Ireland is getting closer to legalizing abortion, after a special “Citizens’ Assembly” studying the issue recommended the country change the pro-life amendment to its constitution, which was ratified in 1983.

The vote could lead to a referendum in the middle of 2018, just as the country is expecting a visit by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

The assembly, made of 99 randomly selected citizens, has been meeting since late last year to discuss Ireland’s abortion laws.

On Sunday, 87 percent of the assembly voted in favor of a referendum to change the Eighth Amendment, which protects the life of the unborn, with 64 percent saying there should be “no restrictions as to reasons” for an abortion.

Although the assembly is supposed to be representative of the people, the most recent poll on abortion, published in earlier this year, showed only only 28 percent supported legal abortion “where a woman believes she would be unable to cope because of her age or circumstances,” well below the percentage of assembly members that supported unrestricted abortion.

This discrepancy, as well as how the assembly was managed, has led many pro-life advocates to accuse the process of leading to a predetermined result.

“The writing was on the wall for weeks after the Assembly invited groups like BPAS, Britain’s largest abortion provider, to address them but never, for example, extended a single invitation to groups representing parents who say they owe the life of their child to the Eighth Amendment,” said Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign in a statement.

“This one-sided approach is typical of how the Assembly conducted its business from the get-go. It cannot be left unchallenged,” she continued. “If the next phase of the process is to have any credibility, the first thing the new [Parliamentary] Committee charged with looking at the issue must do is examine how the Citizens’ Assembly was allowed to operate in such a one-sided and chaotic way.”

David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute, a Dublin-based pro-family think tank, told Crux a referendum was a foregone conclusion, and the Citizens’ Assembly was just political gamesmanship.

“This has always been an exercise by the government in trying to deflect any criticism it might get if was to announce a referendum unilaterally,” Quinn said.

Both Ireland’s Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and the Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar have called for a referendum on the issue in 2018, although given the steps involved in the process, such a vote probably could not be held until the middle of that year at the earliest.

Which is interesting, since the World Meeting of Families is taking place in Dublin in August of 2018, and the pope is expected to attend.

It will be the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1979, just four years before the country passed its pro-life amendment.

In 1983, the Catholic Church led the campaign to enshrine the protection of the unborn in Ireland’s constitution, and the popularity of John Paul II – and his strong defense of life – played a key role.

What a difference 35 years can make. Western Europe’s most Catholic country is quickly becoming one of its most secular.

Revelations about clerical sexual abuse  and the horrible conditions in Catholic care facilities have left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland.

In 2011, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the “historic relationship between church and state in Ireland could not be the same again. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.”

The Irish government later removed its resident ambassador to the Vatican.

“The voice of a Catholic bishop probably loses support rather than adds support to anything,” Quinn told Crux. “So, I think the role of the Catholic Church in this debate will to address itself purely to parishioners to mass-goers. If it addresses itself to the general public it will only actually lose votes.”

This was apparent during the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland, when 62 percent of the voters supported the proposal, making Catholic Ireland the first country to legalize of same-sex marriage through a public vote.

The bishops seem to be aware of their lack of popularity. There has been no response to the decision of the citizens’ assembly from the bishops’ conference, and most individual bishops have also been silent since the recommendations of the assembly were announced.

But one bishop is popular in Ireland, he just doesn’t live there. Since his election, Francis has managed to charm most disaffected Catholics, including those in Ireland.

In 2014, Kenny reopened the Irish Embassy to the Vatican, and last year formally invited the pontiff to visit the country.

Even Marie Collins, the Irish abuse victim who left the Vatican’s anti-abuse commission in frustration over alleged roadblocks put up by various members of the Curia, has nothing by kind words for the pope.

Right now, polls show most Irish people want a more liberalized abortion law, but they do not want the laws as liberal as those in neighboring Britain, let alone the abortion-on-demand regime in place in the United States.

Yet the uncertainty surrounding how a referendum might be worded, or what subsequent legislation might be passed, means that public support for altering the constitution might change.

Now the buildup to the papal visit will coincide with the buildup to the referendum on abortion.

Will the focus on the pope, and the positive stories surrounding the Church, be able to change enough minds on the abortion issue? Francis has often used his star power to great effect, but the most Catholic country in Europe may be his toughest act yet.

An earlier version of this story said the Citizens’ Assembly was chosen through the method used for the Constitutional Convention which led to the 2015 marriage referendum. The story has been corrected.