All Christians should welcome the end of Ireland’s ban on blasphemy
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.