Sunday 25 September 2016

An out-of-touch church must address its obsession with 'sexual morality'

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar TD and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, at the opening of St. Francis Hospice Blanchardstown, shakes hands with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin a day after the landslide referendum result
Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar TD and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, at the opening of St. Francis Hospice Blanchardstown, shakes hands with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin a day after the landslide referendum result
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar shakes hands with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin at an event on Sunday a day after the landslide referendum result. Photo: Damien Eagers

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is right that the Catholic Church needs a "reality check" in the wake of the landslide marriage equality referendum result, but the State also needs a reality check when it comes to its reliance on the church for the provision of education.

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The notion that it took the decisive result of the marriage equality referendum for senior members of the church to grasp that it is no longer relevant in the lives of young people is a sad indictment of its remoteness from the lives of the people it purports to represent.

In truth, alarm bells should have been ringing for the church as far back as 1973, when the Supreme Court found married couples had a right to use contraceptives - even if the church and the State, which were then virtually indistinguishable, disagreed.

Instead, it has opted to ignore the massive societal changes that have occurred in Ireland in the intervening four decades, leading it to its current sorry impasse of irrelevance and decay.

The degree to which the influence of the church has waned is evident even in the lobbying style of its most enthusiastic supporters, the Iona Institute.

Throughout the referendum campaign none of its members made any reference to their fundamental religious opposition to the proposal, preferring to frame their argument in dubious sociological terms.

Why? Because they knew reminding people that the Catholic faith considers gay sex immoral, and same-sex marriage a perversion of the institution, would not win over many voters.

This strategy was diverted from only once, when Breda O'Brien told the 'Sunday Independent' she believes gay people "should abstain from sex - like all unmarried couples".

Of course, seeing as she doesn't believe in same-sex marriage, what she was prescribing for gay people was a lifetime devoid of sexual intimacy. The benefits of living a celibate life would be, she said, "knowing that you are loved by God and that you are valued" - seeming to imply gay people in sexual relationships are neither loved by God nor valued.

This kind of dogmatism is something that a majority of Irish people, no matter what their religious persuasion, are no longer willing to countenance. The Catholic Church may believe that homosexuality is a moral disorder but people don't see their gay friends or family members as in any way deviant or their relationships as in any way disordered.

Therein lies the problem for the Catholic Church. It is peddling 19th century teachings about sexual ethics in a 21st century world and an increasing number of people are no longer willing to listen to disparaging descriptions of gay people as being somehow sexually sick.

This is particularly the case when those lectures are coming from an institution that facilitated and covered up the rape and abuse of children over many decades, leaving it with no moral authority when it comes to preaching about sexuality.

What the church is really facing is an existential crisis with itself - between its bipolar liberal and conservative wings, the former pleading for change and the latter opposed to any variation in its stance. Between people like former President Mary McAleese, who doesn't see any discord between her faith and her support of same-sex marriage, and the Iona Institute's John Murray, who believes Catholics who voted Yes have effectively renounced their faith.

However, even Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, pilloried by the religious right as a liberal dilettante in thrall to the media, doesn't seem to fully grasp the enormity of the challenge the church faces.

Speaking in the wake of the Yes campaign victory, he said, "the church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people" - but the language is not the problem, it is the message.

While Pope Francis has recently softened the language the church uses to discuss gay people, the underlying teaching, that homosexuality is a disorder, remains the same and there is no indication that it is likely to change any time soon.

But the church has changed its stance on moral issues before, as prominent Catholic intellectual John T Noonan documented in his book, 'A Church That Can and Cannot Change'.

In it, he describes the volte face the church has done on a number of issues - like its former acceptance of slavery as part of the natural order of things or its view of religious intolerance as a moral imperative - and argues that the impetus for change back then came from prominent Catholic thinkers and leaders.

It is time for those kinds of leaders to again challenge the status quo position and question whether the church's obsession with issues of sexual morality are really a fundamental core of its ideology or merely a relic of a prurient past.

As the church embarks on some soul searching, it is also time for the State to evaluate whether it can continue to defend its wholesale delegation of the provision of primary education to the church - particularly when church teaching on a range of different social issues is so divorced from majority public opinion.

The Catholic Church currently controls 92pc of primary schools, in which an integrated curriculum that states "a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school" operates. This means that children who do not share the religious denomination of the school cannot escape its ethos, even if they're excused from religion classes, because it pervades the whole school day.

In a modern State which seeks to defend the principle of freedom of religion, how can the State continue to effectively be complicit in the attempted indoctrination of children who are forced to attend religious-run schools because there is no non-denominational option?

This does not mean that religious schools should be abolished, it simply means that the State must provide a real choice to parents so that they no longer feel that they have to get their children baptised in order to secure them a school place.

The Catholic Church does not have any special preferred position in the Constitution, compared to other religious faiths, so the State's continued attitude of deference to the church when it comes to the provision of education is an anachronism that has to be addressed.

Irish Independent

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