William Scholes: Is the menu changing for à la carte Catholics?

Pope Francis married flight attendants Carlos Ciuffardi and Paola Podest during a flight in Chile earlier this year. There has been controversy over whether the sacrament of marriage should be offered to Catholics who hold pro-abortion views. Picture by L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Media/Pool Photo via AP

THE furore over whether Catholics who promote abortion should be able to marry in Catholic churches is one of the more perplexing elements to emerge on the post-referendum landscape.

The Catholic Church's position on abortion is, after all, hardly a secret.

Anyone holding particularly strident views in opposition can therefore hardly be surprised if a priest clears his throat and dares to raise the subject, explaining that it might be a problem for the Church and the integrity of the sacrament.

Then there is the question of why anyone who blatantly disregards a core Catholic teaching would want to be married in a Catholic Church in the first place.

It's like turning up at the GAA club with a tennis racquet and then complaining when no-one will serve to you.

Turning to ecumenical matters, Protestants are largely bemused by all this.

For the remnant who still bother with Church, it rather confirms the widely held suspicion that many Catholics regard traditions such as baptism and first communion as more of a cultural rite of passage than a confession of faith.

Those who don't darken the door of the local Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist congregation - though many, many other Protestant denominations are available - are just bewildered why their Catholic-born counterparts who are otherwise hostile to the Church still feel compelled to have its imprimatur on their lives.

There will also be Catholics who are gladdened that their Church is, in pockets at least, showing signs of asserting itself.

As Armagh priest Fr John McKeever, who works in canon law, put it in this newspaper yesterday, anyone who obstinately persists in advocating views contrary to Christian teaching has "in effect excommunicated themselves from the life and faith of the Church".

A priest would have to say that such a person "would be unable to receive or celebrate any sacraments, including marriage".

"The Church, like any other society, needs to be able to use its laws in order to protect its identity and the rights of its members, especially the most vulnerable," he wrote.

There is, perhaps, a sense of slamming the sacramental stable door after the horse has bolted; the Church is open to the accusation that there has been a certain laxness in how priests have shared access to the sacraments, more concerned about not turning anyone away - often out of genuine compassion - than the nuances of sacerdotal discipline.

Much of the commentary around the result of the referendum backing the repeal of the Eighth Amendment has focused on what it means for the Catholic Church.

This is generally cast in negative terms - the Church is on the back foot, out of touch, Christianity is on the retreat, that sort of thing - but even the most positive spin must accept that the Church's reality in 21st century Ireland is a thousand croziers away from that enforced by John Charles McQuaid and others.

But if the Church's reality has changed, is it also fair that the à la carte Catholic also encounters a new reality when they come calling on the local priest for a rite they regard as their right, despite casual disdain for broad swathes of Christian belief?

Where all this ends is anyone's guess. Archbishop Eamon Martin talks, persuasively, of how the Catholic Church needs to be in the business of nurturing 'intentional disciples' - folk who, in other words, are serious about their faith and committed to it.

There is also talk of being a 'creative minority', a phrase with which all Churches can probably identify, but which is relatively new in the lexicon of Irish Catholicism.

This sort of thinking is suggestive of an institution trying to come to terms with its new status in Irish life; humbled, chastened and no longer embedded in the State or the lives - public and private - of citizens.

That doesn't mean it needs to retreat and go into some sort of ecclesiastical witness protection programme; as part of an authentically pluralist society - north and south - the Church should be able to take its place in the public square; it shouldn't expect to win every argument, but it should be allowed to make its case.

These are the shifting sands into which Pope Francis will step when he visits the Republic in August.

He will doubtless both challenge and encourage. Francis sees the Church as a "field hospital after battle" - but are Irish Catholics ready for the fight?

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