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Malachi O’Doherty: If Foster met the Pope it would be reciprocation for McGuinness meeting the Queen... though the truth is some nationalists criticising her for not doing so wouldn’t go to see him themselves

Many nationalists are disillusioned with power-sharing because of the DUP’s lack of outreach, but they’re also a little hypocritical when it comes to the teachings of the Catholic Church, writes Malachi O’Doherty

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Arlene Foster has turned down an invitation to an event during the Pope's visit.

Arlene Foster has turned down an invitation to an event during the Pope's visit.

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Arlene Foster has turned down an invitation to an event during the Pope's visit.

A friend of mine, also an ex-Catholic, thought she would like to join in a simple protest against the Pope's visit. The idea was put about that people might order tickets to the main event then simply not turn up. That way, the cameras on the day would show lots of empty seats, proving that the Pope of today does not appeal to Irish hearts as much as John Paul II did on his 1979 visit.

But she made a crucial mistake for a seasoned political activist. She declared on Facebook that she had her tickets, clearly hoping to encourage others to book seats too, and not use them.

Then the problem arose.

Her friends who do want to see the Pope started messaging her asking for one or two of the tickets.

And what do you do in a situation like that?

You know how important the Pope is to them, that some would never forgive you for denying them such a wonderful opportunity.

You know what the Christian thing to do is.

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Something like that dilemma is at work in the hearts of a lot of people who no longer practise Catholicism or follow the tenets of the Church.

We are often called lapsed Catholics, as if we had simply let our connection to the Church expire, like membership of a gym.

And then there is the question of what it means to be a Catholic.

Tens of thousands of people who regard themselves as Catholic voted against the Church's teaching in the abortion and same-sex marriage referenda in the Republic.

They simply don't accept any more that adherence to the rules of the club determine your right to call yourself a member. They say that the Church is the people.

Indeed, the Church itself says that. Therefore, if there is a disjunct between what people believe and what the Church teaches, it is the teaching that is flawed, the hierarchy that has fallen behind.

This is puzzling a lot of unionists this week.

They can see the anger of Irish nationalists with the DUP after Arlene Foster's decision to disregard an invitation to meet Pope Francis or even to appoint another member of her party to take her place.

And yet, one can see that Foster has a right to wonder if some of those nationalists are being hypocritical. Many of them wouldn't go and see the Pope themselves. They accuse the Church of still being insensitive to clerical abuse victims.

They read the Church teaching that homosexuality is an "intrinsic disorder". And they live their lives in contempt of such teaching and of a Church hierarchy that has managed the cover-up of sexual crime on a global scale.

Well, there is a sense out there that the Church is changing, if slowly, that Francis is more humane than the somewhat reptilian figure who preceded him.

And anyway, the papacy is bigger than the man, as the monarchy is bigger than the woman. It is a historic institution providing a sense of meaning to Catholics, not just setting their bearings in space - towards Rome - but in time, back through the stories of the saints, the wars, the crusades, Constantinople to the shores of Galilee.

That sort of thing isn't overthrown in a generation.

Yet we have to acknowledge Foster's problem here.

Many Protestants question whether Roman Catholicism is Christian at all. They take their whole understanding of their faith from the Bible. They wonder where all this devotion to Mary arises from.

The answer is that it is informed by a series of apparitions by Mary to children in Portugal, France and Ireland.

These apparitions play a huge part in the character of modern Catholicism.

Every Catholic church has statues and side altars in honour of them. The Church teaches that Mary is the queen of Heaven, the mediatrix of graces, the one who can intercede with God on your behalf.

To Protestants, this must seem a very small remove from the worship of Kali.

But you don't have to believe in someone else's position or faith to show respect.

Foster attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness. No one interpreted that as forgiveness for the IRA or conversion to Roman Catholicism.

She has never been associated, to my mind, with the hard-edged disdain for Catholicism associated with Rev Ian Paisley.

She is an Anglican Catholic, of the Church of Ireland, which retains some of the colour and fragrance of the Roman Church.

Why would it be hard for her to meet a Pope when the Queen she reveres has done so many times? And you don't have to be a monarchist to see the generosity in McGuinness's meetings with the Queen.

Foster meeting the Pope would be the perfect reciprocation for what he did.

And, simply, many nationalists are disillusioned with power-sharing simply because the DUP seemed incapable of such reciprocation. They believe that McGuinness over-reached himself and got no thanks for it.

So it would kill off that argument.

I won't be going to see the Pope, unless somebody pays me to.

I will not be calling myself a Catholic when I simply don't accept much of the teaching of the Church.

But I recognise that I have roots in a tradition that has been at odds with Protestantism for 400 years or more.

Intellectually, I'm more on the side of the reformers who said we should read the Bible for ourselves and make our own minds up.

That argument, of course, would have been no use to me in the past in the face of a loyalist's knife or gun.

I believe that religious identity and difference do play a large part in the sectarian division that blights this place and that had it been possible to bring the Queen and the Pope here together, that would have been a powerful symbol for conciliation.

And a lot of work went into trying to make that happen.

What we got instead was the prospect of a DUP leader meeting the Pope and sharing assurances with him that there is no conflict between them.

We had political leaders here in the past who genuinely believed that the Pope was pulling the strings of the IRA, that he is the antichrist, the scarlet whore.

Would it been so bad if Foster had met him and come back to tell her Orange brethren that he means them no harm and that the bogeyman of their darkest fears may have some strange ideas but he doesn't bite, and that anyway, most Catholics pay little heed to what he actually says?


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