Musings after the Referendum

With Patrick Mitchel

(From the July - September 2018 issue of VOX)


I have been trying to think through what the abortion referendum result means while also trying to sort out my emotional ‘gut reaction’ to the vote. What follows is unapologetically personal. You might agree or disagree, but hopefully we can learn from each other in the process.

Let’s start with emotions: at a deep level, I’m dismayed and saddened. Christians believe that God alone is the life-giver. To take life is to assume the ‘right’ to destroy a precious work of God. But what does the result mean more widely? I’ve only space for two points on how I think the result poses profound challenges for Christians in Ireland.

The referendum was about much more than abortion. A story is powerful. It is a narrative that carries moral, emotional and personal power. The story of the YES campaign was vote for compassion, safety, liberty, inclusivity, welcome and dignity for women faced with the traumatic situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It was a vote to cast off the shackles of our religious past: its harshness, judgementalism, cruelty, abuse, enforced adoption and systematic humiliation of vulnerable women by a patriarchal religious culture using power for its own ends. This is why, for some Christians I talked to, the vote posed a real dilemma. I think, primarily, it was the leaving behind of the legacy of ‘old Ireland’ that thousands of people were on the streets to celebrate on May 26.

In today’s Ireland, to use the language of John’s Gospel, it is the ‘world’, not the church, that embodies progress, hope and, most of all, love. And here’s the thing that churches really need to face up to (my first point) - there is very good reason to think like this. You don’t need me to re-tell the story of religion in 20th century Ireland. And let’s be honest, it can’t all be pinned on the Catholic Church. Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have plenty of repenting to do about division and lack of love.

Churches have plenty of repenting to do about division and lack of love.

I often hear it said that Christians in the West now find themselves in a context similar to that of the early Church – as marginalised small communities of believers living within a pagan empire. I think that’s partially true but it is too easy a comparison. The first Christians had no baggage of church history. Christians in Ireland, rightly or wrongly, are perceived as carrying a truckload. The vote shows that a large segment of the population see that baggage as bad news, not good.

Secondly, this means that the referendum is primarily a challenge for the church to look at itself. Our job is not to ‘save’ Ireland – as if there is such a thing as a Christian country. The ‘world’ will do what the world will do and we cannot control it, nor should we try. No, our primary job is to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

This means being authentic communities of love, grace and good news. Communities of serving others, of preaching the gospel, of forgiving each other, of welcoming the outsider whatever their history, sexuality or status. If we are against the taking of life in principle, it means being people of peace, not war, and protecting and taking care of the elderly. When it comes to abortion, it means not only talking about it, but being communities of such generous love that a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy will be supported and cared for emotionally, financially and relationally so that the community can help her bring up her child.

But we can’t do that from a distance. We need to ask ourselves, are we in nice holy huddles, detached from the experience of many women (and men) faced with abortion as the only ‘solution’ to their situation? Or are we taking the time, and bearing the cost, of loving people in need sacrificially? I’m troubled by my own answers to these questions. How about you?

Dr. Patrick Mitchel is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the Irish Bible Institute. You can follow his blog at