Constitution and the Catholic Churc

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Topic 3.6 Religion in Contemporary Ireland

Religion in the Irish Constitution

Please note that the following article is background information only on this topic. It in no way constitutes a sample or exemplary answer on this topic.

Student work

Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution, dates from 1937 – an era in Irish history when nationalism and the drive for total self-determination were high on the political agenda. The constitution of Éamon de Valera granted a higher level of independence to Ireland than the restrictive constitution of 1922 and helped to shape a distinctive Irish national identity among the international community. Since the vast majority of the population in Ireland at that time were Roman Catholic the constitution was structured within that distinctive ethos. Legislation would reflect the values at that time held by the majority of the people in Ireland. There have been twenty seven amendments to the constitution since its inception.

While the 1922 constitution made no reference to the Catholic Church, the 1937 constitution afforded a special position to it and enshrined some of its moral and social teachings. Articles 40, 44 and 45 were highly influenced by two papal encyclicals: Rerum Novarum (Of Revolution) of Leo XIII (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (In the fortieth year…) of Pius XI (1931). Rerum Novarum was a pronouncement on social justice and it influenced the fundamental rights mentioned in Articles 40, 44 and particularly Article 45 which dealt with the ‘Principles of Social Policy’. Quadragesimo Anno echoed the sentiments of Rerum Novaurm and elaborated on them.

Rerum Novarum concerned Roman Catholic teaching on matters such as work, profit, master and servant to the conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Presuming that society originated in the family, Rerum Novarum upheld the right to own private property and it condemned socialism for infringing on this right. The encyclical also supported workers’ rights to form combinations (unions) and upheld their rights to a just wage. It also claimed that women’s natural place was in the home.

Quadragesimo Anno dealt with the negative side of free competition and of excessive centralisation of power by the state. It clarified that Catholicism and Socialism were incompatible. It advocated employers and workers cooperating to further their mutual interests.

Thus Bunreacht na hÉireann was clearly influenced by Catholic social teaching, especially articles 40-45. The constitution, in keeping with the sentiments of the encyclicals, promised to ‘vindicate the life, person, good name and property rights of every citizen’ and it acknowledged the ‘right to life of the unborn’. It upheld the family as the ‘natural primary and fundamental unit-group of society’ and promised to protect it as the ‘basis of social order’. It saw the role of women in the home, supporting the common good by attending to their duties at home. Therefore the constitution guaranteed to ‘guard with special care the institution of marriage’. It prohibited divorce. It acknowledged that ‘the primary and natural educator of the child is the family’. People were afforded the right to own property but this was limited. The state could delimit the individual’s right to own private property if it was in the interest of the common good.

Since the ethos of the constitution was distinctly Catholic much of the legislation reflected Catholic morality. In 1935 De Valera’s government banned the importation and sale of contraceptives and imposed strict laws governing the running of dancehalls. The majority of people supported the constitution in upholding such values at that time. Some brave women protested at the archaic legislation which confined women to the home and recognised the inherent prejudice against women and their contribution to society. The constitution ignored the fact that Protestants were allowed to dissolve their marriages...
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