Please, thanks and I’m sorry – Address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at conference for ‘Marriage and Family at the Heart of the Parish’

14 Jun 2014

Holy Cross Diocesan Centre, Dublin, 14th June 2014

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.

Some people are surprised to know that this affirmation is not the affirmation of a religious document, but is the affirmation of the pivotal document of the world community on human rights: It is Article 16 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It is an important statement and has some important implications in human rights theory. The family is the only collective subject which is affirmed as a subject of rights in the Universal Declaration. All the other subjects of rights are individuals.

The paragraph on the family is placed in the Universal Declaration between the setting-out of the two major categories of human rights: the civil and political rights and the social and economic rights. There is therefore an implication about the place of the family as the bridge between the individual and society, between the freedoms and rights of each individual person, and the rights which are at the core of the creation of and the sustaining of a healthy society.

Many commentators have stressed that it would be impossible today to develop a document as balanced and as universally accepted as was the Universal Declaration. This universal acceptance was obviously influenced by the fact that it was written shortly after the end of a terrible war, which saw individual rights trampled on by totalitarian states and the rupture of many of the bonds which knit a society together. The horror of war brought home more clearly how the family had remained a pillar in the defence of the most fundamental rights and values, and how the family would indeed play a vital role in the reconstruction and “re-moralization” of post-war society.

A second reason for the widespread acceptance of the Universal Declaration was that the writers tended to avoid going deeply into the reasoning and philosophical underpinnings which might be advanced for the affirmation of these rights. There would not have been universal acceptance of such philosophical reflection even then, as there would be even less philosophical consensus today.

What is remarkable is that the writers of the Universal Declaration found the ability to stress and formulate in juridical language something around which there was no philosophical consensus, while recognising that there was a general consensus that these rights belonged somehow to the common patrimony of humankind.

It would not be possible to write such a document today. The division in anthropological and philosophical reflection on the family has widened. I remember lengthy negotiations on the place of the family which took during the preparation for a series of United Nations Conferences in the late nineties and the almost allergic reaction of many Western countries towards any affirmation of the family.

How did this change take place? The process of social change in our attitude to and understanding of the family, especially in the Irish context, will be looked at later this morning by Professor Fahy. I am not going to anticipate what his findings may be or give my own interpretation.

Obviously there has been a growing individualism in the understanding of human rights themselves, which makes it difficult to comprehend and forcefully affirm the family as subject of rights. There has been distinct change in family size and composition, in the stability of the family and in the way families become formed.

Let me say that this new stress on the rights of the individual was not necessarily negative. The family of the past was not always heaven. The very culture of relationships within families was often unhealthy: there was often a stress on male dominance; the rights of women and children were placed in second place. As women began to take a more significant role in the workplace, however, the need emerged to protect the ability of women to combine work and family responsibilities – a process which inevitably gave rise to an analogous reflection on the responsibilities of men in work and family.

There was however an individualism which looked on the family as having predominantly negative effects on the rights of individuals. The family, it was said, was oppressive; the family had to be redesigned and redefined. I remember well the ideological battles at international conferences in which I, as the lead negotiator for the Holy See, became involved with some of the more liberal States of the European Union. They were difficult and at times fraught negotiations. At times the polemics were strong and the Vatican was categorized as being worse than fundamentalists, defending unreal ideological positions.

These same ideological debates around the world have continued in the years since and have been repeated also within Irish context. The Church cannot stand aside from these important debates about the defence of the family as a fundamental institution within society. At times, as with all ideological debates, the debates become acrimonious and very often it is the Church which is then portrayed as being the cause of such acrimony and of inflaming public debate.

We need to keep that debate going, but we must do so in a way in which we build a wide, broad consensus about the family. Such a consensus in many ways still exists in Ireland. In Ireland the family is challenged, but the family is healthier than in many other countries. We should not be intimated because we defend the value of the family.

There are of course other – and in the long term more important – ways of dealing with the challenge of changing family patterns in society. There is more to defending and fostering the family than an embattled and polemical defence of values in public debate within a pluralist society.

We need to focus on how we build strong families. We need to focus on the fact that we have great families and that families bring joy and happiness to their members. We need to help the next generation to understand how the stable and loving family is a primary focus for their happiness and fulfilment.

There is a danger that some might feel more comfortable in battling ideologically than trying to enhance the quality in which men and women live their family life and trying to lead our young people to interiorise confidence in what family means and can achieve.

One problem is that we are all tarnished with a high level of individualism and we are reticent to get involved with the family life of others. We can become intimated into not speaking of a family ideal, in case we would offend those whose family dreams have broken down.

How do we speak of fidelity as a value to our children whose lives are marked with the transitory, even though they too dream of a happy family?

I have given a title to my talk and it is taken from Pope Francis. The title takes up three words which, for the Pope, are at the basis of any healthy family life and which we must learn, repeat for ourselves and teach others to appreciate. They are words you may not hear often in public debates but they are very realistic and simple: “Please, thanks and I’m sorry”.

These are simple words which are at the basis of human courtesy and at the heart of any real relationship. They are not the words you would hear in social policy debates, but they are present deep in the hearts of anyone who wishes to make a success of their marital relationships. They are classic Pope Francis.

They are not however just polite words and vague idealism. They are the opposite of what individualism means. They are rooted in the relational character of all human relations. Sexuality by its nature is relational and for it to be true to itself, sexuality must involve a reaching out in love and respect. When the relational characteristic of sexuality recedes, sexuality becomes reduced to pleasure and self-satisfaction and the other is reduced to an object.

All of us need to learn these three words: “please, thanks and I’m sorry”. We need to repeat them three times daily before or after or if necessary during meals. Marital fulfilment requires moving away from individual satisfaction and personal fulfilment to a relationship of respect and sharing. The human person is not just an individual. Our humanity finds realisation and fulfilment in relationship.

All our political polemics about family values will be worthless if we do not at the same time introduce our young people into a new anthropology of marriage and the family, based on the mutuality which belongs to personhood and especially the unique mutuality which must belong to relations between a man and women in marriage.

How can the Church begin foster that new culture of mutuality in marriage in a world where individualism reigns. When we talk of marriage and the family as being at the heart of the parish, we must look more clearly at what the Church can do for families and for the concept of stable and fulfilling marriage. We need to intensify our services of marriage preparation and of counselling for married couples. But we also have to find new ways of investing in support of marriage, not only when it enters into crisis situations. I would ask all of you: what does your local parish offer in terms of supporting married couples? Where are your services of encouraging families and deepening their understanding of their vocation?

Marriage is a unique sacrament in that its essence is not about a special additional blessing. Marriage is about a human reality. It is about a human relationship which is so vital for the good of humanity that it is raised to the level of a sacrament. The human reality of marriage becomes a witness to the love Christ for his Church and draws its strength from that love of Jesus Christ.

The Church must do more to support families also in the public sphere. This will involve also fighting for social policy which defends families, especially in these days of economic challenge. How can a family develop if there is not a family friendly hosing policy? How can we talk of building healthy families in the future where there are so many young people who cannot attain employment? We are witnessing again something we thought we had consigned definitively to the past, namely breadwinners in a family having no alternative but to emigrate to find work for their families left at home?

The theme of this conference is about how parishes can support families in their calling. We have to be careful, however, not to look on our answers in terms of what the Church as an institution can do for the family. Really we should be looking at the family itself as a resource to renew the parish and the Church. Marriage is not just a blessing for the couple. Marriage, like every sacrament, is a gift of grace given for the building up of the Church. The married vocation is not fulfilled just within the four walls of the family home. It is a challenge to bring the reality of marital love to the service of building-up a Church where love and generosity and fidelity are its DNA. Marriage is a sign of the love of Jesus Christ for his Church.

When the contribution of the married is not a visible pillar of the day-to-day life of the Church, then what fails in the life of the Church is that fundamental thrust of the rendering love of Jesus Christ visible. Without the witness of married love the Church can quickly move into being just an ideologised institution which sets out to defend abstract values.

In addition to asking yourselves what your parish does to support families, you should also be asking: where do our parishes channel the witness of married couples as a resource for the building up of the Church?

The failures in the life of the Church in its institutions over so many years have always been failures in love. We need a Church where the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is witnessed to within families and through families in the life of the Church.

We need to restore confidence in the family. We need to work on that idealism of love which is there in our young people. Every new marriage is an expression and a desire for happiness and fulfilment. We need to build up a cultural climate in which that love can flourish. We need to rediscover the simplicity of family prayer.

Let me conclude with some further reflections of Pope Francis. He said: “Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment.

They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘for ever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries. I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility; that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage ‘to swim against the tide’. And also have the courage to be happy.”

That is not a bad project to be launched by this conference today on Marriage and Family at the Heart of the Parish. ENDS

· The Conference, and initiative of the Irish Bishops Conference, Council for Marriage and the Family takes place today (Saturday) in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe Dublin

· Further information on the Conference is available at