By David Mullins
Let us imagine for a moment that An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was invited to a meeting with the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The point of this meeting is to discuss how they can urge all citizens to engage in the European political debate and to vote with responsibility to protect and promote the common good.
Now let us imagine that during the course of that hypothetical meeting, the Taoiseach is reported to have made the following remarks: “I am a fervent advocate of the social doctrine of the Church. It is one of the most noble teachings of our Church. All of this is part of a doctrine that Europe does not apply often enough. I would like us to rediscover the values and guiding principles of the social teaching of the Church”.
Needless to say, few words could be more calculated to raise the hackles of the Irish political commentariat; or for that matter, the vast majority of the Irish political class. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to imagine the howls of scandalised outrage that would ensue, as conspiratorial fears about a threatened dissolution of the Church-State divide fill the airwaves.
Fortunately for all those ‘progressives’ among us who are currently running for the smelling salts; no sentiments of this kind are ever likely to be spoken by the Taoiseach or indeed any political leader in this State for some considerable time to come.
The above words were actually uttered, and by someone who is far more important than our Taoiseach, namely Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission.
He said them yesterday on the occasion of the 2019 Spring Assembly of the Bishops of the European Union.
President Juncker’s freedom and willingness to make these kinds of remarks about Catholic social teaching is all the more striking when you compare it to the suffocating existential dread that haunts our own political class when it comes to all things Church.
The de facto position here is to give a few nods to the Church’s ongoing charitable service before getting down to the real business of energetic, highly moralised political finger wagging. The fact that our own politicians fail to apply a properly discriminating and just analysis to the Church’s message highlights the poverty at the heart of our own political discourse.
It is of course true to say that since 2007 a process of structured dialogue between Government, Churches and faith communities has been in place, even it is only very rarely occurs. What this obscures, however, is the degree to which the State has offered these meetings as some kind of concession, instead of a genuinely collaborative and vitally necessary social partnership.
For a hint of why a healthy relationship between Church and State is vital and why it is not just some optional add on, we need only consider the question posed by Ernst Wolfgang Bockenforde, who was once a member of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court: “Does the free, secularised State exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee?”
Again, President Juncker’s remarks point toward a welcome recognition that we need to engage with this type of question; an engagement that is so sorely lacking within the Irish political context. What we have instead committed ourselves to is a series of political fictions which seek to either erase or distort the authentic root of ‘European values’ i.e, the Christian faith.
This is what Joseph Ratzinger alluded to when he said: “The affirmation that the mention of the Christian roots of Europe injures the sentiments of many non-Christians who are in Europe, is not very convincing, given that it relates, first of all, to an historical fact that no one can seriously deny.”
Yet deny it we do.