Democracy in Ireland is a qualified thing. Certain votes are allowed, others are not. We’re not allowed to vote against EU treaties, for example, and we’re not allowed to vote against the latest piece of ‘progress’ desired by social liberals.
We’re always made to vote at least twice on those things until we give our betters the answer they want and then the matter is never put to the vote again.
The first time we voted on the Lisbon treaty we rejected it. And so we were made to vote on it again and second time around gave the ‘right’ answer.
This brings to mind an illustrative story a former politician told me after the first Lisbon referendum. He told me that the biggest No vote in his constituency took place in a parish where the local priest had spoken out against the treaty.
This was interesting, I thought. I had imagined that priests, even on the very rare occasions when they spoke out about things like this, were more likely to either be ignored or else to actually make people react by voting the other way.
According to this politician I was wrong. I suppose this particular priest may have been especially persuasive, but even if that is so, it still shows the influence a priest can have.
Personally, I don’t believe the Lisbon treaty was something a priest should have been speaking about at Mass. I can’t remember anything in it that suggested a Catholic had to vote one way and not the other.
I remembered that politician’s story when I was coming out of Mass on the last Sunday before the vote in the local and European elections. Several politicians were standing outside canvassing for votes. One of them had voted for the recent abortion legislation but lots of Mass-goers still went up to him and shook his hand.
Maybe they were just being friendly. If he had suddenly come up to me I would have shaken his hand out of politeness but I hope I would have had the nerve to say I couldn’t vote for him because of his stance on abortion.
There would have been tens of thousands of people across the country who would have felt they couldn’t vote for a given candidate because he or she had voted for the recent abortion legislation. I can say this with a certain amount of confidence because eight or ten thousand turned up at a recent vigil in Dublin organised by the Pro-Life Campaign to voice opposition to our new abortion law.
For every one person at that vigil there must have been 10 more around the country who couldn’t make it.
But eighty or a hundred thousand voters scattered across the country isn’t really enough to frighten politicians come election time unless they are very visible and are inclined to make their opinions known.
It also occurred to me coming out of Mass the other week that not enough Catholics make a strong enough connection between their faith and their politics. They compartmentalise the two and come to believe the twain should never meet.
Why is this? Maybe it’s because their party matters more to them than their faith. Maybe it’s because they think it’s wrong in principle to mix faith and politics. Maybe they’ve never really thought about it.
But faith and politics can’t be separated so easily because they are both about values. It is completely wrong of someone to say, “this is politics and therefore the Church can’t have an opinion about it”.
It’s certainly true to say that the Church shouldn’t have an opinion about whether or not Eamon Gilmore should be leader of the Labour party.
But if a particular party is clearly working against the interests of the poor, the Church has to speak out. This doesn’t mean having to speak out in favour of parties that want to increase spending and raise taxes. Perhaps tax cutting will lead to more jobs and thereby will reduce unemployment and hopefully poverty as well.
So it can often be hard to tell which policies will help or harm the poor and so the Church can usually only make general statements on the matter. But something like abortion is black and white from a Catholic point of view. Anything which allows the direct and intentional killing of an unborn child is wrong.
The same goes for euthanasia. The same goes for same-sex marriage. (Bishop Noel Treanor of Down & Connor put out an excellent statement covering issues like this just before the recent elections.)
A politician cannot possibly say matters like these are matters for politicians only when they are also questions of morality.
This is why it is no good for a Catholic to be deluded into thinking that faith and politics must always be kept apart. If your faith tells you something is wrong then you are duty bound to use your vote against it. Otherwise it isn’t really faith and politics you’re keeping separate, but morality and politics.
This brings us back to the matter of priests and the influence they can wield. Priests and bishops will have to decide the degree to which they want to comment on ‘politics’ (I put that in quotation marks because often talking about politics is really talking about morality), and the degree to which they want Catholics to let their faith influence their politics.
At present, very little attempt is made to connect our faith with our politics and the result of that is that our parties and the policies they espouse are becoming ever more alien to Christianity and therefore ever more separated from a true morality. That is extremely harmful to the common good.