Faith Matters

Archbishop Eamon Martin: Church wants a culture of engagement, not a culture war

Ireland is moving from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which many consider faith to be simply one possibility. That has implications for how the Church communicates, says Archbishop Eamon Martin

Pope Francis, pictured arriving to celebrate Mass at the Santissimo Sacramento parish church on the outskirts of Rome on Sunday, is visiting Ireland in August. He comes to a very different country than that visited by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

ALMOST 40 years on from the last papal visit to Ireland in 1979, the Church now seeks to communicate its vision of family in an entirely different context.

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.

Like other parts of Europe and the Western world, more people in Ireland are now living their lives without reference to God or to religious belief.

We are steadily moving from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith is considered by many to be simply one human possibility among others.

There are ongoing calls from some quarters for the removal of the Church's perceived remaining influence in schools, healthcare and public policy making.

In the aftermath of child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of the past, we have to be aware, in communicating the family, that there are those who feel they can no longer trust our message, because they have been hurt and betrayed in their families 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 in his Pastoral Letter to the Faithful of Ireland in 2010, "obscured the light of the gospel".

The Catholic Church's vision of the uniqueness of a faithful and exclusive union between a married man and a woman and their children is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches 

In this complex and often negative environment we are challenged to learn new ways of communicating our sincerely held perspectives about family and other matters.

We realise that we must do so now alongside those of other faiths and none, and thereby continue to encourage conversations at a national level on the challenges and opportunities in family life.

The report of the President of Ireland's 'Ethics Initiative', issued in February 2016, identified that what Irish society needs is a debate on what ethical values and principles we want to uphold and strengthen; we need to have a conversation on our understanding of what constitutes a 'good life' or a 'flourishing life', not just for individuals but also for communities.

In entering this kind of dialogue, we in the Church must be cautious about thinking that people who disagree with us are necessarily hostile.

Bishop Donal Murray makes this point in his book In a Landscape Redrawn, published last year by Veritas.

He writes: "Civilised discussion should begin from the presumption that all concerned are honestly seeking the truth... We should remain open to recognising the elements of truth that are present in the convictions of someone we disagree with... Honest convictions are the fruit of a search for truth and for God, the search in which those on both sides of the argument are involved."

The French bishops recently raised similar points: "Many of our fellow citizens, some out of confusion, wonder: who am I really? What do I believe in? What are the values which made me and matter to me? Where do they come from?"

What is interesting about the French bishops' statement is that they speak not only as people of faith, but also as fellow French citizens, pastorally accompanying their troubled people with empathy and concern.

Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979

The bishops caution against any aspiring to be a "Church of the pure, a counter-culture removed from society, posing as a judge from above".

The engagement of people of faith together with all people of goodwill in conversations about family, marriage and other critical life matters is to be encouraged and welcomed.

Drawing upon its rich tradition of social teaching, the Catholic Church will sometimes bring uncomfortable questions into such a dialogue.

However, in an atmosphere of respectful encounter, it is possible for two-way, critical interaction and conversations to take place between religious traditions and the broader culture, including constructive critiques of social, political, legal, and economic practices.

For example, taking inspiration from the powerful 1983 Charter of the Rights of the Family, we might ask: To what extent does public policy support family and life, freedom of education and conscience, a proper work-life balance, which respects the role of mothers and fathers?

What do our economic and social policies say to poorer families, particularly those policies which impact directly on family: the needs of children and the elderly; tackling the proliferation of drugs, alcohol, gambling and other addictive behaviours which can destroy home and family life?

How do welfare policies and benefit programmes support families who are most in need and who are so easily targeted and exploited by loan sharks and other criminal elements?

How can we better assist young people who wish to establish a family, mortgage a home, take out insurance, but who may sometimes be convinced by economic policy to remain single?

I am convinced that a constructive culture of engagement, rather than a pointless culture war, is the best way to ensure that the voice of faith, communicating the family, can be heard.

It begins with our conviction that, among the many types of family that are out there, the Catholic Church's vision of the uniqueness of a faithful and exclusive union between a married man and a woman and their children, is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches.

The Gospel of the family is meant for mission. It is not to be cloistered away from the cut and thrust of public discourse.

Pope Francis has said: "The family deserves special attention by those responsible for the common good, because it is the basic unit of society, which brings strong links of union that underpin human coexistence and, with the generation and education of children, ensure the renewal and the future of society."

As the final report of the Synod on the Family in 2015 put it: "A society that neglects the family has lost its access to the future."

The World Meeting of the Families gives us a privileged opportunity to communicate the Gospel of the family ad intra, and ad extra, as good for society and good for the Church; in short, a message of joy for the world.

  • Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Taken from 'Communicating the Family - Towards the World Meeting of Families 2018 in Dublin, Ireland', an address delivered at the 'Dialogue, Respect and Freedom of Expression in the Public Arena' conference in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Pope Francis during a visit to the Santissimo Sacramento parish church on the outskirts of Rome on Sunday. Picture by AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

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