To Vote is a Privilege; To Vote has Dilemmas: Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing at Fitzroy Presbyterian with Brett Lockhart and Fr Tim Bartlett

lockhart bartlettThis week for his ecumenical tithing Fr Martin Magill attended – and helped to organise – a Sunday evening event at Fitzroy Presbyterian, “To Vote is a Privilege; To Vote has Dilemmas” with Brett Lockhart QC and Fr Tim Bartlett.  

Lockhart is a local barrister, who was raised in Fitzroy and is now a practising Catholic. He is training for the deaconate in the Catholic Church. Fr Tim Bartlett is the Secretary to the Catholic Commission on Social Affairs and Secretary to the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland.

I also attended the event on Sunday evening. Fr Magill presents an accurate account of what was said by both speakers.

I also may blog about the event later in the week. But at this point I will limit my remarks to say that I was somewhat disappointed that so much of the speakers’ presentations focused on abortion, LGBT-related issues and Catholic education. These were not the only issues addressed. But they tended to dominate discussion in an event that I anticipated would engage with a broader range of issues and principles, or be more directly related to the upcoming local and European elections. Let me emphasise that this was my impression, and let Fr Magill’s summary speak for itself.

Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing: To Vote is a Privilege, To Vote has Dilemmas at Fitzroy Presbyterian

This week owing to a joint initiative I chose to go to Fitzroy Presbyterian church where the focus was on reflecting on how to vote in the elections on Thursday 22 May 2014.  Rev Steve Stockman welcomed everyone to the event and then invited me to pray. I chose the reading from Acts 6 in which we heard about the election of the deacons. Steve then spoke about who is my neighbour, and what loving our neighbour might mean when it comes to voting. He then handed over to Brett.

Owing to the very comprehensive range of what both speakers had to say, I will give a general outline.

Remarks of Brett Lockhart, QC

Brett spoke about “unreasonable graciousness” and how for Christians our loyalty was to Christ and his Kingdom first and foremost.  He talked about what he saw as a danger that religion was being side lined and made a private matter.  He stated there always needed to be a tension between the city of God and the city of man, between state and church.  This was healthy.

He referred to a speech by Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster which argued for the place of religion in the public square and the belief there is objective truth.  He argued that Christians needed to refute the line that “you cannot impose your religion on another person” and suggested instead a community with a shared moral framework. He said:

“I refer in particular to the post-modern belief that all truth is relative and that autonomy is the paramount concern for legislators. [According to this view] religion is personal and should be excluded from the debate because it is imposing its belief systems. The state must be neutral and based on equality. This worldview is however its own ideology. This should immediately set off an alarm bell for Christians”.

Brett continued that Christians need to be in the public square, that the state should not have complete power.  He went on to give some examples from politicians (he did not tell us who said what) in the recent debate on “same sex marriage,” arguing they were coming from a post-modernist perspective. These quotes included:  

“Retaining legal marriage as a heterosexual institution would be to impose religious belief on the civil law”.

“My party supports an elastic redefinition of the family: ‘All family forms should be given equal respect and value in law. The traditional family form based on marriage should not be given higher status in law or practice than any other family form. Law and social policy should recognise the diversity of family life in Ireland”.

“I think that it is really wrong that we allow personal morals to influence what should be a legislative assembly. I do not think that this should be a free vote. I think that it should be a proper whipped vote…”

“I do not consider myself to be a worthy person to sit in judgment, moral or otherwise, on the emotions of other human beings.”

He then spoke about the “law of unintended consequences” and gave some examples which had arisen from the 1967 abortion act.  He gave examples of unforeseen consequences around the debate on “same sex marriage,” such as marriage agencies and adoption agencies having to close.  He talked about how law is used to shape society.  He argued very strongly that we have a sacred duty to take part and to vote.  He stated:

“Voting is a sacred duty, it is a precious human right.  You must go to express your preference”.

He added:

Don’t have a knee jerk response to our existing politicians. They are the ones who have put themselves above the parapet and shoulder the burden. They deserve our respect for that alone. Often they are making fine political judgments to which there may be more than one answer. Learn how to engage with issues and if you disagree ….learn how to disagree well”.

He finished in this way:

“Develop an understanding of how Christians can and should be involved in politics. We need to learn to propose (not impose) truths which we know are common to all. The dignity of all human beings, the sanctity of life, the importance of tolerance and respect. Beware of the secular school of thought which would exclude Christianity and relegate Christianity to the realm of the personal. Christianity matters in the public square”.

Remarks of Fr Tim Bartlett:

Fr Tim Bartlett began by acknowledging changing circumstances:

“Perhaps the first thing I should say is how welcome and exciting it is for us to be here. It is a sign of incredible change. Politics since I was born was very simple in NI – there was only one issue that mattered – the Constitutional question. You rarely had to think about who you were going to vote for”.

(During the event, the constitutional question was not discussed at all.

Fr Bartlett then quoted a verse from the New Testament: ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, Render unto God, that which is God’s” (Mt 22:15-22). Tim argued that in essence Jesus was exposing the hypocrisy of the priests and scribes and not making a statement on the need for separation between Church and State.

He then quoted another piece of scripture as a way to understand how Christians relate to the world: John 17:14 – “that you are in the world, but not of the world”. He went on to say:

“Relying on a misunderstanding of the render unto Caesar text, particularly as it developed in the US, we are rapidly moving to a political and social culture that relegates, even aggressively pushes faith to the private sphere”.

Like Brett, he also warned against the dangers of relativism:

“What we have increasingly is what Pope Benedict famously described as the dictatorship of relativism. This includes the idea that secular, non-religious world views are somehow neutral world views and so only they can be supported by a neutral, pluralist, democratic state!”

He also spoke about the influence of the media on social values and expressed concern about the media was handling some issues such as abortion. He continued:

“Public policy and political debate in our society today is overwhelmingly determined by what is popular – or should I say, more accurately, what is perceived to be popular. The media has a huge influence on the perception by politicians about what is popular. The media thrives on emotionalism, not reason”.

He acknowledged some of the difficulties in trying to present complex moral issues in a short media interview:

“To speak the finely contoured arguments of reason into a situation of deep emotion, to try to explain the more subtle aspects of what is right and wrong into a world of sound bites and emotional images is like putting David up against Goliath all over again”.

He then addressed the issue of Christians in politics:

“This is the greatest dilemma for the Christian in contemporary politics – am I willing to stand up against the crowd of popular opinion or party policy for what is right, good, noble and true – am I willing to stand up for the freedom of my own conscience when something fundamental is at stake?”

Tim went on to talk about fundamental principles which the Catholic Church had identified to help voters make up their minds but acknowledged that no one candidate would necessarily “tick all the boxes”. He then shared how he himself resolved the dilemma when it was not possible to vote for the “perfect” candidate:

“In this situation, it is legitimate to vote for the candidate we sincerely believe will maximise the common good. I say this with one exception. I personally hold to the view that I cannot as a Catholic and will not vote for any candidate who does not uphold the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child in all circumstances. Otherwise I would be undermining the most fundamental human right of all, the right to life and the principle that it is never morally acceptable to directly and intentionally kill an innocent human being – whether at the beginning of life, at any stage during life, or as life comes to its natural end! So there is, if you like, a hierarchy of values that have to be considered, and in which the right to life is fundamental”.

Finally, he referred to Bishop Noel Treanor’s pastoral letter to Catholics in Down and Connor and the four principles:

  1. The Right to Life
  2. Upholding the family based on marriage between a woman and a man as the foundation of society.
  3. Concern for justice, social inclusion and the needs of the most vulnerable and poor.
  4. Commitment to promoting peace and reconciliation.

Afterwards, there was a wide ranging discussion including the role of the media, integrated education, and the issue of voting outside one’s traditional voting pattern.

Steve Stockman then invited me to finish in prayer after which conversation continued over refreshments.

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