We do not enter the public square simply to win arguments through the clever use of reasoning and debate. When we speak, we draw upon both reason and faith and upon an integral vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person linked to the common good. We seek to present in public discourse ‘a coherent ethic of life’, based on natural law, which includes, for example, our teaching about the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person, about the centrality of the family, about solidarity and the need for a fair distribution of goods in the world.
Our vision is of a society marked by a culture of justice and care for all, especially the most vulnerable.
The difficulty for us, of course, is the tendency in public debate to relegate to the private sphere discussion about the nature of the identity of the human person and his or her dignity. Society nowadays is inclined instead to prioritise a limited conception of freedom, often understood in a reductionist and limited fashion which doesn’t always lead to human flourishing.
The voice of faith or religion 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. Archbishop Rowan Williams cautioned against ‘programmatic secularism’, a kind of ‘exclusive public orthodoxy’, in which “any and every public manifestation of any particular religious allegiance is to be ironed out so that everyone may share a clear public loyalty to the state, unclouded by private convictions, and any sign of such private convictions are rigorously banned from public space”.
The suggestion here is that faith is a kind of private preference which cannot stand alongside a “supposedly neutral public order of rational persons”.
Since St Paul first stepped into the agora at Athens, many have argued that the transcendent moral norms presented by believing Christians have no place in the public discourse. There is little tolerance nowadays for the idea of absolute moral truths or for stable moral reference points – something which is intrinsic to the content of Christian interventions in the public square.
Rowan Williams prefers to see the Church as part of the ‘community of communities’ that is the state. It is therefore up to us to be courageous enough to argue our case, to ask awkward questions when necessary, e.g. about the impact of economic policies on the most vulnerable, or to point out contradictions of populism, all the while being careful not to become too sensitive to criticism or always claiming to be offended. We need a broad back in the public square, and, particularly so, on social media where people of faith often have to endure insult or ridicule, or even personal attack simply for being present in the public square at all.
Of course, the Catholic Church in Ireland has seen great damage to its credibility on account of the child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of our past. Many people feel they can no longer trust our message because they have been hurt and betrayed by their experience of Church. The sins and crimes of sexual abuse in the Church have not only had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, but have also, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, “obscured the light of the Gospel”.
When we speak in the public square about the right to life of the unborn, some are quick to point to the child abuse scandals and to shameful stories about Mother and Baby Homes and other institutions. In my view, however, the failures of the past must help us learn lessons for the present about where Church and society might be similarly marginalising the poor, stigmatising the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable.
We in the Church can tend to react defensively to criticisms - sometimes by denial, claiming unfairness, even 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 had been carrying a lonely trauma.
If it seemed at times that the Church was being unfairly targeted or singled out, then so be it. In hindsight this was a price that had to be paid in order to put the safety of children first.
In the early Church people in the public square noticed something different about the ‘Christians’.
Two thousand years later, our challenge, as baptised, confirmed, and in some cases, ordained Christians, is to be just as ‘remarkable’, to be a ‘people set apart’, known and recognised as people who are not afraid to witness to Christ. Of course, to be like Christ in an increasingly secularised world often means being different, counter-cultural and not easily swayed by the prevailing attitudes and opinions around us. This is not easy. The pressure on us to conform, to become just like everyone else, is often immense and overpowering.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 he said: “The great forces which shape the world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work – are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission. If these forces are guided by people who are true disciples of Christ, and who are, at the same time, fully competent in the relevant secular knowledge and skill, then indeed will the world be transformed from within by Christ’s redeeming power”.
The problem with this is that it presumes there exists a group of Catholics or Christians out there who have reflected sufficiently on their faith in action and take it seriously enough to feel confident in contributing to debate on public matters.
The reality is that the vast majority of people of faith may not yet be ‘intentional disciples’. They are still seeking, still on the way, perhaps not yet able to courageously speak from the conviction of a deep personal encounter and relationship with the risen Lord. A lot of Catholics, as members of society, find themselves easily drawn to support the liberal democratic culture and politics of the State. The politicians Catholics vote for, the media stories we like to read are not unlike those that the majority of people in the public square seem to want or support. Catholics, precisely as Catholics, need to allow their faith to influence their participation in society and the State.
That is why we need opportunities to meet like-minded Catholics and Christians who have begun to question the superficiality of much of what surrounds us. Our faith has a lot to say about the nihilism and despair of a throwaway culture that has driven young people to self-destruction.
Our Church’s teachings would seriously question such a limited view of individual rights that would dispute the equality of life of a mother and her unborn baby. Our arguments in these debates must aim to balance charity and truth. They must be at once gentle and patient, but firm and persuasive.
We must beware the temptation to overuse the language of chastisement and condemnation. Most people nowadays are indifferent to condemnations. The accompaniment of people in the public square is what Pope St John Paul II described as being “at the service of love”. To those in the public square we say with him: “Do not be afraid, the Gospel is not against you, but for you”.
It would hugely impoverish our faith if we were to compartmentalise it or exclude it completely from our conversations and actions in the public square. But I believe that it would also impoverish society if the fundamental convictions of faith were not permitted to influence public debate; it would diminish the understanding of the human person and dilute the concept of the common good. That is why I am convinced of the importance for all of us of speaking out in the public square, and of doing so with compassion and with conviction.
This is an abridged version of a talk given by Archbishop Eamon Martin at the inaugural conference of The Iona Institute in Northern Ireland last weekend. You can read the full version on www.irishcatholic.ie