23/10/2011 Marriage and the Common Good

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Speaking notes of Archbishop Martin on Marriage and the Common Good, Iona Institute, Davenport Hotel, Dublin, 25th October 2011


I was invited here this evening, I imagine, because I am a Catholic bishop.  As Archbishop of Dublin I have a special responsibility to foster marriage within the Christian community.  I have responsibility to promote and support for marriage, as a social institution and as a sacrament of the Church.


I would not be honest if I did not say that the support the Church in Ireland provides to married couples and to families is still inadequate.  When I compare it with the investment that the Church places in schools and formal education, there is not nearly the same level of support and investment to help spouses to live their married lives faithfully and in a fulfilled manner and to support parents in their task as the primary educators of their children, and as the primary religious educators of their children.   Indeed in many ways Catholic schools at times supplanted the role of parents and parents at times were happy to leave it all to the school.


The Archdiocese of Dublin through “Accord-Dublin” provides marriage preparation courses and counselling services and educational programmes in schools.  It is interesting to hear from the evaluation reports of those who attend pre-marriage courses that there is a growing satisfaction with and appreciation of their religious and theological content.  It is important that Accord’s marriage preparation courses can be deepened and that Accord strengthens its ecclesial function and that the Christian community supports the Accord’s work in marriage preparation and support.


Once people are married, however, there is a lacuna.  There are few courses or programmes of marriage enrichment.  There is sadly a certain reticence among Irish men and women to get involved in formal discussion with others about the quality of their married life, until often it is too late.   Rarely do we hear homilies which stress the vocation – and the difficulties – of married couples.  If I look on the shelves of Catholic bookshops dedicated to catechesis, there is a great deal about catechesis in the school, but very little that I could usefully hand to parents to help them in their vocation as spouses and parents.


When I became Archbishop of Dublin I was surprised at the numbers of letters I received concerning dispensations for mixed marriages.  These letters to me set a process in motion by which a dispensation was granted and communicated to the priest who was preparing the couple for marriage.  The couple however got no response from the Archbishop.  I decided not just to respond to the letters but to send each couple a prayer book which might be of use to them and provide them some inspiration in their married life together.  The problem is that nowhere could I find a prayer book specifically designed for newly married couples.   


Looking at some of the statistics published by the Iona Institute I can see that the intervention of the Church in fostering marriage should address in particular the finding that marriage breakdown occurs mainly in urban areas and in area strongly associated with social deprivation.  Many of the structures of the Catholic Church in Dublin are more amenable to the middle classes and I hope that our pastoral structures might re-focus on supporting marriage in areas of social deprivation, where almost by definition the protection of children of broken marriages may most challenging.  Public policy should urgently address those social conditions which endanger the stability of marriage, causing suffering to the spouses, children and their and society.


Marriage is an essential pillar of the Christian life and of the life of the Church.   Marriage is a sacrament, not just on the day of the wedding, but it is a sacrament which – like every other sacrament – is given for the building up of the Church.  It confers a mission on the married couple and accompanies the couple on their path together with a special grace. It confers a mission on the couple not just regarding their own relationship or their role as parents, but a mission within the life of the Church.   In a Church whose priests clergy are celibate, the Christian witness of the married needs to find greater expression.


To understand the sacrament of marriage we have to look at its biblical roots.  The relationship between God and his people is presented in nuptial terms.  The relationship between Christ and the Church is again presented in nuptial terms.  This goes back to an understanding of who God is.  God is not a distant God or a detached law maker.  God is love and therefore our relationship with God is one that is characterised by his love for us and our response to him must be through love.  The love of married coupes reflects the love that God has for us and therefore leads us in a unique way to understand who God is.  In marriage God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.


The newness in its time of the biblical teaching on marriage reflected the emergence of a monotheistic understanding of God, different to the God’s of the pagans:  the oneness of God is at the root of the unity of marriage; the fidelity of God to his people is at the root of marital fidelity.  Marriage in the Christian tradition involves life-long, loving fidelity. Life-long fidelity in marriage is not just a religious value, but also a fundamental value for society.  There is a real sense in which the healthy state of family life and love influences the well-being of all individuals and society.  Marital love is not closed in on itself; it reaches out to enrich the lives of children and even to wider society.


As I said in my opening remarks, I was invited here to speak as a Church leader, as a Catholic bishop.  Perhaps there are some who have come this evening hoping to hear me speak about other matters and not so much about Catholic theology.  The title of my talk is “Marriage and the Common Good”.  The common good, it will be said, is something that applies to all and is the responsibility of all and not a monopoly of believers.


Some will ask: what right have I to speak about the common good as it applies to people who do not share in my belief?  Who decides what the common good is about in a pluralist society?  In a pluralist society has religious faith any contribution to make to foster the culture of marriage and family life in society, or should believers just keep quiet and allow the common good be decided by polls of public opinion, by majorities or by referendums?  Some will say that since society is changing the common good must simply keep pace with that change.


There is a tendency in our Western societies to reduce religious faith to being a purely private matter. Certainly there is no way in which we as believers can or even should attempt to impose our religious views on others.  Faith must be a free act of the person.   There is also a real distinction between faith and politics which must be respected.  To deny that would give rise to integralism and fundamentalism and to false utopias.  But this does not mean that religious faith has no relevance for the building up of society.


Jesus’ truth has to be lived by us, his followers, in the real world which surrounds us and where it will not always be easy to see where the truth lies.  We live today in a society which is clearly much more pluralist than that of past years.  Pluralism is not the same as secularism, but in today’s Ireland we live our faith in a society where pluralism involves a real encounter and at times even confrontation with secularism.


Societies like our own where faith and the Christian life once flourished and faith communities were strong are now undergoing a far-reaching transformation.   One can talk in today’s world not so much about a situation in which people are torn between two realities, one God’s and the other Caesar’s, but of a world in which in many ways the reality of God is slowly being eclipsed and men and women live their lives as if God does not exist.  It is not so much an atmosphere of hostility towards faith, but an attitude of indifference or one which tolerates a presence for God in the private lives of individuals but much less within the realities of our society. 


Our Western societies are marked by a loss of the sense of God and of the sacred.  At times this loss of the sacred encroaches also into the life of the Church and of our faith.  Some of the very foundations of our faith are challenged: the existence of a God who cares for us; the realization that Jesus Christ is the one Saviour; a common understanding of what it is to be a human person and of the fundamental common ethical principles which should guide our coexistence.


In such a situation there is the danger that men and women of faith also develop a fear of witnessing to their faith in the structures of society, a fear of somehow offending others or of offending pluralism and thus in their own way they contribute to the privatisation of faith.


Where then is the place for God in today’s society?  How do we who believe in God see our role within a modern pluralist society?  How do we translate the language of our contribution to building our future from a language which springs from our faith into the language of reason and dialogue, without loosing its originality?


In his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est Pope Benedict repeats on more than one occasion that it is not the task of the Church to create the most just society possible; that, the Pope says, is the task of politics. The Pope’s expression surprised some in the Church, both on the left and on the right. It is curiously a strong endorsement of the role and the vocation of politics and of the responsibility of politicians.  Politics is not just about laws and norms.  The Church tradition speaks about the legitimate autonomy of the secular sphere but it also stresses that the Church cannot be absent from reflection on the good of society.


Society changes and change in recent years has been particularly rapid.  Each generation of Christians has to look anew at what the just ordering of society means. There will never be a time in history which does not require discernment and purification of the ideology of the day.  What we call human progress is marked by a fundamental ambiguity.  Pope Benedict illustrates this ambiguity, by noting: “Without doubt, “progress” offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil – possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world” (Spe Salvi, 22).


Every generation then is called to this task of discerning progress.  Today, for example, one can see that our culture places a sort of ecological mortgage on all scientific and industrial progress. Progress is judged in terms of its effects on the environment.  In its way also economic progress is evaluated not just in terms of growth and profit, but also on its social effects. Environmental and social sustainability are terms which belong to our vocabulary of discerning and evaluating “progress”. 


Too seldom do we look at what might be called “ethical sustainability”: the responsibility of passing on from generation to generation structures and values which will enable future generations to use freedom responsibly.  This responsibility is much more complex in that such “ethical sustainability” is quantifiable in a different manner to economic or environmental sustainability. Indeed this kind of “ethical sustainability” will not be achieved simply by structures but by the way people live their lives.   A just society will be attained and passed on to the next generation only by people living justly; a caring society will be attained and transmitted only by people who know what caring means and costs and who are prepared to live as caring people.


There is a real distinction between faith and politics.  But politics and the creation of the just society are not exclusively the task of the State.  Caesar is not God.  The equation of political life with the State alone would lead to totalitarianism.  The values which underlie any State must find their roots in the truth and in the participation of all, each bringing the values which inspire their lives, including those which derive from their faith.


The challenge for the Christian of separating what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is not easy in our changing society in Ireland today.  The Christian can never and never should identify himself or herself with any ideology of the day, but must bring a discernment which springs from values which transcend politics and complement the values of society, especially that great value of love, of Christian love which calls us to self-giving and sharing, rather than to a culture of celebrity and of having and possessing.  The Christian lives in the world and the culture of his or her day, but must also be able to rise above the ideologies of the day.


“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”, we read in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.    The reference to the family is particular; it is inserted within a seminal document in which rights are generally expressed in terms of the individual and responsibilities are expressed in terms of the State.    Why is the family given such a prominence and a unique status in the Universal Declaration as a non-individual subject of rights?   Observing much of the social reflection in today’s Irish society one would tend to feel that the fundamental unit of society is not the family, but the individual.   For many in our society the individual’s freedom must be protected from any form of social or political or cultural or religious pressures which do not allow the individual to fully express his or her identity. 
In such a culture – common to Western societies – there is inevitably a tendency to relativise the role of the family.  There are discussions in Ireland about establishing the rights of the child more firmly in our Constitution – a valid concern – and this is at times presented in terms of a clash between the role of the family and the rights of the child.  Yet the thought of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is family friendly: “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”
Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child stress not just the importance of the family but also the responsibilities of the State to support the family.   Why this emphasis on the family?   Does it simply reflect an outdated value system of another time?  I imagine that one of the reasons for this stress was the fact that the Universal Declaration was published just after the calamitous experience of the Second World War and of the totalitarian States which gave rise to it.  It was seen that a healthy society, able to stand up to totalitarianisms, needs strong families as a buffer within which values can be maintained and safeguarded and transmitted.
The inherent tension between the rights of the child and the rights and responsibilities of the family will remain whatever the Constitutional provisions.  Decisions made in the best interests of the child will not always be easy to determine.    The successful resolution of these tensions between the respective rights of the child and the family depends on the resolution of another tension: the tension between the rights of the family and the role of the State.  This is a complex reality and one which takes place in a climate where the pendulum swings from one focus to another.  One can understand that in today’s Ireland where the role of the Church in delivering social and educational services had become so dominant, that the pendulum will now swing in the direction of the State wishing to assume the responsibility for providing a wide variety of services directly. But the record of services provided directly by the State is rarely a good one.  It works well only in very specific situations.


        The State however is not society; it is part of society; it is a function within society.  Society to be effective requires participation.  It requires that the subjectivity of society be made real by the active participation of its citizens as subjects and not just as objects of policies and entitlements.   Where that subjectivity of society is supplanted by the State then not only do the services that the State provides become less efficient and less truly person-centered, but the overall initiative of society is weakened.


        In what way then should we expect the State to support the family?  Love and fidelity are at the essence of marriage and are also fundamental values for society.  The State cannot but be a supporter of that love and that fidelity which couples bring to the human and ethical enrichment of society and which are vital contributions the stability of society.   Yet a society with a dominant individualistic inspiration will find it very difficult unquestionably to support marital fidelity, a term that cannot be understood within an individualistic philosophy alone, because by its nature it implies mutuality.   The danger is that the State and public opinion will distance themselves from fostering such values because these values are not realized by everyone in society.  It is the same fear of offending pluralism about which I spoke earlier that is at work.


The same can happen in the Church.  I have faced objections to celebrating the anniversaries of weddings because it would exclude those whose marriage had broken down.  The fact that some marriages sadly fail can become a politically correct reason for not celebrating what marriage really aims at and towards which we should be educating our young people.   Believers must learn a language which enables them to celebrate their ideals but not in terms which appear negative and judgmental towards those who fail to reach those ideals.  God has always remained faithful even to those who failed humanly in the call to fidelity.


        At the very beginnings of the Bible – “In the beginning” – the text stresses the particular significance within the process of creation of the relationship between men and women.  We read in the Book of Genesis:
 “God created man in the image of himself,
  in the image of God he created him,
  male and female he created them”.
This biblical formulation stresses a fundamental dimension of our being human and of our dignity as created in God’s image.   God’s image is somehow revealed not just in our individual dignity but in the mutuality of the relationship between men and women.   God created us not as isolated individuals but also as a “them”.  The mutuality of man and woman belongs to the essence of our being.


The challenge for our societies today is to recognize the uniqueness and the originality of this relationship between a man and a woman, while not overlooking the fundamental dignity of all people.   Where this is not achieved then the centrality of the relationship between a man and women in marriage is left to be an option. The fundamental difference and mutuality of the relationship between a man and woman is reduced to a social construct.


Marriage is an institution which has true resilience.  It has faced crises and changes in the past.  It has existed as an institution in society long before the State.  It attains its own survival – almost as in a pattern of evolution – because it is about something fundamental: having children, caring for them and sustaining them.


There is much discussion today about the redefinition of marriage.  One of the problems is that what we have inherited in recent times is not necessarily a true image of marriage.  Individualism has entered so much into our definition of marriage that we have created a narrow concept of the nuclear family which has nothing of the richness of the real traditional family.  Family is not just nuclear, but extended and intergenerational.  The family is an agent of solidarity and of the transmission of values and cultures. Redefining marriage in a culture of individualism can easily lead to a further emptying of what is original in the family.


We have to restore confidence in marriage and the family.  We have to re-discover the true notion of love, which is always self-giving.  We have to open our young people to the fact that self-giving becomes fulfilling and life giving, while self-centeredness only leads to narcissism and self-destruction.


Those of us who are believers have to be in the vanguard in that renewal and in promotion of what the family really means.  We have to be courageous in promoting the ideal of marriage.  We have to be pragmatic too, knowing that the ideal family only lives in films, but knowing also that renouncing ideals only leads us to being satisfied with what is second best.   Marriage is too important to allow it to be lived below its full potential.  We owe it to our young people to help them achieve their dreams of a happy marriage and the family.  Love and fidelity are part of the backbone of fruitful human interaction.  We owe it to society and to the common good to see that the love and fidelity of marriage can find a truly enabling social environment to allow them to flourish.