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Should Ireland leave Religion behind?

RECENTLY I was asked to contribute to the No side of a debate on whether Ireland should leave religion behind. This is what I wrote:

AS a practising Catholic, my answer naturally has to be No, certainly not. In effect, you are asking me to turn my back on God, and that is just not on. Besides, I think you are a little late with your question. After all, didn’t Ruairi Quinn some years ago describe Ireland as being a “post-Christian society”? And with the media emphasis on clerical sex abuse and dwindling congregations, surely the secular is already in the ascendancy?

In fact, liberal secular values have taken over in the last 20 years. One after another – contraception, divorce, abortion – the Church appears to have lost all these debates, and the next big one, euthanasia, is already enjoying positive media coverage. Meanwhile, gay marriage, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, seems to get more column inches and broadcasting time than marriage itself. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is an agenda driving the media – and it’s certainly not a Catholic or even a vaguely religious one.

So, where does a Christian, and specifically a Catholic Christian like myself, turn to in a time like this? What consolation can we derive from the feeling that we are now on the back-foot against a tide of “aggressive secularism”, as Bertie Ahern described it?

Well, for a start, it’s a more comfortable position for a believer to be in. After all, no one can blame us for the woeful state of the economy. No, that was clearly caused by an abandonment of basic Christian principles. Where Christ says “love your neighbour as yourself”, the capitalists in charge were saying “screw your neighbour for as much as you can get out of him”.

The result isn’t pretty. With greed rampant, the moral controls which religion usually exerts went out the window, and now here we are with a catastrophe on our hands. However, the solution being offered has strong echoes of religion: share the pain with your neighbour, all pull together and we’ll get out of this black hole. Yes, even the economists and the politicians have to fall back on religious values when trouble comes knocking.

For a Christian, it is also better to be the underdog. Power does not sit well with people who want to follow Christ. He came to serve, not to be served, and we must do likewise.

Also, “the sign of the cross is the mark of the Christian”, so a persecuted or under-the-cosh Church is more likely to be true to its calling than one enjoying power or acting as top-dog. With individualism and greed the order of the day, the need for religion is as great as ever. Christ was counter-cultural, and the Church and its adherents must be also. Christ, expected to come as a Messiah in power and glory, came as a humble carpenter. In every age, the Church provides similar examples of people providing for the vulnerable and marginalised instead of chasing the glory. Fr Peter McVerry and his work for the homeless, and Sr Consilio with her work for alcoholics, are two who spring to mind, but there are many more examples of how vital religion is to modern Ireland.

On the great issues of the day, the Church’s voice must also be heard, even if it is a less powerful voice than in the past. It still offers the wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian teaching, something which can not be lightly cast aside.

For instance, it is perceived that the Church lost the debate on contraception, but a reading of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae – so controversial when it was issued – shows how prophetic it was, and how enduring is its message.

Similarly, on the abortion debate, the Church holds the line in defence of the most vulnerable of all, the unborn child. While the secular world goes on about Freedom of Choice, it is silent about the unborn child’s choice. The true mark of civilisation is how society treats its most vulnerable. That is the true line in the sand, and sadly, our modern, secular society fails the test every time.

Kill the young, kill the old, seems to be the secular creed, and, in between, spread as much confusion as possible about the real meaning of marriage.

The secular world deals in euphemisms – “termination” or “planned parenthood” are harmless phrases, but they ultimately mean death – whereas the Church tells it like it really is; it deals in the truth. “The truth shall set you free,” said Christ, and we put our trust in the secular at our peril.

Make no mistake, Ireland – or any other country for that matter – can’t afford to settle for the secular and leave religion behind. At times of crisis such as this, religion’s message of service and love is more needed than ever.

© Seán Ryan, 2009

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