Marriage between a man and a woman is a fundamental good in society which deserves unique legal protection protection under the Constitution, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said.
It is the first time he has directly addressed this issue and it comes as the new Government plans a ‘constitutional convention’ which will look, among other things, at the possibility of changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Martin also warned that the planned children’s rights referendum should not give too much power to the State and overall he defended the Constitution from accusations that it is overly influenced by the Catholic Church.
In addition, while welcoming the proposed national forum on the patronage of primary schools, he defended the rights of Catholic parents to send their children to Church-run schools.
In a major address given in Mater Dei Institute last night, entitled 'The Relationship between Church and State' he noted that the Constitution “clearly carves out a special role for the family”.
He said: “The legal presumption is that the definition of the family in the Constitution is one based on marriage between a man and a woman.
“In line with most European countries Ireland recognises the fundamental difference between marriage and other forms of relationship.”
He added: "This is not to say that the law should not guarantee people in other forms of relationship their fundamental rights. Marriage is however a fundamental good which deserves unique protection."
In the wide-ranging speech, he also referred to the debate on the Government's proposed children's rights referendum.
While he noted that mechanisms were needed to protect the rights of children, Archbishop Martin said that “in general it would be wrong to think that simply moving responsibility from parents to the State would provide a more effective answer”.
Quoting former US President Bill Clinton, he said: “It is not the State’s job to bring up children; it is the job of parents.”
Archbishop Martin also insisted on the Church's freedom to “take positions that are culturally unpopular”.
Where the Church was only able to speak the language of the culture of the day “the life of the Church becomes a sort of civil religion, politically correct, but without the cutting edge of the Gospel”.
And he insisted that believers must be allowed to bring their religious beliefs to discussions on public policy, saying that the State “would not be enhancing freedom if the believer were forced to leave aside his conviction to be allowed enter into the public square.”
He welcomed Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn's announcement of the establishment of a National Forum on School Patronage.
However he added that pluralism in educational provision would prove difficult to realise.
He said “Simply providing greater choice will not guarantee true pluralism. People may use pluralism in school choice to choose to opt out of pluralism. The temptation will always exist for parents to choose a school precisely because it is not pluralist, because there are no disadvantaged or marginalised children.
He insisted that Catholic schools must defend their ability “to maintain and foster and indeed strengthen its Catholic identity in a pluralist context”.
“If the Catholic school waters down its Catholic identity then it is not going to bring its specific contribution to society,” Archbishop Martin said.
He also noted that the Constitution “has overall served the people of Ireland well”.
The Constitution, contrary to what many of its detractors claim, was “far from being some sort of unquestioning regurgitation of sectarian Catholic principles,” the Archbishop said.
He added: “It is a remarkably modern Constitution in many of its aspects. Constitutions should be and must be changed to address challenges in society but not at every whim. Constitutions are not there in general to be played around with lightly and often.
“The Constitution’s guarantees regarding the sphere of activity of the Church are thoroughly modern in their juridical formulations.”