With the passage of time – just a matter of a little over four months in this case – the sense of bewilderment and disappointment of what looked like a radical change in the Irish people’s understanding and commitment to the values enshrined in marriage and the family has mellowed.
To help us understand that things might not be as bleak as they seemed on the afternoon of 23 May last, the words of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday set what looked like a revolution in a more balanced and kinder context.
Dr. Martin made his remarks about the Irish situation in the context of the social culture of marriage, the culture in which he said our young people grow up and the culture which influences their understanding of almost every dimension of marriage and family life. He made the crucial point that society often uses the same words as the Church does, however with a radically different meaning. He continued:
Many ask what happened at the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland. Has an authentic Christian culture of marriage disappeared in Ireland? It is not as simple as that. Ireland after the referendum is still marked by a very strong family culture. The numbers who get married – and who get married in Church – are high and divorce statistics are among the lowest in Europe. Families are strong and generous. That has not changed substantially.
The referendum was debated within a social culture where people struggle to understand abstract moral principles. What they do understand is the predicament of individuals whom they wish to see happy and included. It is a very individualistic culture, but not necessarily an uncaring one. Indeed those in favour of same-sex marriage based their campaign on what was traditionally our language: equality, compassion, respect and tolerance.
Our young people make their decisions on marriage and the family within the context of a flawed and antagonistic social culture. It is however not enough to condemn that culture. We have somehow to evangelise that culture. The Synod is called to revitalise the Church’s pastoral concern for marriage and the family and to help believers to see family life as an itinerary of faith. But simply repeating doctrinal formulations alone will not bring the Gospel and the Good News of the Family into an antagonistic society. We have to find a language which helps our young people to appreciate the newness and the challenge of the Gospel.
Where do we find that language? Certainly it cannot be a language which reduces the fullness of the Church’s teaching. We have to find a language which is a bridge to the day-to-day reality of marriage – a human reality, a reality not just of ideals, but of struggle and failure, of tears and joys. Even in within a flawed social culture of the family there are those who seek something more and we have to touch their hearts.
Allow me to give an example. We talk about indissolubility. Most families would not feel that they live indissolubility; they live fidelity and closeness and care in ways we underestimate. As a student, I worked in a centre for prisoners which held a space for women who had to travel long distances before going to visit their spouses in prison. These women were not models of respectable society. They would hardly have been able to pronounce indissolubility. But these women never missed a weekly visit. They understood fidelity, even to a husband who might have betrayed them. And their visit humanised even for a few moment the life of a man whose hope was low.
What the Irish referendum showed was a breakdown between two languages. It showed also that when the demanding teaching of Jesus is presented in a way which appears to lack mercy, then we open the doors to a false language of cheap mercy.
A threshold has been crossed in Ireland. There is no doubt about that. Whether, however, it is a threshold to a future of social decline and disintegration depends on the acceptance of a challenge, the challenge implicit in Dr. Martin’s remarks. The Church, and those of good will throughout this island and across western society as a whole, must seek to touch the hearts and minds of all those who are seeking something more than is currently available to sustain their spirit in our flawed social culture.
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