Want to engage secular culture? An Irish bishop provides a guide.

Credit: smilla4 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Credit: smilla4 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- Neither the narrow narrative against religion nor the real failings of the Church should define the role of Catholics in public life, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh has said.

“Our challenge is to present to the world the edifying and inspiring witness of people of faith,” said the archbishop. “We are impacted by the process of secularization. We live, breathe, work and believe alongside people of other traditions, faiths and none and the pressure on believers to conform, to become just like everyone else, is often immense and overpowering.”

The Northern Ireland-based Archbishop Martin, who is Primate of All Ireland, delivered the 2017 Newman Lecture May 8 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He gave an Irish perspective on the Church in the public sphere, and his speaking notes were published on the website of the Irish bishops' conference.

About 78 percent of Ireland’s 4.76 million citizens self-identify as Catholic, according to the most recent census. This is a decline of five percentage points over a five-year period.

While Archbishop Martin noted that this is still a remarkable number of Catholics, he said social commentary in Ireland has focused on “the decline of the Church.” Some have again called to remove the Church’s perceived influence in schools, health care, and public policy.

“Such a narrative clearly challenges the Church to find new ways of presenting the Joy of the Gospel, and for example the Gospel of the Family, in the public sphere,” the archbishop said.

“There is no question that the practice of faith in Ireland has been hugely exposed to, and challenged by, the prevailing culture,” he said, according to the notes. At the same time, there seems to be little appetite for “any substantial critique of culture by people of faith,” especially if this means presenting serious questions about the “almost compulsory consensus on controversial issues.”

Archbishop Martin said scandals in the Church should not be used as an excuse to silence well-founded religious critiques of society, nor should they be allowed to conceal the dedication of Catholic priests and religious.

“When we attempt as Church to speak in the public sphere about the right to life of the unborn, some are quick to point to the scandals and to shameful stories of the past,” he said. “Decades of service by countless religious sisters and priests to the education and healthcare of the people of Ireland and all over the world is almost obliterated by a revised and narrow narrative that religious ethos cannot be good for democracy and stands against the progress and flourishing of society and the rights of citizens.”

At the same time, the archbishop said the Church has been too defensive in its reaction to criticisms. These responses show simple denial or claim unfairness or conspiracy “rather than being thankful that the lid has been lifted on a terrible and shameful chapter of our history and at last giving a voice to those who for years have been carrying a lonely trauma.”

“I am convinced, however, that the failures of the past must not be allowed to define us, but should instead help all of us in the public sphere learn lessons for the present about where Church and society might today be similarly marginalizing the poor, stigmatizing the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable.”

As a model for striking a positive tone in the public sphere, Archbishop Martin cited the French bishops’ October 2016 statement to the nation, in which they cautioned against aspirations to be a “church of the pure” or “a counterculture removed from society, posing as a judge from above.”

“They speak as people of faith, but also as fellow French citizens, pastorally accompanying their troubled people with empathy and concern,” the archbishop said. “With faith and conviction we will sometimes bring uncomfortable questions into the public sphere e.g. about the impact of economic policies on the most vulnerable, or to point out the contradictions of populism, all the while being careful not to become too sensitive to criticism or always claiming to be offended.”

He rejected false claims that the Church desires to create a “theocracy.” At the same time, “the Church does expect that in a true pluralist democracy or republic, religion and faith will continue to have an important part to play in the national conversation.”

The archbishop was critical of tendencies to see faith-related institutions, like hospitals and schools, as unconnected to reason. Every Catholic position on morals is argued from reason, even when there is biblical justification.

He also countered claims that the bishops are overly interested in sexual morality, saying bishops in both north and south “makes it clear that the Bishops seek to bring the Joy of the Gospel to bear on a whole range of issues.”

The importance of culture was also a focus. While the Church may be “counter-cultural,” she is not “extra-cultural.”

Archbishop Martin noted three potential possibilities for Catholics: a “culture of openness,” which some fear dilutes Catholic beliefs and leads to unjustified compromise; a “culture of identity” that stresses Catholic distinctiveness instead of what Catholics have in common with all people of good will; and the “culture of engagement,” with two-way critical interaction and conversations between religious traditions and the broader culture.

“Despite the voices nowadays which might tempt the Church into pointless culture wars, or even suggest that Christians might opt out of the public square to some sort of ‘parallel polis,’ I am completely convinced that the voice of faith can and should remain engaged in the public square,” the archbishop said.

“Our faith is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches. The Gospel is meant for mission. It is not to be cloistered away from the cut and thrust of public discourse.”

Tags: Ireland, Dialogue, Archbishop Eamon Martin

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