Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kevin HargadenOctober 31, 2018
People wait to see Pope Francis during his visit to the Knock Shrine in Knock, Ireland, Aug. 26. The pope’s visit was still a major event in Ireland, but the repeal of the ban on blasphemy is one more sign of secularization. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) People wait to see Pope Francis during his visit to the Knock Shrine in Knock, Ireland, Aug. 26. The pope’s visit was still a major event in Ireland, but the repeal of the ban on blasphemy is one more sign of secularization. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In the last few years, Ireland has embraced same-sex marriage and the legalization of abortion by popular referendum. Last Friday, again by popular referendum, citizens voted by a landslide margin to remove the clause prohibiting religious blasphemy from the Irish Constitution. It is incontestable that Ireland is becoming more secular, but the debate about what “more secular” means could go on for decades. One of the most publicized events of the decade was the recent Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and the role of the church and theological ideas are never far from the local headlines.

Turnout in last weekend’s vote and the presidential election that took place alongside it was low. Many voters were incredulous to discover that such a clause was in the Constitution in the first place. Interestingly, documents from the drafting of the clause in 1936 and 1937 showed an opposite near-consensus. (Irish Jesuits were instrumental in the drafting process.) No one at the time seemed to have questioned whether it was a primary responsibility of the state to protect religious sensibilities.

Many Irish voters were incredulous to discover that such a clause was in the Constitution in the first place.

Charting the path from an Irish society where the religious nature of public morality was assumed to one where the very necessity of public morality is widely questioned is one way we can determine what “more secular” means.

We have to go back to 1703 to find the last conviction for the crime of blasphemy in Ireland, and the last trial was in 1855. In 1995, a carpenter from Dublin tried to force authorities to prosecute two newspapers and a music magazine for cartoons and editorials that he deemed were mocking of the sacrament of Eucharist. The courts dismissed the case, ruling that even if a clear prima facie case of blasphemy could be ascertained, they could not see any public interest being served in pursuing a prosecution.

We have to go back to 1703 to find the last conviction for the crime of blasphemy in Ireland, and the last trial was in 1855.

Talk of blasphemy returned to the public sphere in 2004, after an incident on the much-watched Friday night talk show “The Late Late Show.” The comedian Tommy Tiernan had spoken about the Gospels in what was taken to be a derogatory manner. (That clip is not online, but video footage of Mr. Tiernan’s act from that era is widely available, although not for the fainthearted.) The spokesperson for the Irish Episcopal Conference issued a statement claiming the comments had bordered on blasphemy. Mr. Tiernan is no crusading member of the new atheists but a man of profound, quite tortured Christian conviction. That furor blew over.

In a 2015 interview for a show titled “The Meaning of Life,” the British comedian Stephen Fry defended his public atheism by questioning what kind of God would create a world where bone cancer afflicted children. His comments about “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” were reported to police as blasphemous. The investigation that followed was brief but widely covered in the press. Apparently, the police could not find a large number of people outraged by the comments. Mr. Fry himself later confessed that the complainant had made contact with him and that he was a secularist activist seeking to draw attention to the absurdity of the law.

Such entertaining legal skirmishes and stunts will no longer occur now that blasphemy has been removed from the criminal code. And secularism will surely continue to deepen in Ireland. Yet that does not mean that either the Christian message or the church will become irrelevant to Irish public life. The public declaration of the Irish bishops that the blasphemy clause was “largely obsolete” and that its removal could be an expression of solidarity with persecuted faith communities around the world was a significant contribution to the public conversation before the vote. The more secular situation that now prevails—where ideas are freely contested, where space is made for difference and where political and cultural strength does not automatically determine your success in debate—is arguably a more constructive social arrangement than the cultural Catholic hegemony that held sway in the first decades after Irish independence.

The church can no longer direct public policy, but through its reasoned interventions and consistent practical service, its influence can reach much deeper. Speech calling the tenets of Christianity into question is possible now in Ireland in a way that would horrify many of the drafters of the Constitution. But if the blasphemy referendum is an instance of this secularizing trajectory, there is little for Catholics to fear in it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dominic Deus
5 years 7 months ago

Dominic Deus here,

If only Pakistan will do the same...


JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

Ireland is a member of the EU and the EU just outlawed blasphemy. You are not allowed to discuss the beliefs of a certain religion in the EU even if true.

Vince Killoran
5 years 7 months ago

That seems, on its face, a hyperbolic statement. Could you provide a link to an official EU document that states that discussing a particular religion is illegal?

Dominic Deus
5 years 7 months ago


arthur mccaffrey
5 years 7 months ago

I find hard to believe that Jesuit Hargaden could write with a straight face
"the church can no longer direct public policy"...... as if he does not have a calendar on his desk telling him that this is 2018, not 1918. As for "there is little for catholics to fear in the blasphemy referendum".....when this article appears on the same page as another article reporting Pakistanis going nuts when a christian woman's blasphemy conviction is overturned.
Hargaden's article made me think of the treatment of Charlie Hebdo magazine editors after its cartoon of the prophet enraged Muslims as blasphemous. So I am a wee bit confused about Hargaden's message-- is he happy that nobody is rioting on O'Connell St. for or against the Irish vote to decriminalize blasphemy----is this good for secularism, or is he still wildly optimistic that " Yet that does not mean that either the Christian message or the church will become irrelevant to Irish public life." " Wanna bet?

Frank T
5 years 7 months ago

I'll take a more secular Ireland any day. If the Church has become irrelevant, all the better.

Warren Patton
5 years 7 months ago

Church teaching may not be far from the headlines in Ireland but its clearly far from the hearts. I don't actually have a problem with the removal of blasphemy laws but the rapid collapse of the Church as a cultural force in Ireland is distressing. I do not share Hargaden's sunny attitude towards the secularization of Ireland. In fact I think he's whistling past the graveyard. Will Catholic teaching have even the slightest relevance to Irish life a generation from now?

I don't actually live in Ireland, so I don't have a dog in this fight. But the thought of the Church losing Ireland depresses me. It would be like Mormonism fading from Utah, or Islam losing hold in Mecca. For Catholicism to suddenly be facing irrelevancy in a place where it has such deep roots is deeply tragic, and portends worse times ahead for the Church.

Jen N
5 years 7 months ago

Kevin, unfortunately, there is a reason to fear the band being removed - this is the beginning of the end of Christians having free speech, protecting, and practicing their religion. Give it 5 years and it may be considered a hate crime to stand up for Catholic teaching - just as it is in Canada. This is not a movement of secularism, but a move against the Church and the Country's Heritage - takes it right off the books. People in Ireland already do not freely talk of their Faith, there is great hesitation, possibly out of fear of offending someone. Many did not even want to talk about the upcoming vote on abortion - unless they were staunchly supporting abortion -
an animal most supporters had no idea with what they were dealing with (just as the present day baby boomers did know when fighting for legal abortion - they were in for a terrible awakening once the women began exercising their "choice", the pain both physical and emotional is often unbearable and there are now not enough children/young adults left to care for this now aging generation) Once Ireland begins aborting, darkness will fall much heavier and rob them of their jovial spirit. They will be burdened with the sorrow and despair abortion inflicts on their young unsuspecting women and the anger and helplessness of fathers who could not save and protect their children from a very barbaric and violent death. Abortion often consumes a person with grief and sorrow, their is no amount of regret that will bring back a destroyed child. The heartache will rush over the Country like a fog extinguishing joy. Having a pint will bring tears, anger, despair. The cheerful demeanor in the pubs will change.

Abortion pits mothers, and often fathers, against their own children as enemies. Peace, as the Country now knows it, will be destroyed. My heart absolutely breaks for Ireland and the Church there. The health and care of their women will greatly decline both physically and mentally. Abortion does great harm to a woman and can have severe lasting affects on her body which may affect subsequent pregnancies and fertility. The US is on its way of doing away with this grisly practice after dancing with this beast for nearly 50 years - and getting majorly burned. Many of our children do not have hope, they do not respect life and kill each other in school. Abortion has bred a society that believes that some people are not worthy of life if "unwanted", and that the strong have power over the weak and vulnerable. Instead of teaching a desire to protect the vulnerable, we have allowed them to be crushed. I have lost 1/3-1/4 of my generation to abortion) Just as slavery, abortion has cursed our Nation. It has inflicted lifelong sorrow and despair on our women/mothers, and destroyed so many children that we do not have enough people to care for our aging population - who are now often euthanized against their wills - as the new "unwanted" category of people. I was in Ireland in May to learn dry stone walling. I wanted so badly to share all I have seen, watched friends experience, and to describe the terrifying feeling of nearly loosing my own child to this horror. I wanted to wake up those fighting in ignorance to repeal the 8th, but I was afraid no one would listen as I was from a different Country. Before catching a bus to the airport, my heart was broken seeing all the families walking around with small happy children. When abortion hits Ireland, many of those beautiful children will be missing as the years go on.

Who will be lost? Will it be the joker ful of mischief, the little girl with the curly hair, the quiet boy with the bright blue eyes... Who would they have grown up to be? What plan did God have for their lives? What impact would they all have had on Ireland's future, before abortion robbed them of their dreams and their right to be loved? These were my thoughts as a rode the bus to the airport. It took everything not to burst into tears right there. The election had not yet happened, but I knew what the out come would be. I was shattered. Ireland had always been my hope... A place where every child was safe. A place where my daughter would have not been endangered from me. (I came close to aborting the most important person in my life) Ireland was a dream to me. They had the healthiest women on the planet and they did not allow abortion. Jesus we need you.

AM Garcia
5 years 7 months ago

Christians seem more worried about free speech than blasphemy. The only religion that takes blasphemy seriously today is Islam, and as the case in Austria last week shows, the secular European governments are willing to enforce that. Amazing double standard. In this case, an Austrian women, discussing Mohammed's marriage to a 6-year old, likened it to pedophilia. And she was convicted for it. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the conviction.

The latest from america

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, bends down to greet Pope Francis with their foreheads touching, ahead of a working session on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Energy, and Africa-Mediterranean, during the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy, on June 14, 2024.
Pope Francis met with President Joe Biden and several other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit.
Pope Francis, seen from behind, sits at a working session during the G7 summit in Borgo Egnazia, Italy. The session discusses AI, Energy, Africa, and the Mideast. The background features a blue screen with the G7 Italia logo, and several attendees and photographers are visible.
The pope addressed leaders at the G7's special "outreach" session dedicated to artificial intelligence.
Pope Francis met with comedians to discuss the importance of humor, specifically as a tool for unity in the face of darkness and conflict.
“Sister Act” embodies the welcoming spirit of a church willing to go out into the street.
John DoughertyJune 14, 2024