– Ahead of Northern Ireland’s assembly elections, the region’s Catholic bishops have reflected on the situation facing voters and the importance of voting with well-formed consciences.
“Far from separating us from concern about society and its development, the Gospel commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself commits us ‘to work for the good of all people and of each person, because we are all really responsible for all’,” said the bishops, citing the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The February 22 message was signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and other leading Catholic bishops.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly elections will take place March 2. The vote for the region’s legislative body follows political controversies regarding overspending on a renewable energy heating program, which called into question the power sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.
Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, resigned in protest on January 10 over allegations that First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party mishandled the project. The resignation triggered the elections.
In this climate, the bishops said, “the premature collapse of our political institutions is a serious matter for all of us.” Despite progress towards peace and prosperity in the 20 years since the pivotal Good Friday Agreement, they saw a return of “bitter language and tone of conflict” to political discourse.
Northern Ireland’s bishops encouraged voters to reflect on Catholic social teaching in their decisions.
They stressed the need to build a culture that loves and cares for others, especially the most vulnerable. They cited Pope Francis’s call for a “revolution of tenderness” that replaces hardened hearts with “a sensitivity and active concern to protect all and care for all.”
Noting pressures to introduce legal abortion in Northern Ireland, the bishops rejected a “throwaway culture” that treats human beings as disposable.
They said the region’s laws should equally value the life of both mother and unborn child, and not “diminish our humanity by destroying another human life.” They warned against efforts to portray legal abortion as “limited,” as the procedure always intentionally takes the life of an innocent.
“Central to the good news that the Church proclaims is that the life of every person is sacred and inviolable, irrespective of the stage or state of that life,” they said. This is a fundamental principle that every other human right presumes.
The bishops lamented “disturbing levels” of child poverty, with almost 110,000 children in Northern Ireland living below the poverty line. The region has some of the highest levels of the numbers of working poor and the disabled, in addition to other features of income inequality.
The bishops said voters should prioritize “the systemic and comprehensive eradication” of childhood poverty and the provision of other social needs.
They advocated for a constructive political culture based on “a shared commitment to the common good” instead of the constitutional issues that have traditionally played a key role in Northern Irish politics.
Many Catholics have found it increasingly difficult to find a political party for which they can vote in good conscience. The bishops said that in the absence of clear alternatives, Catholics should “maximize the good” and limit any potential harm through their election choices.
Northern Ireland’s bishops stressed the importance of recognizing marriage as the union of one man and one woman. To recognize other relationships equally undercuts the importance of the biological bond and natural ties between parents and children.
They cited Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, which said same-sex unions are in no way similar to marriage and are not analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family.
The bishops encouraged a welcoming attitude towards refugees who flee dangers including persecution, war, and natural disaster. They advocated an increase in the number of refugees resettled from Syria to Northern Ireland.
Similarly, the bishops voiced concern for the persecution of Christians abroad, as well as “subtle forms of exclusion and discrimination” against Christians in western democracies.
They reported that local Christians have described a chilling effect in the region’s law and public policy that excludes church and faith groups from public funding or caricatures them in public debate because of their beliefs regarding marriage or their pro-life stand.
They noted the failure of the Northern Ireland Assembly to protect the right of a Catholic adoption agency to act in accord with its religion and voiced hope that this could change in the future.
They also rejected some views of “integrated” education that suggest Catholic schools do not contribute to reconciliation, tolerance, and understanding. In fact, the bishops contended, these schools have a Christian ethos that is “inclusive, welcoming and tolerant.”
Some approaches to education reject parents’ rights to ensure a faith-based education for their children, and even cloak “a deep-seated hostility to the Catholic faith itself.”
Recommendations for voters also drew on Pope Francis’s encyclical on care for creation, Laudato si’, which points out the challenges of environmental degradation and climate change. Northern Ireland’s bishops said caring for creation is good in itself and something owed to future generations.
They praised Northern Ireland’s leading role in the development of renewable energy technologies, and suggested the next Assembly should focus on further improving this aspect of the economy, while also encouraging protection for natural landscapes, fisheries, and other resources.
Further, the bishops noted the dangers of human trafficking and the “disturbing levels” of homelessness.
They noted the publication of an important report on historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and acknowledged that both Church and society failed to protect the vulnerable.
“We apologize unreservedly to all those who suffered from their experience in Church-run institutions, and to their loved ones,” the bishops said, acknowledging the inadequacy of apology while urging the report’s recommendations against abuse be rapidly established.
The bishops concluded their statement with ten questions drawn from Catholic social teaching that voters should ask candidates.