Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time To Reassess Relationships

Prior to the General Election, Enda Kenny with Bishop Leo O'Reilly of Kilmore and others.

With Enda Kenny digging in his heels and refusing to admit he went too far in his criticism of the Holy See, it might be no harm for the Church in Ireland to begin to look again at the relationship with exists between the Catholic Church and the state which is the Republic of Ireland.  Speaking with fellow priests, a number of issues have come up which might need serious consideration.

First is the nature of the relationship between the two.  There is no doubt that for many years there has been an unhealthy relationship between the Church and the state.  Prelates of the Catholic Church had too much power over secular affairs and this has led many to see the role of a bishop in terms of power and control rather than as pastor and father.  A bishop is supposed to govern, teach and sanctify - ultimately  his role is above politics, nor must he let politicians use his office to promote themselves.  As Irish politicians gang up on the Church, they forget that many of them were happy enough to use the Church and to be seen in the company of the local bishop and clergy in order to win the votes of the flock. I saw it myself as recently as the last election when candidates turned up at Mass times to "say hello" to the priest in full view of parishioners.  

The Church is meant to be prophetic, and must have the freedom to challenge secular authority when necessary.  That is very difficult when one is compromised by too close relationships with the people in government.  Being prophetic requires a healthy distance, mutual respect, but also confidence to stand up to the state when necessary.  Separation of Church and state is absolutely necessary, but that does not mean, as secularists and politicians tend to think it means, the Church being subject to the state: she is not subject to the state - she must respect the state, and her members must obey the laws of the state in so far as these laws do not contradict or offend their faith.  However, the state must also respect the Church and her freedom, a freedom that is not confined to any one territory or the gift of any one government: the Church in Ireland, for example, exists within two jurisdictions: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Given recent developments, it is time for the Church to examine how we proceed.  It may be that under the present government we will have many difficulties with the state and we may have to wait until the present Taoiseach is replaced or until another political party is elected to govern before Church-state relations are improved, that may take time.  But it is time for reflection.  One suggestion that has been made is that it is time for a Concordat between the Church and the Republic of Ireland

Many secularists in Ireland would be appalled at that idea since they think Concordats are signs of a close relationship.  Actually the opposite is true.  A Concordat normalises relationships and puts down in writing the nature of the relationship between the Church and a particular state so there will no longer be any misunderstandings.  It will safeguard the rights of Catholics within the territories governed by a particular government and ensure that the Church does not have undue influence in the state and that servants of the state do not have undue influence in the internal affairs of the Church.   Concordats set the boundaries and that is important particularly when the Church has to deal with hostile regimes as in the case of Nazi Germany, and who knows perhaps even in the case of a Fine Gael/Labour ruled Ireland.  The Church has a good record of respecting its part in Concordats, however problems tend to arise when the state, having committed itself to an agreement, wants to wriggle its way around that agreement, so problems might still emerge if a Concordat is made with an Irish government that wants the freedom to break the Concordat when it suits it.  Strong local bishops would be needed to make sure the state is respecting the boundaries. 

All areas of Church-state relations will come under scrutiny if it is decided that a Concordat is necessary.  One area which certainly needs attention is that of marriage.  At the moment Catholic priests serve as civil registrars or recognised solemnisers of civil marriages - when a Catholic priest marries a couple he does so as a minister of religion and as a representative of the state. Perhaps it is time for us to look at this and see that the time has come for this arrangement to come to an end. 

As in many other countries, even predominantly Catholic ones where the Church and state are on very good terms, Monaco for example, when a couple marries they have separate civil and religious ceremonies. Perhaps it is time for the Catholic Church to adopt that model - to conduct only Catholic ceremonies and let the state conduct the civil ceremony.  In Ireland the Church saves the state a fortune in personnel by the present arrangement and if the Church were to withdraw from this arrangement the state will be required to employ many more registrars to conduct civil wedding ceremonies, which may be costly unless they can persuade certain qualified citizens to do so voluntarily.  That issue of expense for the state is not the Church's problem.  Given that the Taoiseach and the government has many supporters in the criticism of the Vatican, I'm sure many of these supporters will only be too happy to give up their time to conduct civil wedding ceremonies free of charge.  I realise that there may be an inconvenience for couples, but I think genuinely Catholic couples will understand.

There are other issues which need to be examined, among them, perhaps the whole idea of permitting state funerals in the Catholic liturgy, providing Catholic Mass for state occasions and gatherings.  Even, for example, the practice of allowing the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in the president's residence, a privilege not normally accorded a lay person.  And while the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a chapel, Aras an Uachtarain (the president's residence) is a state property, so there may be an issue of reserving the Sacrament in a place where the Church has no jurisdiction.  A chaplain is normally provided for the president; that can continue I suppose, if the individual president requires one.  All these issues, and more, probably need to be looked at. 

UPDATES: Good article by Rory Fitzgerald of the Catholic Herald on Enda Kenny's speech.  I see Kenny is defending his attack by saying he is a Catholic and wants the Church to be above reproach: if that's the case, he has yet to demonstrate  that he is willing to listen and take on board what the Church has said in its report. As a Catholic is he willing to admit that perhaps he made a mistake and that the Holy See might just be telling the truth?

Garry O'Sullivan has a very good article in this week's Irish Catholic in which he describes Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore's reaction to the Vatican report as "back of the trailer diplomacy".  Thanks to Fr Burke for this link to The Thirsty Gargoyle which has a splendid post on the Vatican's document and the Taoiseach and Tanaiste's response.


  1. Fr John,
    You make good points there about the Church-state relationship.
    I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about your proposal to take the state registration of marriages away from the Church ceremony, for the practical reason that if there is a gap between the state signing and the Church wedding after, couples could think it is OK to go ahead and consummate the marriage before they are sacramentally married. The current arrangement seems ideal from that point of view to me.

  2. Interesting post. A concordat may well be necessary if we see some revival of the penal laws -- a prospect which doesn't strike me as at all improbable. The problem with concordats is that, as you pointed out, they're not always respected by the temporal authorities and they always involve the Church renouncing certain rights that are properly hers. One thing that must never be conceded (but which will inevitably be demanded) is allowing the state any supervisory role over the appointment of bishops; that would be a disaster.

    I wonder if the sex scandals will look very different ten years from now. I was reading back some of Mgr P. Francis Cremin's interviews from the late 70s and its obvious that the rot in the Church in Ireland has existed since the 60s (and perhaps the revelations are a reflection of that). The scandals have seriously hurt the Church's social prestige though I personally think bad catechesis, bad pastoral leadership and bad liturgy have done far more damage to the Church in Ireland than all the abuse reports combined.

    I don't think though that the relationship between Church and State, for instance, in the very different Ireland of the 1940s and 50s was excessively close; I think politicians legislated Catholic values because that's what the electorate wanted at the time. That worked well and was popular at that time, though things have changed a lot in the meantime (not least the Church itself) and voters are no longer inspired by Catholic doctrine in their voting choices. Catholics in Ireland now need to be more introspective, more 'communal' and less open to the secular world than has been the case for the last 4 decades. I take comfort from the fact that the Church in Ireland was in a mess before the 1820s --- things can always change when we least expect it.

  3. One UK MP has written to Davidd Cameron to say that if the Church refuses to do gay weddings they should be stripped of their licence. That's fine - as you say, we can have Church and state ceremonies held separately!

    See here:

  4. Caoimhin O hEidirsceoilSeptember 7, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    The bould Enda's not goin to shift. Maybe we should get Johnny to start a national novena about that, depending on 'offerings' being stumped up of course!!!

  5. I agree Father with your analysis. Since the state introduced divorce I have held the opinion that there should be separate civil and religious ceremonies as in other parts of Europe. Practising Catholics will have no problem with this as many recognise the civil side as a mere legal formality.

  6. I don't think a Concordat would be either possible or beneficial where there is no recognition or understanding among the political classes or indeed much of the public of the nature of the Church as a human, philosophical and political organisation, as well as a divine and spiritual one. There is a widespread ignorance on the part of many in Ireland, including (or especially) the nominally Catholic, of the Church, who she is and what her mission in the world is. (The terrible priest- formation, cathechesis, liturgy, etc. having made many Catholics vuknerable to opposing ideologies.) Many in politics and the Media see or represent the Church as the hierarchy (bishops and priests) only and as some kind of opposing force to the secular principles upon which the State must be run. All commited and practising Catholics are seen as enemies of the State whose fidelity to the nation must be in question. There is not an understanding of the State existing by dint only of the wishes of the people for the support of their interests, their natural goods, including the exercise of their faith and reason, and the natural institutions of marriage, family, community and nation. The faith and morality of humanity comes prior to the State, which the latter must serve. However, in the increasingly totalitarian-type State envisaged by many in Ireland today, the true purpose, and natural limits of, the State is ignored, and its powers exceeded and abused in the quest by some to gain greater control of others. Until such time as the leaders of the Church once again propose the truth of her teachings and most Catholics are committed to upholding their faith in their private and public lives, including in State office, the Church will be increasingly dictated to, banished from public life, and deemed not worthy of engagement of any kind. All in all, the Church in Ireland needs to stand up and take its rightful place in society, which it can only do if orthodoxy is restored to its theology and practice. When society understands what good the Church brings it, the State will respect the Church too and understand it is not a rival. Lynda