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After Repeal Whither Now?

Last Friday’s vote in the South came after lengthy campaigning from both sides. Nobody was predicting such a landslide for repeal, with many of the projections indicating that it would be close. It would be foolish to think that we in the North will not be affected by this outcome given that a number of campaigners have now set their sights on NI’s pro-life laws. The DUP have quickly come out to re-affirm their pro-life stance and their defence of life, not only that both the secretary of state Karen Bradley and NIO minster Lord Duncan have publicly stated in the past that abortion is a devolved matter, and a large proportion of conservatives MPs have expressed the view that Westminster should not undermine devolution in NI by imposing abortion on us (https://bothlivesmatter.org/72-of-conservative-mps-reject-undermining-of-devolution-to-impose-abortion-on-northern-ireland). If we look to the most recent vote in the assembly on the mater in 2016, 59 – 40 MLAs voted against abortion in cases of so called fatal foetal abnormality, and an even greater majority, 64 – 30, voted against abortion in cases of rape and incest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35546399. Not only that, the feeling of some voters in the south that a yes vote was a way of casting off the Catholic identity of Ireland is not a view that is widely held here in the North, since the pro-life position here is clearly held across the communities. All in all, despite the pressure on NI to introduce abortion, it will not be a straightforward affair to get rid of NI’s pro-life laws.

Nevertheless, we cannot but be disappointed at the result of the referendum: disappointed that the unborn child now has no constitutional protection, and disappointed that many saw this as a good thing for society. A society needs to be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable; as Plato argues through the mouth of Socrates in the first book of the Republic – might is not right, and justice is the stronger acting for the good of the weaker. The unborn child is the most vulnerable person in society; removing any constitutional protection from it then is not a cause for celebration.

In the wake of the referendum, many Irish people who are still convinced that the child has a right to life and so must be protected will be thinking about what to do now.  In light of this, perhaps a 5th/6th Century monk and a 20th/21st Century philosopher can help. In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that modern moral philosophy is living in a post-apocalyptic age wherein the terminology that is used no longer means what it used to mean. Modern moral philosophers speak of goodness, virtue, vice etc, but they give to these terms a meaning that is artificial and in significant contrast to the earlier philosophers who used the same. Thus, there is often no resolution of moral arguments because there is no common agreement on the realities to which the terms refer. At the end of the book, having given an account of the virtues and carving out a space for them in modern moral philosophy, MacIntyre considers some challenges to his approach. In one poignant paragraph he writes:

‘It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’.

Now a lot has been said about the so-called Benedict option given the book by the same name by Rod Dreher as a way for Christians to live in a post-Christian nation. I do not wish to go into the depths that Dreher goes into; rather I want to capture something of the flavour of this option for Benedict, and present it in a form that is not overtly religious, but which can apply to those whose moral and political position may have once been in the ascendancy but is now in the minority – such is arguably the position of pro-life supporters in the south.

The Benedict option is really quite simple and follows certain features of the rule of life laid down by St Benedict for his monks. The idea is that a community is formed with a common culture and ethos, and that this is a stable community working where it is to perfect itself. Unlike the later Dominican and Franciscan Friars of the middle ages, the monks did not travel out to spread the Gospel or perform works of charity. They remained stable in their monastery and slowly grew in perfection in their form of life. By sanctifying themselves their place exuded sanctity and soon many were drawn to the monasteries in order to participate somewhat in that sanctity. As Newman describes the phenomenon: ‘The new work which he [Benedict] helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city’.

What does all this have to do with us in 21st Century Ireland? And how does it relate to the pro-life movement?

The pro-life position is not an essentially religious position, as evidenced by the many atheist pro-life groups. One does not have to believe in God in order to know basic principles of the natural law that would not justify the killing of innocent people. Nevertheless, the pro-life movement can learn something from Benedict and his monks. The monks did not seek to ascend to a majority status by an aggressive exporting of their values; rather, they became holy, people heard of their holiness, and their holiness spread.

Similarly the pro-life movement is now in the minority in the south and does not hold the position that it once did; as has been indicated in the media recently, the pro-life position is now in a similar state as the pro-choice position in 80s Ireland.  None of this means that what was once true – that it’s not ok to kill the unborn – is no longer true. It simply means that a significant number of people are not convinced of this truth.

Given all of this, perhaps we may now reflect on the Benedict option. Instead of seeking to erect a structure, perhaps the pro-life movement should focus on growth and attracting people through their growth. To do this, it must fortify itself and like the Benedictine monks, appear to the world as a strong stable community, cultivated naturally amongst those who are pro-life and spread through the natural and universal appeal of the right to life. In effect, the pro-choice movement did this with their defeat in the referendum in the 80s; they gathered themselves, developed their message, and gradually worked away behind the scenes so that incrementally over the years their position gathered momentum.

Whilst every county except Donegal voted for repeal, there were still significant numbers of pro-life voters in every county. The pro-life message has reached all parts of the country and still resonates. The task of fortifying and stabilising that community of supporters will not be a difficult one, and it is a task that must be done so that there can be strong pro-life opposition to the abortion legislation that is being planned for the south. But beyond issues of politics and legislation, the pro-life position needs to be born again in people all over Ireland, and a way of doing that may be the Benedictine way of establishing a strong community stable in their ethos and culture which attracts people towards it. If people can see that the pro-life position is one that is genuinely concerned about the lives of both mother and baby (as of course it is), that it sees something better for society than abortion, and that it is not an artificially constructed position with no life in it, then those who were not pro-life (and not principally hostile to being pro-life) will see that position as a genuine alternative to be taken seriously.

Dr Gaven Kerr