By Cian Molloy - 27 March, 2017
If the fundamental convictions of our faith are not permitted to influence public debate, it would impoverish both our faith and society in general, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh said at the inaugural conference of the Iona Institute Northern Ireland.
The Primate of All Ireland was asked to give the keynote speech at the conference at St Brigid’s Parish Hall in Belfast, which marked the Dublin-based Catholic advocacy group’s expansion north of the border.
The archbishop spoke on the topic ‘The importance of speaking in the public square’, with a speech that he said was much inspired by Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, where St Paul speaks in the agora – the open public space – of ancient Athens.
When Catholics speak with the conviction and compassion of their faith in the public sphere today, in politics, in the media, or in entertainment, they often receive a similar reaction to that received by St Paul, said Dr Martin. “Some will mock us; some will want to hear more; others will believe and change their lives to join the flock of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Whatever the reaction, the Archbishop said: “We do not enter the public square simply to win arguments through the clever use of reasoning and debate. When we speak, we draw upon both reason and faith and upon an integral vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person linked to the common good.
“We seek to present in public discourse ‘a coherent ethic of life’, based on natural law, which includes, for example, our teaching about the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person, about the centrality of the family, about solidarity and the need for a fair distribution of goods in the world. Our vision is of a society marked by a culture of justice and care for all, especially the most vulnerable.”
As an example of the type of worthwhile intervention that Catholics can make in public life, the Archbishop cited the questions and issues published by the Northern Ireland bishops to help people decide how to vote in the forthcoming Assembly elections.
The issues raised include: the growing levels of child poverty in Northern Ireland and the growing gap between rich and poor; the need to protect the right to life of unborn children and of adults with life-limiting disabilities; the right of parents to choose faith schools; the scandal of human trafficking; and recognition of the natural institution of marriage between one man and one woman as the fundamental building block of society.
Archbishop Martin acknowledged that for many people of faith it is difficult for them to be “intentional disciples” and that they may not be able “to courageously speak from the conviction of a deep personal encounter and relationship with the Risen Lord.
“A lot of Catholics, as members of society, find themselves easily drawn to support the liberal democratic culture and politics of the State,” the primate said. “The politicians Catholics vote for, the media stories we like to read are not unlike those that the majority of people in the public square seem to want or support. Catholics, precisely as Catholics, need to allow their faith to influence their participation in society and the State.
“That is why we need opportunities to meet like-minded Catholics and Christians who have begun to question the superficiality of much of what surrounds us. Our faith has a lot to say about the nihilism and despair of a throwaway culture that has driven young people to self-destruction.
“Our Church’s teachings would seriously question such a limited view of individual rights that would dispute the equality of life of a mother and her unborn baby. The work of the Iona Institute and others is therefore to be valued, as it helps to form and connect intentional disciples, and provide forums such as this for committed people of faith to develop the vocabulary of conversation and dialogue in the great public square debates.”