Irish Church accepts its teaching jars with the faithful

Last Saturday evening there was an explosion of joy among the crowd at Dublin Castle when the result of the Irish Referendum on gay marriage was officially announced.
The ‘yes’ side had gained just over 62 per cent of the vote, the ‘no’ side just under 38 per cent, on a turn-out of over 60 per cent of the electorate (the 5th highest poll ever, in this 34th amendment to the 1937 Irish Constitution).
By any standard this was a decisive and handsome victory – only a single one of Ireland’s 43 constituencies voted against the amendment.
The atmosphere among the crowd in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland was carnival like – rainbow flags flying, people smiling and embracing, a sense of delight. This, on the Vigil of the Feast of the Holy Spirit, was a kind of secular Pentecost, a communal experience of movement from fear to peace and joy. There was a sense of consolation. And many avoided the temptation of moving from delight to triumphalism.
The openly gay Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin were at one in describing what had happened as ‘a social revolution’. In truth it was astonishing that up to 1993 homosexual acts were criminalised in Ireland, civil partnership had been introduced only in 2010, and now, so soon afterwards, the Irish people had become the first in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote. And, it would seem, this move won substantial support at all levels of Irish society – from the young, certainly, but also from older people; from rural as well as urban; from working class as well as middle class.
It would seem that those on the ‘no’ side of the campaign – despite the obvious disappointment of defeat – shared the good will that this result so clearly expressed towards gay people. It was a ringing statement that ‘you belong’, a loving embrace of all the gay women and men who are our brothers and sisters, our family and friends. In this respect, the reaction on the ‘no’ side was predominantly dignified and gracious, refusing to allow the disappointment of defeat turn to the kind of sulky resentment and disengagement that characterise desolation.
In any discernment of spirits, there is a need for a process of ‘confirmation’, a time of reflection and weighing up, a sifting of feelings and reasons. This is what the Irish people are embarking on now.
Serious questions remain – for us and for other countries considering going down the same route. Does equality always have to be conceived of in terms of uniformity? How do we identify and value the distinction and diversity than exists between male and female? How – in a debate characterised by an appeal to rights language – do we honour the rights of children, do we consider that their sense of identity can truly be honoured by the Brave New World of surrogacy and reproductive technologies, already sketched in the dystopian 1984 Handmaid’s Tale of the Canadian feminist novelist Margaret Atwood? How, in our public discourse, can we blend more harmoniously the appeal to story and witness with the appeal to analysis, the language of rights with that of the common good?
In particular, of course, there is need for an already demoralised Irish Catholic Church to take stock. The Bishops, for the most part, were restrained in their approach to campaigning, unable to support the Referendum, advising serious reflection, and yet basically, without using the terms, leaving it up to people’s consciences to vote.
Archbishop Martin said very clearly that he was voting ‘no’, and explained why in terms of faith-informed reasons that were accessible. Now, in response to the result, he acknowledges that the Church needs ‘a reality check across the board’, that it has to find a new language to get its message across, particularly to young people, and that if teaching isn’t expressed in terms of love then the Church has got it wrong.
But one senses that it is more than a new language that is required. When the teaching on male/female complementarity is invoked as part of the argument to bar women from office; when the teaching on natural law forbids contraception and describes homosexual relations as intrinsically disordered in a way that jars with the ‘sense of the faithful’ of so many of the baptised, then the Church, despite the many wise things it has to say on sexuality and parenthood, loses credibility.
Archbishop Martin and his colleagues here in Ireland – and further afield – need to take up with energy and enthusiasm the challenge of Pope Francis for a more collegial and dialogical church, in which the voice of all is heard. Then perhaps we can hope for an ecclesial Pentecost to correspond to the secular celebration last Saturday in Dublin, a joyful re-birth of our badly damaged church.
Gerry O’Hanlon SJ

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  1. This appeal is timely indeed, with the Irish Bishops Conference due to meet on June 8,9,10.
    Any serious ‘reality check’ by the bishops then will consider the possibility that so seriously disillusioned are many Irish Catholics with their bishops – especially when it comes to family issues – that they voted ‘Yes’ on May 22nd deliberately to register that fact.
    Loudhailing the country on such matters, in the continuing absence of dialogical structures in every diocese and parish, is a doomed policy that needs an accurate name.
    Can I suggest the acronym PTDROC: prolonging the death-rattle of Christendom?

  2. Chris (England) says:

    Following the ongoing debate around the outcome of the recent referendum, I came across this contribution from J.A. Dick’s in his “Another Voice” Internet bulletin. He writes about the struggle within the Church between “stationary” and “pilgrimage” Christians. I quote the following:
    “Simply put, “stationary Christians” are those who see change as either a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They have age-old answers for every age-old question. Even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. In the contemporary Roman Catholic world, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is a clear example of the stationary Christian, incapable of understanding Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth and development. Commenting this week about the Irish same-sex marriage referendum, Cardinal Parolin stressed “I believe that we are talking about not just a defeat for Christian principles but about a defeat for humanity.”
    “Pilgrimage Christians” are believers who experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended journey with the Divine. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries. It may bring disappointments and misery as well. The cross is part of Christian life. Throughout it all, we make progress. We move forward. Life is stronger than death. We mature. We are not abandoned. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser….. “
    “While the Vatican’s Cardinal Parolin sees approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a defeat for Christian principles as well as a defeat for humanity, Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx has called for a “welcoming culture” in the church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.”
    “The Vicar General of the Diocese of Essen in Germany, Klaus Pfeffer, who commented about Cardinal Parolin’s recent anti-homosexuality remarks, in this way: “’Defeat(s) for humanity’ are things like violence, terror, war, and inhumanity” Gospel challenges to contemporary values and behavior…. “

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    There’s an ancient Irish or Irish-American proverb (at least six weeks old) that goes something like this: “What happens in Limerick shouldn’t stay in Limerick.” Of even more venerable vintage (by at least four weeks) but of similar provenance is Gerry O’Hanlon’s lecture, “The Limerick Synod”, in which he takes the gist of his final two paragraphs above and teases out for the bishops and Catholics of Ireland that “challenge of Pope Francis for a more collegial and dialogical church”. In his edited version of the lecture in the current June issue of The FURROW he concludes: “And – the ubiquitous elephant in the room – if all this can happen in Limerick, why not in other dioceses in Ireland, why not at national level?”
    Perhaps, with permission, Gerry’s lecture can be reproduced here – after the Bishops’ Conference have/has done it full justice before starting to plough their new furrow, following their reality-check at next week’s meeting at Maynooth.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    While we await Gerry O’Hanlon’s Limerick lecture mentioned @5above, the man has done us a further service by his article in this morning’s Irish Times:
    This enlarges upon some of the main points in his ‘EurekaStreet’ piece above, and is not just a repetition of innumerable old calls to bishops “to awake the sleeping giant of the laity.” Unfortunately when Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich made that call on his fellow bishops at the 1987 Synod on the Laity, he was not full of hope that the 25-year old promise of the Vatican Council would be revisited and rejuvenated. Unfortunately also, the 1987 Synod did not have a Jorge Bergoglio to lead and channel it.
    While we still have Jorge Bergoglio at the helm, there may be an opening for all Irish reform groups [Pobal Dé, ACP, ACI, We are Church etc] to take Gerry O’Hanlon’s hint and Diarmuid Martin’s less clear ‘reality check’ call, to hold the Bishops’ feet to the fire on the vague promises they make about “listening” and “structured conversations” somewhere down the line. The synodal approach at all levels of the church cannot be left to Bishop Leahy and Limerick alone. But holding bishops’ feet to the fire (of the Gospel, presumably!)needs more sign of life from, for example, the more than one thousand reform-minded foot soldiers of the ACP.

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