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Catholicism within the Constitution of Ireland

Updated on December 18, 2019

Éamon de Valera served as the President of the Executive Council of the Free State of Ireland from 1932 until 1937. Essentially acting as the prime minister of Ireland during this time, de Valera was crucial in the development of the Free State of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and fostering this new nation to be successful and self-ruling. Ireland had only received independence 10 years prior in 1922 from the British following the implementation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This controversial treaty allowed for Ireland to become a dominion of the United Kingdom. Although Ireland did gain independence from the treaty, many revolutionaries led by de Valera thought the treaty conceded too much, as the new Irish government would still be obliged to the British monarchy. A civil war ensued, and when de Valera came to power after the war was settled, one of his primary objectives was to create a uniquely Irish identity. He worked to redefine Irish personhood to appear noticeably distinct from that of British personhood. De Valera believed that with a new identity, he could restore the national pride within the people that had long been forgotten following several centuries of political proximity to Britain.

Such a distinctly Irish identity, according to de Valera, would also give the new nation more legitimacy and a more widely accepted claim to true independence and dissociation from Great Britain in the eyes of foreign countries. As such, while in public office, de Valera sought to foster the creation of a new Irish culture void of British influence, to the maximum extent possible. In order to achieve this goal, de Valera pushed for several cultural initiatives. For example, he became a well-known advocate for Conradh na Gaeilge, an organization dedicated to promoting the Irish language through its education in the public school system. De Valera also used quotes from Irish authors and poets such as W. B. Yeats in many of his political speeches, drawing the Irish attention to its strong history of literary prowess. Most prominently, however, was De Valera vision of the new Irish public as a primarily Catholic nation, well-versed in the Church’s moral teachings.

De Valera viewed Catholicism as the most crucial aspect of the Irish identity. Indeed, much of Ireland’s history has largely been affected by Catholicism. Monastic life and the Book of Kells, the Penal Laws, Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation, and Soupism all demonstrate how pivotal moments in Irish history are directly associated with the Church’s influence over Ireland. All drastically changed the course of Irish history, imprinting a profound cultural attraction to the Catholic Church for much of Ireland. It seems that no event in post-Christianized Irish history can be studied earnestly without considering the role of the Catholic Church. According to de Valera, Catholicism is what made Ireland what it is, and he is not from the truth.

Like any constitution, the constitution of the Republic of Ireland ought to accurately reflect the ideals of the Irish people. When De Valera sought to write a new Irish constitution, he etched his vision for Irish ideals into the Constitution of Ireland. Because de Valera viewed Catholicism as the chief influence over Ireland throughout much of its history, Catholic social teaching and morality are clearly major influences of the document. This is not at all surprising because not only did de Valera believe that Irish culture ought to be a reflection of Catholic morality, he himself was also a devout Catholic. During the constitution’s construction, de Valera specifically asked advice from well-respected priests as to what they believed needed to be included in the constitution. One of those priests, Father Edward Cahill, submitted six pages of constitutional suggestions for the body of the document to de Valera in 1936 upon de Valera’s request (Faughnan 82). De Valera was so impressed by Cahill’s work that Cahill was also invited to write the first draft of the constitution’s preamble, an invitation Cahill accepted and completed (Faughnan 83). After the document was finished, De Valera even requested approval from the Papal office in Rome before submitted the final draft for voting by referendum. De Valera believed that Papal approval would virtually guarantee the document’s acceptance when voted upon by Ireland’s Catholic majority. Although the Papal office declined to endorse the document, it was successfully accepted by the Irish people and declared the official governing document of the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, the values of Catholicism became the values of the Irish nation.

Catholic influence within the Constitution of Ireland is evident throughout many of the document’s articles, as would be natural given the religious backgrounds of its authors. For example, the forty-first article of the constitution deals with the State’s treatment of families. The constitution prohibits the creation of laws that would enable “providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage” (Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937). This clause was presumably directly inspired from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains all of the Church’s core beliefs and their corresponding rationale. The Catholic Church emphasizes the sanctity of marriage as an eternal bond, and because of this, divorce is seen as a rejection of that sanctity. The spouses, according to the Church, “are no longer two, but one flesh” through marriage (Catholic Church 1605). It is, therefore, according to the Church, unnatural for the dissolution of marriage. By including this in his constitution, De Valera clearly has the intention of more closely unifying the people of Ireland to the Church through this shared moral belief.

The influence of Catholicism in the constitution is probably most striking in the document’s preamble. The preamble draws upon the authority of God Himself in order to assert the legitimacy of this new document as the governing document of Ireland. The constitution is enacted “[i]n the name of the Most Holy Trinity”, while also “[h]umbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ” (Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937). The preamble is also distinctly Catholic and not Protestant in its reference to two of Catholicism’s Cardinal Virtues, prudence and justice. The Constitution’s writers make their claim of the rights of the Irish people in “due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity” (Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937). The Catholic Church believes that these virtues, which the Irish writers claim to possess, are only endowed by the Holy Spirit, the reception of which can only be guaranteed through baptism. Essentially, the writers of the Constitution, who are presumably baptized Catholics, are claiming here that their document is more suitable to the Irish public because the Holy Spirit is working through them. This is precisely what de Valera wanted. Not only is the preamble deeply rooted in Catholic theology, but it also conveys to the Irish public that the authority of the Irish government under de Valera receives its authority from God. The Irish government acts as an extension of God’s ultimate authority, providing it with a strong sense of legitimacy within the minds of the Irish Catholics.

The forty-fourth article of the Constitution of Ireland, within the section titled “Fundamental Rights”, deals with the religious rights of the people of Ireland. The article states that every person is afforded the freedom of religion and that the State will not make any legislation with the goal to promote or hinder any particular religion. The Catholic Church, however, is given special status among other religions. The Catholic Church is recognized “as the guardian of the Faith” (Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937). The article also claims that God is worthy and deserving of public worship. The article subsequently codifies that the State will hold God’s name in particular reverence, presumably only referring the Abrahamic God. Despite this, an examination of the Constitution’s other articles suggests that Catholic values have permeated deeply into Irish thought.

The people of Ireland have the right to express their opinions freely and publicly. This is guaranteed by the Constitution's fortieth article dealing with the personal rights of the Irish people. This right covers all types of opinions except for blasphemy. The constitution states that a person speaking blasphemy, that is willingly speaking sacrilegiously against God, is liable for punishment. In a sense, this sets God to be a sort of dictator over Ireland. De Valera is building God’s cult of personality, like those of Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin, prone to severely punish any opposition. The Constitution of Ireland is rather restrictive on the Irish people in this sense because they are told not to think a certain way. This confusion is further agitated by the common claim that the document is indeed inspired by God Himself.

During the remainder of the 20th century, many Irish citizens sought reform of the Constitution of Ireland to remove Catholic influence over the document. Several amendments have been passed by the Irish government so that the document better conforms to the ideals of the people instead of the ideals of de Valera. For example, the fifth amendment of the Constitution of Ireland removed the special status of the Catholic Church. Approved by an overwhelming referendum in 1972, eighty-four percent of Ireland’s voting population was in favor of the removal of the Church’s status. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1996, legalized divorce. The thirty-fourth amendment permitted same-sex marriage and the thirty-sixth amendment allows for future legislation regarding abortion. These amendments are largely not in conformity with the values of the Catholic Church. Their passages, all from public referendum, suggests that Ireland’s values now are significantly different from Ireland’s values one hundred years ago.

The population of Ireland that identifies as Catholic was an impressive 3.7 million in 2016, approximately 78.3 percent of the total population. When compared to previous years, however, a significant decline in Ireland’s Catholic population is evident. In 2011, only five years prior to the 2016 data, approximately 84.6 percent of Ireland identified as Catholic. This is a rather dramatic change for so short a time frame. Ireland is actually considered to have one of the world’s fastest growing irreligious populations. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ireland’s constitution, changeable by popular referendum, has been changing rapidly in recent years to meet the needs of a rapidly changing population. De Valera, once looking back on his constitutional work, remarked that the document “embodies the Catholic principles of the Irish nation” (Hogan 13). Yet amendments to the constitution have significantly altered the document’s appearance. The Constitution of Ireland has transitioned from being a Catholic document, steeped in tradition, to being one of the world’s most progressive governing documents. While future decline in Ireland’s Catholic population is highly probable, and the demographics and ideals of the nation continue to evolve, it seems apparent that the Constitution of Ireland has many more amendments to come.

Works Cited

Barry, Ursula. “Abortion in the Republic of Ireland.” Feminist Review, no. 29, 1988, pp. 57–63.

JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/1395147.

Daly, Eoin, and Hickey, Tom , Author. The Political Theory of the Irish Constitution

Republicanism and the Basic Law (2015). Web.

Faughnan, Seán. “The Jesuits and the Drafting of the Irish Constitution of 1937.” Irish Historical

Studies, vol. 26, no. 101, 1988, pp. 79–102. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30008505.

Hogan, Gerard, “Foreword”, in Dermot Keogh and Andrew J. McCarthy, The Making of the

Irish Constitution, Mercier Press, Cork, 2007, pp.13-37

Nolan, Michael. “THE INFLUENCE OF CATHOLIC NATIONALISM ON THE

LEGISLATURE OF THE IRISH FREE STATE.” Irish Jurist (1966-), vol. 10, no. 1, 1975, pp. 128–169. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44026219.

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana,

2012. Print

Ireland. Bunreacht Na HÉireann = Constitution of Ireland. Dublin :Oifig an tSoláthair, 1945.


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