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EXTRACT: Are You There God, It’s Me, Ellen

By November 14, 2020No Comments

Journalist and author Ellen Coyne‘s debut book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Ellen, asks an important question. Can you be young, progressive and also Catholic?


Well, you think you know a person. More than that, you think you know yourself. But everybody is full of surprises. The truth first came out, appropriately, over bread and wine.

‘I think,’ I said, ‘I might be Catholic.’

Two friends stared back at me, incredulous. Ash gathered on the ends of their cigarettes, suspended in the air in disbelief. I was perched quite precariously on a bar stool. Across from me were these two very good friends. We were sitting in a pub smoking area around a barrel that doubled up as a table, on which ashtrays and empty white wine bottles were piling high. Picking over the remains of a cheeseboard, I’d had just enough wine to make me very earnest, very emotional and treacherously honest.

So I told them. And how I’d said it was ridiculous, as though I was confessing to some problematic fetish or a heinous crime. Still, though – Catholic? I would have raised my eyebrows, too. I don’t think anyone who knows me had ever heard me say a single good thing about the Catholic Church. The Church to me was dark and oppressive. The Catholic Church meant abuse, misogyny, homophobia, power hunger and piousness. I had scrambled to get away from it as soon as I was independent enough to, and since then I had regarded it with suspicion from a distance.

I thought the Church was a relic from another time, one that we would have to politely avoid looking at as it died in front of us. As my generation defined itself by progressive social movements and historic referendums, a huge chasm opened up between us and the Church. We didn’t like the Church, and the Church didn’t seem to like us either, and that suited us all just fine. I was full sure after I walked away from the Church that I wouldn’t cast it so much as a backwards glance, never mind think about going back to it.

Yet here I was, blurting out loud some of the weird and secret feelings I’d been having. That was the starting point of all of it. My first confession. The night I made that little confession was right in the throes of a time when trust in and regard for the Catholic Church was at its lowest. That little vignette of us, three young women deep into a bar tab and deeper in conversation, was playing out everywhere. Across the country, people were talking about things they’d never talked about before and saying things they’d never said before. It was all part of what we were unironically calling ‘the national conversation’.

We were weeks away from the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment – a national vote to decide if Ireland was going to lift its constitutional near-ban on abortion after over 30 years. I was a journalist who had been covering the campaign for weeks and months and even years before. More pertinently, though, I am also a woman. Almost everything from the month before the vote has blurred together like a fever dream. I know a lot of people endured those weeks rather than lived them. It felt like the country was in a state of convulsion. It was quite a painful thing. Both sides believed the result would say something important about the kind of country we were, in different ways.

Questions about the right to autonomy and the right to life are profound enough on their own, but this vote went further than that. People ascribed all sorts of other meanings to it related to Ireland’s history and Ireland’s modernity, to faith, society, women, rights and wrongs. The week before, I had gone to a drag brunch with a couple of friends I knew very well and some women I didn’t know at all. As we sat around a long table clutching our syrupy cocktails, one of the women, a total stranger to me, told us about travelling for her abortion. It was an emotional thing to listen to, but a terrifying thing as well. We had no idea at that point if anything was going to change and if a story like hers would ever not be normal. These disclosures could happen at any place, at any time.

I was following canvassers for a newspaper I worked for, and sometimes people would answer the door and just burst out crying. In a town in Offaly, I watched a woman with tears in her eyes take a Yes badge from a campaigner and pin it to the inside of her coat, where it would not be seen. I have never had to make the choice those women had to make, but I was silly to think that those awful weeks leading up to the vote wouldn’t have an effect on me. It’s unsettling to watch your rights as a woman being put to a popular vote. At work, I wrote stories about all these women who offered to testify to the nation about what had happened to them under the Eighth Amendment.

All these women and their personal tragedies were condensed into digestible, emotional headlines. It was like a national trial where women had to prove the trauma they had experienced was severe enough before the jury of us citizens would decide it had been wrong. These women weren’t even asking for a Yes for themselves – they were asking for it not to happen to other people. And they had to ask! Afterwards, people talked about how we chose repeal by popular vote as a joyous or empowering thing. Though it never could have been done any other way, there was an element of putting it to a vote that felt kind of degrading to me. It’s easy to remember the version of Ireland in the square of Dublin Castle that was broadcast around the world, covered in the rose-tinted veneer of modernity and compassion.

It felt like the scales had fallen from our eyes when we realised that many more people wanted change than we had been led to believe. A lot of people valued having a direct say on repeal, and many took heart in the fact that change came from ‘the people’. But the campaign started from the point at which women had to try to win or earn their rights from their fellow citizens by proving that having to travel for healthcare is degrading and wrong. That felt grossly unfair to the women themselves and also to those of us who might have never made the choice to travel.

From interviewing women who told their stories in the years after the campaign, I know that the pain of what they went through in having to use their personal experience to campaign for a Yes almost tainted the result for them. The referendum on the Eighth Amendment was credited with changing Ireland. It also changed me. The way that the Catholic Church aggressively campaigned for a No vote during the campaign changed the way I looked at religion. There had been over 30 years of debate over abortion law in Ireland. It had trundled along, peaking in ferocity over travesties like the X case or the death of Savita Halappanavar.

The referendum campaign meant that the whole nation had to go through all of those arguments again, but faster and with more intensity. It was a high-stakes last dance for the groups that had been fighting for or against reform so ferociously for years. And the Catholic Church came out swinging. Bishops and priests were righteous and unequivocal: Catholics had an obligation to vote No. Anti-abortion leaflets started to appear at the back of churches next to donation boxes and literature about pilgrimages.

Priests started to use sermons to campaign and canvass for support for their side. I started to read about the things they had said. Bishop Kevin Doran said that this was the ‘final frontier’, that it would be easier to justify killing older people and those with disabilities after abortion. Archbishop Eamon Martin said that abortion was ‘always evil and can never be justified’. The Church’s position was absolutist, pontifical and relied completely on obedience over freedom of conscience. I wasn’t sure why I was becoming so obsessed with what the Church was saying. I would immediately click into any article where a cleric was talking about abortion.

Scrolling, fuming, I would turn the phone screen towards my boyfriend in outrage. ‘Can you believe this?’ I’d say, gesturing at the latest outrageous quote. ‘Yeah, I can,’ he’d say. ‘It’s a bishop.’ Why did this rankle so much? I was hardly surprised that the Church was against abortion. And anyway, I had no right to critique how senior clerics were running their Church. I had abandoned faith entirely more than a decade before, one of the thousands of young Irish people that the institution was haemorrhaging in the wake of endemic abuse scandals and a refusal to let go of archaic prejudices. The popular view among people my age is that the Church is an obsolete institution that should have the minimal influence possible on Irish society.

Identifying yourself as nonreligious is a virtue signal, possibly in the way that identifying as Catholic would have been in an earlier time. If anything, I was diametrically, completely and utterly anti-Catholic. Well, people contradict themselves all the time.

We have different versions of ourselves for different parts of life. It has taken me a long time to understand that focusing on the things that people are best known for can be the worst way to try to know them. As the referendum campaign moved with increasing intensity towards voting day, these complicated feelings about the Church were growing inside me. I was becoming disproportionately annoyed at the things that senior clerics and other Catholics were saying. A lot of young women my age were paying very little attention to priests’ and bishops’ musings on reproductive healthcare.

Many thought that what the Church had to say on repeal was inconsequential, that it would have zero influence on most voters. I must have had higher standards for clerics than I realised. I thought what they had to say was important, and it was aggravating me that their message seemed so wrong. In the final week of the campaign, I had to stay home from work after waking up with period pain so bad it seemed vengeful. It was the Monday before the vote and I was lying in bed listening to the radio. A politician who had always clearly wedded his anti-abortion views to his faith was doing an interview calling for a No vote.

He was asked about women who had to travel for terminations and how that would continue if the Eighth Amendment remained in the constitution. In response, the politician decided to make a point about different people going to different jurisdictions to benefit from different laws. For example, he explained, many companies decided to come to Ireland to benefit from our low corporate tax rate. Sometimes people talk about how sex feels better when you’re on drugs. I think that rage feels better when you’re on your period – you really get the full benefit of the emotion. I was lying there in bed, crippled with cramps and fizzing with fury.

Corporation tax? Far harsher and more controversial things were said about women over the course of that referendum, but the cold comparison between women looking for reproductive healthcare and greedy inanimate international corporations incensed me the most. Maybe it’s because I was, at that moment, enduring the painful tyranny of my own constant egg production, but the comments and the whole referendum suddenly made me feel very out of control. I felt hyper-conscious of being born in a body that could be pregnant, and even though I could make the choice that this politician wanted, I still wasn’t legally offered the chance to make it. Most of all, I was furious that this was the voice of a ‘Catholic’ No voter. It did not sound like a very Christian way to talk about women.

And it was in total anger that I finally found clarity: I was annoyed at the suggestion that the only Catholic vote was a No vote. I thought this was wrong and unfair. A Catholic voting Yes in line with their own conscience and their sense of compassion (a Christian quality) wasn’t just conceivable, it was precisely what was going to happen for thousands of people on 25 May – the day of the vote. But why would I care about that? Because, I realised, the reasons that I had for voting Yes were Catholic ones. You become the person that you are for lots of different reasons. There’s your personality, for a start. There’s the way your parents raised you. There are formative experiences as a child that shape the way you think and feel. And there is religion.

Every single moral lesson I had as a child was tethered to religion. I learned the difference between right and wrong, but I also learned that doing the wrong thing would not just be morally wrong, it would also be a disappointment to God. I am sure that other religions give people a similar structure to their lives, but I can only speak from my own experience. I grew up understanding Catholicism to be a moral code and an ethical guide. It taught me early on about the importance of looking after others and being kind to people. This is exactly what women who make the difficult decision to access an abortion need. When I was starting out as a journalist, I wrote a lot about the Eighth Amendment and the cruel and inflexible consequences of it.

I also wrote a lot about bad things that anti-abortion activists did in the name of their Catholic cause – like setting up fake crisis-pregnancy agencies to dupe women and scare them away from an abortion. I was about 24 years old when I started writing these articles. Being a young woman covering reproductive rights makes people instinctively see you as some sort of unreliable narrator. This doesn’t seem to happen in other cases. Reporters have highlighted and reported on the tracker-mortgage scandal from one clear side or perspective, but they never seem to be seen as unreliable, despite the fact that they live in houses.

I can’t think of many men who were told they were too biased to cover the referendum, despite abortion being one issue that almost everyone has a view on. Covering the citizens’ assembly, I watched a very senior male reporter make emotional demands for the entire transcripts from interviews with women who had spoken about their crisis pregnancies to the assembly to be made available to him. The press officer from the citizens’ assembly explained that that couldn’t be done because it would reveal the identities of the women, who had chosen to remain anonymous. ‘I’d get them if it was a tribunal,’ he raged. ‘But this isn’t a tribunal,’ the press officer said. ‘Nobody has committed a crime.’

Even within Irish journalism, older male colleagues often suggested that I was biased for writing about the flaws of the Eighth Amendment. I thought that pointing out laws that do not work and campaigning for them to change was one of the most basic aspects of print journalism, and always had been. Women reporters who wrote about the Eighth Amendment were often deemed biased and were savaged on the internet. Years later, I still brace myself whenever anything good happens – a new job, a big story – because there is a cohort of anti-abortion activists who hate me so much they’ll use it as a chance to abuse me again. It was decided that I was tenaciously, dangerously pro-choice.

I was dismissed as an extreme feminazi who put so much store in personal autonomy that I would sanction abortion up until birth if I had my way. Nobody bothered to ask what my own view was. I think it was decided that the thing I was best known for writing about was the best way to know what my views were. I have always believed that life begins at conception, and everything I wrote about abortion law has enhanced that belief rather than shaken it. The more I sat in Dáil committees or citizens’ assembly meetings listening to details about the process of abortion, the surer I became that there is a life there.

Allegedly feminist arguments about a foetus just being a ‘lump of cells’ would leave me cold. If there wasn’t a life there, abortion law wouldn’t dominate internationally as one of the most controversial and emotional social and political issues in the world. I also had the privilege during all this work of learning a lot more about human life in general, the different whys and hows and reasons and instincts that lie behind every termination. If there is anything I have learned from the women who have told me their stories, it’s that nobody can truly predict what would happen were they to be faced with a crisis pregnancy.

You can only know what your beliefs are and assume that they would influence your choice, but they may not ultimately decide it. My personal beliefs lead me to think that I would not choose to terminate a pregnancy, but that’s an easy thing to say from my luxurious position of never having had to decide. I know that I must be pro-choice because I trust people to make a choice that I believe I would not. I find the necessity for abortion sad, and I would prefer to live in a society where a law legalising it was not required.

I have heard women eloquently rail against the suggestion that abortion is always difficult or always a hard choice. They point out that for some women it’s an easy decision, and not as emotive as common conceptions would suggest. I think those women are right. It’s difficult for me, but it’s not difficult for everyone. I’m not anti-abortion but I am pro-life, and women have lives as well. I think you can believe that life begins at conception but know that it’s wrong to try to vindicate that right at any cost.

Values aren’t worth anything when we use them as arbitrary rules for black and white situations. I wanted to vote Yes because the Eighth Amendment did not work: it was designed to stop abortion; it had failed. Worse than that, its mangled attempt to force women to continue pregnancies through law had caused more harm than good. Women had been abandoned and made to suffer, stigmatised and sent away. I wanted to vote Yes out of a sense of compassion for them. Yes, the need for abortion makes me sad, but when I think how many abortions have been carried out in Ireland in the days and months since the law changed, it is not a source of sadness for me. I have to trust all those women. They know better than me what was right for them.

I had to choose Yes for the greater good. I voted Yes with my conscience, based on values that I now know are Christian ones: compassion, empathy and understanding. It made me bitter to think of all those priests and the conservative Catholic commentators who told Catholics not to vote with their conscience. Ignore your conscience? I thought Catholicism was supposed to be sociology for optimists – based heavily on the assumption that people are fundamentally good. The ability to be good and do good is in all of us already. But the Church wanted us to ignore what our conscience told us was the right thing to do. No, those priests seemed to say, we’ll decide. Father knows best.

The Friday of the vote came and went. In the end 1,429,981 people, over 66 per cent, voted Yes to lift Ireland’s ban on abortion. I imagine a lot of those people, like me, had had a Catholic education. I expected the relief, but I didn’t expect the sense of patriotism. I felt like I could love Ireland without qualifications or conditions. I left Dublin Castle after filing my last article on the result. I had wanted to be in every part of the courtyard at once, desperate to absorb every part of this momentous day and commit it to memory. Me and a few other reporters stumbled into a pub across the road. Later on, a few drinks in, someone was holding court.

‘This isn’t a Catholic country anymore,’ they said. Oh, but it is, I thought. This is the most Catholic thing we’ve done in ages. Usually, when Ireland is described as a ‘Catholic country’ it’s in a pejorative way. A lot of people who voted Yes weren’t Catholic, and may not even have been religious. The country voting in favour of an approach that was more compassionate and understanding felt to me like a country that was very much in line with Catholic values, which I was starting to feel were very important to me. After the referendum, the feelings about the Church stayed.

Quietly and unexpectedly, they would start to dominate my thoughts at random moments. I felt like I was in a state of shock. The sense of realisation was slow but potent. I was missing something, and maybe I had wasted years not realising it was missing. I had always assumed that the things I was passionate about – marriage equality, women’s rights – were things I cared about despite being raised Catholic. I bought the conservative Catholic think tank’s portrayal of people like me as annoying social justice warriors who are fundamental enemies of the Church. But maybe those causes were things I cared about because I was raised Catholic? And if that was true, maybe I cared about faith more than I thought?

Catholicism was knitted into my life from the very start. I remember the picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in my house so vividly I could draw it from memory. All around the house were little statues of St Anthony and St Francis. (My dad used to make them dance and joke that it was an All Saints gig.) Every now and then neighbours would show up with a mysterious box with what looked like a rag inside it, and it would be our job to mind it for a few days. These were alleged relics that were passed around like chain letters.

I remember being in school in Touraneena, where I grew up, and Fr Kelleher, the parish priest, coming in to talk to us. I had assumed that priests had some magical powers, or else they wouldn’t have such an important job – the same way the Santa you visit in SuperValu before Christmas is not actually the real deal but a magical disciple who has a direct line back to the North Pole to report any misdemeanours. I thought Fr Kelleher could read my mind, and I always panicked when he came into the classroom because I would immediately be unable to think of anything other than my most recent fight with my sister.

For my first confession, I felt that none of my misdeeds were good enough for the sacrament of penance, so I embellished. I lied and told Fr Kelleher that I had stolen some penny sweets. This sparked a manic shame spiral as soon as I left the confession box and realised that I had now lied to a priest, which was probably the worst thing I had ever done. If there hadn’t been a queue of other children behind me, I would have burst back through the little fabric curtain in tears and pleaded for clemency. I was around nine when I was granted the prestige of being an altar girl, something my mother’s generation had never been allowed to do because it had only been for boys. I still remember the smell of the red robe we’d pull over our heads in the sacristy, with a smaller white one to go on top. Being an altar server was very cool but, unfortunately, for very secular and material reasons.

When people died, altar servers would get the morning off school for the burial. Afterwards, you’d be given a few pound coins to buy sweets in the shop next to the church. You could then strut around the playground, swinging a jelly worm like it was a status symbol. The worst part of the gig was Holy Thursday, when the priest would have to wash the altar servers’ feet the way Jesus did with the twelve disciples. Mine would have already been scrubbed to the point of erasure by my mother, who was afraid of the priest judging anything-less-than-immaculate feet. I remember clutching the sides of one of the wooden seats that we sat on at either side of the altar and trying to point my toes to make my foot look dainty and elegant while it was being washed in front of the whole parish.

The priest would never dry your foot properly. It was more of a decorative pat with the towel, the way you’re supposed to dry yourself after a spray tan. But I would sit diligent and still for the rest of the mass, pretending my foot wasn’t soaking through my sock. I remember once praying for a kitten and then being astounded by the power of God when a stray cat on our farm got pregnant. And I liked praying. I liked talking to God in my head. I liked believing.

But then I grew older, and everything I knew about Catholicism was eclipsed by everything I learned about the Catholic Church. Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes, endless news reports about unthinkable abuse. By the time I was a teenager, people my age and older had left the faith in their droves. ‘Catholic Ireland’ became an adage, referring to a dark, backwards and shameful time. Being Irish Catholic, something that had been so hard won, became something to repent for.

Most of the societal good done by Catholicism was erased in the minds of the public, or effectively cancelled out by the heinous things that the Church did as well. You know what’s coming when you see the word ‘Catholic’ on a newspaper front page: it is nothing good. I was raised to understand that the clergy were people who had made major sacrifices for the sake of their vocation. They were supposed to be role models in morality. Now, people say things like ‘not all’ priests are bad, as if finding a good person of the cloth is a pleasant surprise.

Obviously, this is why I left. It’s why loads of people left. But after repeal, I started going over things in my head. Leaving was an act of protest, but I incorrectly assumed it was a form of punishment for the Church as well. I used to relish the fact that the clerical hierarchy would have to notice the depleting and dwindling numbers at mass and realise that their power was gone. But even without the power and the prestige and the status and even the trust, the Church still had something much, much more precious than we did. We all left, and we let the Church keep the faith. Literally.

By leaving, I and a lot of other people let the Church steal faith away. What a major heist. It’s a big existential loss, but it also means being deprived of the everyday things that are as close to tangible as you’re ever going to get with faith. Going to mass for the ritual and the community. Like having a clear guide for living a better life. A lot of people lost the beauty of private prayer: having someone to talk to in times of crisis or someone to thank in times of joy. It also meant losing a layer of beauty in the world.

Everything is in lower definition – to me anyway – when you can’t see God in things like nature or other people’s kindness. Worst of all, it meant losing the invaluable comfort of knowing it’s not the end when somebody dies. Thinking about that one almost makes me cry.

Faith is so precious. A lot of conscientious people lost their faith, and a lot of people who did damage to the Church got to keep it. That doesn’t seem fair. When something like prayer has been there for your entire life, you don’t think too much about what it really is that you’re doing. Like a lot of people my age, I had left the Church a long time ago. By the end of my teens, I thought there was nothing in the Church for me. I lost all respect for the Church. I stopped going to church and before I realised it had happened, I was out of the religion completely. But I had kept talking to God. (Though, I am embarrassed to admit, this had become less and less frequent as time went on.) In desperate moments of heartache, of course I had turned to prayer again.

When I thought back on those moments, I realised that each time I had believed wholly and unconditionally in what I was doing: I never doubted that God was real or that prayer worked. I had not stopped believing, but I had forgotten that I still believed. Once you realise that you’re missing it, it is almost impossible to go on without it. But this is not a simple story about a prodigal daughter.

Everything that drove me away from the Church in the first place is still real, whether you believe in God or not. I have major problems with the Church’s views on women and LGBT+ people, and the way that it turned its back on child abuse to protect itself. I am about to turn 30, and I will never be able to get back the last decade, where I didn’t engage with what I believed in. I really don’t want to go into the next decade without it. But I don’t want my return to the Church to mean I’m giving my tacit support to misogynistic or homophobic views.

It would be selfish to use faith for my own benefit while turning a blind eye to all of the terrible things done in the name of the religion. The crisis of faith was the easy part. The crisis of conscience was much harder. I had to figure out how much I really wanted to go back to the Church. I also had to ask if leaving it in the first place had been a mistake.

This is an extract from
Are you there, God? It’s me, Ellen
by Ellen Coyne (Gill Books).
Available now from Dubray Books and Easons.

Author portrait by Ruth Medjber