Lecture Notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, at Mater Dei Institute of Education and DCU Institute of Ethics

15 Mar 2011


15 March 2011

Lecture Notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, at Mater Dei Institute of Education and DCU Institute of Ethics, 15 March 2011

The relationship between Church and State

When I was asked some months ago to give this Mater Dei/DCU Lecture on the Relationship between Church and State, I could not have imagined that I would be speaking just one week after the installation of a new government in Ireland.  I find myself speaking today at a moment in which certain questions on the relationship between Church and State are more perceptibly under the spotlight.  I find myself speaking at a moment of intensified reflection and scrutiny on the role of the Church in Irish society.

When I say that Church-State relations in Ireland are under the spotlight, I am not positing that the new government is somehow particularly anti-Church or for that matter that its predecessor was more pro-Church or less pro-Church in its time.  I wish at this moment to reflect on the context in which the current debate takes place, which is the broad cultural change that is taking place in Irish society. The nature of such change will inevitably be evaluated in terms of the policies which a new government will wish to put into practice.   The nature of such change must also, however, influence the manner in which the Church is and wishes to be present in Irish society.   If my finger is pointing, it is pointing in more than one direction.

Whatever I say this afternoon should not therefore be considered a specific attack on the new government or on its predecessor.  I wish to look at the changing culture, and especially the changing religious culture in Ireland, as objectively as someone who – by virtue of my office – is clearly partial in the debate.

I would also like to note that I use the term “Church-State relations” in the classic use of that term, aware also that the Church is not just Bishops and institutions and that the State is more than just government and political parties.

The Church lives and acts within the cultural situation of time and place.  Reflections on Church-State relations in Ireland today require us to examine the policies of government and of the political parties, but also involve looking at the self-understanding of the Church in Ireland.

The Church lives and acts within the cultural situation of time and place.  This does not mean that the Church changes as it adapts to overall cultural change in society.  The Church lives “inculturated” and inculturation is a positive thing.   However, as I had occasion recently to recall at a Lecture in Cambridge, the paradoxical thing is that the farther the Church goes in adapting to the culture of the times, the greater the danger is that it will no longer be able to confront the culture of the time.   It will only be able to speak the language of the culture of the day and not the radical newness of the message of the Gospel which transcends all cultures.    Where this happens, then the life of the Church becomes a sort of civil religion, politically correct, but without the cutting edge of the Gospel.

The Church does not have all the answers to the questions of the day: to claim that would be fundamentalism.  The Church cannot simply adopt politically correct positions: to claim that would be conformism.  The Church must always have the internal freedom to take positions that are culturally unpopular.  The message and the measure of the Gospel should challenge every form of conformism.  It is important to remember that conformism can be an expression of narrow conservatism but that there is also conformism which thinks that it is truly progressive.   We can become entrapped in positions on many sides of the overall cultural spectrum.   The Gospel however should always foster free and fresh thinking.

Does Ireland have a cohort of Christians capable of bringing that fresh savour of the Gospel to the complex social, economic and political structures of the world in which they live?  Where are they getting inspiration and formation?  Are our Catholic schools and our programmes of catechetical formation, especially at second level, equipping a future generation of young Catholic Christians to be able to engage their faith in the day to day configuration of the life of society?  Is the agenda of many in the Church too Church inward-looking?   These are some of the challenges with which your new and important Institute of Ethics in society will hopefully examine in a dialogue between men and women of different backgrounds, believers and others, in the search for a renewed sense of public ethics.

The Church must live in such a way that it reflects the radical newness of the Gospel.  The Gospel is radically new with respect to every culture.  The Church cannot be forced into the measure of any political platform, just as the Church cannot be forced into the measure of every theological position.  The Church is not my Church, nor our Church, but the Church of Jesus Christ.  Renewal in the Church therefore is renewal in what is essential to the life of the Church.  The Church is not just a sociological reality which can be renewed simply by the application of sociological models of consultation and change management.

The Church is the community of the baptised, who live as true disciples of Jesus Christ, formed by the word of God and the teaching of Christian tradition, which gathers in prayer and for the Eucharist and which emerges from the celebration of the Eucharist with a characteristic life-style of charity and sharing.

Renewal in the Church requires renewal of structures but a renewal of structures alone would be sterile.  The insight into the structures which the Church requires to be renewed can only be fully gleaned from those who share in the interior life of the Church’s prayer and worship.

I am not saying that people who do not actively belong to the Church community in the full sense have no right to make their own critical observations on the life of the Church and the role of the Church in society.   Indeed, I would say that the horror of the sexual abuse scandals would never have been properly addressed if it were not also for the criticism of some who had no love for the Church and the criticism of those who had become alienated from the Church and indeed alienated by the Church.

Renewal in the Church however can only be shaped from the perspective of the Christian life.  External criticism can indicate the sinfulness that is present in the Church.  The structures of reform of the Church, however, are dictated by the nature of the Church.   The great reformers of the Church in history were never primarily strategic analysts, but saints.  The instruments for the reform of the Church are those which are set out in the traditional programme for Lent:  prayer, penance and works of charity.  Reform of sinful structures will be attained only through holiness.

But the Church exists in dialogue with the world around it. The Church exists in the modern world not just alongside the modern world.  The Church exists also for the modern world to which it brings its unique contribution.  It is however not the modern world which defines what the Church is.

What does that say then about the role of the Church in society and about the respective roles of Church and State?   To paraphrase with another cynical comment, the cynical comment of the late Archbishop Paul Marcinkus who, as head of the Vatican Bank, said that “you cannot run the Church on Hail Mary’s”, many in Church and State would respond to me saying “you cannot run a country just with saints”.  If the Church wishes to be involved in questions regarding the future of society, it will be said to me, then it must enter into the political world using the language of politics and accept the gives and takes and the blows of the political battlefield.

I know that many committed Catholics in Ireland were a little surprised by a section of Pope Benedict’s first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est about the role of the Church in society, especially when he stressed that a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.    Let me quote one paragraph:

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

One of the first conclusions we can draw from that statement is a strong endorsement of the role of politics and of the vocation to politics.  Ireland needs a younger generation of men and women who enter into politics – respecting the legitimate autonomy of secular realities – with a clear vision of where they want society to go in the long run and not just short term point scoring.   This requires a new political culture and I believe that this is certainly one area where the Church, through its proclamation of the teaching of Jesus Christ can bring a special contribution.  The message of the Gospel can well foster free and fresh thinking.

Where is the original contribution to the Church in the political realm to be found?  Pope Benedict sees the crucial foundation that the Church brings to the wider political debate in its essential message about the love of God.  Once again many were surprised to see the stress that Pope Benedict placed on love and rather than on justice as a central contribution of the Christian message to the political debate.

The Pope notes that “there is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love…  There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person -needs: namely, loving personal concern”.

Love does not simply mean offering people material help, but something more which is often even more necessary than material support. To think that just social structures would somehow make charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of life.  The Pope concludes that: “the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ is a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human”.

We are certainly called to bring bread to those who hunger.  But the fact that hunger still persists in so many parts of our sophisticated scientific society raises questions.  Why have we failed the poorest countries?   One of the reasons is that we have forgotten that nourishment has a fuller sense:  nourishment is not just bread alone, but also dignity and acceptance as brothers and sisters.  The solutions to the problems of modern civilization are not just technical ones, but solutions which truly humanize the way we act.  If the gift of bread is not accompanied by heart, by generosity and by recognising the other in his or her integrity and dignity then the bread we offer is not much more than stones.   We would have fallen into the first temptation that Satan proposed to Jesus.

The contribution of the Christian to the creation of a better society is to be found not simply in the extraordinary range of caring services that believers provide, notwithstanding the importance of that tradition of active care.  It is not to be found in being simply a social commentator no matter how enlightened.  It is, rather, about upholding and insisting on the recognition of the dignity of each human person.  We sustain that dignity when our encounters with others are encounters of love.   The contribution of the Church to society and to political society involves living to that love in the truth.  The Christian in political life cannot deposit his or her commitment to the truth about the human person with the priest in the sacristy and embrace a different set of values as he goes into the public square.  The committed Christian must always have the internal freedom to take up that which is culturally unpopular.  At the same time the State would not be enhancing freedom if the believer were forced to leave aside his conviction to be allowed enter into the public square.

Perhaps today we can begin to see that in the days of our calling ourselves a Celtic Tiger we had actually begun to think that we had attained something more sophisticated than was really there.    There is a sense in which we felt in someway that we were on the road to a Celtic paradise on earth.   To have said that in the hey-days of the Celtic Tiger would have left you open to being called a spoil-sport.  History shows us that despite the promise of one ideology or economic vision after another, paradise can never be achieved in this world. Today we see the limits of when happens when something which is valid such as the free-market becomes an ideology.

Pope Benedict stresses very clearly that: “There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of man alone – inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again”.

On a number of occasions recently I have spoken about the challenges which the Church faces in Ireland and especially in the Archdiocese of Dublin for which I have special responsibility.  I have drawn attention to the drop in regular Church attendance, to the absence of young people from our Churches, to the inadequacies of our catechesis and to certain slowness in recognising the changed cultural situation.

When I speak of slowness and resistance I am not referring to just to those who are nostalgic for a Church of the past.  There is a slowness which is due to uncertainty and the result of the effect of the scandals which struck the Irish Church.  There is slowness on the part of some who would think themselves progressive but who fail to realise that many of the things they propose are really the answers to yesterday’s questions and are much less relevant to the realities of today.  We need fresh thinking on all sides.

When we speak of the problems and the challenges of the Church this does not mean that the Church is dead or – as some misquoted me recently – that the Church in Ireland is “on the brink of collapse”.  The Church is Dublin may not be as numerically strong as it was, but it is far from being on the brink of collapse. The Church is robust. Parish communities are renewing themselves.  Priests are carrying out their ministry with enthusiasm in difficult times.  Lay people are taking their part in the structures of the Church, both as full-time pastoral workers but above all in the parish councils and in a wide variety of ministries in our communities.  We have parishes which were never so vibrant at any other time in their history. All of this should not be forgotten.

The Church is not on the way to extinction.  It is carrying out a vital role in society.   It is easy to point to areas where the Church failed its people, failed society, failed its mission and sadly failed its most vulnerable.  It is true that clericalism led the Church along a tragically false track.   But the balance of the activity of the Church in Irish society is one where the message of Jesus produced goodness and care and deep reflection on the meaning of life and of society.    Alongside its failures, the Church over the years has never been absent from the most alienated sectors of society.

The changing Irish religious culture requires new attitudes.  I for one have been quite clear about the need to address the over representation of the Church in providing education, especially primary education.  But that does not mean in any way that I would wish to downplay the extraordinary work that our Catholic schools – run by religious or by lay teachers – have done for Irish education. These schools have been rooted in the local community and have been supported by the local community and have strengthened the local community.  They have been dedicated to education in a manner detached from narrow political interest.  They have fostered fruitful cooperation between community, teachers and families.

The Church has no right to claim for itself a role which goes beyond the desire of those parents who wish their children to have a Catholic education.   While it is not unreasonable to assume that the desire for specifically Catholic education is less than in the past, this does not mean that Catholic education itself is a thing of the past.

Ireland is more pluralist and pluralism in educational patronage is necessary.  I welcome very much the announcement of the Minster of Education and Skills about the establishment of a National Forum on School Patronage.   But pluralism in educational provision is not an easy task to realise.  Simply providing greater choice will not guarantee true pluralism.  People may use pluralism in school choice to choose to opt out of pluralism. The temptation will always exist for parents to choose a school precisely because it is not pluralist, because there are no disadvantaged or marginalised children.

When I speak of the need for plurality in patronage I am in no way casting aspersions about the contribution which Catholic schools have played in our society, and especially the role that they have played in addressing the challenge of inclusion and integration of people of different cultures.

An integral dimension of the success of Catholic schools is that they are truly Catholic.  The Catholic school is not just a school with a different mission statement framed at its front entrance.  The contribution of the Catholic school involves a formation in religious faith which fosters the integral development of its pupils and is also a contribution to the good and the moralisation of society.  The Christian message, when lived authentically brings a special contribution to the development of a healthy society.  The Catholic school must defend its ability to maintain and foster and indeed strengthen its Catholic identity in a pluralist context.  If the Catholic school waters down it Catholic identity then it is not going to bring its specific contribution to society.

It is clear to all the serious mistakes wrongdoings of the Church in the area of the care of children and in some of its institutions.  However, it is equally easy to indicate how the State failed both in its role of monitoring what was happening in those institutions  but also about the quality of the institutions for which it bears direct responsibility.  The record of the State in child care in Ireland is not one that we can be proud of.  The new government clearly recognises the urgency of addressing this serious blemish.  The measures needed to address this challenge will require huge effort and go way beyond the creation simply of new structures.

There are other areas where the weakness of State management is evident.  Our prison service – for which the State has sole responsibility – has been the object of continual and stringent international criticism by highly respected human rights institutions.  The inadequacies of our health system require no illustration by me.   Exclusive and direct State provision of services is no guarantee of their quality.

It is important in reflecting on childcare that there have been many cases where parental neglect has resulted in serious damage to children.  We need mechanisms to ensure that the rights of children are adequately protected.  But in general it would be wrong to think that simply moving responsibility from parents to the State would provide a more effective answer.   It is not the State’s job to bring up children; it is the job of parents. [That is not the comment of a Pope, but of President Bill Clinton…].

We need to look at models of a more participative society where government and citizens are not seen as separate and distant poles of activity and where intermediary bodies work with State and citizens to foster what Pope John Paul II had called a “subjective society”.  Social reform will not be attained by social engineering but by enabling greater participation of citizens and the voluntary sector in the planning and delivery of services.

The National Forum on School Patronage will have to take into consideration the aspirations of all stakeholders.  Curiously the group which bears the fundamental constitutional responsibility for educational choice – parents – is the least organised and therefore the most difficult to consult on a national level.  But parents are the crucial factor on the level of local communities and they must be protagonists in the political choice of the future and should be encouraged to take an active part in the on-going debate about schools.

The fundamental rights of parents are enshrined not just in our Irish Constriction but also in the major International Human Rights Instruments including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  It is important that parents become active in the process of determining what kind of pluralism they wish.   For parents to make their choice in this area they need however to have clear information about what precisely the alternative models of patronage are.

In all honesty, I must add that the lack of real representation of parent’s interests in educational policy is partly due to the model of Catholic education which the Church itself fostered where the Church placed emphasis on control.

The Irish Constitution has overall served the people of Ireland well.  Our Constitution is far from being some sort of unquestioning regurgitation of sectarian Catholic principles as some simplistic caricatures of it would seem to imply.   It is a remarkably modern Constitution in many of its aspects.   Constitutions should be and must be changed to address challenges in society but not at every whim.  Constitutions are not there in general to be played around with lightly and often.

The Irish Constitution clearly carves out a special role for the family.  The legal presumption is that the definition of the family in the Constitution is one based on marriage between a man and a woman.  In line with most European countries Ireland recognises the fundamental difference between marriage and other forms of relationship.  This is not to say that the law should not guarantee people in other forms of relationship their fundamental rights.  Marriage is however a fundamental good in society which deserves a unique protection.

Ireland has a unique history of Church-State relationships.  The Constitution’s guarantees regarding the sphere of activity of the Church are thoroughly modern in their juridical formulations.  Where negative results have emerged they have emerged by lack of respect for the spirit of the Constitution and by unhealthy closeness between ecclesiastical and political figures.

I find myself giving this short Lecture at a moment in which the spotlight is on Church-State relationships.  Mature relationships between Church and State help social stability and bring out the best from both.  Transparent dialogue will contribute to that process of maturation.  Giving to Caesar the things of Caesar means that the Church respects the autonomy of the secular sphere.  It also means that Caesar does not play God and does not try to banish God out of the reality of society into the most remote private corner of individual conscience.

The principal contribution of Church institutions in an increasingly secular society is, as Pope Benedict noted in an interview of some years ago, “to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him… and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference”

A pluralist Ireland does not mean that the Church should retire from the sphere of public life, but that it should be present in a new and more radical manner, just as the message of Jesus is one which is always new and radical in every society.


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