|Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, will tell his congregation that many people see the Catholic church as lacking in compassion. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images|
"Two Irish archbishops have acknowledged the dramatic reversal of the Catholic church’s domination of Irish society after the results of the referendum on abortion.
Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, said Irish culture had changed and that people had drifted away from the church.
Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, told a congregation that the results would be seen as a sign of the marginal role of the church in today’s society.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis remained silent on the referendum in his Sunday morning address in St Peter’s Square in Rome. The papal Twitter feed also failed to publish any reaction to the result, and his spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.
Francis is due to make his first visit to Ireland in three months’ time, a trip that will now take place in the shadow of a popular rejection of the church’s teaching on a critical issue.
Ireland’s landslide vote to legalise abortion on Friday signals the end of the Catholic church’s domination of the republic. The latest indication of the church’s weakening moral authority follows popular support for same-sex marriage in a referendum three years ago, and a succession of scandals engulfing the church over recent decades.
The archbishop of Armagh said he was “deeply saddened” by the referendum’s outcome, but it had “not come out of the blue”.
“For some years we have been aware of a drift away from our congregations,” he told RTÉ radio, adding that there was a “changed culture”.
There were now three broad groupings in Ireland, he said. One was a deeply committed minority of churchgoers, “a remnant”. Secondly, there was a large group of people who were “nominally or culturally Catholic but who have drifted away from regular practice”. Finally, there were those who had “quite consciously” rejected the church and were hostile to its teaching.
The referendum “has confirmed Ireland is conforming to western liberal democracy”, he said, referring to social acceptance of abortion, same-sex relationships and divorce.
Regarding the papal visit in August, Martin said Francis was “well aware of the way Ireland has changed. He’ll be coming to Ireland to listen.”
The archbishop of Dublin told a congregation in Maynooth on Sunday that “many will see the results of Friday’s referendum as an indication that the Catholic church in Ireland is regarded today by many with indifference and as having a marginal role in the formation of Irish culture”.
In a homily at mass, Martin, considered one of the more pragmatic church leaders in Ireland, said many people see the church as “somehow weak in compassion”.
The church must renew its commitment to support life, not just in words, statements and manifestos, but in deeds that reflect Jesus’s loving care for human life at any stage, he said. This includes helping women grappling with very difficult decisions.
Being pro-life means being alongside those whose lives are threatened by violence, and who cannot live life to the full because of economic deprivation, homelessness and marginalisation, he said.
“Pro-life means radically rediscovering in all our lives a special love for the poor that is the mark of the followers of Jesus.”
The abortion referendum and the 2015 plebiscite on same-sex marriage are indications of a profound shift in social attitudes in Ireland, once considered a conservative country ruled by the pulpit.
But revelations over recent years of the sexual abuse of children committed by priests and covered up by bishops, and the appalling treatment of vulnerable women in the Magdalene laundries, have seriously impaired the church’s power and authority.
Significantly, church leaders took a back seat in the abortion referendum in recognition that the exhortations of celibate priests on an issue concerning women’s autonomy over their own bodies might be counterproductive.
That was illustrated on Saturday by young women at Dublin Castle chanting “get your rosaries off our ovaries” as the referendum results came in.
The referendum also upended a widespread belief that, although the church’s influence in Ireland’s increasingly diverse and tolerant cities was waning, it still held sway in rural areas and among an older population.
A breakdown of voters exiting polling stations suggested that 63% of those in rural areas voted to repeal the eighth amendment, and there was a majority for yes in all age groups apart from the over-65s. Even among those older voters, however, a significant 41% backed repeal.
Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland said the referendum “sees the fall of the Catholic Berlin Wall that has kept a pluralist Irish people trapped within the laws of a Catholic Irish constitution”.
He said: “This referendum changes everything about separation of church and state in Ireland.” Attention needed to be focused on “the rights to freedom of expression without blasphemy laws, and to state-funded secular schools that do not discriminate on the ground of religion”, he said.
Gladys Ganiel, author of Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, said the result was not a fatal blow for the Catholic church but the continuation of a trend rejecting Catholic teaching. Church leaders may “realise they’ve lost the battle and they’re not going to change hearts and minds with public statements condemning the result”.
She said: “We’ve seen widespread disillusion with the institutional church. And now we may see the liberalisation of Irish Catholicism, which would be a healthy thing.”
Father Joe McDonald, a Catholic priest at St Matthew’s church in Ballyfermot, near Dublin, and the author of Why The Irish Church Deserves To Die, had predicted a yes vote. “That argument [over abortion] was lost a long time ago,” he said e this year. “The church has completely lost its moral voice as a result of successive scandals. I think the signs of death are wholesale.”