Archbishop Eamon Martin has expressed his concern that decades of service by countless religious sisters and priests to the education and healthcare of the people of Ireland and all over the world is almost obliterated by a revised and narrow narrative that religious ethos cannot be good for democracy and stands against the progress and flourishing of society and the rights of citizens.
The Archbishop was speaking in the University of East Anglia in Norwich on Monday 8 May where he delivered a lecture as part of The Newman Lectures on the theme ‘The Church in the Public Sphere – a perspective from Ireland’
Archbishop Eamon said it was “simply not true that the Catholic Church has a desire to create a theocracy in Ireland, North or South. However, the Church does expect that in a true pluralist democracy or republic, religion and faith will continue to have an important part to play in the national conversation.”
Archbishop Eamon said that he was convinced “that the failures of the past must not be allowed to define us, but should instead help all of us in the public sphere learn lessons for the present about where church and society might today be similarly marginalising the poor, stigmatising the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable”.
Role of the Church in the public square
Addressing the role of the Church in the public square, Archbishop Eamon said, “Much has been spoken about the role of the Church ‘in the public square’, referencing mainly the discussion of religion, morality, politics and law. To speak about the engagement of Church in the ‘public sphere’ is to acknowledge the broader spaces where ideas are developed, shared and tested. The media and entertainment world, for example, has an obvious claim on the attention of people of faith, and, if you’ll allow a ‘virtual’ space, then social media has a major contribution to make. Important discussion also takes place in the boardrooms of business and industry. The arts, music and sport clearly influence the public agenda. From all of these emerge messages which shape our understanding of the truth and how we live our lives. So also, of course, does education, through academic research and discourse.
“This means that if the voice of the Church is to effectively enter the public sphere, then people of faith, both as faithful witnesses to the Gospel and as faithful citizens must inhabit and contribute to all of these worlds and discussions, and indeed, to anywhere people meet to share opinions and ideas – the pub, the hairdressers, the dinner party and the staff coffee room.”
Archbishop Eamon went on to reflect on the message people of faith bring into the public sphere. He said, “Pope Saint John Paul once said, we are ‘at the service of love’. We enter the public sphere with his words: ‘Do not be afraid, the Gospel is not against you, but for you’. We try to convince others that , as Pope Benedict put it, ‘if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great’. We are not there to impose, but to invite; we are not there to simply oppose, but to offer the gift and message of salvation.
“In this way towards, and from, a personal encounter and relationship with Christ, we enter the public square with the conviction that ‘something else is needed’ and not simply to win arguments through the clever use of reasoning and debate. When we speak, we draw upon both reason and faith and upon an integral vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person linked to the common good. We seek to present in public discourse ‘a consistent ethic of life’, based on natural law, which includes for example, our teaching about the sacredness of all human life and the dignity of the person, about the centrality of the family, about solidarity and the need for a fair distribution of goods in the world. Our vision is of a society marked by a culture of peace, justice and care for all, especially the most vulnerable.”
Supporting the Common Good
Archbishop Eamon went on to look at the desire of the Church to support the Common Good. He said, “When Bishops issue statements or comments on specific matters in the public square, they are exercising their responsibility to teach and lead the faithful. From the standpoint of promoting the Common Good, and from the conviction that our faith in Jesus Christ has consequences for every aspect of our lives, the Bishops encourage all Catholics to engage constructively in conversations and discussions about a wide range of social and moral issues, thereby bringing the light of faith to bear on some of the most important topics of the day. The scene is somewhat different between the North and the Republic of Ireland, but most of what I have so say applies to the island as a whole.
“In Ireland (and indeed more widely) the Bishops are often accused of ‘moralising’ and of being overly interested only in areas of sexual morality. A glance, however, at the breadth of recent interventions makes it clear that the Bishops seek to bring the Joy of the Gospel to bear on a whole range of issues. Recent interventions of the bishops, North and South in Ireland, have included comments and statements on:
- homelessness, childhood poverty, welfare reform and the widening gap between rich and poor;
- creating a constructive and inclusive political culture, particularly in Northern Ireland, that will sustain peace and give hope to all in our society for a better future;
- upholding the fundamental right to life from conception to natural death;
- protecting and supporting family and marriage and in particular the natural institution of marriage between one man and one woman as the fundamental building block of society;
- the right of religious organisations to provide services in a manner consistent with their religious ethos and beliefs;
- the right of parents to have Catholic schools as part of a diverse system of educational provision, based on parental choice;
- the persecution of Christians and other minority groups across the world;
- addressing human trafficking in Ireland, north and south, and helping to improve services for refugees and asylum seekers;
- ensuring proper care and respect for the natural environment.
“Although the bishops in their teaching role will often reiterate the duty to the Common Good that is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching, they are at pains to emphasise that they do not wish to interfere in the legitimate autonomy of politics, or to support one political party or candidate over another. This is a matter of conscience for each voter.”
Decline in Practice and Secularisation
Archbishop Eamon went on to reflect on the context in which the Church enters the public sphere today, a context which he said has shifted dramatically in recent decades. Recalling the words of Pope Saint John Paul II at Knock in 1979 when said that every generation is like a new continent to be won for Christ, Archbishop Eamon said, “Almost forty years later, it is clear that the Church is speaking to a whole new generation in the public sphere. The role of religion and faith in Irish society, north and south, has been hugely impacted by secularisation and is evidenced by a steady decline in Church attendance and in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. What began as a gradual drift of people away from Mass and the Sacraments became a stronger current which has carried many away from religion and from God altogether. Like other parts of Europe and the Western world, more people in Ireland are living their lives without reference to God or to religious belief.
Archbishop Eamon said that the publication of Ireland’s most recent Census (2016) figures show that we have moved, or at least are rapidly moving, from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith is one human possibility among others. In five years the number of people identifying as Catholic has declined by 5% to 78% of the population and there are increased numbers of people who profess no religious belief. Archbishop Eamon said, “Such a narrative clearly challenges the Church to find new ways of presenting the Joy of the Gospel, and for example the Gospel of the Family, in the public sphere.”
Archbishop Eamon said “the Catholic Church in Ireland has seen great damage to its credibility on account of the child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of the past. Many people feel they can no longer trust our message because they have been hurt and betrayed by their experience of Church. The sins and crimes of sexual abuse in the Church have not only had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, but have also, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, ‘obscured the light of the gospel’. In short, communion has been damaged and our witness has been weakened.
“When we attempt as Church to speak in the public sphere about the right to life of the unborn, some are quick to point to the scandals and to shameful stories of the past.
“There is a tendency in some public discussion, to give the impression that when something is related to faith (e.g. a faith-school, faith hospital, or faith anything), that underlying it are matters of some special revelation, unconnected with reason.”
“This can engender in the Church a defensive reaction to criticisms – sometimes by denial, claiming unfairness, even conspiracy – rather than being thankful that the lid has been lifted on a terrible and shameful chapter of our history and at last giving a voice to those who for years have been carrying a lonely trauma.”
The challenge of secularism
Speaking about the challenge of secularism, Archbishop Eamon said, “It is important to acknowledge that the process of ‘secularisation’ which leads to what the Church recognises as the ‘rightful autonomy of earthly affairs’, is very different from ‘secularism’, which at times may quite aggressively seek to exclude the voice of faith and religion altogether from the public square.
“It is important for us to learn new ways of presenting our sincerely held perspectives alongside others of other faiths and none, and to encourage conversations at a national level on significant issues and values.
“The engagement of people of faith together with all people of good will in such a conversation is to be encouraged and welcomed. The Catholic Church can draw upon its rich tradition of social teaching in such a process. With faith and conviction we will sometimes bring uncomfortable questions into the public sphere e.g. about the impact of economic policies on the most vulnerable, or to point out the contradictions of populism, all the while being careful not to become too sensitive to criticism or always claiming to be offended.”
Archbishop Eamon said that there is no question that the practice of faith in Ireland has been hugely exposed to, and challenged by, the prevailing culture. He said, “There appears, however, to exist little appetite at present for any substantial critique of culture by people of faith, particularly if it presents any serious questioning of the almost compulsory consensus on controversial issues. This leads further to a tendency amongst some in Ireland towards secularism, and a caricaturing of the Church and people of faith as being “unmodern”, “authoritarian”, “hypocritical”, “bigoted”, “closed” to progress and personal rights and autonomy. At times we need to have a broad back in the public square, and, particularly so, on social media where people of faith often have to endure insult or ridicule, or even personal attack simply for being present in the public square at all.”
“Hence, two-way, critical interaction and conversations need to take place between religious traditions and the broader culture, including constructive critiques of social, political, legal, and economic practices. Our arguments in these discussions must aim to balance charity and truth.”
Archbishop Eamon said that Pope Francis emphasises to us the need to ‘go out of ourselves’ to the ‘edges of our existence’ where we meet the poor, the forgotten, the disillusioned, to draw near and guide the weakest of our neighbours who are experiencing a wounded or lost love. When we do so, and indeed at all times in the public sphere, people of faith are called to be at once gentle and patient, but firm and persuasive.
Concluding his address Archbishop Eamon said, “The Church may often appear counter-cultural, and a sign of contradiction in the secular world, just as it was for the Athenians when Paul spoke. But it is not extra-cultural. We are impacted by the process of secularisation. We live, breathe, work and believe alongside people of other traditions, faiths and none and the pressure on believers to conform, to become just like everyone else, is often immense and overpowering. The Church will remain an object of fascination to many, of bewilderment or curiosity to others, and of hostility to some. Our challenge is to present to the world the edifying and inspiring witness of people of faith.”
“It would hugely impoverish our faith if we were to compartmentalise it or exclude it completely from our conversations and actions in the public sphere. But I believe that it would also impoverish society if the fundamental convictions of faith were not permitted to influence public conversation, debate and policy formation; it would diminish the understanding of the human person and dilute the concept of the common good. That is why I am convinced of the importance for all of us of engaging and speaking out of our faith conviction with all those we meet out in the public sphere, and of doing so with compassion and with hope.”
The Newman Lectures are a series of talks on the subject of Catholicism in history that take place each Spring semester in the University of East Anglia. The theme of the 2017 Newman Lectures series is ‘Church, State and Culture’.
You can read the full address by Archbishop Eamon here.