Lessons for the Church from this Referendum

There are a couple of urgent lessons that the Church authorities need to learn from the experience of the past few weeks, and the result of yesterday’s vote.

The day of doctrinaire Catholicism is over in this country. The people are no longer willing to listen to speeches and sermons on morality from the Church. Some might see this as a bad situation, but I would regard it as a time of wonderful opportunity for the Church, if they can recognise it, and learn how to present the fundamental Christian message.
For most of the past century the bishops in Ireland, with the help of many of the clergy, hammered home a message on relationships and sexuality which was too negative and life-denying. Forty years ago, when I first started giving school retreats, the young people told us they were tired of the Church always saying NO when it came to anything to do with sex. And once again, in this referendum, they were saying NO. Except that now, as the vote clearly shows, the people are not listening. What was particularly sad was to see the bishops in total opposition to a mass movement of the younger generation. The very people whom the Church should be trying to listen to, and trying to learn a way of communicating effectively with, were the ones they were driving further away with all their pastorals in each diocese.
We need a period of at least a generation, when the Church authorities says nothing about sex. Then they will have a chance to speak about the far more basic aspects of the Christian message — love, forgiveness, mercy, compassion — and have a chance of being heard. Francis is showing the way; we must all follow, if we have any hope of making the Gospel message relevant again.

I listened to Diarmaid this evening, when the result had been announced. All I can say is that it is a pity he didn’t say what he was saying this evening before the vote. It would have helped greatly. Instead, as he admitted, he allowed himself to be bullied by the extreme conservative Catholic papers into adopting the same rigid line as the other bishops. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable with it, but to me he showed great weakness in not standing up for what he really believed.

The only type of Church that has a chance of surviving and thriving in this country is a Church that is open and welcoming. I hope and pray that we in the Catholic Church will learn the lesson of these last days and weeks, and stop passing judgment on people. Instead, let us do a simple and basic thing, let us reach out to everyone, listen to their story and have boundless compassion for them in their human struggles. That is the way in which we will bring God alive in this world.