Who is listened to?

Here’s a question: when the Irish bishops decided to actively support the No side in the recent referendum, who actually made that decision?
Presumably there was some kind of consultation, some input from their paid advisors, some assessment of how a particular policy might sit with their priests and their people. In that process, who is listened to? Or more to the point, who is not heard?
I’m being ironic, I’m afraid. There was no consultation (as far as I could see) with priests or people.
Even the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), representing about a third of Irish priests, weren’t asked for an opinion, but then again we’re used to being ignored. There was no consultation either with the Association of Catholics of Ireland. We were not listened to; we were not heard.
The bishops’ decision to support the blunt strategy of outright opposition had all the hallmarks of a policy decided behind closed doors in Maynooth, without testing it against the wisdom of people and priests – and then people wonder why the bishops can get things so unerringly wrong?
That decision, it is now clear, supported by groups like Iona, Catholic papers desperate to hang on to their readers, and right-wing Catholic groups, was disastrous. The bishops, ignoring their people and their priests, got it exactly wrong.
Part of the difficulty is that the bishops, particularly in confronting the prospect of social legislation, seem to have developed a confrontational style and tone that is interpreted – even though this is not been said – as wanting the teaching of the Catholic Church has to be reflected in legislation.
This aggressive stance, as a strategy, in the present dispensation will inevitably lead to opposition (even from those well-disposed to the Church), hostility, a busload of hostages to fortune and even embarrassment.
It’s also playing into the hands of the growing number of people who want to see the back of the Catholic Church and can’t believe their luck when the Catholic bishops adopt such an uncompromising stance. It may gain praise for its populist stance among (some) older and more conservative Catholics but it gives off all the wrong vibes to everyone else.
This assertive tone was clear in the Referendum. Unlike in past referendums, when the primacy of conscience was placed centre-stage, more recently that option was not often underlined or clarified.
This assertive tone was evident too, for example, in the words of Archbishop Charles Brown, the papal nuncio, at a Mass in Dublin a few years ago. It was in the context of the Oireachtas committee hearings on the abortion issue.
Archbishop Brown, at the New Year’s Day Mass for Peace, effectively threw down the gauntlet to politicians, lecturing them on their responsibilities. It had the effect of undermining politicians who agree with the Church’s position and giving solace to those who disagreed. Indeed in the context of the tension between Rome and the Government it was particularly ill judged.
A further comment by another bishop to the effect that the government’s decision to legislate was ‘a first step on the road to a culture of death’ was widely regarded as over-the-top and gratuitously offensive.
At the time Stephen Collins, the widely respected political commentator, wrote: ‘The mystifying aspect of the Church’s strategy is that it has chosen to take such an aggressive stance against a Government and parliament that is shaping up to do little more than codify one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the western world’.
But has the Catholic Church a strategy or is it open season for everyone who wants to shape what that strategy is? And, of course, in such a situation the loudest and more extreme views often prevail.
The difficult truth is that the more extreme and the less nuanced the Catholic Church position is, the more damage ultimately it does to its own position.
If, as a Church, we insist on a kind of Custer’s last stand position, we relegate ourselves to the sidelines because we present ourselves as controlling and demanding, refusing to listen or engage with the issue.
On the other hand, if we had a more on-going companionable presence, reflecting the complexity and multi-dimensional aspects of an issue, teasing out our reservations and placing them in the context of a respectful debate, then I think we would be party to a discussion rather than be a demanding, bad-tempered presence in the corner of the room, garnering glowing affirmation from our extreme supporters but losing both the battle and the war.
Here’s another question: if a radio programme like RTE’s Morning Ireland rings a bishop asking for an interview, is he at liberty to say ‘Yes’ regardless of ability or media skills? It seems so.
So, despite the fact that there’s an office in Maynooth with presumably highly skilled media people who might offer advice or guidance, an individual bishop with an enthusiasm for a particular subject or a particular line can effectively represent the Catholic Church to the nation, off his own bat.
That doesn’t make much sense in today’s world. Every huge institution or organisation now has a public relations department with its nose on the ground sussing out what people actually think, working out a policy, deciding on a strategy and putting its best foot forward in articulating with competence and nuance what it wants to communicate. It especially listens to what is happening on the ground.
In today’s complex and unforgiving world there’s no place for making it up on the hoof. An awkward sentence or a wrong word and the media will dissect, imply, presume and the damage is done, sometimes in a way that can’t be undone no matter what spin is placed on it later. Not every bishop is blessed with the ability to think on his feet or to manage the combination of words that does justice to what he wants to say.
Why is it that, as a Church, with the competence we have at our disposal, with all the expensive public relations personnel we employ, with all the support we still have from Catholics around the country, that unerringly and consistently we manage to get a workable strategy spectacularly wrong?
After the referendum result was announced Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said it was time the Catholic Church in Ireland had ‘a reality check’.
A good start would be if the bishops starting listening to people and priests.

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13 Comments

  1. Neil Bray says:

    There is no need for the bishops to ask the people for their views. The people have relayed their views in the referendum. Around 0.25 million Mass-attending Catholics either voted “yes” or did not vote.
    Based on my experience on the canvass, most of the “no” voters among Catholics, if consulted, would request that priests teach and preach Catholicism. I would also suggest to Gerry O’ Hanlon that the demoralisation that he posits in another thread in this web site, arises (where it exists), out of the failure to so preach and teach.
    I do not feel demoralised. Disappointed yes, demoralised no. The redefinition of the organic and divine institution of marriage, the product of a plebiscite, is just what it is and nothing more.
    We are going through an epoch similar to others in our history as a Church. The antidote is as it always was – prayer and good works. The words to Peter in John chapter 6, “will you also go away” still resound, as does Peter’s reply. Then as now it was not about numbers. It was about the faithful seeking to be even more faithful. Such seeking reveals to its practitioners the redundant nature of the demoralisation Gerry postulates.
    I would also suggest to Chis in England, (same thread as Gerry), that the faithful seeking to be more faithful are not “stationary” Catholics. I don’t think that there can be ever such a thing as a “stationary” Catholic.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Joe @10:
    “Encouraged and recognised relationships such as marriage provides in our culture ” – but marriage is not the only way to encourage and recognise.
    Not all heterosexual relationships lead to procreation, and all such relationships start childless, but only such relationships can procreate. “The upgrading of gay couples does not imply any downgrading of heterosexual couples.” It breaks the link of marriage with procreation. This is downgrading marriage.
    In the demographic situation in the coming decades, if we have broken that link and, as in our case, prohibited preferential treatment for heterosexual marriage, in order to incentivise procreation we must equally incentivise procreation outside of heterosexual marriage. Many consequent problems lie ahead.

  3. Willie Herlihy says:

    There is a very important point being missed in this discussion i.e. The calibre of Bishop we have.
    The majority of the Bishops have been selected,using a template drawn up by Pope John Paul and continued by Pope Benedict.
    The main points are as follows:
    1) A  Safe pair of hands.
    2) Strong Marian devotion.
    3) Strong supporter of Humanae Vitae.
    4) Someone who will do Rome´s bidding.
    It is a bit rich to now ask these men, (a) to show leadership ability (b) to think on their feet and outside the box.
    These are qualities they were explicitly selected not to have.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    “gay people have not been justly treated” — the Dutchman makes it more real: ” a life of joylessness, loneliness and unfullfillment” due to absence of encouraged and recognized relationships — such as marriage provdes for in our culture.
    “we may not give heterosexual marriage preference over same sex unions” just as we may not give the fertile marriage of the young preference over the sterile marriage of the aged — in the eyes of the law.
    But how is this supposed to affect demography? There are many real factors discouraging married couples from having children. But gay marriage does not appear to be one of them. The upgrading of gay couples does not imply any downgrading of heterosexual couples.
    What the No campaign feared was that this upgrading would encourage homoparentality not only in the form of adoption but via surrogacy. From the purely demographic point of view, both of those would be positives.

  5. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Joe @7&8:
    Sometimes I feel as if I’m drowning in your words!
    Yes: as I’ve said a number of times on this website, gay people have not been justly treated.
    There are better remedies than same sex marriage. It was the only one offered by a short-sighted government.
    The Dutch report you provide a link to has little hard information. The Eurostat report “Being Young in Europe 2015” says the Dutch birth rate in 2003 was about 1.7, and unchanged in 2013. It’s the long term demographic question we need to address if we are to avoid a demographic winter. The Central Statistics Office reported that the average age of a mother at birth of first child in Ireland is now over 30.
    We need to look at ways which will be more family friendly. The Referendum result says we may not give heterosexual marriage preference over same sex unions. Along with other demographic factors, I believe this is a mistake. It may take several generations before we see the outcome.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    The point of my Dutch friend’s quote is that homophobic society has denied millions the kind of special happiness to be found in love and marriage.
    The Irish vote says, we will no longer put obstacles in the way of your human fulfilment, forcing you to “lead a life of joylessness, loneliness and unfulfilment”.
    We like to imagine that the lonely bachelors and spinsters of Ireland were quietly content with their lot, enjoying camaderies in the pub or the GAA pitch or the parish. But we do not know the true story. We do not know “The Great Hunger” that they endured in concealment and silence.
    And this is to pass over in deeper silence the fate of the many gays and lesbians who married a spouse of the other sex, at the cost of inconceivable mystification and suffering.
    The Yes campaign has made these considerations “real” to the people of Ireland for the first time in their history. The No campaign were able to advance only “notional” worries, such as: “Society places a special value on the man-woman union for a clear reason: without it society and families face extinction… It is the only relationship which can ensure future continuance. To deny that that relationship is unique is to deny the State the right to effectively acknowledge that unique position in its laws. This is what the Referendum result has done. The union of man and woman is not to be allowed preference.”
    In point of fact, the Netherlands, where gay marriage had been practised since 2001, has not seen any decline in male-female marriage or in procreation. So the concern appears to be notional, and to be concerned with notions or a traditional orthodoxy.
    The No campaign were very aware that they were losing ground for lack of concrete stories that could inspire real assent. But their citiations of foreign reports and amicus briefs, often of rather dodgy status, only further deepened the impression that they were fretting about abstractions.
    With the Yes campaign I can associate a string of people who told their stories vividly, grippingly, whereas can you name a single Irish man or woman who gave a powerful concrete human testimony on behalf of the No campaign?
    It is of course hard to illustrate a negative and to make vivid possible future dangers, and the No campaign were right to call for prudence and reflection. But I think the decision of the voters was a leap of faith that had been cleared by a sufficient amount of antecedent prudent reflection. Mary McAleese demonstrated that in her speech toward to end of the process.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Declaring the heterosexual relationship and the homosexual relationship equal as marriage can only receive notional assent, since defining marriage only in terms of the one- to-one relationship and excluding the procreational dimension does not reflect reality.”
    Yes, that seems capable of generating only notional assent, though I do assent to it — I see no problem with samesex and heterosexual marriages as being equal before the Law just as sterile and fertile marriages are. “Excluding the procreational dimension” is certainly not something anyone voted for. The vote was simple about inclusion.
    Now the voters, especially those who bankrupted themselves to travel home for the occasion, were clearly animated by real assent. So what made the somewhat abstract principle of legal equality one that grabbed them so intensely?
    I think that what shifted the people to real assent is the sense that the affirmation of samesex marriage was the only way to tell the gay and lesbian citizens of Ireland that they are loved and valued equally and as much part of the community as everyone else. Maybe there could be another way of conveying that message, but no one could think of it. Any other proposals remained on the notional plane.
    In the most gay-friendly countries 37% of gay men are stably partnered. Perhaps Ireland can aspire to becoming such a country, where people are given a fair chance to find love and happiness. On this point I would like to cite a Dutch acquaintance on Facebook:
    “To demonise sexuality – which is a precious gift of God – is not christian, it is manicheistic. Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, celebrates sexual attraction in the Song of Songs (or whatever it is called in english). Everyone should read it, with wide-open eyes, and not through a metaphorical filter… For whatever other mystical meanings that book might have, it can have no meaning at all, unless it has a primary, literal meaning, which is clearly erotic. To consider homosexual feelings and lovemaking to be less than heterosexual feelings and lovemaking, to be disordered or even evil, is not at all required of us by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who did not come down to this earth for the purpose of being a Policeman in the bedroom! Homophobia is simply a backwards, mean-spirited, prejudice: in heterosexuals afflcted by homophobia, it is a hatred of that which is perceived by them as being totally different from their own erotic-romantic feelings. And yet, gay people fall in love just like straight people, and just like straight people long for closeness, support, companionship, physical intimacy, love. Sadly, the prejudice against homosexuality manifests itself even in quite a few gay people, who have internalised society’s and religion’s homophobia, and who out of fear of being ostracised, condemn their own sexual orientation. The result of homophobia for the gay person is at best a life not fully lived, a life of fear, emptiness, guilt and shame: at worst, the result is blackmail, social ostracisation, murder or suicide. Do the homophobic perverters of Christ’s Gospel ever stop to consider the effects of their words and deeds upon a tenth of mankind? do they care? does their conscience never bother them ? I for one would like to live my life in peace, as God would have it, but those who would deny us our dignity and would villify our intrinsic need to love in our own way, force me to keep on having to defend my existance. It is too late for me to find love: thanks to the homophobia of mean-spirited persons who use religion as a cover for their hatred, i have had to lead a life of joylessness, loneliness and unfullfillment. But i have achieved self-acceptance and self-worth. And i hope that enough of us will continue to speak and write against their attempts to rob also today’s young gay people of the freedom to live and love.”

  8. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Joe @ 5: Where did I say or imply that gay marriage means the abolition of the male-female distinction and the possible extinction of a people?
    I point rather to the vital interest of human societies and states in acknowledging the unique place of the male-female Union. This can co-exist with full recognition of other relationships which are clearly distinct from the marriage of man and woman.
    Declaring the heterosexual relationship and the homosexual relationship equal as marriage can only receive notional assent, since defining marriage only in terms of the one- to-one relationship and excluding the procreational dimension does not reflect reality. All the developments in research and treatment in the field of human reproduction do not change that, but reinforce it.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Pádraiig, the referendum debate illustrated a curious mismatch, not between reason and emotion as the No side may think, but between notional and real, in Newman’s phrasing. The proposition that recognition of gay marriage means abolition of the male-female distinction and possible extinction of a people can never win more than notional assent, whereas the astoniishing collective witness of Irish LGBT folk and their families shifted the Yes argument from notional to real and gave a sense of luminous rightness to the final decision. I just checked to see whether the first country to embrace samesex marriage showed any signs of failing birthrates, and discovered on the contrary that its birthrate is rising: http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2015/02/immigration-increased-birth-rate-boost-dutch-population-by-73000/

  10. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    I share a great deal of Brendan’s frustration. The quality of rational debate in the Referendum was poor. The quality from the side of the Conference of Bishops seemed to me very weak. It could have been improved by consulting people, including priests. I wrote to them during the debate urging them to avoid such a negative approach. I received no reply.
    Brendan writes: “The bishops,ignoring their people and priests, got it exactly wrong.” As I see it, they got it wrong in how they went about it on their own, and in how they framed their argument. While there are clearly faith dimensions, for this matter of civil law it would have been more effective to present an argument on non-faith grounds.
    Society places a special value on the man-woman union for a clear reason: without it society and families face extinction. This is the only human relationship which society traditionally has placed in this unique status, not to discriminate against any other relationship,but because it is in fact unique: it is the only relationship which can ensure future continuance.
    To deny that that relationship is unique is to deny the State the right to effectively acknowledge that unique position in its laws. This is what the Referendum result has done. The union of man and woman is not to be allowed preference.
    This has implications for our future. In only three of the years since 1991has the birth rate in Ireland reached replacement level of 2.1 live births for each woman of child-bearing years. In the EU and in many other States it is well below this. Results of this are seen only after a number of generations. It also has serious implications for the ability of a society to integrate migrants.
    None of this justifies treating anyone less than equally. It does argue for a special status in law for marriage. It is of concern not just in Ireland but worldwide.
    Can we now address this matter of major concern for humanity without using it as a stick to beat either our sisters and brothers who are gay, or those who dare to raise the question?

  11. Clare Hannigan says:

    In last week’s Irish Catholic Newspaper, available online – Michael Kelly wrote in an article entitled ‘Church does need a ‘reality check’ after the referendum’ that ‘Those Catholics who might describe themselves as conservative or orthodox will blame the fact that many Catholics voted ‘yes’ on the Church’s woeful lack of catechesis and teaching over recent decades.’ Perhaps it is not the lack of catechesis but the quality that is the problem.
    The second day of the Eucharistic Congress in 2012 had as its theme: Exploring and Celebrating the Communion of Marriage and Family and was designated a Family Day. The day commenced with Morning Prayer led by His Eminence Keith Patrick, Cardinal O’Brien. The Catechesis, described as a “teaching” moment, usually presented by a bishop, reflecting on the theme of the day and its challenges, was given by Archbishop Barry Hickey Emeritus Archbishop of Perth, Australia. This was followed by testimony given by Mr Carl Anderson Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus and Breda O’Brien of the Iona Institute. The texts of their contribution are available at http://www.iec2012.ie.
    Archbishop Hickey spoke about marriage in terms of the Biblical Vision of Marriage, Communion of Love, the Eucharist and Christian Marriage, and contraception.
    He then raised concerns he had in relation to marriage in the modern world. He said ‘Let me tell you some of the things I have heard lately that have shaken me.’ ( He does not say from whom he heard these things.) ‘Around the western world today there are educators pushing for an entirely new education program for children. They are looking for support from education departments around the world and from the United Nations. In some countries it is already being trialled. These teachers want to take over sex education from the parents because they want a complete break from the past. Teachers in one country’ (Not named) ‘ I know are now telling young people before puberty to become sexually aware and to experiment. At puberty they are urged to become sexually active as soon as possible or they will grow up with inhibitions, fears of sex and will have psychological problems. They are to be fully instructed in contraception and abortion as ways of continuing to enjoy a full sexual life. They are told to prefer serial unions of choice rather than marriage, and to severely limit the numbers of children, as the world is overpopulated. They are to be trained to deny gender differences of male and female as these are only social constructs. They are told that homosexuality is a legitimate sexual outlet, and often preferable because children do not come from their sexual activities. We might bemoan the tragic slide from traditional values, but what is happening today is far worse. What we condemn is now being taught to children as the way to a happy sexually satisfied life. This new paganism has arrived and without proper vigilance will spread throughout the world. Church leaders will no doubt protest when this new program is out in the open. They will need to be very courageous because the work of Satan is so pernicious that they may well face laws, already enacted in some countries, where it is against the law to propagate our own Catholic moral teachings. The position is very serious, but we know that Christ has already won the victory over Satan and we go forward without backing down’
    Although the vast majority of the people present in the arena listening to the Catechesis were adults – I noticed that a handful of parents had brought children, some as young as perhaps eight or nine, into the arena to hear the Catechesis on marriage and the family and of course it was also broadcast on television. I thought it very disappointing that any priest would think it appropriate (or was advised?) to give this presentation at what was promoted as a family event.

  12. John Dwyer Kirwin says:

    David, be that as it may, the local leader might consider putting his ear to the ground once in a while, they he may better represent his flock and reap the fruits distributed by the Spirit, who blows where she will.

  13. Each bishop is his own pope of his diocese. He doesn’t need the permission of an office of Maynooth or even the permission of AB Diarmaid Martin despite how it would appear!

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