Leo Varadkar’s vision of Church and State not fleshed out

In his address to the Pope in Dublin Castle on Saturday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke of the need to “build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st century”. Reading his remarks, however, it was far from clear what exactly he has in mind, and unfortunately no major figure in the Irish Church has comprehensively set out their vision of Church/State relations either.

The Taoiseach said in his address that while religion would “no longer be at the centre of our society”, it would still have “an important place”. He called for “greater diversity and choice when it comes to the patronage of our schools – and where publicly-funded hospitals are imbued with a civic and scientific ethos.”

Elsewhere in the talk he drew attention to the good work being performed by organisations such as St Vincent de Paul and Crosscare, which “fill a gap in providing services”.

Put it all together and this is only the bare bones of a vision of Church/State relations. We can, however, judge this Government by its actions. We see, for example, how it has ordered publicly-funded Catholic hospitals to perform abortions under the terms of the soon-to-be-introduced and highly-liberal abortion law.

We see that pro-life doctors will only have minimal conscience protections. They won’t have to perform abortions themselves but they will have to refer women to doctors willing to do so.

Catholic schools are having their rights to maintain a Catholic ethos stripped away one by one. Yes, there should be fewer Catholic schools in the country, but if and when more Catholic schools are divested, will the remaining ones be permitted by law to be meaningful Catholic (or Christian)?

Does Leo Varadkar believe that publicly-funded bodies have a right to an independent ethos of their own, and must they all become, in effect, State agencies? This would be a very strange definition of pluralism. Most of us are taxpayers and we have all kinds of different views, but the Government appears to think publicly-funded bodies must have a one-size-fits-all, State-dictated ethos. When the State is so huge, that squeezes out an independent, flourishing civil society sector (never mind simply the Church).

In fact, to judge from his praise of organisations like Crosscare, Mr Varadkar seems to regard such agencies as essentially handmaids of the State. This is a very strange view for a man who was once a classic liberal, which is to say someone who believed in limited government and a less all-enveloping State.

Leo Varadkar has previously attacked the hard-left for essentially wanting religion to disappear from society completely. But he himself seems to believe that religion should be a mainly private thing, one that can do some good admittedly, but which has no right to clash in any meaningful way with the State’s vision of society.

Is this, in fact, what he really believes? He needs to deliver a major speech about this soon and we need to hear a properly fleshed-out response from a major Church figure.

(Picture: Maxwell Photography)