Pope Francis could hardly be arriving at a more dramatic moment. In the aftermath of the abortion referendum, Ireland seems to be wholly set on the repudiation of its Catholic past. A country where the Church was once ubiquitous has set about reinventing itself as the apotheosis of a modern, secular, liberal state. To put it another way: Ireland is entering the Böckenförde phase of its history.

Let me explain.

Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde was a German constitutional theorist and judge, and also a Catholic. In the 1960s, he described a critical paradox at the heart of Western democracies. The “liberal, secularised state”, he wrote, has a kind of hole at its centre. The “great adventure” it has undertaken for freedom’s sake exposes it to a risk that the nation lacks the means to mitigate, placing it at the mercy of a mighty paradox:

As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is, not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character.

Hence the famous “Böckenförde dilemma”: “The liberal, secularised state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.”

Earlier this year, when the Catholic and Protestant bishops of Regensburg issued a joint statement in support of moves in Bavaria to put crosses in public buildings, they echoed Böckenförde. “A liberal, democratic society,” they said, “lives on prerequisites and builds on foundations that it itself cannot guarantee.”

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