On Saturday the Iona Institute Northern Ireland was launched with an inaugural conference based on the theme, ‘Faith in the Public Square’.
In the keynote address, the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, urged Christians to not be afraid of speaking out in the public square, and appealed to all others to not be afraid of the voices of faith speaking freely in that same public square.
Drawing inspiration from St Paul’s address to the philosophically-minded Athenians in the Agora, the Archbishop encouraged Christians to speak up fearlessly even if they should expect rejection: “Some will mock us; some will want to hear more; others will believe and change their lives to join the flock of Jesus Christ.” He added: “today we are the ones who are sent to speak into the public square. This is our responsibility and our privilege.”
The Archbishop clarified that the public square is not merely, nor even primarily the sphere of politics: rather, it encompasses the media, business, music and the arts, and every place where ideas are discussed and opinions shared be it the pub, the hairdressers, a dinner party or a staff coffee room.
As for what Christians might contribute, he suggested truth, beauty and goodness rooted in natural law and striving for the common good, while also recognising that the person of Jesus Christ lay at the foundation of this rich vision.
He gave an emphatic assurance that, contrary to the anxious fears of some, the Church is in no way interested in creating a theocracy, north or south, but nonetheless, it would expect that in a true pluralist democracy or republic, religion and faith will continue to have an important part to play in the national conversation.”
That part requires people of faith to be courageous—that holy mix of daring and fearlessness—“to argue our case, to ask awkward questions when necessary e.g. about the impact of economic policies on the most vulnerable, or to point out contradictions of populism”. While some might dismiss such contributions because of the Church’s past failures, Archbishop Martin thinks those very failures gives Christians a heightened sensibility for the hidden suffering in today’s world: “In my view, however, the failures of the past must help us learn lessons for the present about where Church and society might be similarly marginalising the poor, stigmatising the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable.”
Archbishop Martin concluded his talk with a clarion call to Christians to speak up in the public square, and to all others to hear what they have to say: “it would hugely impoverish our faith if we were to compartmentalise it or exclude it completely from our conversations and actions in the public square. But I believe that it would also impoverish society if the fundamental convictions of faith were not permitted to influence public debate; it would diminish the understanding of the human person and dilute the concept of the common good.”