Post-Christendom (5) cultural transformers

This post continues to unpack the argument of my paper “Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

So the question at the heart of any public theology is how to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Or how to live out the tension between O’Donovan’s ‘colourless assimilation’ and ‘abstract idealism’.

John Stackhouse, in his Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, talks about ‘cultural transformers‘ (this post) versus those advocating a form of ‘holy distinctness’ (next post).

The ‘cultural transformers’ tend to have a ‘take it over’ approach. In other words, it is the pursuit of the goal of shaping society according to Christian values.

You see this tendency in the evangelical American religious right as well as in nuanced versions of neo-Calvinism descending from the nineteenth century traditions of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in Dublin

But it is very strong within conservative Roman Catholicism – just think of 20th century ‘Catholic Ireland’ for an extreme example of the church ‘taking over’ just about every aspect of culture.

In the paper I propose that the following groups are operating out of a ‘cultural transformationalist’ theological grid in their responses to the 2010 Civil Partnership Bill. Here’s a summary:

i. The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference

The Irish Catholics Bishop’s Conference articulated a traditional Catholic cultural transformationalist case for opposing the Bill. The CPB’s virtual equating of civil partnership with marriage undermines marriage itself by implying that the state has no vested interest in whether people marry or not, rather than being ‘fundamental to the very existence and wellbeing of society as a whole.’ It neglects the constitutional role of the Irish state to ‘guard with special care’ the institution of marriage. It prepares the way for same-sex partnerships to be called marriage. It is unjust in that it deprives children their right to both a mother and a father.

ii. The Iona Institute

The Iona Institute exists to promote ‘the place of marriage and religion in society.’ While not explicitly stated, it is clearly a Catholic organisation reflecting Catholic moral values. It is likely that its aims are shaped by a Catholic understanding of natural law – that certain rights or values can be apprehended by human reason and have universal validity by virtue of the fact that this is the way God has created things to be. This sort of framework tends to lead in a Christendom direction.

However, it’s telling that Institute make no arguments on moral, theological or biblical grounds, acknowledging that they ‘would be very difficult to sustain in a pluralist society where many people do not subscribe to Christian or other religious tenets and have a different moral view of marriage in any case.’ In light of this, Iona’s central argument for opposing the CPB is a pragmatic one; marriage works better for children and therefore ‘State and society have a duty to objectively assess which family forms produce the best outcomes for children.’ And since the evidence points to marriage, the State should promote marriage.

iii. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI)

The PCI is an all-Ireland church and has responded to similar 2005 Civil Partnership legislation in the UK. This policy was explicitly reapplied to the Irish Government’s proposals and made similar points to other cultural transformationalist perspectives, namely that Civil Partnership legislation will ‘lead to the degrading of marriage in our society which we believe to a God-given institution for the well ordering and well being of human relationships’ … ‘which will be in the interests of none of us.’

All three of these responses argue that it is the state’s role to support and legislate for Christian ethics. What do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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