Being out of the country is really good for allowing you think about what is happening in Ireland, a bit of space. Many of our best writers had to get out of Ireland to write and think - there is something claustrophobic about Ireland. Another good thing about getting out of Ireland, and the experience of the Church in Ireland, is that you see the Church in other countries and while there may be problems there, you can see where we are going wrong in Ireland, the areas in which we are blinkered and have cut ourselves off from the universal nature of the Church - where we have become "too local". You can also see where we need to change. Such an exercise is necessary in these times.
Reflecting on the fallout of the most recent report and the government's insane plans to strike at religious freedom, you see that, as Catholics in Ireland - practicing Catholics that is, not the nominal and the lapsed, we no longer have a political party which can represent our views and can be relied upon to seek to uphold our freedom to believe and practice the Christian faith in its orthodoxy.
At one time both mainstream parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were, for the most part "Catholic" parties reflecting the fact that the majority of citizens are Catholic. However in recent years this is no longer the case. Our last government, led by Fianna Fail, introduced legislation which forces Catholic registrars and providers of wedding services to violate their consciences with regard to solemnising gay partnerships. Now Fine Gael are trying to force priests to break their solemn oath of preserving the Seal of the Confessional.
These two parties can no longer be relied upon to preserve the ancient freedom of Christian citizens in Ireland. While there may be sincere Christians among the members of parliament in both parties, for the most part they will follow the party line, few if any will oppose anti-Christian legislation if the party whip demands it, so in reality they are no good to us. So we are now left with a question: where do we Christians go from here?
For one thing I think we Catholics need to reassess our place in Irish society. While Catholics make up the majority of the population, in reality the faithful are now a minority. Perhaps now the Catholic Church in Ireland needs to start thinking like a minority, and like other religious minorities start figuring out how we can work within society to safeguard our faith and practices. That may sound silly to some in the Church today and I can already hear bishops and priests saying that we are not a minority and Hogan must cop himself on. Well, look around. Irish society is no longer a Catholic society - our values are no longer those adhered to by the majority of people in the state. Some of our bishops and priests may know politicians and presidents, they think they may have influence - well they don't. The failure of the Church in Ireland to persuade the last Fianna Fail government to modify the Civil Partnership Bill to include a conscience clause reveals the reality - and this is the party most bishops and priests traditionally support. Time to stop believing we can subtly get a word in here, a wink in there and so save Catholic Ireland. Not so anymore: the crosier has no power. Politicians will smile and seem friendly when required, but ultimately use the Church to get a few votes.
When we realise that, we must begin to form alliances with other religious groups - something which will seem alien to the Church in Ireland - indeed something which may hurt its pride. During the weeks in which the Civil Partnership Bill was going through parliament I asked a number of figures in the Church to contact the leaders of other Christian denominations, the Jews and Muslims, to discuss a joint submission to the government seeking a conscience clause. Since our credibility is gone, a partnership with the leaders of other faiths may have produced results. My suggestion fell on deaf ears and all we got was a mild pastoral letter that had as much clout with the government as a soap bubble on a bull.
In other countries the Catholic Church works with other faith groups and denominations - the Vatican does so very successfully in the UN: why can't we learn from this? Again for this to be a reality we need to start thinking like a minority. This does not mean we give up on the mass who consider themselves "ethnically" Catholic, but we need to lay foundations for the future, for another evangelisation and how hard that will be will depend on how we act now. But we must also be careful not to think the majority of the lapsed will support the Church - as in Spain in the 1930's the lapsed may become our greatest persecutors. We need to look to the lessons of history.
After that we, as Catholics, with other faith groups, may need to start looking at the political landscape and see what we can do to increase our representation in parliament. That may mean working within one political party to turn it around, or it may mean forming a new one which could pick up support from believers. Such a party would need to be a real party and not a one trick pony - believers must take positions in secular society in order to influence it for the good, so such a party would need to develop credible positions in all areas, but positions influenced by sound values which respect human freedom and dignity. If members of such a party even got a dozen seats that may be enough to start a change - given that coalition governments have now become the norm in Ireland, the mainstream parties look to smaller parties to become partners in government - and so there may be opportunities.
There is, however, one glaring problem in Ireland: Irish voters, particularly conservative voters, tend to vote according to civil war politics. Fervent Catholics do not support Christian parties but continue to vote as they always have because of tribal loyalty even if their traditional party is undermining and attacking their faith. We have seen Christian parties and Christian candidates fail in the polls because concerned Christians decided to give their vote to the usual party candidates who do not share their voters' faith or hopes. There needs to be a change in the way believers vote, and that means looking beyond local politics, getting this or that fixed in the local area, and looking to the bigger picture. Politicians know that if they get a few things for voters they can distract them from the bigger picture, from the policies.
These are just a few thoughts and I offer them to the lay faithful for their reflection. The world and government is the area in which the laity must exercise their ministry and proclamation of the Gospel, and so it is for them to figure out how we proceed. In the meantime Church leadership has to have a good think and look at new ways of leading the flock - and let's face it letting the liberals run riot and weeping is not the way forward.