Friday, June 28, 2013

Church and state


When in 1972 we first came to Ireland to live for a year, my wife brought a year's supply of birth control pills stashed in her carry-on. We knew that in Ireland it was illegal to sell or import contraceptives of any kind, a civil law in conformity with Catholic doctrine that affected Catholics and non-Catholics alike, citizens and tourists.

This was just at the end of the long dominance of President Eamon de Valera and Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid. De Valera imagined the Irish as happy peasants cared for lovingly by Holy Mother Church. McQuaid was there to see that no one, President or peasant, deviated from the dictums of Rome. The only kinds of family planning available were abstinence and the will of God.

McQuaids two great bugaboos were "scientific humanism" and "secular democracy."

The Irish, of course, were neither peasants nor happy, and upon the retirements of De Valera and McQuaid the strictures began to loosen, mainly under the influence of women such as Mary Robinson (later President of Ireland) and Mary Kenny. A 1980 law allowed the dispensation of contraceptives by a qualified pharmacist when prescribed by a doctor. The law was gradually liberalized over succeeding decades. Then came the horrific revelations of widespread, decades-long sexual abuse of children by priests, brothers and nuns, enabled and covered up by the Church. Overnight, the long dominance of the Catholic Church in Irish politics went out the window. Sexual repression and hypocrisy gave way to –- well, to scientific humanism and secular democracy.

And as for condoms -- they are on the supermarket shelves with the toothpaste and deodorants.