Monday 26 August 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The Church has a right to preach its beliefs - but it must be prepared to listen to reality of modern world'

'During his remarks to the Pope last August, Leo Varadkar called for a
'During his remarks to the Pope last August, Leo Varadkar called for a "new covenant for the 21st century" between Church and State' (stock photo)
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, the old saying went. Only, we know that's not too true. Verbal abuse, innuendo and mockery can have devastating consequences for people - particularly younger and vulnerable people.

Bishop Dermot Farrell of Ossory Diocese said yesterday in a statement he was "saddened" at what he described as "inappropriate language" used by local priest Fr Tom Forde, when he compared gay people to infected zombies.

It was a crass use of the Mass. As Bishop Farrell pointed out: "The Gospel we proclaim is about the welcome and inclusion of all; as every person - no matter their faith, or race, or sexual orientation - is made by God and is loved by God".

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That's the theory anyway.

And, as we know, human beings often excel at the theory while not putting into practice what they preach. The Church is no exception and gay people have had more than a few reasons to feel excluded down the years.

The wider Church's attitude to all things LGBT came into sharp focus this week with the publication of a new document from the Holy See on the issue of "gender theory". The theory is the study of sexuality and gender and the interaction between biological and cultural factors.

Pope Francis has been scathing on the issue. In an encyclical in 2016 on love and marriage, the pontiff described it as an "ideology of gender" and insisted that it "denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family".

At other times, he has described it as an attempt at the "cultural colonisation" of the family.

This week's Vatican document - unsurprisingly - reiterates the traditional Catholic view that men and women are created with fixed gender and sexual roles.

What the Vatican doesn't address is that this fixed idea is now increasingly questioned by biologists and psychologists who see men and woman as more on a spectrum.

It's disappointing Rome chose not to engage on the scientific level with those grappling to understand these questions more deeply.

As might've been expected, the document drew a bit of heat. Many people who identify as transgender said the Vatican is trying to deny their identity.

Others have been more positive, pointing to the call in the text for more dialogue and understanding. They see the missive more as an opening salvo rather than Rome's definitive word on the issue.

Nonetheless, the discussion points to the fact there is increasingly a wide divergence between Catholic understandings and contemporary Western trends on things like sexuality.

I'm frequently asked the question about whether the Church is out of touch or not. It's certainly out of step, but the Church must always have the right to teach and preach what it believes to be core to its own faith.

After all, Catholicism is a voluntary organisation - no-one who is unhappy with what the Church teaches is bound to remain within it.

The much-talked-about separation of Church and State has to be a two-way street in this regard too.

Earlier this month, no fewer than three Cabinet ministers piled on to social media to criticise a previously unheard of US bishop who called on Catholics not to attend gay pride events.

And, it's not just that the ministers have a different view: Regina Doherty climbs effortlessly on to the moral high ground to criticise Bishop Thomas Tobin as "unchristian".

Could you imagine the furore if random prelates from around the world started questioning whether Fine Gael is fit for office given the scandal of 10,000 homeless people - including many children - in a so-called booming economy?

During his remarks to the Pope last August, Leo Varadkar called for a "new covenant for the 21st century" between Church and State.

The Taoiseach has been woefully vague when asked what he meant by the suggestion of a covenant. Speaking in the Dáil recently, he said simply: "It is not for me to determine the outcome of that dialogue but to offer my opinion.

"It is probably a new relationship that is more about pluralism than about absolute secularism."

In any case, the topics are to be explored at a formal session of Church-State dialogue due to be held at Government Buildings on July 4.

Church leaders have privately expressed disappointment at some of these dialogue sessions in the past, complaining the Government often seems to see the process as little more than an exercise in window dressing.

Maybe that's why the bishops have taken the unusual step of pre-announcing this week what they want to talk with ministers about: namely, conscience rights, care of the marginalised and support for parents who wish for a faith-based education for their children.

The latter point is a crucial one for the Church and likely to be the subject of the next big Church-State battle.

For example, to what extent will the State try to impose on Catholic schools what they ought to teach about the Church's beliefs on marriage and sexuality?

After all, the Vatican document on gender is specifically aimed at helping Catholic schools deal with the dilemmas that these new theories present.

When Mr Varadkar expresses the view that the future should be about pluralism rather than absolute secularism, can he guarantee an educational landscape where parents who want to choose an authentically Catholic education for their children can do so?

In a pluralist society, a Catholic school that is barred from teaching what the Church does is a hollow institution. Schools must be free to articulate with respect the values of their ethos in the classroom, principally that all are created by God and loved by him without condition.

Crude and hurtful language that alienates and excludes people has no place in the Gospel.

The Church needs to listen as well as to speak.

Irish Independent

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