Is it time for the churches to become more Christian?

Cathal O’Hagan is a Monaghan native and law graduate, currently doing an MA in Conflict Transformation at QUB.

Just like there isn’t momentum for a re-prohibition on contraception; or mood for re-implementing a ban on divorce, the penny will soon finally drop that debates over marriage equality and abortion are not the way for churches to regain influence in Ireland. Churches can either continue with the prominence they give to so-called “moral” issues, or they can refocus on the core Christian issues of poverty, homelessness and equality to regain popularity, especially among younger generations. They can’t have both.

“If we speak with one voice on the core ethical issues of our time, we will be stronger”. This unequivocal statement by Eamon Martin, Primate of All-Ireland, should have been welcomed across Ireland, as a call across sectarian divides to tackle the devastating problems that face all communities. Recently, at a community event organised by Queen’s University the question was posed “What do churches need to do to appeal to young people?” With nearly a quarter of all children here living in poverty, and an average of 100,000 people currently without their own home across the north, unity between all religious denominations and leaders to tackle “core ethical issues” would surely be welcomed. This statement would not be out of place at a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn rally. So why did this statement not garner widespread support among youth people?

The problem is, the ‘core ethical issue of our time’ was not, in the Primate’s view, referring to the current poverty and homelessness crises. Instead, it was referring to the upcoming debates surrounding abortion. When churches prioritise abortion and marriage equality debates as avenues to spend their political and media capital, they will never attract widespread relevance among young people, while refusing to conduct national campaigns to force governments to address poverty and homelessness.  This was demonstrated in the European Broadcasting Union survey where only 2 per cent of Irish people aged 18-34 told researchers, they had complete faith in religious organisations.  Comparatively, in the last U.K. general election 30% of people voted for a particular party based on that party’s stance on healthcare and other social policies. Can churches learn from this?

Abortion and marriage equality have somehow superseded these fundamental values upon which Christianity was established. The New Testament refers minimally to homosexuality, and even then, is ambiguous. Conversely there are countless mentions of freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry and helping the poor. It is for this reason both Protestant and Catholic Church’s face the same irreconcilable dilemma between defending their perceived values, and attracting younger generations. This prioritisation is the sticking point. In 1985 the Catholic Church believed “the wider distribution of contraceptives, particularly to unmarried people, was not in the interests of the common good”, and in 1995, discussing divorce bishops proclaimed “any undermining of the meaning of the marriage promise would profoundly damage the stability of society,”. Such debates continue today, but with a different focus.

When have religious denominations collectively, using the resources of their respective organisations left their pulpits and alters to fight against injustice nationally, unified in defending these inherent Christian values? I can’t recall. I can, however, remember similar campaigns surrounding divorce, contraception, abortion and marriage equality. It is this hypocrisy that explains part of the diminishing role Christian organisations face among younger people, without even mentioning the history of lies, abuse and paedophilia.

It would be short-sighted to ignore the potential churches have; with structures and centres placed in every parish, town and city across the island. These resources are unparalleled by any other organisation. They could be used to help those most in need, but often aren’t. Notwithstanding great individuals within the church, of which there are countless. While churches reserve their outrage for their perceived “moral” issues, without similar recognition and campaigns on eradicating homelessness and poverty, they will never retain widespread relevance among younger generations. Archbishop Eamon Martin has also stated that “Catholics and Protestants shall proceed together on ethical issues”. If so, I look forward to their joint initiatives across television, radio and newspapers, campaigning against the purges of homelessness and poverty that are widespread today.


Cathal O’Hagan is a Monaghan native and law graduate, currently doing an MA in Conflict Transformation at QUB. Mandarin and Irish speaker working with asylum seekers and refugees in Belfast.

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