Catholic Social Teaching, based on respect for the inherent dignity and equality of every person … offers four principles that have particular significance in the forthcoming local and European elections in Northern Ireland. These are:
– The right to life
– Upholding the special value of marriage between a woman and man as the foundation of the family
– Promoting justice, social inclusion and concern for the poor
– Promoting peace and reconciliation
Pope Francis recently reminded us in The Joy of the Gospel, that there is need for a “greater [presence] of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors’ and ‘a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society” (n. 102). On Thursday of next week, 22 May 2014, the local council and European parliamentary elections for Northern Ireland will be held on the same day. This is an important opportunity for each of us as Christians and as citizens to influence the values that will shape future public policy at both local and European level.
How we vote is ultimately a matter of personal conscience. As with every act that has moral consequences, we are called to inform our conscience. This means weighing up the position of each candidate and political party in the forthcoming elections and deciding how, in exercising our Christian responsibility to vote, we can maximise the common good. With many issues, this is a matter of legitimate technical debate and sincere political difference. With other issues, however, such as the right to life of every innocent person from conception to natural death, the values at stake are so fundamental that they can never be undermined.
As a Pastor, I have been struck by how many people have said to me recently, and I know to other priests and clergy as well, that they would welcome some guidance in forming a sincere Christian conscience in the run-up to the forthcoming elections. It is a welcome sign of normality and progress that many citizens are engaging conscientiously and decisively with social and moral issues in Northern Ireland elections, beyond the traditional polarities of the Constitutional question.
In offering some guidance, Catholic Social Teaching, based on respect for the inherent dignity and equality of every person, and emphasising our responsibility as Christians to promote the common good, offers four principles that have particular significance in the forthcoming local and European elections in Northern Ireland. These are:
- The right to life. There is no more fundamental human right than the right to life. Society has a duty to ensure such a fundamental right is protected for all, but especially for those who are most vulnerable and least able to protect this right for themselves. Recently, the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland announced his intention to introduce a bill to the Assembly that will significantly extend the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. In Dáil Éireann last July legislation was introduced that made the direct and intentional killing of the unborn child lawful in Ireland. With great courage, some public representatives exercised their right to freedom of conscience on this issue of fundamental human rights and voted against the enforced policy of their party, which was to support abortion. While local councils and the European Parliament have no direct responsibility for the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, the influence of local councillors and MEP’s on our understanding of public morality and its relationship to law and policy, is significant. It is important for those who believe in the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child during pregnancy, and who believe that the direct and intentional killing of an innocent person can never be morally justified, to establish the position of each individual candidate on this fundamental moral issue.
- Upholding the special value of marriage between a woman and man as the foundation of the family. As Christians we believe every person is equal in the sight of God and should always be treated with love, care, dignity and respect. Religious and non-religious people alike have long acknowledged and know from their experience that the family, based on the marriage of a woman and a man, is the best and ideal place for children. As Pope Francis stated recently “we must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity” (16 April 2014). It is a fact of nature that same-sex unions are fundamentally and objectively different from the complementary sexual union of a woman and a man which is of itself naturally open to life. The position of a particular candidate on this issue is an important consideration for all citizens. This is not just a religious issue. It is about upholding marriage between a woman and man as the fundamental unit of society, open to the possibility of children, an institution written into the very grammar of nature itself. It is also important for politicians to recognise that this issue is not only about ensuring Churches and faith communities are not obliged to officiate at same-sex “marriages”. Respect for religious freedom also includes the right of Churches to teach on this issue in a respectful and sensitive way, to have the ethos of faith-based institutions in employment and other areas protected and of Churches to continue to provide services in preparation for and on-going support of marriage and the family, in a manner which is consistent with their ethos. As experience in other jurisdictions shows, this freedom is very often denied to Churches once “same-sex” marriage legislation is introduced and the rights and freedoms of individual Christians and Churches are quickly, often aggressively, undermined.
- Promoting justice, social inclusion and concern for the poor. Northern Ireland has the highest rates of child poverty in Ireland and the UK. It has some of the highest rates of working poor, fuel poverty and people on disability allowance. Church representatives were among the first to express concern about the potentially dramatic impact of the proposed welfare reforms on the most vulnerable individuals and families in Northern Ireland. Local politicians deserve credit for ensuring that some important aspects of the proposed welfare reforms will not be implemented here. Having an active concern for the welfare of the poor and most vulnerable is a fundamental Christian duty, deriving from the teaching of the Gospel and enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching. While supporting the principle of helping people out of welfare into work, the forthcoming elections are an opportunity to ask each candidate how they will work to ensure the needs of the poor and most vulnerable in our society are a priority and fully addressed.
- Promoting peace and reconciliation. Many people express disillusionment with the seeming inability of our local politicians to make progress on a wide range of urgent social, economic and educational issues. This includes the failure to reach agreement on issues that will help us to move to a more peaceful and reconciled future, such as flags, marches and dealing with the past. Elected representatives on local councils and in the European Parliament have an important part to play in promoting and funding key initiatives in this area, as well as influencing their political party to work towards agreement and progress on such critical issues in the Assembly. The promotion of peace, mutual understanding and reconciliation has also been at the heart of the European project and the work of the EU institutions. The European Union is a noble and historic project. It is vital that we participate in the European elections to ensure the EU and its institutions continue to evolve democratically in the face of the massive political, social, economic and ethical challenges it is now facing. Promoting peace and reconciliation is fundamental to the mission and responsibility of every Christian.
As Christians, who by our national citizenship are also citizens of the European Union, we enjoy both the great freedom and the great responsibility of participating conscientiously in the democratic process and voting in the forthcoming elections. We have the freedom and responsibility to make the decision about who to vote for in accordance with a well-formed conscience, before God. It is also important that we commend and encourage all those who take up the noble vocation of politics and who, with a true spirit of public service, work with integrity and commitment for the common good.
- Bishop Noel Treanor is Bishop of Down and Connor
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678