GERARD HOWLIN: Gathering comes at a critical time in development of Irish society

Pope Francis is sending the next World Meeting of Families to Dublin in 2018. It is the largest Catholic gathering of families globally and, it meets every three years. The Pope may come too. It will be a great coming-together of Catholic families and potentially a culture clash., writes Gerard Howlin. 

At the very least it will be an intense conversation on the meaning of family, of church and of Irish identity.

The Oireachtas will pass the Marriage Bill 2015 into law within weeks. Enacted, it will give effect to the equal marriage referendum. Ireland led the world, becoming the first country to enable same-sex marriage by amending its constitution by popular vote. In the process Irish identity was partially reimagined.

Gathering comes at a critical time in development of Irish society

Last weekend as the Pope led Catholic families in Philadelphia, bishops here hosted a National Eucharistic Congress in Knock. More than 4,000 people attended on each of two days. In another Ireland about 4,000 people attended a pro-choice rally on Merrion Square to repeal the pro-life 8th amendment to the Constitution. The Labour Party has made repealing the 8th amendment central to its electoral pitch. So have others. For a pope determined to reach out to the peripheries, Ireland self-selects. Once a bastion of Catholicism, it is now a cold house on the very edge of what culturally can be considered Christendom.

The papal announcement on Sunday at a Mass for more than a million, reminded me of the only Mass for one million I attended, in the Phoenix Park in September 1979. It was the largest gathering of Irish people ever. Crowds walked for miles through the dark in the early hours of the morning towards the park. Nearly every house was decorated with the papal colours and Pope John Paul’s picture was everywhere. Three generations of my family went together.

An enormous aeroplane, or the biggest I had ever seen so low, circled over the million people below as the Pope flew into Dublin airport. And then he appeared, the first pope on Irish soil, kneeling to kiss the ground. The Holy Father saluted “Hibernia semper fidelis” – Ireland always faithful. In a state whose unofficial anthems were A Nation Once Again and Faith of our Fathers, it seemed like a culmination. In fact it was anything but. In hindsight it was a moment of rupture, all the more misunderstood then, because it was interpreted through the patina of inherited thought patterns. It is unlikely Pope Francis will attempt any restoration of what went before. His mission is renewal. There is a difference and it will come at a critical time in the development of Irish society.

Gathering comes at a critical time in development of Irish society

The decision to pick Dublin for the Catholic families’ meeting, we are told, is the Pope’s personally. The themes of family and reaching out to the periphery of society are pillars of his papacy. Next week the Synod of Bishops meets in Rome, following last year’s extraordinary and controversial synod. Our own continuing debate in Ireland, the Pope’s personal decision to pick Dublin as the location of the next World Meeting of Families and the second synod in as many years on the family, are part of a bigger picture, involving not only intense debate here, but some discord within the Catholic Church globally.

That wider, specifically Catholic debate, is taking place amidst two waves of extraordinary change. One is the continuing secularisation of the West and the other is a politicisation of radical Islam. Just as one part of the world’s liberal and secular values reach new heights of hegemony, in another all it stands for is viscerally and often violently rebuffed. The culture wars begun with the Enlightenment and French Revolution are far from over; they are intensifying and changing. History is not over and neither is religion. Secularism has no cause for complacency.

The specifically Irish context, if parochial, is important for us. The last papal visit spurred the pro-life movement to deliver constitutional protection for the unborn. It was delivered in 1981-83 in the context of the unprecedented political flux of three elections in 18 months. Gathering momentum to repeal the 8th amendment may similarly coincide with political flux on a scale not seen since then, and a papal visit. If then we were still solidly part of the Catholic world, now we are not. Even if nearly lost, it seems we are not forgotten by the Pope.

That Francis has chosen a country which was the setting of the most scarifying, self-inflicted humiliation of its own clergy anywhere in centuries, as the place he wishes to preach on the family says something for the decisiveness and fervour of the man. His choice of Dublin, which only recently celebrated a successful referendum for same-sex marriage, is pointed and has a wider significance. If he arrives, he will be speaking in Dublin, but addressing the world.

Gathering comes at a critical time in development of Irish society

The coming weeks, and the outcome on the Synod on the Family, will be extraordinarily important. What of Catholics who are remarried, and what of gays? At the heart of the dialogue within the Church, exampled in the discord of last year’s synod, is whether Christianity is an evolutionary view of the world, learning from, and adapting to, history or whether it is changeless truth, outside of history. On that blunt, over simplification depends the extent to which dogma can be accommodated to life, or life must be accommodated to dogma.

In purely historical terms, the cultural change of same-sex marriage is essentially a conservative departure. This equally discomforts its most strident advocates and opponents but, is intuitively better understood by many who voted for it. The modern campaign was first, decisively articulated by Andrew Sullivan in a 1989 New Republic article, Here Comes the Groom: A (conservative) case for gay marriage. Sullivan argued that since homosexuality will no longer be prosecuted, gays must be included in straight society. Gay marriage would strengthen what was essentially a conservative institution, as well as families. Having given up on persecution, the only rational option left was equality.

So who exactly is on the periphery? What is the mercy Francis pleads for, and for who? The three years between his closure of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and its arrival here in 2018 will be immensely important for either the evolution, or the reaffirmation of catholic teaching. There is a culture war within the Church, just as there is without. Similarly a full scale political reengagement here on the issue of abortion is imminent. Irish identity as fixed, and specifically catholic, was a 19th century construct, sundered by the end of the 20th century. Now our identity and ideas are a melting pot, in which Catholicism must compete for attention and relevance. In hindsight a visit by Pope Francis will be seen as either the renewal of Irish Catholicism, or its codicil.

It is unlikely Pope Francis will attempt any restoration of what went before. His mission is renewal

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