‘Secularisation and the Loss of Religious Identity’

20 Jul 2015

Talk given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the Magill Summer School on 20 July, 
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 ever-unfaithful people.

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 arequestions  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 or committees.

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 and mature.

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