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The Pro-Life Amendment to the Constitution:
one year later

The following Pastoral Letter was issued by the Bishop of Kerry, Most Rev. Kevin McNamara, on 1 September 1984.

On 7 September 1983 the Irish electorate voted by a large majority to write into the Irish Constitution an explicit statement of the right to life of the unborn child. This made Ireland the first country in the world to give clear constitutional protection to unborn human life. The Amendment has made a lasting contribution to ensuring that the right to life of the most innocent and defenceless members of our society will continue to be vindicated by our laws.

In accordance with hopes widely expressed in the run-up to the Referendum, the passing of the Amendment has also led to a new awareness among us of the problems of pregnant women in distress. To point to just one example of this, the CURA service in this diocese has been put on a new footing during the past year, in order to give a more efficient and flexible service. In general the highlighting of the abortion issue during the Referendum campaign has created a more understanding and compassionate approach to the acutely distressing human problems involved. At the same time it has made the public more aware of the forces in our society which seek to deny unborn life the respect and full legal protection to which it is entitled.

One year after the Referendum, it is appropriate to bring these facts to mind. I hope the anniversary of the passing of the Amendment will be for all of us an occasion to renew our commitment to respect and defend human life at every stage, and especially to do everything in our power to remove anything in our society that would tend to make recourse to abortion more likely.

It must not be forgotten, of course, that if the scourge of abortion is to be fully and finally overcome, the most fundamental requirement is respect for God's law concerning human sexuality. The virtue of chastity, though widely disregarded today and often derided as impractical and out of date, remains an essential safeguard of dignity of the human person and of God's design for the well-being of the individual and of society. Our youth especially must be taught to love and practise it. Let no one do them the injustice of supposing that they are unwilling or unable to respond to its challenge. Let no one try to teach them that morally responsible behaviour consists not in doing always what is right and good, but in eliminating as far as possible the awkward consequences of one's actions.

One of the effects of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign has been to make people in general more aware of the need to take a stand on basic moral issues. In our day not to take a stand is to acquiesce in the gradual breakdown of the moral fabric of society. It is not too much to say that the very future of civilization is at stake in the struggle being waged today about what moral standards should prevail, whether in the sphere of private or public morality.

At the heart of that struggle lie the family and family values. Perhaps that is not surprising, since it is the family that determines the kind of society we have. As Pope John Paul II has said, "the future of humanity passes by way of the family". There is no need for me to repeat here what I wrote to you on this question in my Pastoral Letter on the Family earlier in the year.

I want to refer briefly, however, to a danger that seriously threatens the family in our country at this time. It is the proposal, increasingly heard today, that steps be taken to introduce legislation permitting divorce and remarriage. Such a move would cause untold damage to the family and society. It is an inescapable fact that divorce breeds divorce. For this reason the Second Vatican Council has rightly described divorce as "a plague". As Pope John Paul II said in Limerick: "Divorce, for whatever reason it is introduced, inevitably becomes easier and easier to obtain and it gradually comes to be accepted as a normal part of life. The very possibility of divorce in the sphere of civil law makes stable and permanent marriages more difficult for everyone...May the Irish always support marriage, through personal commitment and through positive social and legal action."

Do not listen, my dear people, to those who tell you that divorce in Ireland will be carefully limited to a small number of cases; that somehow or other, things will be different here from all the other countries where divorce has come in.

Once introduced into Ireland, divorce will lead to the same tragic consequences as elsewhere. It will lead to an increasing number of children who, because of the divorce of their parents and the remarriage of one parent or of both, will suffer greatly and may well be emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives. It will lead to insecurity among those who are married and will make marital fidelity more difficult. It will lead sooner or later to an entirely new idea of marriage in our society, the idea of marriage not as a life-long, unbreakable union, but as a provisional arrangement that may be terminated as required.

Nowadays divorce-and-remarriage is granted in many countries not only where one of the partners is seriously at fault, as earlier divorce laws provided, but simply on evidence of what is called irretrievable marital breakdown. This type of divorce, which is obviously easier to obtain and accordingly spreads more rapidly, has also had the effect of reducing maintenance allowances for divorced wives and their children, since the husband is not seen as being at fault and the courts, therefore, are reluctant to burden him with the costs of maintenance. Wives and children, therefore, suffer more than ever under this form of divorce, which has today become common. It is precisely this "no fault divorce", or divorce based on "irretrievable marital breakdown", we are now being told, which should be introduced into Ireland.

Let us be under no illusion about the devastating blow that a law permitting divorce and remarriage would inflict on the Irish family and on our whole society. God has made known to us his plan for marriage and the family and we disregard it at our cost. The State which prohibits divorce, therefore, is acting for the good of society. On a matter such as this the law of the land cannot be neutral; the State must either support marriage by forbidding divorce, or undermine marriage by allowing it. If it chooses the latter course, it cannot avoid responsibility by claiming that it does not wish to impose the morality of some on those with a different morality. Unavoidably, the State must choose between the view that legalized divorce and remarriage is in the best interest of society and the view which says that it inflicts upon society grave and irreparable damage. One or other of these views must prevail. It is impossible for the State to accommodate both views at once. This may be awkward, but it is certainly a fact. There is no way of escaping it. No amount of discussion can change it.

What then is the solution to the problem of marital breakdown in Ireland? Surely the solution must be to tackle the causes. These have by now been clearly identified. Chief among them are: poverty in the home, violent behaviour, inadequate consideration by the State for the financial needs of larger families, drinking to excess, insufficient preparation for marriage. Successive Governments in this country have not pursued policies calculated to reduce these problems; indeed many policy decisions have positively worked to the detriment of marriage and the family. It is time that a serious effort was made to change this situation. A change of policy along these lines, and not divorce, is what our country now urgently needs.

One final point. If we really care for the family, we also need to face up to the damage now being done to the moral fabric of our society by the spread of the contraceptive mentality. We have not yet realized how deep and wide-ranging this damage is. The irony is that it is taking place at a time when improved methods of natural family planning have made recourse to contraceptives unnecessary.

Despite the evidence of the tragic moral decline to which the widespread availability of contraceptives has led in other countries, we hear today of proposals to facilitate access to contraceptives for the unmarried and the young in our society. We should be clear in our minds what the effects will be if these proposals are adopted. If we travel this road, we shall cause further damage to the moral conscience of our youth, who already have so many difficulties to contend with. We shall be setting the scene for an increase in venereal disease, teenage pregnancies, illegitimate births and even abortion. We shall be paving the way for recourse to contraceptives by ever younger age groups.

Is it really our wish to shift the aims or our society away from genuine moral education, self-discipline and strength of character? Is it our wish to weaken the moral fibre to which we owe our survival as a nation and the great achievements of our past? Is it our wish to turn our back on the true dignity of the human person, which is based on a genuine moral response to the voice of conscience and the law of God?

We cannot simply brush these questions aside. They now confront us urgently, and how we respond to them will profoundly influence our future. If we do not meet the challenge of these questions, the gains achieved by the Pro-Life Amendment to the constitution, and much more besides, will be put at risk. May I invite you, my dear people, to reflect seriously on this as we look back over the year that has gone by since the Pro-Life Amendment was passed.

Kevin McNamara

Bishop of Kerry

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

Priests for Life
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