J P O’Malley learns that the Irish Catholic church will not let you leave.
From aged 12, I had no belief, whatsoever, in the concept of a divine being.
By the time I was in my 20s, I was a militant-atheist.
And after my close reading of the ‘Ferns’, ‘Murphy’, and ‘Ryan Reports’, I was fully convinced that this was not an organisation I wanted to be associated with in any way.
It came as a huge surprise to me, then, last October, after I wrote to Reverend Fintan Gavin, the assistant chancellor of the Dublin Dioceses, asking if I could formally leave the Catholic Church, to be told that it was impossible.
There’s this 1983 Vatican “law,” you see, that was supposed to allow members to “defect.” (To what? Why defect? Why can’t people just leave? It’s not parenthood, after all. You can’t just leave parenthood, unless you’re a Class A Shit, but you can leave groups and clubs and political parties and, yes, religions.) But then there was a new law later on.
Fintan Gavin reiterated that since canon law was changed in 2009 “those [former] defections do not have legal effect.” In other words: the Catholic Church refuses to allow its members to walk away voluntarily.
When one has no affiliation — culturally, spiritually, or otherwise — to such an organisation, it’s easy to read this letter with a dose of Father Ted-style humour. But while the Church and State are completely separate — in terms of the common law in Ireland — that relationship has never been as simple as either the Irish government, or the Catholic Church, presently define it.
Since the founding of the Irish State, in 1922, the Church has provided a free service to the Irish government: a de facto, bureaucratic invisible hand to keep the population under control. If the Soviet Union had the Cheka to enforce public morality through fear, Ireland had priests and bishops. The costumes may have been different, but the theme remained the same: unquestionable, totalitarian power.
While these methods of coercion were never legally recognised in the Irish Constitution, the country was, one could argue, unofficially a theocracy until the early 1990s.
It wasn’t an entirely a free service. The state actually paid the church for running the Industrial “schools” and the mother-baby prisons. The state paid per head, and the church made a nice little living off the payments. And the population was by god kept under control.
Helen O’Shea, the current secretary of Atheist Ireland, who was able to formally defect from the Catholic Church pre-2009 — before the law was revoked by the Vatican — says that in the interests of democratic accountability the Irish state must operate in a consistent manner for all its citizens in terms of religious freedom.
“[Many] Irish schools are almost exclusively controlled by Catholic management. And when places are limited, a baptism certificate is often required. This is unacceptable in a supposedly non-theocratic state,” she said.
“Atheist Ireland are currently investigating setting up a website, so people can document their wish to leave the Church formally. It’s very ignorant [of the Church] to insist on membership when an individual requests the opposite,” said O’Shea.
I think that should happen. It would be very good for the church to be embarrassed by a long long long list of people who have left the church but are still counted as members by that church.