A major row over the relationship between Church and State has erupted after Pat Rabbitte appeared to suggest that the Catholic Church should not be permitted to lobby politicians.
Mr Rabbitte, who is Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, was responding after Cardinal Sean Brady told RTE that the Church was prepared to lobby politicians on the abortion issue.
Minister Rabbitte suggested that the intervention could bring Ireland “back to the days of the Catholic Church dictating to elected public representatives how [they] should address an issue” and this would be “retrogressive”.
He told RTE’s This Week programme: “I don’t have any objection to any of the churches stating its position and making it clear, but I think it would be a retrogressive step if we were to go back to the days of the Catholic Church dictating to elected public representatives how [they] should address an issue.”
His stance was criticised by the Iona Institute, the Pro Life Campaign and Fianna Fáil.
In a statement, the Iona Institute said that Minister Rabbitte’s remark was “really an attempt to rob the Church of the democratic right to lobby”.
Dr John Murray of The Iona Institute said: “It is Minister Rabbitte’s comment that is actually retrograde. First of all, lobbying is not the same as dictating.
“Secondly, why should business organisations, or farming organisations, or trades unions be allowed to lobby politicians but the Churches cannot do this?”
He continued: “Seeking to deny the Churches, and their members, the same right as belongs to every other group in society is deeply undemocratic”.
Dr Murray noted: “The Catholic Church in Ireland is actually quite unusual in not having professional lobbyists working in parliament full-time. The Scottish hierarchy has a full-time lobbyist, for example. The bishops of Europe jointly have a full-time political office in Brussels”.
A spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign, Cora Sherlock said churches, faith-based group or any group should not be “intimidated out of the public arena when it comes to commenting on public policy, particularly on an issue as fundamental as the right to life”.
She said: “I would have thought it was partly the role of any Minister for Communications to encourage public discourse on important issues not try to suppress it.”
The spokesman on health for Fianna Fail, Billy Kelleher accused Mr Rabbitte of a disrespectful attitude to Cardinal Brady.
“Unfortunately, Pat Rabbitte’s contribution on Sunday’s RTÉ This Week programme, when he said the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland should not be involved in any political debate on the issue, was neither restrained nor respectful.”
He claimed Mr Rabbitte had “succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere for engagement” and was “creating conflict” before the expert report had even been finalised.