Wednesday, August 31, 2011

James Downey: Marriages are best made on earth, not in heaven

We are not clear on where the role of the State ends and where the role of the individual or some other institution begins.

EVERYBODY seems to have forgotten the affair of the Lourdes marriages. 

Not surprising, perhaps, because it happened a long time ago, in the 1970s. 

But even people who were adults at the time tell me they have no recollection of it and find it hard to believe the manner in which it was resolved.

It happened like this: a large number of Irish couples, possibly in their hundreds, were married in Catholic ceremonies in Lourdes over a period of several years. 

They did not realise that under French law these ceremonies did not count.

The law required them to take part in a civil ceremony in order to make their marriages valid.

Eventually they began to discover, with a shock, that legally they they were not married at all and that their children were "illegitimate" and had no automatic inheritance rights. Clearly this had to be rectified, and the Oireachtas had to legislate.

But the Oireachtas did not take what the French would have considered the obvious course: to invite the people caught up in the dilemma to legalise their situation in civil ceremonies.

Instead, it passed a law which retrospectively legitimised their situation. 

An Irish solution to an Irish problem, you might say.

It differed from the subsequent "Irish solution" on contraception in a very important way -- it worked. 

Nobody was harmed, everyone was happy. 

And hardly anyone noticed the flaw.

Some years later, I attended a family wedding in a village near Aix-en-Provence. 

The civil ceremony took place in the town hall in the morning, the church ceremony in the afternoon.

The mayor officiated in the town hall. He was a little fat man with a twinkle in his eye -- and a communist, a fact little to the taste of the bride's family, all staunch Catholics and Gaullists. 

A Tricolore was wrapped around the place where his waist should have been and in his hand he held an a official-looking document.

When he began to read from the document, it turned out to be a sort of lecture on the duties and responsibilities of marriage. 

That brought home to me the French attitude to the subject. 

France is a secular state and a secular society. 

In that society, the Catholic Church -- or any church -- is ignored. 

But the state believes that it has a role in marriage. 

And rightly so.

In the traditional phrase, marriage is "the bedrock of society". 

Permanent marriage, preferably; monogamous marriage, absolutely. These propositions are too well known to need any elaboration. They apply everywhere in the democratic world. 

They apply equally to a secular state and to one in which any religion enjoys a dominant position.

Is Ireland a secular state? 

Of course it is. 

It has become so gradually, over a period of decades, with the removal from the Constitution and laws of provisions which reflected the influence of the Catholic Church, and certainly not because of the "aggressive secularism" once condemned by Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach.

There is no aggressive secularism in Ireland. 

The public reaction to the clerical sex abuse scandals demonstrates that.

Atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, people still practising the Catholic religion; all have felt pain and grief as well as anger. 

Very few rejoice at the self-destruction of the Irish Catholic Church. 

Many lament the disappearance of an influence which could have been used for good.

That influence had begun to decline long before the sex abuse scandals. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of marriage. 

One-third of all births in this State occur outside wedlock. 

The reasons are too numerous to list, but it is easy to agree that this does not tend towards the welfare of mothers or children -- or society as a whole.

And we do not encourage marriage in practical ways. 

The proposal to extend the privileges of married couples to "cohabiting partners" strikes me as ridiculous. 

How can we tell if these partners are in stable relationships, much less permanent relationships? 

And how can we reform the tax and social welfare systems in favour of married couples?

We seldom hear questions like these -- to say nothing of answers -- from the conservative side. Instead, we see what is evidently a campaign against the forthcoming referendum on children's rights. 

Mixed in with this are rambling, pseudo-philosophical disquisitions on the nature of society and, even more bizarrely, polemics about "fathers' rights" and the causes of the riots in England.

The first arose from real or perceived injustices in the divorce courts. 

For that, there is no remedy. Judges do their best and sometimes get it wrong.

As for the riots, the causes are complex. 

Of course they include, in many cases, absence of a stable family background. 

But they also include criminality, which David Cameron constantly denounces but, perhaps wisely, does not explain. 

They include relations between the government and the hard-pressed police, and relations between the police and minorities.

Thankfully, we don't have this last problem in Ireland. 

We do have plenty of problems of our own. 

And very often we can find their origins in the former church domination.

I don't mean the suffering caused, for example, by the bans on divorce and contraception. 
That is in the past.

I mean the absence of a secular morality in a society that took its morals from an authoritarian church which exercised thought control.

The Catholic Church is not wholly to blame. 

Another major culprit is our outrageous political system, which encourages localism and individualism at the expense of society as a whole.

From the social welfare abuses to the inflated public service pensions to the near-ruin brought upon us by the banks, we have witnessed the favours lavished on influential interests. 

Thankfully, they have not caused riots. 

But they have caused cynicism and defeatism.

And if all this may seem a long way from the Lourdes marriages and a wedding in Provence, a common thread links everything.

The French take the view that marriage is very much the business of the state. 

They take the same view, most firmly, on education.

We, by contrast, are not clear on where the role of the State ends and where the role of the individual, the family, or some other institution begins. 

So confused are we that some might even challenge the assertion that this must become, or remain, a secular State.

In my opinion, that argument is over and we should make up our minds how to run it.