This is no longer the society to which St Patrick came, Bishop Paul Colton will tell his congregation today at the annual civic service in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.
Hostility to institutional Christianity and questions about the patronage of education in the country were just some of the controversies leading to a debate “about the place religion has in Irish society and specifically in our Constitution”, the bishop says.
“In the wake of so much that has tilted our society on its axis; when so many have been left in despair and others are dislocated from familiar reference points in society, the question is already being asked: what place does religion have in the modern Ireland? What place should it have? There is no option now but to have this debate: it is inevitable,” he adds.
Christianity is being practiced in more varieties than ever before in Ireland. “Isn’t it necessary now, in a more religiously diverse and more pluralist Ireland to have a debate specifically about the place which religion is accorded in our constitution?” the bishop asks.
In 1996, the Constitution Review Group raised these issues in its report, the bishop points out and suggested that article 44.1 be reformulated as a simple statement: ‘The State guarantees to respect religion.’
“I’ve no doubt some religious adherents will see such a debate as menacing. To them I would say this: God does not need the protection of our laws. A weak church, which thinks it needs to rely on legislative coercion as a tool of evangelism, has lost its own faith and confidence in a strong and appealing God.
“Christians as believers, and churches as religious institutions, must come to terms with sharing the space – religious and secular – with others, whether religious or not; and if religious, of an increasingly complex variety,” Bishop Colton states.
“Within individual Christian denominations there is a greater diversity of outlooks and patterns of affiliation.
“More followers of others of the great world faiths are living here.
“In addition, and notably, there are significant numbers of people who prefer not to state their religion or to declare that they have no religion.
“This is no longer the society to which Saint Patrick came. This is no longer the Ireland of several decades, yet alone 50 years, ago,” he says.