Sometimes, acting on conscience is another form of discrimination

I SET OUT to write about Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and about conscience and marriage, writes Fergus Finlay

Sometimes, acting on conscience is another form of discrimination

Before I do, I have to say something about genius. I know I’m trespassing on the territory of this newspaper’s sports columnists, but surely, having survived the emotional roller-coaster that was last Saturday’s Six Nations win, I might be forgiven for a paragraph or two.

It was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote The Last Days of Pompeii, who coined the phrase “talent does what it can, genius does what it must”. By that standard, Jamie Heaslip is a genius. A couple of weeks ago, he limped off the field with damaged vertebrae; on Saturday, he pulled off one of the greatest tackles in the recent history of the game.

By that standard, Johnny Sexton is also a genius. A player who is still clearly, visibly, nursing a leg injury, he controlled Saturday’s match like a general directing infantry, cavalry, and artillery all at the same time. By that standard, Sean O’Brien is also a genius. Back from a long lay-off through injury, he ran, passed, tackled, and scored as if he was there for the fun of it.

There were many more who passed that test on Saturday. The problem is — if the word genius applies to them, what word applies to Paul O’Connell?

Everyone involved with the Irish team has said that it was O’Connell who fashioned the approach the Ireland team took. It was he who set about lifting himself and his colleagues after a disappointment the previous weekend. It was he who made them feel they could do what needed to be done. And then, on the field of play, it was he who led from the front. I just don’t know what the word for all that is.

I drove to Cork before the match against Scotland on Saturday. When I left Dublin, Ireland needed a small number of points to surpass England. By the time I got to Cork, Wales had passed them both out. Two hours later, Ireland had set England what looked like (and turned out, after further agony, to be) an impossible task. O’Connell and his team delivered. Genius — and whatever additional magic O’Connell brings to bear — did what it must.

I had calmed down when I read in one of Sunday’s newspapers that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was calling for the introduction of a conscience clause in legislation, apparently to allow anyone to refuse to carry out a law that offends their conscience. Priests, he was quoted as saying, would not be required under law to solemnise gay marriages — so what about the citizen in the same situation?

To be honest, I’m relying on the newspaper quote, because it’s not in the speech he made, which was delivered to the Iona Institute at the weekend. Neither is it in the press release issued by the Institute, which does quote the Archbishop thus: “In question time afterwards, Archbishop Martin was asked about the conscience rights of Christians, such as photographers, printers and bakers, who do not believe in same-sex marriage. Archbishop Martin described freedom of conscience and religion as one of the most ‘fundamental’ of all human rights. He said politics must respect freedom of conscience.”

I agree with that principle. The application of the party whip, in situations where there is a matter of conscience, should end, once and for all.

In fact, it’s long past the time when the whip system should have been fundamentally reformed. We’re one of the only jurisdictions in the world where governments use the whip as a matter of convenience, as opposed to survival.

But that’s a million miles removed from arguing that citizens should have the freedom to ignore the law, by claiming conscience as a defence. Where does that end? Would it allow shops to refuse customers on the basis of their colour, pubs to refuse admission on the basis of ethnicity, schools to discriminate against teachers on the basis of sexuality?

If Archbishop Martin did really argue for a generalised conscience clause to be enshrined in law, he was arguing for the right to discriminate.

I’m hoping that either he didn’t say what he was quoted as saying, or it was just an ill-considered throwaway remark in answer to a question.

He said all sorts of interesting things in the speech (at least in the speaking notes issued by the Archdiocese). At first glance, they seem pretty hard-line.

But, actually, when you read the speech it doesn’t quite warrant the billing given to it by the Iona Institute. Nowhere does he say that people should vote ‘no’ in the referendum.

He quotes Pope Francis extensively, especially in regard to the need for open and honest debate about the family. He quotes the analysis of the recent Synod, and sums it up as saying that “the perfect family rarely exists. All over the world families struggle. Families struggle due to poverty, unemployment and marginalisation … the perfect family rarely exists, but in the midst of great challenges, great families exist and struggle and contribute to building up and sustaining society.”

But here’s the thing. Marriage matters, Archbishop Martin says again and again. The Christian marriage, he says, is one that is open to procreation. The subtext appears to be, in terms of a message to same-sex couples — marriage matters. That’s why you can’t have it.

Unlike some of his colleagues, however, Archbishop Martin at no point says that same-sex couples can’t be parents, or that children raised by same-sex couples aren’t the children of loving parents. Indeed, in what might (or might not!) be a reference to remarks by Bishop Kevin Doran, he goes to considerable lengths, at the end of his speech, to refer to language from the ‘no’ side that he refers to as not just intemperate, but “obnoxious, insulting and unchristian in regard to gay and lesbian people”.

I don’t want to give the impression that Archbishop Martin is actually, in some coded fashion, calling for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.

He sets out clearly his own definition of what he calls a Christian marriage, and refers to the uniqueness, as he sees it, of the male-female relationship.

But, he says: “An ethics of equality does not require uniformity. There can be an ethic of equality which is an ethic of recognising and respecting difference.” Archbishop Martin knows full well that we have always insisted on uniformity in our marriage laws. He knows that we have always failed to recognise and respect difference. He knows that “ethics of equality” have seldom been a guiding principle in Irish law.

The primary argument for a ‘yes’ vote is that people have the right to have difference recognised and respected.

In his intelligent and thoughtful speech, while setting out his own views Archbishop Martin is implicitly — actually explicitly — recognising the right of others, after careful consideration, to go a different way. In the end, careful consideration is all he is calling for. How could anyone regard that as a bad thing?

Citizens should have the freedom to ignore the law by claiming conscience? Where does that end?

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