Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Why declining invite to meet Pope is missed opportunity for unionist leaders

Unionism is no enemy of Catholics and it’s a pity that message isn’t being conveyed in person in Dublin, says Gail Walker

The visit this weekend by Pope Francis to Ireland is a momentous occasion. This is a major world leader, one of the handful of personalities whose opinion matters across the globe, whose undoubted authority transcends economic, military, racial, cultural and even religious categories.

Other leaders take his opinion into account. Institutions such as the United Nations and NATO attend to his views. Vladimir Putin listens with respect. Leaders of other Christian traditions, be it via Luther or Calvin or Knox, offer the esteem due to his spiritual role as well as the clear piety and humility his character has shown.

Obviously, a sustained engagement here on this island is of huge consequence.

And, of course, as the leader of world Catholicism, his presence in Ireland will have vast added importance for his co-religionists here, who have seen their values apparently recede from the position of self-assurance they once occupied.

None of this is to mitigate the scale of the crisis in which the Catholic Church finds itself, in the face of scandalous abuses of trust, most recently in Australia and the US, but of persistent relevance on this island. Catholic institutions here (from hospitals to schools and care homes, even to the daily social standing of clergy and nuns) have been run down, ridiculed, often closed and discredited.

Frequently, its clergy have been arrested and convicted of child abuse and other crimes.

But none of that, in turn, can diminish the significance of this cultural moment.

There is absolutely nothing surprising about the various moral stances which the Catholic Church has adopted on issues, from contraception to abortion to same-sex marriage. Those views are of very long-standing.

They may be unsupported now by legislation around the globe, they may be in the minority in most countries, certainly in Ireland itself as tested by referenda.

But they cannot be considered unprecedented or new. They are still intrinsic to the Catholic faith.

The Catholic Church has shown no more inclination to alter its teaching on these issues in the face of legislative change than it has in relation to the position of women in the Church or any of the many other doctrines and beliefs it promulgates as part of its unique ‘faith package’.

The severe criticisms of the Church come as vocally from inside as from outside.

But criticism from outside has become much more strident and bullish in recent decades. The old fear of being thought ‘anti-Catholic’ — which may not have held such sway in parts of Northern Ireland or indeed Britain, as it may have done in other parts of Europe — has also receded and there is renewed confidence in parodying ‘Catholic values’ and lampooning the Pope, as well as the characterisation even of the expression of traditional Catholic doctrines as being equivalent to ‘hate speech’.

These are amazing days, replete with irony. Sentiments which, until recently, would only have been found on gable ends in Belfast, now are scrawled on placards at public events in Dublin.

Frankly offensive slogans that would have marked out individuals in Belfast as blatant sectarians and bigots and had them shot, punched or frogmarched to the barracks, now routinely pepper the discourse on social media of Irish people who have been no closer to Belfast than watching Carl Frampton on BT Sport or listening to Snow Patrol.

Many of the people who would still instinctively bridle at the idea that the partition of Ireland in 1921 was a ‘good thing’ because it limited the bailiwick of a rapacious and corrupt Church with designs on schools and care and children’s homes — Home Rule is Rome rule’ — now find themselves seeking zealously to uncouple health and education from the control of that very Church, but almost a hundred years too late.

It was heartening to hear that Presbyterian Moderator Dr Charles McMullen is to attend the state reception for the Pope in Dublin, saying his Church “recognised that this papal visit would bring great joy to our Roman Catholic neighbours and friends, and it was something we wanted to welcome”.

Maybe it’s just bad timing all-round but it’s regrettable that the leaders of the two unionist political parties in Northern Ireland declined their invitations to attend the Pope’s speech. The leader of the Alliance Party has other commitments also. The UUP and Alliance are each sending someone but the DUP can find no one at all to make this trip.

It’s clear that the dismay which has greeted this news has already meant that yet another opportunity has been missed to build bridges, reach out, heal divisions, change mindsets, alter perspectives, modify attitudes, correct misunderstandings or fix mistakes. Call it what you like — whatever it is you want to call that gesture of goodwill — it has been let slip yet again.

One wonders, after the hundreds already side-stepped, how many opportunities for making that crucial difference are actually left to us now?

Leaving aside the obvious current social issues with political impacts on which Ulster Protestantism of whatever stripe finds common ground with Irish Catholicism, there is a clear benefit to be gained by unionism in putting into practice what it so often states is its core secular message: the attraction of the Union is for all people regardless of creed.

As has been stated in this newspaper, the strength of the Union can only be enhanced by the visible benefits of it to a population now only by a fraction in the minority. An important part of that benefit would be the clear, simple respect of unionism for the faith of that population.

It doesn’t matter that church attendances are declining or that many Catholics are at odds with the Church on this or that issue, or even that some of those at the papal Mass in Dublin will have voted Yes in the recent referendum on same-sex marriage or even abortion.

What matters is that unionism is regarded as principled, yes, but also modern, nuanced, accommodating, mature, hospitable, and no longer perceived as simply knee-jerk hostile to Catholic ritual.

No more Old Red Socks, no more No Pope Here.

Certainly, not among our MPs in Westminster, thanks. Not among our MLAs in Stormont.

It is a matter of fact in our day that unionism is no enemy of Catholics.

It still believes it is the best guarantor of prosperity and equality for all.

It should still be possible for that message to be conveyed in person to the pontiff in Dublin at the weekend.

Belfast Telegraph

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