Irish Bishops’ Conference seminar ‘Supporting Marriage and Family Life’
Monday 3rd May 2004, Buswells Hotel, Dublin

Speaker: Most Rev Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

Bishop Jones, distinguished guests and friends.
The Church is well aware of the changed conditions of families in today’s world. In Ireland, this is sometimes characterised as the growing shift from the large, rural, family with strong religious commitment to the small, nuclear, independent, urban style family. Yet we should be wary of over simplifying the picture. On the one hand, the concept of the close family bond is so ingrained in Irish history and culture and so appreciated for its worth, that it would be a mistake to proclaim its inevitable demise. On the other, the experience of the new and broader sense of family which has emerged over recent years has not proved so successful at securing the happiness of its adherents that it can be presumed to be the agreed,
even the dominant model of the future.

Family: The Primary Vital Cell

What is certain, however, is that in discussing the relationship between the family and society, there is much at stake. We are, in this debate, in a very real sense, on sacred ground. The Holy Father did not exaggerate when he said that ‘the future of the world passes by way of the family’ (FC #86). Not only are marriage and family grounded in the will of God and revealed by the order of nature, they are also the
primary source of stability, life and love in any society, that ‘primary vital cell’ from which the rest of society derives so much of its own cohesion and potential success. This fact is recognised by our own Constitution when it describes the family ‘as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.’ (Article 41.1.2 Irish Constitution). The Greek Constitution expresses the same conviction when it describes the family as ‘the foundation of the conservation and the progress of the nation.’ Such values are consistent in turn with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it states:
‘The family is a fundamental nucleus or cell of society and of the State and, as such, should be recognised and protected.’ Article 16 of the Social Charter of Europe (1961), Article 23 of the International Treaty on Civil Rights, Article 10 of the International Charter on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as many other national and international instruments both affirm and develop this basic insight that the family is the nucleus of society, and for that reason is deserving of special status, development and care.

Our seminar here today is an expression of that care. In the words of the Holy Father’s recent exhortation on the Church in Europe, recognition ‘is due to the many families who, in the simplicity of a daily existence lived in love, are visible witnesses to the presence of Jesus who accompanies and sustains them with the gift of his Spirit. In order to support them on their journey,’ the Holy Father goes on to say, ‘it will be necessary to enrich the theology and spirituality of marriage and family life; to proclaim with firmness and integrity, and to demonstrate by convincing examples, the truth and the beauty of the family founded upon marriage and understood as a stable and fruitful union of man and woman; and to promote in
every ecclesial community an adequate and integrated programme of pastoral care for the family.’ (#91). Such issues are at the very heart of our discussions today.

But as we begin this seminar, it is important to acknowledge that the Church also needs, in the words of the Holy Father, ‘to provide assistance to those who are in difficult situations… In all events it will be necessary to encourage, assist and support families, both individually and in associations, who seek to play their proper role in the Church and in society, and to work for the promotion of genuine and adequate family policies on the part of the individual States and the European Union.’ (#91)

It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has both a duty and a right to teach and act in defence of the primacy of the natural institutions of marriage and the family. It is also for this reason that it cannot and should not apologise for insisting that other forms of relationship are not of the same nature and status
as that of marriage and the family. The looming debate about the level of recognition that is appropriate for what are called “de facto” unions makes this an important and urgent issue.


The so called ‘De Facto’ unions have been taking on special importance in recent years. The common element of such unions is that of being forms of co-habitation of a sexual kind, which are not marriage. Some recent initiatives propose the institutional recognition of ‘de facto’ unions and even their equivalence to families which have their origin in a marriage commitment. It is important to draw attention to the
damage that such recognition and equivalence would represent for the identity of marriage as traditionally understood. The question of recognition of same-sex unions has also been raised. The Catholic Church remains committed to advocating and promoting the common good of everyone in our society and to giving practical expression to our pastoral concern for homosexual people within and beyond the
Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual people are to be ‘accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity’ . The Church condemns all forms of violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual.

In recent years there have been significant changes to the law to remove discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexuality. These changes have removed injustices, without of themselves creating any parallel legal institution to marriage.

However, it is essential when considering future legislation concerning marriage and the family, to acknowledge the vital distinction between private homosexual behaviour between consenting adults, and formalising that behaviour as ‘a relationship in society, foreseen and approved by the law, to the point where it becomes an institution in the legal structure.’ Legal developments must be considered not
only in terms of their impact on individuals, but also in terms of their impact on the common good and on the fundamental institutions of society such as marriage and the family. As a recent Vatican Congregation’s note on this issue points out, ‘civil laws play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour. Legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.’

The recognition of same-sex unions on the same terms as marriage would suggest to future generations and to society as a whole that marriage as husband and wife, and a same-sex relationship, are equally valid options, and an equally valid context for the bringing up of children. Sacred Scripture and the natural order clearly point out that this is not the case.

What is at stake here is the natural right of children to the presence normally of a mother and father in their lives. Given the legal changes that have already taken place and the fact that two people can make private legal provision covering many aspects of their lives together, including joint ownership of homes, living wills and powers of attorney, the argument that same-sex marriage is necessary to protect
human rights becomes a redundant one. When it is balanced against the manner in which it will undermine such a fundamental institution as marriage and the family, it is difficult to see how such a development could be justified in terms of the Government’s duty to defend marriage and the common good.


The Second Synod on Europe discussed the pastoral care of the faithful who are divorced and civilly re-married. In the words of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, ‘they are not excluded from the community; rather, they are encouraged to share in its life, while undertaking a journey of growth, in the spirit of the Gospel’s demands.’ (#93) We need to examine again how seriously here in Ireland we have undertaken this task of encouraging and convincing people who are struggling with unresolved issues
in their lives that they are not excluded but belong to the community of the Church. We must constantly examine how faithfully we seek to make the Church a living sign and a sanctuary of God’s compassion for all of human kind.

The strong conviction that marriage and the family should have a privileged status has made the defence of marriage and the family a constant theme in Catholic social teaching and a legitimate focus for much of the Church’s activity and resources. It is wholly appropriate, for example, that the Catholic Church funds organisations such as CURA and ACCORD, about which we will hear more later. These organisations contribute in an outstanding way, on behalf of the Catholic Church, but not exclusively for the
Church, to the support of those three values of Catholic life which are inextricably linked – the Gospel of Life, the Covenant of Marriage, and the love of family.

ACCORD, provides care and support for those preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church, for those already married through programmes of enrichment and for those experiencing difficulties in their relationships, through its highly professional counselling service, in which it is generally regarded as a leader in its field. Currently it has 57 Centres throughout the island of Ireland and is jointly funded by the Irish Bishops’ Conference and by the Family Support Agency, under the Department of Family and Social Affairs. ACCORD is a welcome and worthy example of appropriate and effective co-operation between Church and State in the mutual support of the family. I salute the members of ACCORD for their generous and
invaluable contribution to the safeguarding and promotion of marriage.

ACCORD also provides the Irish Bishops’ Conference and Irish society as a whole with an important facility for research into the dynamics of marriage and family at work in our society. I found it particularly interesting to note the findings of their recent survey on ‘Unhappy marriages: Does Counselling Help?’ It indicated that three main issues were contributing to unhappiness in marriage:

• Trading criticism and insults and not listening
• Disputes over sharing housework and childcare chores
• Experiencing financial difficulties.

It seems that for men the main issue was criticism and for women, not being listened to. Perhaps there are lessons here for more than just married couples! It is also a timely reminder of the need to invest time in building our relationships at home, something which is under increasing strain because of the many financial pressures on the modern Irish family. To afford a house, to meet the demands of our consumerist
society and to pay the basic bills, including child care, more and more families have to have both parents going out to work, with the possibility that both parents are coming home tired, with little ‘quality’ time to spend with each other or with their children. The increased mobility of some families, their frequent movement from place to place without establishing any real roots, has further aggravated this situation.

This is particularly acutely felt by immigrant families and by refugees. Their sense of fear and isolation can be profound. Both the Government and local communities have an obligation to do all in their power to support the needs of those families in their midst who, like many Irish families who have emigrated, know what it is to be ‘strangers in a foreign land.’

In addition to ACCORD, the agency known as CURA also plays a central, and thoroughly professional role, in supporting the Church in its promotion of the Gospel of life, marriage and the family, providing care, counselling and support for those who find themselves dealing with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. Recent statistics show that more and more children are being born to single mothers, some of whom are very young. That this has coincided with the increased availability of contraception for young people, under the banner of reducing unwanted pregnancies, is a statistic deserving of more honest and objective reflection. Last year over 30% of all births registered in the Republic of Ireland were born outside of wedlock. CURA offers compassion and care for these mothers, fathers, children and their families. Many
of its voluntary workers open the doors of their homes to host these young mothers- to–be and to support them through their pregnancy. That the Trojan work done by CURA is often ignored is something much to be regretted. I thank this agency for its splendid service to the cause of life.

In more recent years the outstanding work of both these organisations has been supported and extended by the development of a wide range of Family Ministry programmes in various Dioceses throughout the country. These important initiatives are yet another concrete expression of the priority given to the support of the family in the life of the Church.

Their objective is to provide support for all aspects of the family through all its experiences, from parenting programmes to bereavement groups, from support for those facing separation and divorce to support for those preparing for marriage, to initiatives for children coping with separation or bereavement to the development of formally recognised training programmes for lay people who wish to work voluntarily in support of family life at Parish level.

The development of these initiatives is itself an indication of the unique and varied pressures which the family now faces in Irish life. The rapid pace of social change; the revolution of values within our culture; the sometimes inappropriate intrusion of the mass media into our homes; the impact of changing political and economic conditions, most notably the lack of affordable housing, the growing disillusionment with rampant consumerism and the increasing gap between the haves and the have nots: all of these have placed the Irish family under unprecedented stress in recent years.

Modern Challenges

Some of these pressures are due to broad social forces over which a family has no control. When market forces militate against the family then, the case for Government intervention is strong. Whether it is the lack of affordable housing, the promotion of excessive drinking, or the targeting of young people through highly sexualised music, marketing, clothes and magazines, there comes a time when someone in our
society must ask, is this the kind of society we really want? Have we got the balance right between the tried and tested values of the past and the legitimate hopes of a freer and more prosperous future? Have we substituted old forms of social and moral slavery for new ones? Where is the evidence that, for all the changes family life in Ireland is any happier, loving, or more secure than it was before?

Today I seem to meet more people, particularly parents, who are expressing concerns about what they see as the moral and social disintegration of Irish society. They feel isolated, unsupported and powerless in the face of a persistent undermining of the values which have traditionally sustained Irish society and the family, values like self-respect, self-control and sobriety.

They are deeply concerned about the increase in violent crime; excessive drinking patterns; the easy availability of illegal drugs; the disintegration of the sense of community; the loneliness and isolation of the modern city and the rural parish; the sexualisation of their children at an increasingly early age; the pressure to earn and to succeed; the fear that one of their children might commit suicide; and the development of a selfish class with little or no concern for the common good.

When the family disintegrates through unbearable social pressures, or when its privileged status is diminished, then a move towards unacceptable individualism is inevitable, with increased fragmentation and an accompanying loss of social cohesion. The home is where we learn how to live with others, how to cope with diversity, how to limit our individual desires in the light of other people’s needs. It is where we first learn the healing power of love and acceptance, how to cope with loss and hurt, where we learn the meaning of life and who we are. It is the first school of faith, the ‘domestic Church’, the ‘imprint of divine love’, the place where you can go, when no-one else will take you in. For all these reasons the family has a very valuable and irreplaceable role in Irish society.

It is for these reasons that our seminar here today is so important. A magnificent weekend of celebrations marked the accession of ten more countries into the EU. On Saturday last I was present at a meeting of the Polish Bishops’ Conference in Warsaw.

It was attended by bishops representing the vast majority of the EU countries. They spoke of the strong commitment to marriage and the family among their people. They voiced their concerns in case their governments or the European Union should do anything to undermine marriage and the family. It is probable that issues about marriage the family will play an increasingly important role in the forthcoming
European elections. It is right that the Church should offer this opportunity for people to press the ‘pause’ button on the issue of the Irish family and invite them to reflect on its future. Should we rewind, fast forward, or perhaps even reset our understanding of this particularly important and profoundly valuable institution?

Are we in danger of becoming more and more like the Simpsons, or has Ireland something deeper and more fruitful to offer to European, indeed to international reflection on the nature and role of the family?

My own suggestion is that we should honour the richness of our own Celtic and Christian tradition, with its ability to see the will of the Creator in the design of nature, with its instinctive sense of the sacred value of family and clan, yet with its remarkable capacity for hospitality, inclusion and welcome. We must draw from the best of what is old and what is new.

In thanking you all for being here, let me also thank the Irish Government for its decision to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Year of the Family. It shows a keen awareness of the importance of the family in our society and provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how critical it is for all of us to nurture and support the institutions of Christian marriage and the family.

At the Second Synod for Europe, held in 1999, which I had the honour to attend, it was noted that the age in which we live, with its own particular challenges, can seem to be a time of bewilderment. The loss of Europe’s christian memory and heritage can sometimes mean that many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots like heirs who have squandered an inheritance entrusted to them by history.
The heritage of truth about the family has been, from the beginning, tied for the Church and for the world. All generations of Christ’s disciples have drawn frequently on this treasure of truth.

In conclusion, let me renew the invitation of the Holy Father to all Christian families: –
‘Families become what you are! You are a living sign of God’s love, a sanctuary of life and the foundation of society, a model for the establishment of social relations lived out in solidarity and love… Be credible witnesses to the Gospel of hope! For you yourselves are ‘gaudium et spes’ ( joy and hope). (#94)

3rd May 2004