Opinion Editorial

Sunday 24 March 2019

The Pope's visit and modern family life

The Papal cross in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (Brian Lawless/PA)
The Papal cross in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (Brian Lawless/PA)


The visit of Pope Francis to attend the World Meeting of Families in Ireland next weekend has already become mired in the Catholic Church clerical child sex abuse scandal. That is to be expected. Both internationally and in this country the church has failed to properly face up to this issue since details first began to emerge around three decades ago, a failure which has continued up to recent times as events in the US showed again last week. But it would be a missed opportunity for the Pope's visit to be entirely shadowed by the sex abuse scandal. This is, after all, a once-every-three-years event to reflect upon the central importance of families in our lives and within society, and aside from the child sex abuse scandal, which has also directly impacted on the well-being of many families and society, there are other issues related to a more broad understanding of family with which the church must most urgently contend.

Family life in the Ireland of 1979 greatly differs from that of 2018 and this country has moved with great care and responsibility to take account of those changes. For example, when a Pope last visited, there was no divorce law in this country. It is noted that, in fact, the World Meeting of Families is to celebrate, pray and reflect upon the central importance of "marriage and the family". The institution of marriage is indeed to be respected and celebrated. However, one of the other issues the Catholic Church faces today is the sense of alienation many separated and divorced Roman Catholic people in new relationships or civil marriages are made to experience, up to exclusion from participation in the communion of the church. To his credit, Pope Francis has moved somewhat, and with welcome understanding and empathy, to address this issue, but yet the church remains accused of failure to adequately address the many complex and conflicting issues which arise in this area.

Since 1979, this country has also embraced same-sex marriage, indeed has elected an openly gay Taoiseach who is in a loving personal relationship, but again - and notwithstanding the non-judgmental words of Pope Francis, who has at least shifted peoples' perception of the church in relation to homosexuality - many Catholic gay men and women, their children and extended families, are made to feel alienated from the church in which they were brought up. The former president, Mary McAleese, has made eloquent and persuasive comment on this issue, which is to be commended.

There are, of course, many issues related to the Catholic Church and our broad understanding of family which are unresolved, and are likely to remain so whatever the events of next week, and however the World Meeting of Families transpires. While this debate continues, the church has and continues to be held to account for the manner in which it has dealt with the child sex abuse scandal. Indeed, that scandal has dealt a severe blow to the standing of the church worldwide, some would argue a fatal blow. We would not accept the extreme of that contention, and would argue that Pope Francis has done much that is good for the church and its followers against the constraints that even a Pope must face. His visit to Ireland is, therefore, to be welcomed. The Catholic Church has and continues to do much that is good, often great, for families and society.

However, while it has moved some way on the child abuse issue to put proper safeguards and disciplines in place, it has also - more so - failed, time and again, to properly face up to the scandals in its midst. All too often the Church is moved to words of sorrow, regret and apology from which it retreats by equivocation through its actions and deeds. The church's outlook towards a fuller understanding of family and marriage may not be a scandal in the nature of, or on a par with what has gone before, but ultimately the build up of these issues - the inequality many women feel within the church is another - could eventually deliver that fatal blow, and that would, indeed, be an absolute and great shame were such to eventually occur. For renewal to begin, though, first must come a true understanding of the purpose on such a renewal and from that, of the many and varied lives of the families that the Catholic Church serves. Regrettably, we still seem a long way from such an understanding.

Sunday Independent

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