Although I am a trial lawyer, my qualification for being here today is as a witness rather than as an advocate - a witness giving evidence of the changes we in Ireland are living through and what may happen when decisive action is not taken in a timely fashion.
The changes that have happened in Ireland may seem far removed from your own situation, almost impossible to imagine happening in your own country. That is what many people in Ireland thought.
In Poland, you are rightly proud of the coming of Christianity 1050 years ago. In Ireland, we will soon celebrate the 1600 anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival on our shores. On the surface, a visitor to Ireland in 2016 would conclude that the Faith retains its vitality. The 'Angelus' bell still strikes on the State television and radio. Churches open during the day and attendance at Mass is still high by the standards of many European countries. Traffic reports warn drivers when popular novenas are on and statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart still occupy prominent positions on our main streets and in our buildings.
In the legal order, our Constitution opens with words which are rarely found in other countries :
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Ireland,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ,
Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial (and) their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.
The Constitution goes on to recognise the family :
as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
and guarantees to protect it against attack
... as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.
These deep roots, outward signs of vitality and legal provisions have slowed but they have not stopped the gradual erosion of the family and marriage on which it is based.
Recent Change to the Constitution in Ireland
Last year, a majority of the People in Ireland were persuaded not only to remove one of the defining characteristics of marriage but were also persuaded that they were not changing the institution of marriage at all. They did so believing that change was the right and generous thing to do and that a failure to embrace change would be regressive and unduly harsh.
During the campaign, those who articulated the 'traditional' view of marriage were pilloried for doing so. Already, legislation has removed from the law books gender-specific concepts such as "husband", "wife", "mother" and "father" and a woman, who is married to a man who decides to become a woman, cannot seek a nullity on that ground. Now that change has been affected, a teacher or even a priest who articulates views which run counter to the new dispensation is likely to find that the legal system and public opinion are ranged against him.
Nor will Ireland’s witness to other values remain untouched. In the early 1980’s, Ireland passed an amendment to the Constitution to protect the life of the unborn. In the intervening decades, it is estimated to have saved the lives of 100,000 boys and girls in the womb. The day after the results of the referendum on marriage, protagonists of that change announced that they would begin campaigning for the repeal of the constitutional protection for the unborn. If they succeed in this, Poland and Malta may be left as the only advocates for the unborn on the European stage. You might remember the unborn and all those that defend them in your prayers tomorrow.
How did this happen?
There are always a number of causes for any change. I would like to highlight two which may have particular relevance to other countries in Europe, such as Poland.
A constitution or other legal provision, like a castle, defends institutions and values against attack. It is right and proper, in fact it is necessary, to build such defences. However, once it has been built, a castle requires vigilant defence and a will to defend it. While it is true that, in Ireland, the campaign for change was well-funded from abroad and remorseless (only those who lived through it can appreciate how remorseless) a number of factors had been at play for some time and had been allowed to undermine defences that might otherwise have been in place.
The first point that I wish to highlight is that the forces for change worked incrementally and many such incremental changes went unchallenged.
Twelve years ago in Ireland, the Civil Registration Act, 2004, overhauled the legislation applying to marriages, but still reflected the view that had been current for 2000 years and more : that marriage was the union of a man and a woman.
It was only in 2010 that relationships between those with a same-sex attraction were given legal recognition in Ireland for the first time. A distinction was drawn between marriage between a man and a woman and these new unions or "civil partnerships" as they were called.
Prominent church leaders were among the first to state publicly that they were not opposed to legal recognition of such "civil partnerships". As a consequence, neither the scope of the proposed "civil partnerships" nor the values on which they were premised, were debated. By failing to challenge the assumptions on which "civil partnerships" were based, an opportunity to raise public awareness of the issues involved was lost.
Only five years later, it was argued that, since marriages and "civil partnerships" were in substance the same thing, it was unjust and discriminatory to maintain the distinction between them. A novel legal concept in 2010 became itself the ground for further change in 2015.
I am not qualified to comment on the events in Poland in October of this year and do not propose to do so. However, our experience in Ireland is that if one does not act when one has the numbers to act, one cannot effectively challenge the attacks that will come when those numbers decline.
The rush of prominent church leaders to endorse what was proposed in 2010, before reflecting on the long-term implications, brings me to a second factor which underpinned the result of the referendum last year.
This is change in the Church in Ireland and consequently changes in those who self-identify as Catholics.
Although they amount to almost 90% of the population, a majority of those who self-identified as Catholics in 2015 did not see (and still do not see) any incompatibility between the tenets of their faith and voting for fundamental change in what constitutes "marriage". In fact, they thought that change was the 'Christian' thing to do. The same might be said for introducing abortion in 'hard' cases.
Also, only a miniscule number were or are prepared to articulate positions that risk being seen as ‘Catholic’.
It is true that, in wider society, changes such as the anti-discrimination laws (which are obviously a good thing in and of themselves) and popular narratives have tended to undermine the capacity and willingness of institutions to act and speak decisively to protect their ethos. Within the Church, however, there has also been a loss of the sense of the social kingship of Christ.
Fr. Krzysztof Irek points out that the liturgy, as prayed by most communities since the 1960’s, emphasises the 'horizontal' at the expense of the 'vertical'. This is certainly true in Ireland, where Mass frequently functions as a community activity rather than worship. As a consequence, parishes are often vibrant as communities but these same communities barely register as groups of believers. Viewed in this way, Fr. Krzysztof’s call for reform, including changes to the posture of the priest during prayer, is not a matter of aesthetics but would seem to be at the heart of what Catholics need to do to restore a sense of the sacred.
In the context of marriage, it has also been rare, in the past forty years or so in Ireland, to find a priest or bishop who has consistently spoken of the sacramental nature of marriage or its procreative ends. Rarer still the school or teacher in 'Catholic' schools who has prepared young people to hear and understand such concepts. Natural family planning has been presented, if it is presented as an option at all, as simply a Catholic form of birth control and not fundamentally different in nature from artificial contraception.
A frequently heard excuse is that to speak out would be counterproductive in the new, secular Ireland. Whether this is true is a matter for debate. What is beyond argument, however, is that the current failure to articulate an alternative vision to the prevailing zeitgeist is not productive.
As a consequence of these systemic problems within the Church, in 2015 there were very few, at any level within the Church, that had been taught or who properly understood the need to champion the traditional concepts of marriage or the family or were prepared to articulate its importance to society as a whole.
On a whole host of issues, the voice of the Church in Ireland has been hesitant, where it should be clear. It has been timorous and confined to issues of social justice where it should be challenging and wide-ranging. Often, this stems from fear : Fear of being seen as out of step or old-fashioned. Fear of being mocked. Fear of losing status or position. Fear of disturbing the status quo.
A Plan for Renewal?
Aristotle envisioned a common commitment to the virtuous life - or in any case, a common conception of what the virtuous life is - as being at the heart of society. Ireland may have to concentrate, for the moment, on strengthening and in many instances, rebuilding a common conception of what constitutes virtue - while Poland takes up the challenge of charting a course for society on the world stage.
When the broader community is not what it should be, a man reasonably focuses his attention closer to home. He recognises the need to nurture, with family and friends, the values necessary for a fully human life. This is what the many people in Ireland are now doing. Such attention to family and local community does not entail an abandonment of the broader political process. On the contrary, building such cells of excellence is a fundamental requirement for the renewal of the broader polity.
Ireland will not recover her vitality overnight. If one fails to act decisively while society is still relatively healthy, the process of rebuilding is gradual and more arduous than it might otherwise have been. John Adams said that he had to study politics and war so that his sons could have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy and that his sons would have to study mathematics and poetry in order to give their sons in turn, the liberty to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
Could it be that, in Ireland, the present generation must study St. Benedict and build the local churches and forms of community now, so that its sons and daughters, as the children of strong families and communities, will be able to study politics and so that its children's children will in turn be able to study and practice all the arts of civilized life in the time of rebuilding to come?
There is, of course, historical precedent for this in the small bands of Irish monks who, against much greater odds, evangelised Europe and preserved classical learning. After all, the first bishop of Poznan was Irish! Other precedents are being set every day. Recently, a young couple in Belfast refused to bake a cake with a slogan advocating the availability of marriage for those of the same sex. It wasn’t a cake for such a wedding (which is still not legal in Belfast) but rather a cake promoting a political campaign which the couple did not support and which was incompatible with their beliefs as Christians. The couple are still before the courts and face ruinously high legal costs. Nevertheless, they concluded a recent interview in a way that surprised the interviewer and echoed tomorrow’s event here in Krakow. After thanking God for his faithfulness to them both, the couple pointed to the sky and declared :
"He is still on the throne. He is the ruler of heaven and of earth. He is our God and we worship and we honour Him."
Benedict Ó Floinn
Benedict Ó Floinn