Archbishop Eamon Martin has suggested that while the Catholic Church often appears counter-cultural in an increasingly secular world, church leaders should continue to engage in public debate in Ireland and around the globe.
The Derry man made the comments at the University of East Anglia in Norwich while delivering a wide-ranging lecture on ‘The Church in the Public Sphere – a perspective from Ireland’.
Archbishop Martin was a guest of the Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities at the university, having been invited to deliver one of its annual Newman Lectures in honour of the famous Cardinal and theologian John Henry Newman.
Addressing academics, students and fellow clergy and theologians the Catholic primate traced the process of secularisation in Ireland from the removal of the special position provision for the church from the Irish Constitution after 35 years in 1972, through the continuing decline in religious belief and practice in Ireland, on towards today’s society where belief in God is considered just one option among many.
“Despite the voices nowadays, which might tempt the Church into pointless culture wars, or even suggest that Christians might opt out of the public square to some sort of ‘parallel polis’, I am completely convinced that the voice of faith can and should remain engaged in the public square,” he said.
“Our faith is not simply for the privacy of our homes and churches. The Gospel is meant for mission. It is not to be cloistered away from the cut and thrust of public discourse.
“Despite all that has happened, the Catholic Church remains of great interest to the media and society in Ireland. “The Church may often appear counter-cultural, and a sign of contradiction in the secular world, just as it was for the Athenians when Paul spoke.
“But it is not extra-cultural. We are impacted by the process of secularisation. We live, breathe, work and believe alongside people of other traditions, faiths and none and the pressure on believers to conform, to become just like everyone else, is often immense and overpowering.
“The Church will remain an object of fascination to many, of bewilderment or curiosity to others, and of hostility to some. Our challenge is to present to the world the edifying and inspiring witness of people of faith,” he added.
During the course of a far-ranging lecture the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland noted that, according to the latest Census figures (2016) for the south, the number of people self-identifying as Catholic fell by five per cent to 78 per cent in just five years.
Archbishop Martin said it was difficult for church leaders to gain a hearing when speaking out about public affairs but argued they should persist.
“There is no question that the practice of faith in Ireland has been hugely exposed to, and challenged by, the prevailing culture.
“There appears, however, to exist little appetite at present for any substantial critique of culture by people of faith, particularly if it presents any serious questioning of the almost compulsory consensus on controversial issues.
“This leads further to a tendency amongst some in Ireland towards secularism, and a caricaturing of the Church and people of faith as being “unmodern”, “authoritarian”, “hypocritical”, “bigoted”, “closed” to progress and personal rights and autonomy.
“At times we need to have a broad back in the public square, and, particularly so, on social media where people of faith often have to endure insult or ridicule, or even personal attack simply for being present in the public square at all,” he said.