Tuesday 25 October 2016

Bishops' climbdown shows a lack of faith in their message

We shouldn't be too hard on the bishops over their change of tack on solemnising marriages, writes Dearbhail McDonald

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Archbishop Eamon Martin
Archbishop Eamon Martin

You have got to hand it to the Irish bishops for their spectacular climbdown on solemnisation and same-sex marriage.

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During the referendum debate, Archbishop Eamon Martin - the Catholic Primate of All Ireland - issued a threat that the Church might withdraw from the civil side of solemnisation if marriage was extended to same-sex couples.

The hierarchy's nuclear threat - almost Archbishop John Charles McQuaid-like in style and substance - stopped many people in their tracks.

Around 4,300 of the 5,600 people on the register of solemnisers are Catholic priests, and any unilateral action by the Church to withdraw from the civil element of marriage could have thrown many hetero wedding plans into chaos and alienated vast swathes of voters.

Last week, however, the Irish Bishops' Conference backtracked like dancers in a Michael Jackson video, denying it had ever issued such a threat.

Making smooth moves about the intimate union of a man and a woman at their summer general meeting, the prelates quietly shuffled about 'continuing to reflect on the implications of the referendum' - ie they will continue to marry couples and do the civil bit anyway.

This is a la carte Catholicism at its best and worst.

Two years ago, the hierarchy was utterly emphatic about the issue.

In their submission to the Constitutional Convention's debate on same-sex marriage, the bishops said if there were two totally different definitions of marriage, the Church could no longer carry out the civil element of it. There are now undoubtedly two different definitions of marriage.

The Constitution, ie the State, protects civil marriage without distinction as to sex and the Catholic Church recognises only the sacrament of marriage as that between a man and woman.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's Secretary of State, even went so far as to call Ireland's overwhelming decision to extend marriage to same-sex couples as "a defeat for humanity".

So why the fudge by the Irish Bishops? Why do they not have the courage of their convictions? How can they sanctify civil marriage if its new definition conflicts with its own?

Or was the domino effect of carrying through with the threat too high a price to pay for relinquishing some of its still majestic influence over education, health and women's reproductive organs?

We shouldn't go too hard on the bishops.

The truth is, most of us are guilty of staggering duplicity when it comes to matters of faith, or perhaps more correctly, matters of dogma.

I thought last week about our roll-on-roll-off relationship with Catholicism whilst undergoing tests in hospital - the results, thankfully, all clear. Shortly before I was sedated, I was asked a series of routine questions, one of which was whether I would like to indicate my religious affiliation.

To my surprise, I hesitated, before blurting out to the nurse that I was a Roman Catholic.

The hesitation, in part, was because I was struck by an innate if irrational fear that I might die during the procedure. In seconds, my life and my funeral - my violins, notebooks and a pair of Louboutins were in the offertory procession - flashed before my eyes.

But I also hesitated because I wondered do I have the right to call myself a Catholic? Or am I an apostate?

After all, I voted Yes in the marriage equality referendum. I support the rights of women and their doctors to choose the best course of action - whatever that choice may be - when faced with a crisis pregnancy.

I'm spiritually torn on the issue of assisted suicide. I disagree fundamentally with the church's stance on women priests and I will never reconcile the movement of known and suspected paedophiles by a religious institution that commands we respect its moral authority.

I suspect I'm not the only person guilty of a la carte Catholicism.

I know of many who only darken the doors of a Church for weddings and funerals, who none the less have their children baptised to secure the best possible chance of getting them into their desired school.

Ditto with the hypocrisy of compelling their children into receiving sacraments, such as communion, that they themselves do not observe.

This comfy collusion with Catholicism is entirely necessary in a country that is ostensibly secular - with a formal separation between the Church and State - but where the Catholic hierarchy is patron of more than 90pc of all national schools.

For me, the marriage referendum certainly marked a new phase in our relationship with the Catholic Church, which enjoys de facto control over many social policies including schools admissions and certain medical practices.

But I'm not convinced that the resounding Yes result marks a huge betrayal or repudiation of it either - those who voted No and Yes no doubt drew on their compassion and faith to help make the decision that was right and just for them.

The Catholic Church's influence is no longer binding, which is welcome. But it remains persuasive and this is welcome too.

Whatever about wayward followers, the move by the Catholic hierarchy to postpone its decision on solemnising marriage speaks more about its lack of faith in its core message than ours.

Sunday Independent

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