Writer, playwright, and formely ordained priest Michael Harding, from Arigna, Ireland, tells PlayGround+ why repealing the eighth amendment on Friday is an absolute necessity
23 Mayo 2018 17:26
Irish citizens will vote in a referendum on Friday about whether to repeal the eighth amendment - an act of legislation that recognises the life of a mother and their unborn child as equal - that would pave the way for legal access to abortion in the country. Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in the developed world. Women cannot access medical abortions, even in the case of rape and fetal abnormality. Here, Michael Harding, a previously ordained and retired priest, who practices aspects of both Catholicism and Buddhism, as well as a writer, playwright and columnist for the 'rish Times, talks about why religion should be no obstacle to a 'yes' vote.
Today was the last Sunday before the referendum. I was not at Mass this morning, but not because I don’t believe in that beautiful ritual of compassion and transformation.
In fact, I was ordained a priest. But I didn’t last long.
Almost before the oil was dry on my hands, I was, as they say, out the door.
Because when Rome began to denounce it’s own theologians in the early 1980s, to ban their books, to halt the great tide of change and hope that had sprung from the second Vatican Council, and when they had restored a 19th century model of church in place of the inclusive and tolerant vision that had been emerging after the council, I knew I was on the wrong bus.
It’s not that I don’t believe. I do. It’s not that I ever renounced my priesthood. I never would.
But I could not remain in the ministry. Full inclusion of women in ministry, a preferential option, all were possibilities that became closed off, and all further discussion was forbidden.
A spirit of astonishing deception emerged, that tolerated a level of criminality in the clerical ranks which has sickened everyone. I am ashamed when I hear bishops deliberating with absolute medieval certainty and making merciless judgements on the lives of women caught in deeply human moral dilemmas.
I sometimes wish those same bishops had been as firm in their judgments when their colleagues were destroying the innocence of young children.
But despite standing outside the clerical ranks for nearly forty years I have not abandoned my faith. I know from my life, from my studies of theology, from the long tradition of magisterial reflection on the sacred texts, that the gift of Jesus is one of absolute unconditional compassion - for the wounded, the outcast and the marginal - and the poor.
Those same poor whose children withered in Magdalen laundries. Those same poor who now endure agony if they need to deal with a crisis pregnancy and find the doors of all the doctors surgeries shut in their faces, because of this amendment.
Those same poor who must hang their heads in shame on the plane to England as the well-heeled masters of morality treat them like wicked children who can't be trusted with their own bodies and hide them away from their own firesides, into the lonely dark.
I do not condone abortion. But neither do I feel I can impose my will on others. I cannot enforce love, - with law. I can only love.
If a woman seeks abortion, and is deeply afflicted by the suffering it causes, I may profoundly regret her decision, and I would gladly try to direct her towards the possibility of loving both, but I do not think it is remotely Christian to turn her away from the door and tell her to get herself off to hell or England.
Our inheritance is to be loved. Not because we do good. Not because we are free from blemish. Not because we have never had an abortion or never killed, or never sexually abused. But because we are human and are loved in our broken humanity.
And if we want to open our hearts to the love of Jesus then be very clear that nobody can judge. Or throw the first stone. Remember what Jesus said about the clerics of his day who laid the burden of law and religious observance on the shoulders of other people - the hypocrites who sat in the front pew, thanking God that they were born so righteous and good and squeaky clean?
I have had many regrets that I could not stay in the ministry of the church. And I have admired the sacrifices good priests have made over the years, forgetting their own lives and human comforts, living without the tenderness and joy of a woman’s touch and love, and devoting themselves to the care of others.
I have known priests that spent their days ministering to the sick, the elderly, the bereaved, and the homeless.
I am ashamed of my own selfish life, when I see the unselfish love that my brother priests have given to the world over decades.
This Sunday morning many of them will read out letters of judgement from the bishops about the referendum, bludgeoning their congregations with the authority of Rome, and unambiguous logic of righteousness.
Some priests will read out their bishop’s views and say nothing. Not because they agree. But because they fear. They fear the wrath of the hierarchy that would fall on their heads if they spoke a word of dissent.
And just as I love the Church, and just as I have tried to live out my life in prayer and openness to the mystery of God’s presence in the world, so I am prepared to dissent.
The 8th amendment is crafted out of fear; that women can't be trusted to do good. That God's grace doesn't really work.
And fear is the mother of despair. A failure to believe in the innate goodness of our own sisters, daughters and mothers. A sense of resignation that the Yes side are murderers.
Please dear friends, if you are undecided, be aware that this referendum is not about murder. It’s not a black and white issue. The referendum divides us. There are those who believe the amendment is the the only way to reduce the numbers of abortion in Ireland.
And there are those like me on the other side, who believe there are better ways, through legislation and medical care. People who are voting no are pro-life, and I admire their courage in standing up for their ideals and beliefs. But people voting yes, are also pro-life.
We don’t disagree as much as the bishops would like to pretend. People who face the catastrophe of abortion, alone in a far-off country, away from their parents, are not murdering babies. They are just trying to cope.
I long for forgiveness; not from the church of Rome but from the many women in Ireland who have been wounded, isolated and judged, by the fierce annunciations of a judgmental hierarchy.
If you are a woman reading this, then I am truly sorry that the church has treated you in judgement, and that I have not done enough to support your struggle for equality and justice over the years.
This week we will walk together to vote, in hope, and confidence in our country. And at last, we will walk without shame.