Irish Justice Minister speaking with a forked tongue


Ireland’s Iona Institute points out how the country’s Justice Minister is speaking with a forked tongue.

In the Irish parliament this week, the Institute says, Alan Shatter delivered a speech that inadvertently but comprehensively demonstrated the case against redefining marriage.

We have said all along that redefining marriage radically redefines parenthood, attacks the rights of children and attacks freedom of religion. Minister Shatter’s vision of the family as outlined in his Dail speech proves this.
He sees no special place in Irish law or social policy for motherhood or fatherhood or the natural ties.

He has no real understanding of the state of marriage in Ireland currently.

He has a very shrivelled view of religious freedom.
The words ‘mother’ or ‘father’ appear nowhere in his speech. He simply does not seem to believe that society has any special interest in encouraging men and women to raise their children together in loving unions.

There is no indication that he sees the sexual unions of men and women as being different in any socially significant way from any other kind of sexual union, or indeed from any other kind of emotional union, period.

He was very far from the mark when he said in his speech, “we are more deeply attached to marriage as a society than ever”.

It is true that more of us are married in absolute terms. But that is only because there are more of us anyway.

But our marriage rate is now lower than Britain’s, and Britain’s is the lowest it has ever been.

More than a third of births are outside marriage. Almost 250,000 Irish people are divorced or separated and our rate of cohabitation has soared.

If the Minister for Justice is unaware of these facts, or is prepared to ignore them, then that is deeply worrying. What, if anything, would compel him to say, we are no longer so attached to marriage?

On the matter of religious freedom, he told the Dail that he will ensure religious solemnisers of marriage don’t have to perform same-sex marriages. But the Constitution almost certainly forces him to do that in any case.

But what happens to marriage guidance counsellors, wedding planners, wedding stationers, florists, photographers? Must they all go along with the proposed redefinition of marriage or be driven out of the business? The answer appears to be yes.

So Minister Shatter’s speech shows just how high the stakes are in this debate and how vitally necessary it is that we play our part in it.

His speech in full can be read here.

Now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it again

A mystified David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute

What is going on? Now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it again. Google has been involved in some sinister censorship – or perhaps they just blundered and then caught themselves on.

Late this morning the Irish Times in Dublin ran an online story that YouTube had terminated, without explanation or prior notice, the account of the Iona Institute, an Irish-based think-tank defending  the family, marriage, education and religion. Without giving any specifics the Institute got an email saying the the account had been closed “due to repeated or severe violations of our terms of service”.

By mid-afternoon the Irish Times story changed: the account was back in good standing again – but still without any explanations being given on the details of its mysterious death and resurrection.

Whether all this was a glitch or whether the furious cyber activity on Twitter which followed the Iona account’s demise caused Google to re-evaluate its censorious move we may never know. All attempts to prise information from the search engine have so far failed. Watch this space – but don’t hold your breath.

The only reason that David Quinn, the Director of the Institute, can give for the unilateral decision to terminate the account is that Google disapproved of a video which they have run on YouTube explaining the nature of marriage.

That they should have taken offence at this still mystifies him. There are many such video’s on the channel and why this one, not in any way offensive –  just soberly factual – does not make sense to him. Whatever the story, “all’s well that ends well”. Whether the Google gremlins behind this are likely to strike again we will have to wait and see.

The reign of Chaos looming

‘Love sex and marriage in liberal societies’ was the subject. The speaker was one of Britain’s leading philosophers, Professor John Haldane of St Andrew’s University in Scotland.

In a lecture, delivered to the Iona Institute in Dublin last Friday night, Professor Haldane argued that about the only non-conflicted terms in his title were the two words “and” and “in”. Everything else had more or less gone by the board and utter confusion seemed to reign around them in public and private discourse. The consequences of this were nothing short of disastrous.

Take the term “marriage”, he said. It is no longer accepted by some as even a “good thing”. And for those who might accept it as a “good thing” – if we can keep to our 1066 and All That categories – there is dispute as to whether or not marriage should be used to formalize relationships between men and women, same sex couples, sibling couples or indeed polyamorous relationships.

In a Standpoint article in May of this year, Haldane said that with regard to marriage the primary focus to date has been on two-person, same-sex unions but the claims of polyamourous groups and incestuous partners are also beginning to be pressed.

Why has all this happened? Why have conceptual issues – the facts and values on which they are based, their description and the prescriptions surrounding them, got as muddled as they are? The roots of the problem lie partly in history and in the twin developments which unfolded in the late 18th and 19th centuries – industrialization and urbanization. With these developments social structures and most importantly the family, came under pressure and to a degree wilted under that pressure. With that wilting came far-reaching consequences.

The end result of all this, Haldane suggested, is that people are utterly confused and no longer know know what to think.

How can we resolve this? He suggested two approaches with which we might start but left us in no doubt but that the way back to any kind of healthy normality would be long and arduous.

His first suggestion was by way of what he termed “external consideration” of the concepts and the realities involved – whether it be Love, Sex, Marriage, Liberality or even Society itself. For example, consoder whether marriage is or is not a useful concept and a useful practical institution for society, for the family? How is it useful and what description of it is the most useful? On the basis of this kind of an examination some clarity can be achieved and hopefully some agreement might be reached. The implication of what he was saying was that in terms of the current debate we are a long way from even the possibility of agreement. It is nothing short of a tower Babel situation out there.

The second approach was by way of “immanent critique” of the concept and the realities – do they hold within themselves inherent contradictions, are they consistent? Will traditional marriage stand up to this? This critique can be used to clarify all the positions in the debate and by rational examination we might reach a consensus.

In terms of the wider issues, the nature of society today and the politics seeking to organize it, he went back again to the developments in the 19th century and the utter degradation of the new urban populations and the efforts to deal with this. What began as Utilitarianism – the effort to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number –  ended up as the political philosophy which we have today when politicians shy away from values and seek solutions in the material order. The effect of this was ultimately to drain politics of real human values and any sense of the dignity of man and what man is in his essence. That has ultimately led to the neutral state.

In his Standpoint article Haldane dealt with this problem in a critique of an address in Westminster last December by Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister.

“Clegg”, Haldane said, “takes liberal values to be incompatible with certain kinds of social arrangements, or at odds with the state endorsing and supporting them, and these include a traditional understanding of marriage and the family. This reading, however, points to the paradox of progressive liberalism: on the one hand advancing a liberal social programme; on the other rejecting the right of the state to promote or protect particular social forms, such as the traditional family.

But such neutrality, Haldane clearly believes, is really a mirage and what we have ended up with is not neutral at all – it has put secularism in the place of religion and all those values which connect with religion. It would seem that because these values do connect with religion then the “neutral” state cannot acknowledge them – with disastrous results for our understanding of human beings and their needs. Immanent critique, the thought,  reveals this paradox.

Returning to the topic of “external consideration” he gave an example of how rapidly the political consensus about these terms – again, Love, Sex, Marriage and Society – has changed over the past decade or so. About eight years ago Kofi Anan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, gave an address which reflected a view on these matters – and the family in particular – with which no one had much difficulty. The same understanding is no longer accepted and that speech would probably cause a major controversy if delivered in that particular forum today.

In his Standpoint article Haldane pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s the policy issues that seemed most pressing upon family life were ones concerning divorce and children’s rights (also certain economic measures to do with welfare benefits). More recently the strongest challenge is that posed by “alternative sexual lifestyles”. Along with abortion, sexuality has become one of the main issues of contention between traditional morality and politics, and the moral and social philosophy of liberal pluralism. Although a range of matters is in contention, the most prominent is the issue of homosexual practice and its recognition by the state.

In Standpoint again, he drew attention to the strong connections between marriage and family life. Common experience and an increasing body of empirical research tells us that it matters that children are raised in a family context, and that it is best for a child if this consists of a mother and father, ideally supplemented by male and female of older generations and by siblings. Evidently these considerations bear on the issue of same-sex and polyamorous households and so connect with current debates about the legal recognition of sexual partnerships.

 In his Iona lecture he predicted a demographic time bomb in our presence which connects with these considerations. By 2050, 60% of the population in the West – if current trends continue – will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts or uncles.

This is the road we are on. Is there any way off this road? No, unless we return to thinking about the Common Good, the needs of society, families and children, and stop thinking about our atomized selves.

Haldane concluded his Standpoint article by asking,

How then to proceed? On the one hand, discrimination in law on the basis of private, consensual sexual practice is hard to justify and impossible to implement. On the other hand, society has a right to expect its commonly shared interests to be protected, and these include the norm of two-person, non-incestuous, heterosexual marriage, particularly as that bears upon the needs and formation of children. Reasoning about what policies it is rational for an individual or a government to pursue has to be related to the question of what burdens and harms arise from the effort to encourage or to enforce any given option. Here it may be  useful to make the distinction between value-promoting and value-protecting policies.

 The aim of politics is the promotion and protection of certain social goods, and an emphasis on the rights and liberties of citizens risks overlooking the welfare and interests of the community, including those of its fledgling members, children. Notice that even in caricaturing the 1950s model of marriage and the family, Nick Clegg speaks of the “bread-winning dad” and the “homemaking mother”. Perhaps this is an unintended compliment to the virtues involved in co-operatively orienting one’s life to the interests of others. Certainly it stands in contrast to a contemporary image of adults asserting their right to have marriage redefined to accommodate themselves without regard to the natural facts of life and the natural needs of children. Which then seems the more caring and generous picture and which the more conducive to the good of society?

 (About Professor Haldane: In addition to lecturing in philosophy at St Andrew’s, Professor Haldane is also Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the university.

He is author of a number of books, including Reasonable Faith, Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical, and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion.

He has published some 200 academic papers covering areas such as the history of philosophy, philosophy of the mind, metaphysics, and moral and social philosophy.

He is a regular newspaper columnist and broadcaster and was elected Chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in 2010.

He has held a number of prestigious lectureships and fellowships at institutions including Georgetown University, Cambridge University and the Gregorian University in Rome.

He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.)

Distorted Images of the Real World

In the film, The Matrix, we explore the threat to our humanity by forces seeking to create a perfect world. It is a world in which men and women have been distorted beyond recognition into characters in a computer programme devoid of any real human qualities. With a little adjustment it is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In our own media-driven world we are already distorting the truth in an alarming way. Ireland’s national broadcaster has just incurred damages rumoured to be in the region of €2,000,000 for ruining the life of an innocent man, a Catholic missionary priest whom it portrayed as a rapist through the medium of its investigative flagship, Primetime Investigates. It all serves to remind us that we have a dangerous capacity to create something which at first serves our best interests and then allows it to become a distorting and all-consuming monster.

The television programme was presented last May and for most viewers it was simply driving another nail in the coffin of the battered reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Gross and unjust allegations were presented to the viewing public as journalistically verified fact and allowed to feed into and feed on a prejudice which has already been created by the constant focus of the media on the crimes and misdemeanours of a minority of Catholic priests

A few weeks ago the Iona Institute, an Irish think-tank focussing on religion and family in the Irish context, found that the majority view among Irish people now is that Catholic priests and religious are responsible for one in five instances of child abuse in the country. The reality is that one in 30 of such cases are perpetrated by this group. Now that is what we call distortion.

But the really alarming thing is that we seem to be quite prepared to live with this distorting mirror and fail to recognise the lethal nature of this cancerous growth within our society. There may be people who consider that the Roman Catholic Church is an institution that we would be better off without – but getting rid of it on the basis of a gross distortion of public opinion is probably not something even the liberal intelligentsia would advocate. Houston, we have a problem – and it is not just a problem of distorting the public image of the Catholic Church. It is a problem which distorts most of the things it touches and it is a problem endemic in the culture of news, news-gatherers and news organisations.

The now defunct Irish Press newspaper had as it motto, placed right under the masthead of the paper, The Truth in the News. I was very proud of that motto when I had the pleasure and privilege of training with and working as a journalist for that paper. Newspapers have a tendency to give themselves some rather meaningful if sometimes pretentious titles – The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Examiner, The Inquirer; Ireland even had The Impartial Reporter. At one time those certainly represented the good intentions of proprietors and journalists who tried to live by their implicit mottos of guarding the truth, reflecting the truth, examining and inquiring and impartially reporting without fear or favour. But to live and work by those principles of operation involved more than just reporting isolated facts. They were seen as expressing a commitment to present society with an honest and balanced view of itself. To do that the facts which were presented had to in some way be balanced within the context of a bigger picture. It is in this that we are now failing abysmally.

Essentially it is a “story” problem. News is gathered in the form of stories and without some story there is really little news. But the story is not an end in itself. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the objective. When this is lost sight of then the story itself can become dangerous and distorting.

All this was brought home to me very recently on a very personal level when I had to spend eight days in the care of a big – very big – Dublin hospital to undergo surgery. A week before I was admitted I heard reported on television that the hospital was having big problems. Managerial decisions had to be imposed on it from outside by the Health Service Executive which runs the Irish health service. This, a little like the broadcasting debacle above, simply fed into a sense of the overall state of dysfunction which daily and nightly news reports of health service disasters has created among Irish people. We shrug our shoulders and ask ourselves why can’t these people get their act together and organise a decent system of health care for us?

Eight days in Dublin’s Adelaide/Meath Hospital in Tallaght gave me an entirely different perspective on Ireland’s much-maligned health service. News bulletins on Irish radio and television are seldom if ever without some damning report of another mal-function in one or other of the country’s hospitals – missing files, mis-diagnosed illness, and patients on trolleys for days on end – all giving an impression of near total systemic failure of the institutions entrusted with the care of the nation’s sick and sickly. The end result is an abiding impression of a health service from hell.

The truth is very different. In fact the hospital is a miracle of effective administration, of superbly professional nursing and medical care, of warmth, kindness and dedication. Except that it is not really a miracle. It is a perfectly natural phenomenon where good people go about their work showing a wonderful range of human qualities and virtues, day after day, week after week and month after month. What appalled me – to a point of anger – was the fact that out in the wider world there exists this parallel public impression of a health service in disarray. Saying this is not to deny that problems exist and are sometimes not dealt with as they should be. They do. But the distorting effect on public opinion which the emphasis these problems get in news reports is not just something regrettable, it is a travesty. In pursuing “the story” in the way they do news organisations are not mirroring reality at all, they are not guarding anyone’s interest, and they are fooling themselves if they think they are being impartial in what they do.

The solution to this injustice is not, of course, to ignore the problems. They must remain in focus. The solution is to widen the angle to bring in the bigger picture. Journalists must resist the inclination to spice up their stories by giving the impression that something terrible has happened, is happening or is about to happen. That clearly is part of the journalist’s instinct. But they cannot pursue it at the expense of the wider truth, the lives and integrity of ordinary people who dedicate themselves to something as beautiful and noble as this particular field of human endeavour is. It is not enough for the journalist to say that providing the bigger picture is not my job. Everyone is responsible for the truth.

The problem is a much wider one than just the health service and its institutions, or the churches and their institutions. For example, the constant reporting of crime and criminality without any attempt to give the public a feel for the overall context of the general level of well-being in our societies is another distortion and one with all sorts of consequences – creating fear, anxiety, depression and distrust – which can undermine the values by which we try to live.

The integrity of the world’s media organisations has taken a severe battering in recent times. News International’s phone-hacking scandal now being investigated by the Levenson enquiry in the UK, the Irish state broadcaster’s destruction of an innocent man’s life and reputation, are but two instances of a sorry saga. There will be more until such time as the culture surrounding the news industry begins to identify the deeper values which must underpin its service to humanity.