A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
DURING his speech of welcome to Pope Francis in Dublin Castle last August, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he believed “that the time has now come for us to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st century. It is my hope that your visit marks the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church.” The first structured dialogue to initiate the proposed new covenant took place on Thursday, July 4. Representatives of different churches and faith traditions as well of members of Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland met with members of the Government. No report of the meeting has been issued to date.
The setting up of this type of forum is a very important development. The legacy of Church/ State relations in our country is not very positive. Because of the dominance of the Church in Irish society in the past it is inevitable that there would be an attempt to remove religion completely from the public sphere. People are suspicious of any involvement of Church in society and would like it relegated to the private sphere. There is also a more aggressive type of secularism that demands all references to the transcendent be removed and that in effect atheism become the default position of the state and society.
I made enquiries from political representatives as to their views on Church/ State relations. In fairness most local politicians replied. The Green Party, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail all responded and were united in their call for separation of Church and State. Independents did not reply. However, this is a rather vague response and it is difficult to know what this means in practice. I have no doubt for some it means a total denial of any voice for the Church in the public square. They believe that religion should be relegated to the private sphere and should have no influence on public policy. This attitude mirrors a distrust of religion within liberalism generally (the dominant cultural and economic force in our society). But specifically in the Irish context, there is the negative memory of the control exercised by the Church in civil matters.
It is important to clarify at the outset that the Church officially endorses and subscribes to the doctrine of separation of Church and State. The essential features of this separation are that the State does not impose any particular religion and that it does not control religion groups. The State does not endorse any religion and people are free to practice their faith and to live out their beliefs in accordance with conscience (within the limits of public safety). This is summarised pithily as freedom from religion and freedom for religion.
The Church openly acknowledges that it does not have competence in the areas of economic and political policies. In practice this means that the Church recognises the authoritative decision-making institutions of the State and does not make any claim to share in this power.
However, the separation of religion from the exercise of power does not mean that it should be excluded from the public forum; faith groups should have the freedom to be able to participate in public debate and contribute to discourse around issues which effect the common good. Indeed, such public discourse is urgently needed at this time. Theologian Gerry O’Hanlon alerts us to the fact that “the liberal economic model with its characteristic individualism and consumerism has colonised the socio-political and cultural spheres in a way that despite great gains has spawned inequality, has disregard for the poor and the earth… and has introduced a cynicism around politics and elites.” We urgently need a forum such as that initiated by Leo Varadkar in which believers and unbelievers come together in a common attempt to re-imagine an alternative approach to human flourishing. Indeed one of the great and most influential philosophers on the 20th century Jurgen Habermas argued strongly that churches have the potential to make constructive, progressive contributions to public debate.
Examples of such positive contributions which have been central to social and political change are well documented: Christian leaders such as Wilberforce, Wesley and Stowe were prominent in the movement against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries; Martin Luther King’s campaign for civil rights was hugely influenced by Christian principles, specifically that we are all created equally in the image and likeness of God; the Christian emphasis on the role of forgiveness and the promise of redemption was a prominent dimension of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
In a more contemporary context, most people respect the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society which offers practical support to those in need. It would be absurd if the society could not advocate for a more just society and to highlight the structural injustices which contribute to the marginalisation of so many in our society. Similarly, Social Justice Ireland has produced profound analyses of exclusion in our society. In their recent submission on Budget Choices 2020, the housing policy is trenchantly criticised for its over-reliance on the private sector. These interventions for social change can make an impact and they are based on religious views of human dignity, duties of solidarity and grounded in a profound message of hope based on the resurrection.
The Church has the resources to make a very positive contribution to the State as we strive together to build a more sustainable and just society and face the huge challenges posed by climate change and pollution. We hope that the proposed new covenant will result in a much more trustful and productive relationship between Church and State.