Iona Institute holds first conference in Northern Ireland
Archbishop Eamon Martin says the Catholic Church does not want an Irish theocracy
Archbishop Eamon Martin has told the inaugural conference of the Iona Institute Northern Ireland that the Catholic Church has no desire to create a theocracy in Ireland. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Archbishop Eamon Martin has told the inaugural conference of the Iona Institute Northern Ireland that the Catholic Church has no desire to create a theocracy in Ireland, but wants respect for its beliefs and values.
The Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland was the keynote speaker at the event in south Belfast, which was organised by the Catholic advocacy group to explore “faith in the public square”.
Delegates at the event in St Brigid’s Parish Hall also heard from former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan and former SDLP MLA Alban Maginness, among others.
The archbishop told attendees the Catholic Church expected that “in a true pluralist democracy or republic, religion and faith will continue to have an important part to play in the national conversation”.
He acknowledged the Catholic Church’s “child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes” in the past.
He encouraged Catholics to meet like-minded Christians more often to share their values and contribute to discussions.
He said Catholics did not enter public debate “simply to win arguments”, but to present “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”.
He claimed society is inclined to prioritise “a limited conception of freedom, often understood in a reductionist and limited fashion which doesn’t always lead to human flourishing”.
The archbishop also backed a recent call by bishops for Northern voters to engage in the democratic process and question politicians on matters such as child poverty, abortion, marriage, faith-based education, persecuted groups across the world and the rights of refugees.
He said the “voice of faith or religion is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches”.
“The Gospel is meant for mission,” he added.
Religious and social affairs commentator David Quinn, who heads up the Iona Institute in the Republic, said the organisation had been considering a Northern presence for quite a while.
“Our two priority issues [in the North] will be the right to life and the future of faith-based education,” he said. “We will also get into the marriage and family debate.”
“It’s small beginnings. We will see what sort of support we can get here and if we can raise funds we will set up a separate office.”
Iona’s new Northern spokeswoman, Tracy Harkin, also addressed the conference.
The anti-abortion activist said sometimes “cradle Catholics” don’t recognise the value provided by faith-based education.
“I have four kids in full-time education in faith-based Catholic education,” she said.
“My experience as a mum is that there is a beautiful ethos in the schools and I think it has benefited my kids in their formation and I would like to see that continue and acknowledged.”
Ms Harkin spoke of the importance of engaging a wide range of people in discussion in the abortion debate in the North and “not to polarise ourselves as a pro-life movement from people who think differently.
“People have sincere questions about issues like life-limiting babies or rape,” she said.
“We need to answer them and understand where people are at and see what common ground we have.
“I am always happy to talk to people about those issues and see where we are coming from in terms of our understanding of human rights and equality.”
Ms Harkin also said she did not want the debate with the pro-abortion movement to be “polarised, hysterical and extreme, because it doesn’t help anybody”.