On May 24, 2019, voters in the Republic of Ireland voted 82.07% in favor of amending the Constitution to reduce the period of separation required before divorce proceedings can be initiated. For a country which is 78.3% Roman Catholic, such a high margin favoring a more liberal divorce procedure seems surprising. Yet four of the last five constitutional referenda have involved removing Catholic ideas from the governing document and passing by more than 60% of the vote.
Understanding the history of the Irish Constitution sheds light on the direct connection between the early republic and the Catholic Church. The current Constitution was drafted from 1934-1937 under the heavy guidance of then-President Éamon de Valera. De Valera and his Fianna Fáil party saw the 1922 constitution as favoring British interests and values and sought to draft a document as independent as the country itself. Inspiration was drawn from other predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Poland. Among those consulted and who contributed language to the draft were Monsignor John Charles McQuaid, head of Blackrock College, and Fr. Edward Cahill, an influential Jesuit theologian. A draft was even sent to the Vatican for comment; Cardinal Secretary Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII) pithily responded “We do not approve, neither do we disapprove. We shall maintain silence.” Through the consultation of these Catholic leaders, as well as other Christian denominations, the new Irish Constitution was (and continues to be) instilled with a Catholic character.
The Irish Constitution can only be amended through public referendum. Under the premiership of Taoisigh Enda Kelley (2011-2017) and Leo Varadkar (since 2017) a number of referenda have been put to the Irish voters. In addition to this past month’s referendum, other amendments include:
- In August 2015, 62.1% of voters favored allowing marriage to all couples regardless of sex.
- In September 2018, 66.4% of voters favored repealing the 8th Amendment which prohibited abortion (instead allowing the Oireachtas to regulate abortion through legislation).
- In November 2018, 64.9% of voters favored removing blasphemy for the list of punishable speech.
While the Irish Constitution makes explicit to avoid an established religion, the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been significant in the history of Ireland. Yet today, Irish voters do not seem to need Catholic doctrine enshrined in the Constitution. Perhaps the impetus for these changes is not so much a movement towards a less Catholic Ireland, but rather a recognition that the Constitution remains a relic from another time, and should be revitalized to match the needs of the present day.