expressed regret that the “social dimension” of such issues is usually ignored, while
“instead the questions are discussed in the false context as to whether the State should impose Catholic moral teaching on all, irrespective of their beliefs – something which the Bishops have never suggested”.
Legislation in a Pluralist Society
The Bishops, in their statements, do not ignore or dismiss the difficulties of legislating on issues of public morality in a pluralist society. In their 1986 statement on the Divorce Referendum, for example, the Bishops stated:
“Many considerations require attention from legislators when they are enacting legislation or from voters when they are voting on constitutional change. Among other things, they have to take account of the convictions of those who do not accept the teaching of the Catholic Church. They have to aim at creating laws which favour reconciliation between citizens and communities throughout the island of Ireland. They have to try to give citizens the maximum freedom which is consistent with the common good.
Their first concern as legislators or as voters, however, is for the well-being of society as a whole: and it can scarcely be denied that the well- being of society is closely bound up with the stability of marriage and the family. In the forthcoming referendum voters must ask themselves whether other factors outweigh the damage which divorce would certainly cause to individuals, to families, to children and to the whole of society.
Family stability, based on monogamous marriage, is a powerful agent for the moral formation of children and young people. Legislation which weakens the family or which, however unintentionally, facilitates the separation of child-bearing from marriage and from marital fidelity, is detrimental to the welfare of society.
In their statements on divorce, the Bishops were not content simply to stress the moral wrongness of marriage following divorce and the damage that divorce and remarriage can do to the stability of the family and to the well-being of society, they also appealed for “legal reforms to strengthen the stability of marriage and lessen the risk of marriage breakdown”. The passage of time has made this appeal for ‘marriage-friendly’ legal and political policies more urgent than ever.
In their 1992 statement on Abortion Law, following the Supreme Court Judgement on the so-called “X-case”, the Bishops inevitably condemned abortion as being in fundamental conflict with the divine commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and declared that:
“No motive can justify (abortion). No court judgement, no act of legislation, can make it morally right. Abortion goes to the very well-springs of human life and touches the very foundations of morality. … The issue of abortion is a matter of justice. It involves the most basic of all human rights, the right to life.”
Turning to the questions of freedom of travel and freedom of information in relation to abortion outside the State, the Bishops emphasised that
“when an action is morally wrong the provision of information which assists a person to perform it is also morally wrong, and counselling which suggest that it is a proper or a neutral option is likewise morally wrong”.
The Bishops, however, go on to state:
“It does not follow that travel or information should be prohibited or restricted by law. Many actions which are immoral are not prohibited by the State, because attempts to prohibit them could lead to an unacceptable infringement of the personal liberty of citizens in a free society, and could bring the law into disrepute”.
In a follow-up statement in 1992, the Bishops repeated the substance of this paragraph.
Morality, Law and Well-Being of Society
It is worth noting, however, that when the influence of Church teaching declines in society and the binding force of morality and of conscience lessens, the State seems to feel itself obliged to intervene more and more in people’s lives, in the sheer interests of public order and social peace; and we then see the growth of the “nanny State”. In other words, moral restraints and legal restrictions seem to be in inverse proportion to one another. As moral self-restraint weakens and civic virtue declines, the State attempts to enforce virtuous behaviour by legislation and by legal penalties for transgressions. The danger then is that personal freedoms begin to become imperilled by the State itself.
The Irish Bishops, do not believe that one can make people virtuous by legislation. In their 1992-1993 statements about condom legislation, the Bishops state:
“There are many things which are sinful and which the law of the land cannot reasonably be expected to prohibit.”
The State itself, however, depends for its cohesion and stability on a degree of moral consensus in society about the legitimacy of the State and of its agencies for peace-keeping and for law and order and law-enforcement, and about the basic legitimacy of its laws. When that moral consensus is weakened, the very stability of the State itself is threatened. The State may then attempt to create and impose a new moral consensus by new legislation. Inevitably, the attempt fails. People cannot be made moral by legislation alone.
The State, however, can by its legislation further erode moral consensus and moral conviction and thus weaken its own moral foundations. The Bishops went on in their 1992-3 statements to declare:
“Neither can the law make what is morally wrong become right. Laws cannot make people morally good but they can sometimes make moral living more difficult by seeming to make immorality socially acceptable (by giving the appearance of society’s approval for acts and practices which are morally wrong)”.
In 1993, in a statement referring to the law on homosexual activity, the Bishops repeated once again the Church’s view on the relationship between morality and civil law. They declared:
“This teaching of the Church (on homosexual acts) is independent of State law. No change in State law can change the moral law. New civil laws cannot make what is wrong right. Laws relating to homosexuality, like other laws which bear on moral issues, should not be seen in terms of the State’s upholding or not upholding Church teaching. The Church does not expect that acts which are sinful should, by that very fact, be made criminal offences. All such laws bearing on moral issues must be assessed in the light of the way in which they contribute or fail to contribute to the common good of society. …
It is a matter of experience that legislative change is never neutral in its effects on society”.
In a statement in 1995 on the divorce referendum, the Bishops declared:
“It is not a question of whether or not the teaching of the Catholic Church should be removed from the Constitution. The simple fact that something is in harmony with the Church’s teaching is not in itself a reason to keep it in the Constitution, but neither is it a reason to remove it. The proposal should be evaluated in the light of the social implications of introducing divorce.”
Referring to Catholic Church provision for the annulment of marriage, the Bishops state firmly:
“But the Church has never asked or expected that the civil and canonical jurisdictions should coincide. The Bishops do not ask that Church decrees of nullity should be accepted by the Civil courts. … A Church decree of nullity is not divorce by another name”
Reason, Empirical Evidence and Morality
The Catholic Church’s teaching on morality depends ultimately on the authority of divine revelation. But the Church insists that human reason also is a source of moral truth and a channel through which God reveals His plan for human behaviour. The Church holds that rational arguments and empirical and sociological evidence reinforce Church teaching on moral issues. It is commonly assumed by the Church’s critics, however, that Church teaching depends solely on divine revelation and on supernatural authority. It is taken for granted by some that reason and empirical evidence belong to a different sphere than that of the Church, namely the sphere of rational debate; and that rational debate is the prerogative of the secularist approach to morality and law; and that this approach is the defining characteristic of a scientific and secular and pluralist society. I recall a university debate in which a spokesman for the secular humanist viewpoint professed himself indignant at my use of rational and sociological arguments for my moral position. His reaction implied that I was “cheating” by “stealing” arguments which are the exclusive “property” of the secular side of the debate!
I submit that an unbiased reader of these statements by the Irish Catholic Bishops would conclude that these are exercises of sustained moral reasoning, appealing to rational argument and to empirical evidence from ordinary human experience and from the human and social sciences. These are not “diktats” of authority coming from “another sphere”; they are reasoned and reasonable contributions to serious public debate among citizens, and thereby are a service to society as well as being a guide to the consciences of Catholics, who rightly expect moral guidance from their Bishops on issues of public morality. Indeed, as the Bishops and very many others are convinced, the balance both of reason and of evidence lies clearly with the position of the Bishops on issue after issue of public morality.
No “Confessional State”
I submit finally that these statements bear out the following claim, made on behalf of the Irish Bishops by their delegation to the New Ireland Forum on 9th February 1984: