Bishop William Crean launches ‘The Church in a Pluralist Society’ in Trinity College, Dublin

31 Jan 2020

My friends,

Ireland has lost its smiles according to the author Alice Taylor.  A dog was the only one who acknowledged her greeting by wagging its tail!

Michael Healy-Rae thanks those who are following his online campaign declaring “we’re embracing the digital side of things this year”.

On this very night “Brits Out” takes on an utterly new connotation.

Times they are a changing! – they always were and always will.  In the midst of this maelstrom we seek, sometimes desperately, to decipher where we are in the now global culture patterns.

My friends, I am pleased and honoured to accept the kind invitation to launch the publication of The Church in a Pluralist Society, edited by Father Cornelius J Casey CSsR and Dr Fáinche Ryan, the papers delivered at a conference held here in 2016 at which I was present.  I came in a personal capacity because I was pleased to learn that the issues of Church and State, the diversity of belief and none were being addressed in a considered manner from quite a diversity of perspectives.  As a predominantly Catholic country in Europe we share many issues with other similar European countries.  Yet, ours is a unique experience for reasons we know.  Our experience of social, cultural, economic and spiritual change has been intense in its rapidity thereby exposing us to vulnerability in processing its depth and the implications for fashioning a shared future.

Our experience of immigration is new.  Though now a significant percentage of the population (16%) it is manageable.  The welcome was the easy part.  Integration is a much longer-term project.  We have already some indicators of the demands of that work.  Migration is an ever-present reality globally.  Displacement due to war, violence, climate change and cultural diversity is a reality for many millions of people world-wide.  All the walls in the world will not halt the march of people who are desperate.  The great challenge of migration is the need to shift our perspective from mine to ours.  To suggest as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si that the world is a “common home” for all of humanity and care for it and all its people is an integral component of Christian discipleship to-day.

I mention that global reality of the earth as our common home by way of situating our faith experience in a wider context than our nation State.  This adjustment of mentality to think beyond the local, personal even national to embrace the global is fraught with tension between identity and universality.  If I might quote Father Joseph Joblin SJ from his piece Christian Identity in a Globalized and Pluralist World (La Civilta Cattolica 1805).

“The reconciliation to be made between loyalty to

tradition and universalization of values is a challenge

to all societies to-day”


He goes on to ask

“… If the Church is still able to contribute to the

universalization of values while safeguarding

its own identity?”

This volume The Church in Pluralist Society is a huge resource for those grappling with these issues in an Irish context.  The question of the relationship between Church and State reaches right back to the earliest days of the Church as it sought to work out the nature of its place and authority in the political context of the Roman Empire.  From there a great variety of models of Church / State relations evolved in varying contexts.  It is important for us to-day to inform ourselves of that history.  It gives context to the huge shift that Vatican II brought to our thinking around religious freedom reflected in the document Dignitatis Humanae.

The human person has a right to religious freedom.

The basis of that right is the dignity of the human person.

I quote J Bryan Hehir

“In the past, the Catholic ‘thesis’ sought a privileged

position for the Church.  No longer: this change

left the Church the challenge of establishing trust in

pluralistic societies and being persuasive in its

teaching and advocacy”   P.8

And so, it is now.  The special position of the Catholic Church in the Irish Constitution was removed at its own request.

The lecture by Terry Eagleton has the surprising title of Against Pluralism.  This piece I found provocative for its capacity to question our assumptions round the nature of pluralism.

“There is a bogus kind of pluralism that holds that a point of view is to be respected simply because it is a point of view”…. “Nor does pluralism necessarily imply relativism”.

And he can be humorous in his rigor.

“Even so, we do inhabit a genuinely pluralistic world in at least this sense – that though almost everyone agrees that roasting people slowly over fires is not the best way to greet them when they arrive at your house for dinner, we cannot agree on why we agree on this, and no doubt ever will”.

Freedom, option, choice are fundamental components of pluralism.  The contributions by Patrick J Dineen and Hans Joas are really incisive in exploring the impact of so-called choice and option.  Dineen’s piece Hegemonic Liberalism is eye opening in terms of appreciating the overpowering impact of “the liberal spirit of the age” whereby overwhelming economic forces are creating people according to their ends and purpose which in turn is leading to the elimination of identity and cultural diversity.  As to the role of the Church he concludes

 “The role of the Church

is to forthrightly, confidently and courageously

understand that it is an alternative to the

Spirit of the age – in this age and all times –

and not to be fitted into its prevailing tides.

It cannot merely be a corrective or a balm

but, perhaps especially in our age wholly other”.

How the Church orders its own affairs is a question that Fáinche Ryan addresses comprehensively in her contribution On consulting the Faithful in matters of Doctrine.   Beginning with its genesis in John H Newman’s work in the 19th century she brings us into the debate in its current incarnation in the form of the question of the focus of authority in the Church.

The Church’s place in a consumer society by William T Cavanagh takes his key from observations made by Tom McGurk at the turn of the Millennium.

“We have reached a nemesis in our affairs in Ireland where

consumerism is in the process of replacing Christianity as the

shaping influence on all our lives.  We are rapidly approaching a

point where the social and moral order is being dictated by market

forces alone.  As we build shopping centres with the zest that we

once built cathedrals and as brand names replace saints’ names, the

land of saints and scholars is being recast as the land of customers

and consumers….”

This change has progressed and continues unabated despite the financial crash.  This “compressed modernity” is the reality confronting the Church – a Church “holed below the water line” by its failure to confront the darkness within.

Drawing from the work of Charles Taylor he explores the concept of optionality in the course of which he speaks of a “Closed Secularism” that many Irish elite practice.  This “closed secularism” is the idea that the Church needs to be excluded from public relevance rather than be one voice among many in the pluralized society” (p 61).

Speaking of secularism, Father Patrick Riordan SJ reassures us in his contribution The Secular is not Scary!  He draws on Rousseau and Augustine to surface the issues round the sacred and secular, the source of authority and how it is exercised, freedom and the common good.  He introduces us to a more nuanced understanding of secularity.  Terminology like “secular liberalism”, “justificatory secularism” amongst others are explored.

He concludes

“That there is a vision of the secular and its relation

            to religion that from the point of view of political philosophy is defensible

            and robust and that from the point of view of religion and theology can

be justified and defended as appropriate for rule of states, in which religious

communities and churches can thrive and can contribute richly to a

pluralist society.  This version of the secular is a potential partner in

cooperation and is definitely not scary”.

I did not mention Massimo Faggioli’s contribution The Established Church Dilemma.  Starting from the new reality of the “technocratic paradigm” that “tends to dominate economic and political life” he wonders where the Church ought to envision its contribution to society today.  This is a global issue for the Church given its globalization.  Future Church/State relationships will be built on the declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae.

In Ireland we face challenges in the ongoing dialogue around the role of the Church in the “market place”.  While there are some of the view that it should be consigned to the dustbin of history, the Taoiseach, Mr Leo Varadkar TD, in his address to Pope Frances in Dublin Castle in August 2018 spoke graciously of the contribution of the Church to Irish society.  He spoke frankly also of the legacy of the pain caused by the harsh regimes of places of shelter, a legacy for which both Church and State bear responsibility.  He also called for a new relationship – a “new covenant” – of shared endeavour for the common good.

Education and health are the significant entities where the Church continues to contribute with great generosity on the part of countless volunteers who give in a spirit of Christian service.  There are structural readjustments which are in train and will continue in a spirit of good will.  While there is a decline in liturgical practice a large proportion of the people still draw from the deep well of our Christian heritage and inspiration.

A more fundamental issue that is surfacing is the growing lack of freedom to practice, express and nurture any faith in our “State” funded institutions.  We seem to be embracing in the name of tolerance and diversity an illiberal liberalism whereby for ideological reasons we stifle expressions of identity and culture.  The elimination of religious symbolism from some schools and hospitals is hardly progressive even if deemed by some to be politically correct.  Given the need and desire for a ‘new covenant’ I suggest that pursuing a hard-line ideological strategy is not a good basis on which to build a shared future.

My friends, I am pleased to launch this volume The Church in a Pluralist Society.  I congratulate Dr Fáinche Ryan, Director of the Loyola Institute, here in Trinity and her colleagues.  First, for your organisation of an excellent conference on what for the Church and Ireland are critical issues of identity, values and contemporary culture.  Secondly, this volume ensures that the work of the conference can be extended.  The material within its covers is to be recommended, first to my colleagues in the ministry, men, women, lay, religious.  I recommend it to every newly elected member of the Oireachtas.  I recommend it especially to journalists, particularly those covering social and political issues. 

Many of our recent debates were distinguished by the lack of intellectual rigor and research.  This volume will fill that void.  So, I recommend it to you.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.


  • Bishop William Crean is Bishop of Cloyne.  The Church in a Pluralist Society will be launched in Regent House, Front Arch, Trinity College, Dublin, tonight at 7.30pm. 

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