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This article was published in the January 1995 issue of The Journal.

From an Irish Perspective

Because of my own mixed heritage, the subject of interchurch marriages has been of particular interest to me all my life.

A Protestant mother
This interest began when, as a five--year-old talking to my mother, I made some bigoted reference to the Protestantism of our then Deputy Prime Minister. This evoked the gentle rebuke, "Dear, you do know that I am a Protestant too, don't you?" I hadn't in fact known this, for I had been misled by the conscientious way in which my mother had taught me my Catholic religion, and by the fact that she always l ac companied my father, brothers and myself to mass. I had failed to notice that she did not receive Holy Communion - or, if I had noticed this, I may have assumed that she did not want to leave me alone in the bench when the rest of the family went to the altar rails.

While for the first half of my life I was, like most Irish people, a very conservative Catholic, I was not thereafter a bigoted one.

Later in life it became my lot to have to address this issue as a politician, and though for several years past I have retired from politics, you will I hope excuse me if I approach this subject at least partly from a political viewpoint. I feel I ought to do so because the unusual religious geography and demography of this island raises issues in respect of interchurch marriages which are peculiar to us, and may be unfamiliar to many who have come here from other countries and which, indeed, are not always understood even by Irish people themselves.

In many countries, perhaps indeed in all, interchurch marriages have in the past given rise to problems for the couples involved. Many such spouses have met with hostility from one or other - or even in some cases from both - of their families and from their clergy. Sadly, spouses who are seriously concerned with their religion have suffered most in this process; the indifferent can more readily brush aside some of these difficulties.

A life-threatening conflict
But I believe that Northern Ireland is today more or less unique in the physical danger that can threaten those who marry someone of another Christian communion. Some spouses in interchurch unions would, indeed, seem to have lost their lives through sectarian assassination precipitated by the hatred and suspicion which their marriages have aroused in one or other community.

Of course, the conflict in Northern Ireland is not about religion, but is an ethnic guerilla war between extremist members of two communities which, with the disappearance between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries of linguistic differentiation between them, have long since been distinguishable from each other only by their inherited religious affiliations. Similarly, it is in no way the strictly religious dimension that has produced the atrocities committed against some partners in interchurch marriages. The motivation of terrorists on either side is ethnic hatred bred by mutual and reciprocal fear - unionist terrorists fearing a threat to their identity which they see emanating from the nationalist majority in the island as a whole, while nationalist terrorists fear a return of repression and domination by the local unionist majority in the North.

Erosion by marriage
On the unionist side, the fear of nationalism has been greatly intensified by the fact that the number of Protestants in the area of the State fell from about 10% to 7% between 1911 and 1926 , partly as a result of the departure of the British army and of emigration by some Protestants at the time the State was founded seventy years ago and thereafter continued to decline, effectively halving between 1926 and 1981 to 3.5%.

To Northern Protestants, the virtual halving of the non-Catholic population of this State during this period of just over half a century appears very sinister indeed, suggesting the operation of anything from ethnic cleansing to job discrimination. The fears thus intensified have in their own way contributed to tensions in Northern Ireland, heightening the fears of Protestants there which have contributed to the emergence of the sectarian assassination campaign carried on sporadically by Loyalist paramilitaries since the mid-1960s.

Now the fact is that Protestants have not suffered discrimination in this State. The on Iv discrimination on a religious basis that has existed has taken the form of discrimination in the provision of school transport in favour of the more dispersed Protestant rural population, together with a somewhat higher rate of State grant for Protestant secondary schools.

Moreover, because for historical reasons the Protestant population owned more property and held a disproportionate share of posts in business and the professions, since halve between 1926 and 1981? 1926 there has been less emigration by Protestants than by Catholics. Why then did the non-Catholic share of the population virtually To some degree this reflected a lower Protestant birth rate, as well as the fact that from the outset the Protestant population had a higher age profile and therefore death rate. But by far the most important cause of the decline in the non-Catholic population was the impact of interchurch marriages combined with the Roman Catholic Church's insistence that in such marriages the parties must commit themselves to bring up their children in the Roman Catholic faith.

The profound impact of this upon the Protestant population in this State renected the fact that, because of the small size of the Protestant community, from the outset some 25% of all marriages of Protestants, and a rather higher percentage of marriages of Protestant men, were interchurch marriages with Catholics. And because of the stringent requirement imposed by the Catholic Church authorities, and the fidelity of both partners to the assurances they were required to give, the great bulk of the children of these marriages were brought up as Catholics. Over two generations, this process had the arithmetical effect of reducing the non-Catholic population by some 40%.

Quite apart from the dangerously negative impact in Northern Ireland of this erosion-by-marriage of the Protestant community in this State, this development was clearly undesirable in its own right, threatening the existence of a community whose distinct ethos and cultural heritage constitute a valuable and vital element of our society.

There was no equivalent erosion of either community in Northern Ireland, where the overall population ratio is currently estimated at 57/43 in favour of the Protestant community and is likely in my view to stabilise during the first half of the next century within the range 50/55% Protestant and 45/50% Catholic. This has been for the simple reason that both communities in Northern Ireland have been large enough throughout the area not to have to marry outside their own group, while the pressures against intermarriage have been much greater precisely because of the tensions that this relatively even population balance has created.

A special policy in Ireland?
It was against this background that, following my appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs in March 1973, I decided after an informal discussion with Cardinal Casaroli in the margins of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki in July of that year, to submit him a memorandum on this and some more specifically Church-State issues with Northern Ireland implications (e.g. contraception, divorce, and integrated education) issues that I followed up personally during a visit to Rome in September of that year.

On the occasion of this visit, 1 was disappointed with the reaction to my document which had stressed the importance, from the point of view of restoring peace in Northern Ireland and reducing the risk to the Catholic popUlation of sectarian attacks upon them, of minimising avoidable sources of intercommunity tension arising from issues like that of the Catholic Church's requirements in respect of mixed marriages. Cardinal Casaroli's reaction was to observe that Irish unity was unlikely to come soon; in these circumstances, should we be upsetting people in our State by making changes now along the lines I had raised with him?

I argued this out with him, emphasising that the most important area of all was that of interchurch marriages; while since Vatican II there had been considerable progress in this area at the pastoral level, in our State we were concerned about the impact on Northern Protestant opinion of the halving of the proportion of Protestants in our State as a result of the operation of the Catholic Church's mixed marriage code.

This population effect was a unique aspect of interchurch malTiages which did not exist elsewhere and which, I suggested, justified a special Catholic Church regime for mixed marriages in Ireland. Cardinal Casaroli's response was to suggest that I discuss the matter with the Nuncio and with some of the Irish bishops - who, I knew, felt that they could not move without permission from Rome.

Shifting the responsibility
There the matter had to be left for the moment, but there was a sequel ten years later, when representatives of the Irish hierarchy attended to make a presentation to, and to answer questions at, a meeting of the New Ireland Forum which I had established with a view to re-formulating the Irish nationalist position in terms that would facilitate an impending negotiation with the British Government about the future of Northern Ireland a negotiation which two years later culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

In the course of the debate at the Forum between the politicians and the representatives of the Catholic hierarchy, the question of interchurch marriages was raised. On behalf of the hierarchy, Bishop Cassidy (later to be appointed Archbishop of Tuam) revealed that the hierarchy had considered appealing to the Holy See for a derogation from the requirement that the Catholic partner in an interchurch marriage agree orally to do his or her best to have the children brought up as Catholics. However, they had not gone ahead with this, as they felt that "there was not even a slight chance that Rome would accede to such an appeal"!

In writing of this episode in my autobiography, I commented that "two Government departments seeking to shift the bureaucratic onus to each other could not have been more skilful". But I have to say that I found the whole episode discouraging and indeed unedifying.

A de facto change
Meanwhile, life has gone on. times. But I have to say that I found the whole episode We have few statistics to enlighten us on what has been happening in this area in recent times. But we do know that the proportion of Protestants in the population certainly stabilised between 1981 and 1991, and may have increased fractionally. There is reason to believe that although the Catholic Church still requires a promise from the Catholic partner that he or she will do his or her best to have the children of the union brought up as Catholics, in a substantial proportion of cases perhaps as many as half - the children are in fact brought up in the faith of the other partner. De facto the situation on the ground has thus changed significantly.

There are many other aspects of this question- legal, theological, pastoral, or in the sphere of interpersonal relations that you will be considering in the course of this conference, learning from each other's very different experiences in the countries represented here.

I hope that I may have helped your discussion along a little by adding to it an additional dimension that of an Irish politician, himself the product of a very happy interchurch marriage, infused with a deep faith on both sides. But I am also a politician desperately concerned that tensions between different Christian communions in this island should not be allowed to contribute further to the violence that for over two decades has disfigured and disgraced our island and damaged severely the name of Christianity world wide.

Garrett Fitzgerald, former Taoiseach of Ireland