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Report on the World Meeting of Families

Tracy Harkin of Iona Institute NI gives her first hand experience of the World Meeting of Families:

Last week’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin will go down in history as an important milestone for the Irish church. From the ‘pope in Ireland’ signs along the motorway, to the hive of activity around the RDS it was clear that Dublin was a city preparing for something on a very large scale. I was privileged to be there throughout the week reporting every day from Dublin with the EWTN international team, interviewing participants, and providing live coverage of the full papal visit with Father John Paul Mary from the Franciscan missionaries of the eternal word.

The negative reporting by Irish media and the release of the Pennsylvania report in the run up to the week cast a large question mark for many people over just how successful the congress and the papal visit would be. However, from the very first day of the congress it became clear that the media reporting of the event and the actual experience of the thousands of participants and pilgrims were as different as night and day. From the opening ceremonies right across Dublin there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm in the air. A remarkable 38,000 attendees from 116 countries participated in the packed programme of talks, workshops, daily mass, and entertainment over the three days of the congress; all of this included families with children, teenagers, babes in arms mingling with archbishops, cardinals, priests, and religious. This was the universal church at its best. Walking around the RDS exhibition centre the hundreds of booths operated by ordinary Catholics, both ordained and lay, displaying apostolates, evangelization resources, and outreach programmes were all very impressive.

A key question that was asked by many journalists was: how has Ireland changed since the last visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979? As a small child I remember being taken by my parents to Drogheda for this historic visit. A third of the entire country had turned out. The numbers back then were impressive to be sure. The wave of secularism had not yet reached Irish shores, the horror of clerical child abuse was not yet exposed, and the conflict north of the border was still raging. It was however a highly clericalised church wherein the many priests and religious were trusted to get on with ‘God’s work’ and the role of the laity was minimal. As practising Irish Catholics today we may be smaller in number but the level of understanding and engagement in our faith and our desire to evangelise is extraordinary.  What was common among many of the attendees I spoke to  was the ‘personal encounter’ they had with Christ at some significant time in their lives. Through a pilgrimage, a retreat, a prayer or study group etc, this personal encounter is what led them back to the sacraments of the church, confession, the Eucharist. The enthusiasm of these families for their Catholic faith was impressive.

As Archbishop Eamon Martin said in his keynote speech: ‘The gospel of the family is joy for the church and joy for the world’. This joy was tangible throughout the week and especially so when Pope Francis himself arrived on Irish shores for the very first time. His meeting with civil society including the Irish president and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was cordial but didn’t mask the very real differences between Church and state on the right to life of the unborn and the unique meaning of marriage and conjugal love. Leo Varadkar promised a ‘new era’ in Ireland between church and state saying the Church still has a place. Let’s hold him to that.

The Holy Father’s visit to the homeless centre in Dublin run by Capuchin brothers was very moving. He commended the brothers and the many volunteers for ‘helping without asking questions’. The festival of families in Croke park was a highlight for many, with the  entertainment impressive and the testimonies of families very moving. Who can forget the three simple words the pope invited the 70,000 strong crowd to repeat three times ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Who would have also guessed than some 300,000 people would walk 3 km in the pouring rain to Phoenix park for the final mass on Sunday despite all the negative predictions. Pope Francis was applauded enthusiastically by the pilgrims when at the beginning of the mass he begged forgiveness for the pain caused in Ireland by clerical, religious, and institutional abuse and called for acts of public penance.

Overall Dublin has seen nothing like this week since the visit of pope Saint John Paul II. It was an incredibly successful, joyful, and grace filled week for the Irish faithful. Personally, my favourite moment was seeing Pope Francis pray in the beautiful apparition chapel in Knock shrine Co. Mayo where some 40, 000 people came to greet him. Seeing the depiction of that meek little lamb victorious on the altar while angels ascend and descend should give us all hope that the future of our Church no matter how fragile it may seem is, ultimately, always in God’s hands.

Tracy Harkin

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Mary McAleese Criticises Infant Baptism

Mary McAleese has recently condemned the practice of infant baptism in the Catholic Church claiming it to be like a form of conscription. She recognises the spiritual significance of baptism viz the removal of original sin, but dismisses the importance of that for the child as simply ‘spiritual’ focussing instead on how through baptism the child becomes Catholic, and that this is a kind of tragedy since the child cannot make a decision on the issue:

But let us consider Mrs McAleese’s position here. Infant baptism is a regular occurrence amongst many Christian congregations, and indeed for the Catholic Church it has been the practice for Centuries.

Why is it so common?

It is common precisely because of those realities that Mrs McAleese dismisses as spiritual. As Christians we believe that all people suffer from original sin. This is not because of something we have done, but because of something our ancestors did such that a blessing was denied them and thus denied us as well (just as if one’s ancestors made poor financial decisions that lost them their riches with the result that today one cannot enjoy the riches one’s ancestors would have passed on). Baptism is the sacrament by which original sin is removed and the recipient can enjoy God’s grace and proceed to enjoy the other sacraments of the Church. Quite simply, baptism is the first sacrament by which the child enters onto the path of salvation. It is certainly correct that the newborn cannot make a conscious decision to be baptised. But all of a newborn’s decisions are made for it by its parents, e.g. what food to eat, where to live, what to wear; indeed as the child grows, parents continue to make these decisions, even with respect to what school the child should go. Baptism is another one of those decisions that a parent makes for a child precisely because the parent has the child’s best interests at heart. Now a child can grow up and reject salvation; and that is the nature of free will. But given that we want to give our children the best kind of start, we have them baptised so that they can make the best start with salvation.

Of course, it is understandable that if one is not a Christian or dismisses spiritual realities, then none of this will make sense. But that is not a disagreement over whether or not children should be baptised, that’s a dismissal of Christianity tout court. In any case, Mrs McAleese certainly claims to be Christian, and so presumably she understands the inherent good in salvation and hence in infant baptism. One wonders then why she would dismiss it merely as something spiritual, as if the primary focus of the Christian life were on anything other than our being united with God after death. Baptism is the sacrament by which that can occur, so it seems strange that Mrs McAleese would think that a bad thing for our children.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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Sex Education and Children

A major review of sex education is under way in schools in the South, and amongst the proposals it is suggested teaching primary school children on sexual consent, as well as topics on safe use of the internet, the effects of social media on relationships, LGBT issues etc. One of the reasons for this shake up is that the current curriculum is 20 years old now and is believed to be out-dated.

As such the suggestions for review seem quite innocuous, but nothing can be judged until concrete proposals and applications are made. We are unaffected in the North by this review, however calls are being made for mandatory teaching on sexual consent for children by operations manager for Nexus NI Helena Bracken, and a greater focus on the issue of sexual consent has been welcomed by the NSPCC NI. It would indeed be foolish to think that the shake-up in the South will not have repercussions on how we think about sex education in our schools here in the North. On that basis it is appropriate to comment on this issue, and to take into consideration the principles that must inform any sex education in schools.

All the reports of the review in the South express the need for a sex education based on facts, i.e. one which presents students with the facts of sex and sexuality. However, notoriously absent from the proposed review is parental co-operation with regard to sex education and adopting a more pro-active approach to relationship formation in young people. By contrast in NI, Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Rosemary Barton commented on the need for parental co-operation in sex education, and NSPCC NI commented on the need for education on relationship formation.

With regard to parental co-operation, it is parents who are best placed to make choices on how they want their children educated beyond the statutory minimum level. Given the role they play in the lives of their children, parents have to make all sorts of important choices on behalf of their children, since children at various stages have not reached the level of maturity at which such choices can be made for themselves. Sex and sexuality is a reality of life with which all human beings must come to terms and be educated about, and so it is natural to consider parental judgement on when is the right time and the appropriate manner in educating their children on these issues. This is not to say that there should be no sex education, but that such education must have the input of parents. Otherwise it is left to the judgement of people who do not know the children best and do not have the primary responsibility for the children.

The reports of the review in the South give no indication that relationship formation will be dealt with in sex education classes. Indeed, David Quinn of our sister organisation, the Iona Institute, was attacked on RTE’s prime time for advocating relationship formation before sexual encounters as maintaining a value judgement. Indeed, the suggestions for review in sex education takes for granted rampant sexual activity and simply reacts to that. But if we are to educate our children on sex and sexuality, we need to show them that this is a very real physical relationship that one shares with another, one that touches the individual very deeply and puts one into the most intimate contact with another. Accordingly, the need for caution in engaging in such activity has to be emphasised, and indeed the reservation for such activity with an individual with whom one feels that the appropriate relationship is in place. Within a Christian context the ideal situation within which sexual relations do occur is one in which two people have devoted themselves to each other in both a public and an exclusive manner, and this is marriage.

The desire to educate children on the nature of consent on these issues is itself a recognition of the importance of forming an appropriate relationship before sexual activity. Thus, if the review of sex education needs to do anything, it needs to teach children how to form stable and lasting relationships with others within which both partners feel at ease to have sexual contact with each other. Otherwise sex education is simply reactive to a reality, but does not seek to inform reality.

On the issue of sexual consent, it is suggested that all children need to be educated on this issue so as to ensure the safety of people engaging in sexual activity. Stated as such this view is fairly innocuous; who could disagree that we need to teach children about consent? Consent is a very basic principle involved in moral reasoning, and if we want our children to be morally mature we need them to be aware of consent. But when it comes to teaching sexual consent to our children, we need to note a few things.

First, in a very general way we can explain what consent is and teach children about this. But this must be appropriate to the age of the child involved. If the child is of a very young age, it may be quite inappropriate to teach him or her about sexual consent, since at such a young age it would be inappropriate to teach them about sex beyond a factual consideration of the science of the matter; though of course issues pertaining to consent independent of the sexual context could be taught here.

Second, specifically sexual consent ought only be introduced when the child is at an appropriate age to learn about sex in a more human as opposed to purely biological way. This is something that is only appropriate for a child when they have reached a level of sexual understanding whereby sex is more than just a biological fact but something that pertains to interpersonal relations. The exact age at which the latter occurs varies for individuals and usually occurs during adolescence, hence the need for co-operation with parents. Thus, a blanket application of issues pertaining to sexual consent as part of a mandatory sex education undertaken without co-operation from parents is problematic.

Third, and somewhat as an aside, one of course wants to encourage virtuous behaviour in our children by which behaviour they can relate appropriately to each other, and especially in sexual matters. Thus, we do not want children growing into men and women who believe that they can force themselves on another. However, it is unclear how teaching children the facts of sexual consent will achieve this. If one individual rapes another, it appears to be the case that he or she is aware that consent is not forthcoming but, deplorably, he or she doesn’t care. What needs to be formed in our young children is good moral character according to which it would be unthinkable to force oneself on another. This will of course involve learning about sexual consent at the appropriate age, but it will also involve something deeper – an awareness of the human good and how that can be achieved in one’s life. And the latter can only be achieved when a society forms virtuous people at home, in school, and in public life.

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Attempts to introduce Same Sex Marriage into NI via Westminster

In the past few days, bills have been introduced at Westminster with the intent of bringing same sex marriage to NI. The first appeared in the house of Lords under Lord Hayward and the second appeared in the house of commons under Conor McGinn; see details here:

The first thing to be said about this matter is that whilst NI has MPs that sit in Westminster, Westminster is not representative of NI; our assembly represents us in which case this matter should be devolved to the assembly. Given the current circumstances of our assembly, we are unable to deal with this issue locally; but that does not entail that one ought to seek the introduction of same sex marriage in NI by an elected body which does not represent NI. What in fact is happening here is that people with a certain view about the nature of marriage are seeking to have that view enshrined in law regardless of the process that gets us there.

That then leads nicely to the second point, since this is not merely a matter of political expediency but a fundamental disagreement over the nature of marriage and whether or not same sex relationships are in fact marriages. If we turn to the European Convention of Human Rights and its article on marriage (article 12) it reads as follows: ‘Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right’. So if we begin here, the human right to marry is a right that men and women have and it involves founding a family. This is important in two respects: firstly, it ties the right to marry to men and women, hence it does not envisage such a right as pertaining to members of the same sex; secondly, it envisages this right as being involved in founding a family, hence those who marry have the right to found a family. The language is important in this latter respect because it does not say ‘to have a family’ but ‘to found a family’. Given that this right envisages the founding as opposed to merely having of a family, it is natural that it links marriage with men and women, i.e. opposite sex couples, since it is only men and women who are able to found, as opposed to have, a family. Thus, what this right encapsulates is that form of human relationship that is found in every society whereby men and women come together so as to found a family. This does not exclude those who are infertile, since the infertile can come together in such a relationship, but owing to circumstances accidental to that relationship, e.g. matters pertaining to health, a family cannot be founded; yet it does exclude same sex couples since same sex couples cannot found a family, not because they are infertile but because the relationship as such is not one that is ordained to the founding of a family. Hence there is no human right to same sex marriage.

Now whilst there may be no human right to a same sex marriage, some would argue that there ought to be a political right. And this is where local legislative bodies come in – to give same sex couples the same legal protections as opposite sex couples. But in order to give same sex couples the same legal protections as opposite sex couples one need not legislate for marriage and thereby envisage in law something that the ECHR doesn’t even envisage; rather one can legislate for civil partnerships. In the UK at least there is no substantive difference with regard to legal rights and entitlements between a civil partnership and a marriage. Indeed the document on the UK government website lays this out very clearly with the only differences involving technical legal and administrative issues over the difference in the kinds of relationships involved (you can access the document here:

So same sex marriage is not a human right as envisaged by the ECHR, and same sex couples have access to all the same rights and privileges as opposite sex couples by being able to avail of civil partnership legislation. Consequently, there is no reason to introduce same sex marriage into NI.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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Westminster MPs in massive abortion push in NI

Iona Institute NI is deeply saddened that a letter has been sent by Stella Creasey to Amber Rudd, the minister for women and equalities and the home office, on behalf of over 130 MPs calling on the minster to ensure comprehensive access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland. We note the letter cites frequently the recent CEDAW report 23/2/18 condemning NI’s pro-life laws as violating the human rights of women.

As spokeswoman Tracy Harkin says, not a single NI MP has signed this letter. At a time when the news is overflowing with reports on talks to get the devolved institutions up and running again, what we have here are a number of non-local MPs proposing to legislate for NI without the consent of our own MPs. It is highly ironic that these MPs would seek to legislate for NI in this respect.

Tracy continues, there is no international treaty, convention, or law which stipulates that abortion is a human right. The authors of the letter to the Rt Hon Rudd note on several occasions that their stance is based on CEDAW’s flawed interpretation of international human rights law, but not in fact on any actual concrete law or legislative framework that is currently in place. Effectively what we have are a number of pro-abortion MPs interpreting international law to suit an agenda which would seek to bring abortion into NI without the consent of our own MPs.

The authors of the letter emphasise the criminal status of abortion here in NI and they urge its decriminalisation. But they themselves wish to see the 1967 abortion act extended to NI, yet this act itself treats abortions carried out outside of the terms of this act as a criminal matter, and thus even here it is recognised that abortion is a practice which must be regulated by criminal law. The only difference then between NI and the rest of the UK is that we in NI have a much more positive regulation of abortion with our pro-life laws than does the rest of the UK. Such pro-life laws have successfully led to the saving of at least 100,000 of our citizens. By contrast, 1 in 5 healthy pregnancies in the rest of the UK end in abortion, not to mention the high percentage of terminations performed where a disability has been detected.

Tracy further adds, it is particularly sad that this letter has emerged on international women’s day. A day in which we should be rejoicing at the presence of women in leadership roles and positions of responsibility in our society. This is especially pertinent to us here in NI where our pro-life laws have saved the lives of at least 100,000 citizens, and in the Island of Ireland in general which is recognised internationally as one of the safest places in the world in which to be pregnant. Unfortunately, our culture of caring for the lives of both mother and baby are under considerable attack. We rejoice however in the leadership role women of all ages continue to play in the pro-life movement north and south. On this international women’s day we will continue to reject abortion as a solution to any crisis, and embrace a truly compassionate and progressive culture in which both lives are recognised, protected, and respected in law and practice

We would urge our NI MPs to speak strongly and proudly in defence of our pro-life laws, and not to be intimidated by those who would push their interpretation of human rights laws as the standard by which they are to be implemented.