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Casey affair gives rise to a la carte Catholicism


The fall of the Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, is probably the worst crisis to hit the Roman Catholic Church of Ireland in a generation.

But not everybody is displeased.

For some, the tragedy of the bishop who after 17 years owned up to having fathered an illegitimate son might serve a benign end if it helps disengage the church from the secular realm of the state with which it is everywhere entangled.

Dick Spicer hopes it will have that effect. He heads an organization of some 300 people -- doctors and lawyers, other professionals and those just interested -- whose very name indicates what many would regard as a quixotic mission in Ireland. It is called the Campaign to Separate Church and State.

The two realms are joined at the hip and have been since the birth of the Irish Free State in 1921. In recent years, some separation has been effected, but the church still runs nearly all the primary schools and most of the hospitals, and its interests, as they are perceived by the hierarchy, are deeply embedded in the constitution.

To say the Catholic Church is influential in Ireland is an understatement, although the influence is often benign.

The constitution in Ireland says there will be no divorce and no abortion. Male homosexuality is against the law (lesbianism is not because, according to people knowledgeable about such matters, the legislators drafting the law didn't know such a thing existed).

The abortion prohibition was modified somewhat in March when the Irish Supreme Court ruled that a 14-year-old girl, pregnant through rape and psychologically unstable because of it, should be permitted to travel to England to obtain a legal abortion.

In an attempt to put the matter to rest, the Irish government promised to organize a referendum for the fall. It would ask whether Irish people should be granted the explicit right to travel freely in and out of the country (while unstated, the purpose would be to secure abortions in other countries) and the right of Irish families to have access to abortion information, which they do not now have.

A spirited contest is expected. But some think that the Catholic Church's great influence, so evident and determining in past referendums on abortion and divorce, is now weakened.

"Undoubtedly this whole issue [Bishop Casey's confession] has undermined the church's credibility. It has given a tremendous impetus to a la carte Catholicism," Mr. Spicer said.

"People are picking and choosing what they will believe in rather than taking the set menu of the church. That can only help the Campaign to Separate Church and State," he said.

Jon Robinson, a spokesman for the Irish Family Planning Association, foresees a similar effect.

"People now will take the church's future statements on human sexuality in general with a grain of salt," he said. "That is where the change will be. People will begin interpreting these situations for themselves."

There were similar expectations expressed by people in more sensitive positions. Brendan Comiskey, a bishop in Wexford County, went on television recently and declared, "We must become a more humble church."

He was referring to the church hierarchy, which is reportedly rived by the effects of Bishop Casey's case, with some urging that the church become less aggressive in pressing its interests into law.

With the exception of Bishop Comiskey and one or two others, the bishops are not all that forthcoming on the Casey affair. But their spokesman, Jim Cantwell, said they "do not feel they are being driven into a bunker or anything like that. But this has been a very traumatic period for the church, and I suppose they are trying to come to terms with it."

l Asked if the church hierarchy might be able to perceive any lasting effects in Ireland, he said, "That, you know, is a matter for history to determine."

At least one priest expects some change to flow from the Casey affair, if only a small one.

Father Bernard Treacy, the editor of the journal Doctrine and Life, published by the Dominican order in Dublin, said: "Personally I am quite unsure as to what the outcome to all this is likely to be, but it is difficult to foresee people hearing church pronouncements on family matters except with a certain amount of reserve."

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