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Alison O’Connor: Your church is just lucky to have me at all, Dr Martin


WHEN Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has a cut at us a la carte Catholics or "social sacramentrians", my instinctive response is that the Catholic Church should feel bloody lucky to have us in any shape or form.

My sentiments were re-inforced upon hearing the news that weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is down to 14pc.

That revelation followed the comments from Dr Martin concerning those parents who only turn up at the altar for the "celebratory sacraments".

These (and I am among them) expect their children to be baptised, receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation, but have little if any other church involvement in between times, and have no "mature" notions on what their faith means to them.

On RTE's excellent 'Would You Believe', which was looking at the future of the church in Ireland, Dr Martin, a man for whom I have some admiration, appeared to be saying that lapsed Catholics should have the maturity to leave the church.

"It requires maturity on two sides," he said, "on those people who want their children to become members of the church community, and maturity of those people who say 'I don't believe in God and I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it'."

Christmas, of course, is the time of year when us party Catholics are inclined to venture inside the doors of a church and sit through a mass. In our family this year, there is an extra "pressure" since we are now a household with a child in primary school.

It's a Catholic primary school, as it happens, and as such that would not have been our first choice. However, it would seem logical that if that's what you sign your child on for then it's only fair on them to attempt to embrace it.

School has been a very positive experience so far and involves a child who has so taken to prayers and Holy God that I can see our regular non-attendance at Sunday mass quickly becoming an issue.

The truth is that I have no idea how we will end up handling that situation, without, on the face of it, being hypocrites.

These feelings of personal confusion come against the national backdrop of our Taoiseach Enda Kenny taking the unprecedented step this year of denouncing the Vatican in the Dail in the wake of the Cloyne Report, and the subsequent decision to close down our Vatican Embassy.

Thrown into the mix next year are suggestions of a visit by Pope Benedict, possibly at the same time as the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which takes place in Dublin in June.

It would be a very tough thing to attempt to predict how the Pope would be greeted if he did come, or how much impact the Congress would have on the general population.

The hierarchy obviously wishes the church to recover and to be vibrant and recognise that having the majority of members dipping in and out very occasionally will not make that happen. But they could do with taking a different approach.

Taken in isolation and examined in a purely intellectual manner, Dr Martin's comments on the non-believers and the sacraments can be said, of course, to be true.

He's quite right in his assertion that you could not be a mature catholic on the basis of what you previously learnt in an Irish primary school, and how the traditional teaching of the church in Ireland may have taught us things about our religion but was based on a fear of God, and didn't necessarily deepen our faith.

But one can't help but wonder if these churchmen don't see the double standard of being seen to criticise those of us who bring our child to have the sacrament in the morning and have a party with a bouncy castle in the afternoon, when there is so much about their own house that is in rag order. To borrow from the scriptures, it's a serious case of taking the log out of their own eye before looking at the splinter in anyone else's.

It's only weeks since we had the publication of the report into sexual abuse in the Raphoe diocese, and earlier in the year it was the Cloyne Report, parts of which were before the courts again on Friday. Lots of those who would like more involvement with the church feel that they could not, in conscience, do so, given its history in child protection.

Now an archdiocese spokeswoman has said that Dr Martin never suggested in the RTE programme that lapsed Catholics should leave the church, but listening back to his comments he certainly appears to be saying something very close to it.

There is a rich irony in the fact that anyone who does decide, for instance, that their New Year resolution is to leave the church, is no longer formally allowed to do so.

Remember the Count me Out campaign involving a website which helped disaffected Catholics renounce their membership, and which got lots of publicity? Well to paraphrase a classic hit from the Eagles, the situation now is that "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"!

Last year, the church changed the Code of Canon Law so that it is not possible to formally leave. The changes mean that the annotation of the baptismal register in response to a defection request no longer changes a person's relationship with the church.

It's an interesting aside that Count Me Out reported recently it had experienced a 10-fold increase in traffic to its site in the aftermath of the Cloyne Report. There is a long way to go before the bouncy castle is taken out of the Irish baptism.

Irish Independent