Did you ever encounter the worst of religion? Did you ever wonder is it all just religious gobbledygook? Did anyone ever say to you that your religion is nothing more than an emotional crutch? Have you heard of the notion of ‘pie in the sky when you die’? Indeed these are amongst the milder accusations. This is before we get to the notion that religion promotes bigotry. Indeed there are those who would contend that religion is responsible for all the major conflicts in the world. In fact it is part of our own story here in Ireland that many rows have broken out over religion. This is particularly acute if you have northern blood, with awful phrases such as, ‘is he one of ours?’ or ‘is she the other sort?’ Some people went so far as to say that you can tell one’s religious denomination by looking at one’s nose or how far apart one’s eyes are. Whilst there is of course humour in all this, it is not long before it descends into the sinister, and sadly, even the savage. In Northern Ireland for over thirty years people were brutally murdered, often singled out because of their name or the area in which they lived: both of these factors often evidence of them being Protestant or Catholic.
As I write, we are receiving news of a most awful atrocity in Orlando, Florida. It appears a lone gunman has killed fifty people, and injured as many again, in a night club. Already both religion and sexuality are at the heart of attempts to understand why such an appalling thing should happen. It is being suggested by some that this young man was acting on behalf of ISIS: whilst others are offering the theory that because Pulse, the night club in question, was a popular venue for gay people, that he may have been motivated by homophobia. Regardless of what motivated him, nothing can justify such a wanton taking of human life, surely our greatest gift. It is against this backdrop that we must at least consider the notion that the world would be a better place without religion.
Such musings have significant impact on any faith community. This is no less true of our own faith community here in St. Matthew’s. Indeed an important subsection of this overarching debate is the present national discussion on religion in our schools, which is beginning to gather momentum. Some are inclined to reduce this to the question of unbaptised children being unable to get into the local Catholic school. This becomes an issue when the local school becomes oversubscribed. To give this its proper context it should be noted that this happens in about 2% of schools nationally and increases to almost 7% in Dublin. I know, as a priest I have no desire to baptise children who are only being presented for this beautiful sacrament in order to ensure school admittance. When we do this we cheapen the sacrament. My heart goes out to parents who cannot get their children into school. Might we as church consider a gracious gesture to our brothers and sisters who do not share our religious beliefs and let’s set aside say 5% of our school places for non Catholics. Clearly we have far too many Catholic primary schools. It makes sense to reduce them by about half. We would be improving things for everybody if we once and for all accepted that we are no longer a Catholic nation, if ever we were! Let’s at last let the State be the State. When this happens those who wish to be Catholic will make this as a free choice and then we can reform and
renew both our parishes and schools in a way that will give them new life. We should embrace any honest attempt to remove discrimination from the education system. All the children of the nation have the right to be educated in a school of their parents choice. The parent is the primary educator. Some will choose a specific ethos, others a broader mix, whilst some will choose schools without taught religion. This is their choice and should be respected. The implication of all this is that we will be a much smaller, leaner and fitter church. So what? Why are we afraid of this? Is it that we fear not being allowed to live out our Catholic identity? If so, then this is a battle worth waging, but let’s take this on, instead of dissipating our energies on battles long since lost. We got too big, too powerful. With this came complacency, and then, eventually, corruption and abuse of power crept in. We have paid a high
price indeed, for our so called success and power. So whether it’s on the scale of international terrorism or a local row about the absence of a baptism certificate, the question hangs in the air, is religion in fact the ruination of us?
I believe if we mean the big institutional albatross that trundles on, self serving and abusive, in its dismissal of the little ones and the voiceless, then the answer is yes. We would be better without this. This is not anti-church, but it is born out of a desire that we as church become more Christ-centred, more gospel based. If we spent more time discussing the words and actions of Jesus and place prayer at the centre of our lives instead of prolonged debates on sexuality we would be much better off. It’s not so much religion that causes the damage rather it’s what we do to religion. What causes the damage is our abuse of power and position. It’s when religion ceases to be about love that the trouble starts. When we lose compassion for one another we start to journey down the path of destruction. True, we may not be involved in a major act of violence but in the smallest of ways we can contribute
to world peace and care of the planet, or we can contribute to the culture of death. The next time you are having coffee with a friend or a pint with the lads ask yourself what is your core life stance. Is it Christ-like? Do you stoke the fire of hate? Do you throw in the anti-Muslim sneer or the homophobic jibe? Do you spread fear? Or do you seize the opportunity to promote tolerance. Do you speak with love about the whole human family? Do you argue that people are basically good and decent, regardless of colour, class, creed and orientation? Do you seek to imitate Jesus in breaking down the walls of suspicion and division and in the promotion of understanding richness in diversity?