Gary Dunne examines the downfall of the Church as a moral yardstick for Irish society and asks what might take its place in evaluating right and wrong
In recent weeks, Pope Benedict XVI has courted controversy by opposing an equality bill in the United Kingdom. The Pope believes that the bill, which ensures discrimination is not a factor in people being refused employment, goes against “natural law”. He urged UK bishops to defend their faith and to ensure the Catholic Church’s moral teachings remain. Various humanist bodies, such as the National Secular Society, reacted angrily to this news. However, the question remains: how relevant is the Pope to today’s world? To what extent does the average citizen still pay attention to the latest offerings from the Vatican?
The teachings of the Catholic Church do not seem to be followed by the average young person today. Colleges around Ireland are not filled with pious students, carefully acting according to papal wishes. Is this a change for good or ill? Will society slowly decay without the moral preaching of Rome? On the other hand, is society heading towards a more equitable existence, one where simply loving the person you want is not deemed an abominable offence?
Hypocrisy can be seen in many areas of church teaching. While forgiveness and openness are said to be core functions of Catholicism, there does not seem to be much of that shown by Benedict XVI towards those who do not follow canon law to the letter. Gay? Forget about it. African and use a condom? Immoral to the core. The man dubbed the “defender of the faith” in his earlier life sees no grey areas in life: either you follow the Church’s teachings or you are wrong.
Seemingly somebody who falls in love with someone of the same gender and wants to live their life with that person, is abominable. For a religion based on the actions of a man who taught his followers forgiveness and love, whether you had leprosy or were (gasp!) a tax collector, this intolerance seems to go against core Christian aims. Many have pointed out the obvious issue of a Pope who wants the world to lead restrained lives, free from excess whilst living in the most opulent, extravagant space in the world. Whilst the Irish taxpayer foots the bill for the abuse scandals, the Vatican retains its vast collection of priceless artwork.
The abuse scandals have had a crippling effect on the Vatican. Like Adam and Eve when they tasted the apple, we have all gained knowledge that means there is no return to a past existence. People today, especially those under 30, cannot view the Church as the moral core of society. After all, what is worse – two people from the same gender in a loving relationship, or a child being abused by a priest? Students of today have grown up seeing the Catholic Church as either a source of comedy (Father Ted et al) or as a source of unforgiveable crimes. How can a man that is in control of an organisation that has committed some of the most horrendous deeds imaginable to children be taken seriously when he lectures society on its moral failings?
Today’s students are not in awe of their local priest. The days of having the parish priest as a prized reference on a CV are long gone, and a picture of the Pope does not have pride of place in too many homes today. In his place are pictures of graduations, weddings and every other form of personal, familial photo. Instead of venerating a faraway man in robes, family takes pride of place.
Family leads to an area that is mentioned when the end of religious relevancy is spoken about. A lack of a guiding moral compass for society may be a downside. While it is to be celebrated that a foundation that preaches intolerance no longer shapes our social mores, what has – or will – take its place?
The church may have serious flaws, but at the heart of religion are simple values that are desirable in life. Basic Christian beliefs would lead to a better life. The world would be better if everybody practiced love and forgiveness and religion is an excellent means to instil these values in society. Many argue that the negatives associated with students today have arisen due to growing up in a valueless society. Religious devotion has been replaced by clothes, TV, movies, sport and every other pleasurable activity imaginable. This is not to say that people enjoying themselves is negative, just that extreme over-indulgence is not good for society either.
However, it is difficult to see the church regaining the relevancy it once held in the lives of Catholic people; indeed, all religions in the Western world are suffering. The past twenty years have seen an irrevocable shift in attitudes. Students of today have less and less contact with the church. The fall from relevancy can only decrease further unless serious changes happen within the Vatican.