Martin's speech taken in bad faith by media


Coverage of the archbishop’s spiritual statement focused only on elements useful to an anti-church agenda, writes JOHN WATERS

FOR 10 days I have absorbed as much as practicable of what has been written and spoken about last week’s speech by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin to the Knights of Columbanus.

The speech, The Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland, was roughly 4,000 words in length. About one quarter related to the fallout from the clerical abuse scandals, the rest to the general condition of Irish Catholicism. The archbishop touched on evangelisation, catechesis, religious education, the Gospels, faith and the young, Catholic morality, church attendance, the priesthood, secularism and – twice – the hostility of the broader culture towards the church. His core theme was not sexual abuse, but the Irish crisis of faith. He referred on 12 occasions to sexual abuse, but used the word “faith” 19 times. He spoke the name of Jesus 24 times.

Although some newspapers reproduced the speech in part or in full, virtually all ensuing commentary and discussion concentrated on the sections relating to clerical abuse. Maybe I missed some scintillating conversations about gratuitousness, but I don’t think so. I did not encounter Jesus Christ being mentioned at all. It was difficult to avoid the usual conclusion: that the media seemed most interested in the elements useful to an agenda antagonistic to the Catholic Church.

As Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin is dedicated to the spiritual welfare of more than a million people, many of whom read Irish newspapers, purchase television licences and listen to Irish radio programmes. Do Irish Catholics, the vast majority of the population of this State, have any right to expect their media to take an interest in questions of faith beyond the exploitation of opportunities to beat the Catholic Church into the dust of history?

When their spiritual leader makes a speech in which he deals in-depth with the condition of their faith and the difficulties pertaining thereto, do they have a right to expect the media to provide a forum for the exploration of matters beyond the most immediate political and ecclesiastical questions pertaining to an agenda antagonistic to the Christian faith and the Catholic Church?

Does the fact that almost all media personnel have a purely destructive interest in Christianity excuse a media claiming democratic credentials from exploring the wider questions involving the spiritual life of Irish society?

On even a cursory perusal of the Irish media on almost any day, it becomes clear that media interest in Catholicism is confined to matters reflecting poorly on church personnel, the grievances of the disenchanted and the issue of answerability of the church to the civil realm. All other aspects of faith and religion are treated with hostility, ridicule or, at best, condescension.

Among the many consequences of this is that citizens now have no public forum – in the day-to-day public conversation that largely creates the culture in which they live – in which to encounter explorations of the fundamental questions relating to their humanity in its fullest dimensions. Each of us is, for example, mortal, and we must deal with this condition as perhaps the most defining aspect of our human condition. We are frail, fragile beings, mystified as to the origins of our consciousnesses and inner realities.

Ireland is a human community more than an economy, political society or democracy. The vast majority of those who inhabit the civil realm also continue to perceive their essential humanity through the prism offered by Catholicism. We are all citizens, yes, but most of us are also embraced by that religious category, “the Catholic faithful”, and even those who are not betray the same human characteristics as those who are. Whether any particular individual elects to “believe” or not is beside the point: we are all subject to – and, perhaps more importantly, are collectively defined by – several ineluctable facts: we are creatures, we are dependent and we are mortal. No matter how effectively media-generated culture succeeds in shutting out the questions arising from these ineluctable human characteristics, they continue to assert themselves in our silent, solitary moments, in our dreams and nightmares, in moments of apprehension or ill-health. In a Christian society, only Christ answers these questions.

The first and most fundamental issue at stake in the crisis that besets the church, therefore, is not the “faith” of Irish citizens, but the capacity of the public conversation to accommodate discussion of the total humanity of Irish people. The threat is not to our Catholicism but to our humanity.

The archbishop mentioned the hostility of secular society. In truth, media coverage of religion is beset by a far more ominous condition than secularism in the everyday sense: a kind of atheism-by-default, which, though not necessarily shared by everyone organising or participating in the discussion, is the unspoken condition imposed upon everyone who takes part. To dissent from it, even name it, is to invite abuse, ostracisation or worse. This culture bears down on all of us, regardless of belief or unbelief.

Two questions strike me as an assignment for an enterprising investigative journalist: who decided that we would remake Irish society in this fashion, and by what process was the revolution achieved?

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