DUBLIN — This month’s World Meeting of Families in Ireland takes place exactly 50 years since Blessed Paul VI promulgated his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae, restating the Church’s traditional teaching that all sexual acts should be open to life and therefore artificial means of contraception should remain a “no-go” for Catholics.
And it’s a very different country that will greet Pope Francis and the other World Meeting of Family participants this month than the bastion of Catholic faith that responded positively to Paul VI’s prophetic call.
At the time of the encyclical’s release in 1968, a hastily arranged news conference was called at the Irish national seminary, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Dissent was in the air, and many of the priest-theologians on staff and seminarians had been calling for a new departure.
Enter Msgr. P.F. Cremin, professor of moral theology. He held the Latin text of the document aloft for the assembled journalists and summarized it with the immortal words “no change.”
The rejection of Humanae Vitae by many Catholics in the Western world ushered in a new era of rebellion in the Church. It was not so in Ireland.
While many Catholics did reject the teaching and some priests railed against it, the government saw the encyclical as an endorsement of Ireland’s legal ban on contraception. Six years afterward, in 1974, Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave voted with the opposition to defeat his own government’s proposed lifting of the ban on contraception. It would be 1978 before the law was changed and contraception became widely available.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the country’s Minister for Health Simon Harris took to Twitter Aug. 5 to opine “please just make it stop!” in response to comments marking the Humanae Vitae anniversary by Bishop Kevin Doran of Elohim advocating that the Church should do more to promote the teaching of the papal encyclical on the regulation of birth among Catholics.
“Religion plays an important role for many on an individual basis — but it will not determine health and social policy in our country anymore,” Harris declared in his tweet.
‘At War With Its Past’
“Put simply, Ireland is at war with its past,” said David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute and a veteran of political campaigns on issues such as same-sex “marriage” and abortion.
“We live in truly extraordinary times,” Quinn said. “A conference on Humanae Vitae is addressed by a bishop, and there is an immediate negative response on social media from no less a figure than our health minister.”
For Quinn, it is symptomatic of a wider trend in contemporary Irish society.
“What we are seeing in this small incident is more evidence of a growing intolerance toward any Catholic teaching that clashes in any way with the secular, liberal view of untrammeled sexual freedom,” he told the Register.
That’s the climate Pope Francis is expected to encounter. The Holy Father is due in Ireland Aug. 25-26 for a whistle-stop tour that will take in the capital of Dublin and the site of the 1879 Marian apparitions at Knock, in the west of Ireland. Francis will preside at the conclusion of the Aug. 21-26 World Meeting of Families, an event that began in 1994 when St. John Paul II asked the Vatican to establish an international encounter of prayer, catechesis and celebration that would draw participants from around the globe and that would help to strengthen the bonds between families and bear witness to the crucial importance of marriage and the family to all of society.
If one wanted to choose a more potent interface between the Church and contemporary Western thinking on the family, it would be hard to find a place to compete with Ireland.
After centuries of persecution, where Catholicism was strictly restricted and often outlawed under brutal British rule, Ireland emerged in the 1920s as one of the proudest bearers of the ancient faith. Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini — later Pope Paul VI — told officials visiting from Ireland in 1945 that “you are the most Catholic country in the world!”
For decades, Ireland stood seemingly alone against the tide of secularism that has overwhelmed the once deeply embedded Catholic cultures of other Western countries. But in recent years, Irish voters have backed by a huge margin referenda on same-sex “marriage” and abortion.
The country has now adopted some of the most radical policies in the world when it comes to gender ideology. Add to this the fact that the openly homosexual Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said he will use his meeting with Francis later this month to challenge the Church on same-sex “marriage,” and it makes the Pope’s trip a high-wire act.
Varadkar is not alone in challenging the Holy Father.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, also a practicing homosexual, was one of the leading voices calling for wider access to abortion earlier this year. She has said she will challenge the Pope on women’s ordination to the priesthood. Add to that the fact that Culture Minister Josepha Madigan — a pro-abortion-rights member of the baptism team in her local Catholic parish — has said she will press the Holy Father to relax rules around mandatory celibacy for priests.
When the papal plane touches down in Dublin, Francis’ top aides might be very grateful that he does not speak English, but they seem unfazed. According to Cardinal Kevin Farrell — the Dublin-born cleric and former bishop of Dallas chosen by Pope Francis to head up the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life — it is no coincidence that the event is coming to Ireland.
The cardinal was in Dublin Aug. 6 to look over final preparations. Speaking there at a news conference, he said that the Pope told him it was Ireland’s missionary history that had inspired him to choose the country for the global gathering.
According to Cardinal Farrell, “We need, Pope Francis said, to ensure that they [the Irish] be part of the revolution of promoting once again marriage and family life in our world today.”
Cardinal Farrell said Francis views the situation in Northern Europe as drastic and believes action is needed to address it. “That’s why he chose Ireland to be the center of the next gathering of families,” he added.
The cardinal insisted that Pope Francis is under no illusions about how family life in Ireland is changing in line with the rest of Europe.
“He understands that — he doesn’t think that Ireland is some miracle,” Cardinal Farrell said. “Nobody thinks that, but he thinks there’s a great spirit in the Irish people, of giving of themselves to others and of taking leadership roles, and I think he would hope that Ireland would solve Ireland’s problems first. I think that’s the way that you project a positive message: You resolve your own issues.”
“I believe he [Pope Francis] realizes, like everybody realizes, the problems that the whole world is facing, and he realizes the problems that you’re faced with,” he said.
How World Meeting of Families 2018 will address these issues of secularization remains a sticking point. One of the lightning rods has been the issue of Catholics who identify as “LGBT.”
Former President Mary McAleese, who is a Catholic but has been a staunch critic of the Church and has a same-sex-attracted son, says she is boycotting the event because she does not believe it is welcoming to people like her son (though she has not been invited).
Organizers dispute this, and the inclusion of Jesuit Father James Martin, whose recent book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity has been criticized for not communicating Church teachings adequately, as a keynote speaker has sparked criticism that the event is actually too accommodating to gender ideologues. A large body of opinion does not want Father Martin to attend.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the primate of all Ireland, commented at an Aug. 1 news conference that “the World Meeting of Families is a gathering of people to whom everyone is welcome. I know the families who are going there would be the last to say that they are perfect in any way.”
“Even in terms of living up to the teaching of the Church, we all struggle in that,” he said. “As a bishop I struggle in that. I’m welcome, I hope, at the World Meeting of Families, but so is everyone where they are at in their particular journey of faith.”
However, Archbishop Martin also insisted that there would be no watering down of Church teachings that some people find unpalatable.
“It’s also a Catholic event; the World Meeting of Families is an event of the Catholic Church. So I don’t think we make any apologies for the fact that the Catholic Church has a very clear teaching on marriage and the family,” he said.
But it is precisely this concern that many orthodox Catholics are articulating. “The World Meeting of Families should be welcoming to everyone, but it should be unapologetic about the Church’s vision of the family,” Quinn said. “Anything less than that is cheap grace.”
“A lot of people are crying out for the renewal of the faith in Ireland — only a Church that is authentically true to the beautiful yet demanding teachings of Christ around marriage, family and human sexuality will do that,” Quinn said. “If the World Meeting of Families turns out to be merely a cheerful get-together, rather than a countercultural witness to the dominant culture, it will have failed to offer any hopes of a renewal of Irish Catholicism.”
Michael Kelly is the editor of
He writes from Dublin.
This story was updated after posting.