20 JULY 2006
2006 MACGILL SUMMER SCHOOL
THE SOUL OF IRELAND – ISSUES OF SOCIETY, CULTURE AND IDENTITY
SECULARISATION AND THE LOSS OF RELIGIOUS IDENTITY
Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Glenties, 20th July 2006
A few days ago I hosted a gathering to launch a new book on the contribution of Irish
missionaries to Nigeria written by Irene Lynch, the wife of a former Irish Ambassador
in Nigeria. It is a simple book in which missionaries of various ages, from various
religious congregations and from various parts of Ireland tell their stories. It is a
simple book which brings to light extraordinary people who without making any pretext
to fame have been able to achieve much for people and with people. You could not but
be impressed by the record of achievement of these women and men who had left Ireland
often many years ago and have given not just of their best but practically their entire
selves in dedication to a developing nation and its sons and daughters.
Two things struck me about the stories and the photos that form part of the book. The
first is that they are images and stories of happy people, free from many of the doubts
and questionings and dissatisfactions that are so often the stuff of reflection on the
Church in Ireland today. Let me stress that what these men and women talk about is very
far from any authoritarian strain of a Church made up of people who believe they know
everything and had gotten everything right. What I came away with was the impression of
people who knew that they had played their part with enthusiasm and who were convinced of
the intrinsic worth of their effort.
The second thing that struck me is that almost all of the contributors linked whatever
success they had had in Nigeria with an original inspiration, an intuition that they had
had in Ireland. The story of their contribution to a better world was the story of their
vocation. It was the story of some experience of Church life in Ireland which had inspired
them and fortified in them a desire to do something special for others.
It is important for us all to remember that the “Catholic Ireland” of the past was not
just marked by power-seeking, abuse of children, scandals and censorship but it was also
a history of the lives and dedication of many extraordinary people of whom we should be
proud and to whom many of us are personally indebted.
The Catholic school, for example, was not the place of indoctrination and repression, of
conformism and of moral rigidity it was often presented as. The Catholic school was a
place where people were enhanced in their creativity. It was a place where so many of the
less fortunate were given an opportunity to get on and from where they did get on. Likewise,
in the debates about education today, far too little attention is given to the extraordinary
work that is being done in Catholic schools in welcoming children of many nationalities into
one school community. When I look at the situation in the diocese of Dublin, it is most
often the Catholic school in an area which is the most representative in terms of nationalities
and religious denominations, while still maintaining its Catholic ethos. Indeed there is a
sense in which it is the Catholic ethos, also in the wide sense of the word catholic, which
gives rise to openness and welcome. The contribution of these schools and their teachers
has been exceptional and almost totally unrecognised.
We have every reason to be optimistic about that Church in Ireland and its institutions.
There is a great deal of renewal going on. I visit extraordinarily lively parishes every
Sunday, parishes with great purpose, energy and solidarity. Saying this does not mean that
numbers have not gone down. Saying this does not mean that we have any less the obligation
to learn and explore the lessons of our past mistakes and errors, at times grave. Whereas I
would love to be able to dedicate myself to the most satisfactory dimension of my ministry,
sharing with people the freeing power which comes from following the teaching of Jesus Christ,
I have to spend huge amounts of time trying to identify in greater detail the extent of the
failings of the Church and the ways an institution had lost track with what is essential in
the Christian faith.
I take this task very seriously. It is too important to be left to polemics on either side of
the fence. There is no substitute for detailed examination of the facts in so far as these
can be accurately gleaned from documentation or personal narrative.
Christian faith is not just a faith about doctrines or about rules and regulations or about
ethical standards against which we have to measure our own – or as was very much an Irish
tradition, other persons’ – moral behaviour.
The message of the Church is the message of God who loves us before any merit on our part.
It is a God who reveals; who speaks to us, engages with us and allows us to understand
something of the inner life of God, which is a life of communication and of love. It is
a faith which is about truth, but truth which is to be discovered in the life of a person,
Jesus Christ, who revealed himself through total-self giving. It is about a God who is
generous and whose followers should witness in their lives to the fact that being truly
human has much more to do with giving than about having.
The God of love is revealed in the life and the works of Jesus Christ. I have often mentioned
how in my own religious education in the sixties we were taught that Jesus proved that he was
God by his power to work miracles. I do not deny that miracles prove that Jesus was God.
What was not stressed was that miracles of Jesus prove to us above all what God is like,
that he is a God who reveals his power as one you cares and has mercy, who heals and wants
to free people from the burdens and addictions and obsessions that bind them, so that they
can be taken up into the inner life of love of God and experience salvation and freedom.
“Religious identity”, the theme of this session, is for me a life-style which reflects that
self-giving love of Jesus. The religious person is the person who rejects all false securities
and throws himself or herself into the risk of what is inherent of being the fragile instrument
which God chooses to witness to His goodness and love. If we start out with an idea of a God
who wants to show off his power, then we have identified the wrong God. Faith is about taking
the risk of abandoning one’s own security in order to be like that God who did not cling to the
trappings of power and authority, but who gave himself totally for our sakes. If that is what
religious identity is about then any society will be very much the poorer without its presence.
The concept of a God, who is characterised by love and mercy, by compassion and forgiveness,
is at times hard to fully comprehend in today’s culture, which is at the same time extraordinarily
tolerant and extraordinarily intolerant. For some a culture of forgiveness can only lead
to a culture of impunity, where the concept of mercy and forgiveness is used to evade bringing
persons before the full force of justice and judgement. For others, it leads them to a
vision of God who forgives and tolerates any behaviour and who is satisfied with whatever
results we bring to his challenge. This is the difficult paradox of a God who is demanding
and is yet merciful, a God who speaks about justice, and yet enters into a dialogue with an
Christianity is not a religion of cheap repentance. But is a religion of a God whose
mercy heals and restores the converted into being the people that God wants them to be
and never doubts the ability of any person to be so, even within the framework of continued
brokenness. It is a Church which is not a holy elite, but a community of repentant sinners
confident that they can be lead along a path which overcomes weakness and doubt.
Is there place for a religion of absolutes in a world of tolerance? Indeed is our world
of tolerance capable of being tolerant of those who hold views that appear absolute? On
the other hand can a world be tolerant if it does not have some absolutes around which to
construct its basic orientation? These are questions which Irish society must ask and
find workable answers to if it is to be a truly inclusive society.
I do not wish today to get into the details of discussions about where the public morality
in a future Ireland will find its roots. Let me simply say that these discussions are too
important to be left to “others”. Everyone and every institution must be able to and should
play its part and bring its contribution to the debate. Such questions require open, mature
and broad discussion in society. They require a discussion which goes beyond superficial
media sound-bytes and beyond spin. They should not be left alone to judges, functionaries
We have discussions going on today on in these days about what I heard someone recently
describe as “the contentious issue of the right to life”. I would have expected that that
the right to life was un-contentious matter in any democracy. This is not simply a playing
on words. If the right to life is such a primordial principle, the real basis of democracy
and the rule of law, then the debate on how that right is legally interpreted should be wide
I for one was surprised to learn that the Irish constitution might consider a foetus not
protected in Irish law if there was an indication that its life after birth might be short.
I am surprised that a judge will have to make a decision on the Constitutional significance
of the human embryo in an almost total legislative vacuum, and in the absence of a broader
public debate. I do not deny that in the real world decisions on such matters have to be
reached. My point is that such decisions require much more open debate.
Where is the Church in these areas? The Church draws its teaching from the message of Jesus
Christ, but that teaching is read and mediated within the realities of life and of science
and may lead one to read these realities in a way which is different to others, but nonetheless
to a reading which is valid within a democratic process where no philosophy has a monopoly.
As a Catholic Bishop I have every right to stress views, even if they are not shared by all.
I have every right to present my Church’s position with vigour, even if this is said by
others to be divisive. If there is no clear unity of vision, every position could be called
divisive. The Church will not impose, but it has every right to propose its position and to
be countercultural. Affirming a right to life from the moment of conception until the moment
of natural death is appealing to an ideal, a vision which is not unscientific, but an
affirmation of the uniqueness of every human individual, which is not ours to play around
with. In a world in which the possibilities to play with life have grown, the call to
absolute respect for human life is more valid than ever.
When I spoke earlier of the message of Jesus Christ being a message of care, I am naturally
drawn to recall the parable of the good Samaritan. Here was this outsider who shows us what
is involved in caring for a brother and sister: noticing and recognising, encountering face
to face, carrying, caring and even returning to see that the wounded is really fully restored
to life. This is a vision not just of the good person, but of the caring society, which is
a society not of delegation to others but of participation by all in the reality of care.
The Good Samaritan wrote no letter to the editor. He simply became the carer.
When we talk about that parable of the Good Samaritan all our attention is usually focussed
on the figure of the Samaritan. But who is the one who fell among the thieves? The Gospels
tell us only that he was “a man”, a human person. It is not important to know anything else.
It is the simple fact of “humanity”, of being a human being, which gives rise to the duty
of care. When a society begins to make its own decisions about categories of humanity
deserving less care than others, then fundamental discrimination takes root.
“Secularization and the Loss of Religious Identity” is the title of our session. Is this a
true description of what is happening in Ireland? Is there secularization? Yes! Is there
loss of religious identity? Yes! Is this the entire picture? No! As I said earlier, there
is extraordinary vitality in the Irish catholic community. There are parishes which have
never been so active and participatory in their history. There are in the periphery of
Dublin examples of Church-inspired care and working together which are showing how to turn
the suburban “social deserts” left by the planners and developers of the decades gone by
finally into forward looking, hope-filled and flourishing communities. It is easy – perhaps
even cynical – somehow to say that such examples are the fruit of the few who stand up to
the institution. I for one can only express admiration for the manner in which so many are
not prepared to sit on the ditch commenting, but take on responsibility and solidarity that
they receive from the Gospel message and make it their own. That is the sort of Church I
am proud to belong to.
My feeling is that what I am talking about is not just a Roman-Catholic phenomenon. Talking
to other Church leaders in Dublin I have the impression that they also encounter the same
tensions and difficulties, but also the same new hope of a different, more mature, more
lively Church, where the Bishop is enthused by the power of real Christian commitment of
lay persons in a way that we never experienced it in the past. I for one believe that
this common experience offers us also new frontiers for cooperation between Churches, in
both the North and the South, and indeed between religious groups North and South. But we
still do not know one another enough to be able to do this.
Finally, lest my enthusiasm sweep me away, I would not be honest without asking myself and
you, about young people. I do not meet that many of them in Churches. But when I meet
young people I find that is easy to come to a meeting of minds. Young people are asking
questions which my generation asked much later in life, if ever. Young people encounter
the reality the suicide of their own contemporaries and ask the deeper questions about
life. Young people are ambitious for a better and more just world, not by just talking
about it but by showing that they want to be part of the construction of that world through
their own work and creativity. Again we do not provide enough occasion for such engagement
with young people.
There are so many reasons to have negative feelings about the Church in Ireland and about
religious identity in Ireland. But reading that book about the missionaries and seeing
happy faces which represent fulfilled lives, reminds me that long-faces rarely win many
hearts. The Church in Ireland needs purification, as the Church composed of human always
needs purification. But purification is not just purification of institutions, but
conversation of hearts and renewal of enthusiasm around what is essential in the Christian
life. I find plenty of enthusiasm about being involved in such a Church. Even the
convinced secularist might like to have another look.