Upside-down world if church denied freedom of speech


We live in a democracy and church has every right to voice an opinion – be it right or wrong, writes BREDA O’BRIEN

JOHN GORMLEY may have started something of value with his review of planning decisions by six local authority areas. However, what was he thinking the previous week? He declared himself “taken aback” by the comments made by the Irish Roman Catholic bishops about the civil partnership legislation, but in fact it is the Minister’s own comments that are more startling.

The Catholic bishops uphold traditional marriage, and the right to conscientious objection. It is hardly surprising news, is it? A politician queries the right of people in a democracy to express an opinion – surely that should be more shocking?

Alas, no. Given the furore arising from the announcement of the planning review, we worry more about querying the bona fides of councillors, than querying the right of the Catholic Church to express an opinion. Gormley said that he thought “we had left the era of church interference behind”. Let’s look at what currently constitutes “interference” in Irish politics.

The bishops said “Oireachtas Éireann is about to pass legislation that seeks to give same-sex relationships a standing which will be as similar as possible to marriage. The Civil Partnership Bill will not permit adoption by same-sex couples. In most other respects, including tax and social welfare purposes, same-sex civil partnerships will be regarded as being equal to marriage.”

Gormley favours full civil marriage and praised Iceland for the fact that it recently passed legislation “without fuss” for civil marriage for gays and lesbians. Presumably, therefore, describing our own legislation as being “as similar as possible” to marriage is perfectly accurate.

Let’s forget for a moment the “hot button issue”, that is, the rights and wrongs of civil partnership. Let’s just look at people’s right to express an opinion.

Gormley suggested that the church stick to “spiritual matters” and stay out of politics. So, the church’s job is now to pray and obey, and stay meekly silent when out of step with current opinion?

Imagine if he had suggested to gay and lesbian people that they had no right to express a view? However, it is perfectly acceptable to suggest that church people have no right to enter a debate. It was deeply ironic that Gormley made his remarks in the same week as Jürgen Habermas spoke in Dublin.

In the citation for his honorary doctorate from UCD, Habermas was described as “probably the single most influential philosopher and social theorist in the world today”. As a secularist, he has been calling for some time for secularists to take some critical distance from their viewpoint, and to see it as only one plausible option in a pluralist society. He also suggests it is important to go beyond mere tolerance of religion to real respect, in a spirit of reasonable disagreement.

In other words, secularists benefit from sympathetic curiosity towards and willingness to learn from the religious ways of understanding of the world. He took part in a 2004 debate with the then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger on the nature of the moral foundations of the liberal state.

While Habermas believes the political state has its own legitimacy, and does not need a religious underpinning, he nevertheless said the liberal state should “treat with care all cultural sources on which the normative consciousness and solidarity of citizens draws”.

In his turn, Ratzinger stated that the “divine light of reason” plays a central role in controlling the “pathologies of religion.”

In short, it was a civilised, cultured and respectful exchange. How far are we from that attitude in Ireland?

We have moved seamlessly from a time when the church had an unhealthy degree of influence, to a time when politicians can be contemptuous of a church’s attempt to enter into debate and no one bats an eyelid.

Of course, the church’s own disgraceful failure to come to terms with clerical abuse of children means that whatever moral authority it had is greatly damaged.

However, that fall from grace means that while it might have taken courage for a government minister to tell John Charles McQuaid to back off, no courage at all is required to do so today. In fact, it smacks of kicking an institution when it is down.

And what are we to make of Dermot Ahern’s comments, that he does not allow his religious beliefs to “cloud his judgment”? Why does he have religious beliefs at all if he believes they only serve to “cloud his judgment”? This is typical of a narrow type of secularism that equates religion with irrationality.

Just as John Gormley would like the church to stick to “spiritual matters”, Dermot Ahern seems to believe that religious beliefs must be left outside the door.

So, I guess that would have put Martin Luther King and Gandhi outside the political sphere, and that recent concert in honour of devout Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi was sorely misjudged.

Martin Luther King was first and foremost a Christian pastor. Ironically, when he set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, an organisation of black ministers and leaders focused on non-violent action to end segregation, he was condemned for political activism, because churches should stick to “spiritual matters”.

It might be argued that Martin Luther King is a contemporary icon not because of his religiously inspired views on race, but because he upholds the currently supreme value of equality. Mind you, on the “hot button” issue itself, even Martin Luther King’s own family is divided. His widow Coretta says he would have supported gay marriage, while his youngest daughter, herself a minister, says he would have opposed it, as does his niece Dr Alveda King who was in Dublin this week.

Christians are divided on this. There are Christians of goodwill who believe recognising the dignity of gay and lesbian people means that they should be permitted to marry. Other Christians of goodwill believe that marriage is fundamentally a child-centred institution, and every child has a right, where possible, to be raised by a mother and father.

There has been an extraordinary lack of public debate about legislation with far-reaching consequences for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Fear of voicing dissent? However, democracy begins to disintegrate when dissent is not tolerated.