Alban Maginness: Arlene Foster has bizarrely missed a golden opportunity to reverse years of toxic mistrust
The DUP leader has more in common with the visiting pontiff than some Dublin politicians, says Alban Maginness
With dreary inevitability, Arlene Foster has scored a very avoidable own goal by declining an invitation from the Dublin government to attend an address by Pope Francis in Dublin Castle, where she would have met him.
She pleaded that she "appreciated the invitation", but that she would be "regretfully away with her family at the time of the visit" and therefore unable to attend.
But having known for months that the Pope was coming to Ireland this week - and being aware that there might just be an invitation to meet him - her excuse is feeble and verges on the offensive to the thousands of Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland, who are delighted with his historic visit.
Here was a golden opportunity for Arlene Foster, the de facto leader of unionism in Northern Ireland, to generously welcome and greet the head of the Catholic Church to this country.
In doing so, she could have demolished in a few seconds the generations of religious and political mistrust that have bedevilled our society. By meeting the Pope, she would have created much goodwill and perhaps thereby created a timely space for political progress this autumn.
Her decision to decline the invitation was enormously hurtful and simply just bad politics. Given that of late she has made encouraging efforts to reach out and to engage with Irish language groups and attend the Ulster Gaelic football final, her decision is bizarre.
Contrast her decision with that of Dr Charles McMullen, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, to attend the same event and also a religious concert in Croke Park as guest of the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin.
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Given where the Moderator is coming from and the still-sharp theological and doctrinal differences between the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches, his decision was probably a more difficult one.
But he has chosen, with the backing of the broad consensus of the Presbyterian Church, to meet with the Pope and to generously welcome him to this country. Such a meeting will do much to create goodwill between the churches and perhaps re-boot inter-church cooperation and working to end the scandal of Christian division on this island.
This high-level meeting with the Pope is a first for any Irish Presbyterian Moderator, and its significance should not be underplayed.
Ironically, Arlene Foster probably has more in common with the Pope's views on same-sex marriage and abortion than the Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians in the South who will meet him and fawn over him for photographs that they can use in their various constituencies to demonstrate their oneness with this charismatic Pope.
But most of these same Irish politicians are responsible for the removal of the constitutional protection of the life of the unborn and will be implementing some of the most permissive abortion legislation in Europe. How these so-called Catholic politicians can square this with welcoming the Pope is a mystery.
But to faithful Catholics watching from the sidelines, their actions are hypocrisy on a staggering scale. The Pope should openly address the issue of abortion and reaffirm that it is one's Christian duty to protect the life of the unborn.
The life-affirming teaching of the Catholic Church is something to be re-emphasised, not hidden away. The referendum in the South has not and cannot sweep away Catholic teaching on this fundamentally important moral issue.
Pope Francis visits Ireland almost 40 years after another charismatic Pope, John Paul II. That visit saw a Church that was strong and vibrant. This Pope will visit a Church in decline, demoralised and needing re- evangelisation.
A two-day visit by this charismatic Pope will not achieve that, but it can kick-start that process of rebuilding.
The decline in the Church has been the result of two factors. First, the critical damage caused to the life of the Church by the devastating scandal of sexual abuse by priests has alienated many once faithful and trusting Catholics. It also should be said that the Church over-relied upon routine religious practice by the laity that had little intellectual Christian depth and was not properly rooted in modern religious thought.
Second, a universal and gradual rejection by a prosperous western Europe - including Ireland - of Catholic religious practice over the past 50 years, and the onset of an aggressive secularism, which though ostensibly liberal is in practice increasingly hostile to and intolerant of religious belief and practice.
It is particularly opposed to Christian values, even though these were the very foundation of western European culture.
Therefore, the Pope's visit is not just a major event for the Irish Catholic Church, but a challenge that could determine its long-term future.