Over the next while, as legislation to recognise how what was once imagined as a traditional family has changed is brought before the Dáil and, as an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on what the idea of a Catholic family means in 2014 and beyond opens in Rome next Friday, modern Ireland and the Ireland more comfortable with certainties established in a more monochrome age will disagree in their usual disagreeable, almost intractable way.
Former president Mary McAleese, a committed and active Catholic, might have set the tone for the debate when she described the idea of a synod made up exclusively of celibate bishops as “bonkers” and “dangerous”, and suggested that deliberations confined to that group would make an already bad situation even worse.
The reality is, though, that the Catholic Church no longer sets the tone of these debates in Ireland, having lost its pre-eminent position in society with decades of deceit and hypocrisy on so many issues around children and marriage. It is hard to think that the synod’s conclusions will radically alter how any family perceives or engineers itself. Those attending the consistory seem split already. At least five conservative cardinals have rejected suggestions that marriage rules might be relaxed.
However, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has aligned with those sharing a more open view, pointing out that Pope Francis has endorsed a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper advocating a less judgemental stance.
Though not dealing precisely with the same issues, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald yesterday announced that the general principles of the Children and Family Relationships Bill has been approved by the Government. The legislation will focus on, among many other things, modernising the law regarding the parental rights of children living in diverse family forms; establish that the best interests of the child are paramount in decisions on custody, guardianship, and access; extend automatic guardianship to non-marital fathers who have lived with the child’s mother for at least 12 months; enable civil partnered or cohabiting couples to be eligible jointly to adopt a child; and allow civil partners, step-parents, those cohabiting with the biological parent and those acting in loco parentis for a specified period to apply for guardianship and custody.
These are all real issues that need to be addressed through legislation, but as so often the case, politics, religious or lay, lags behind real life and people organise their lives in ways that suit them, even if they are not endorsed by officialdom. Ever more Irish families have decided that the integrity of their relationship would not be enhanced by official sanction. Even groups usually considered conservative are expressing views that are not reflected in national legislation and would probably provoke apoplexy if suggested in Rome next week.
Who would have thought, even a decade ago, that more farmers would approve of gay marriage than those who oppose it? Once again, theory and practice are out of kilter and civil and religious authorities struggle to catch up.