The issues covered at the December 2006 General Meeting of the Irish Episcopal Conference in Maynooth included the Age of Consent, Violence in Society and the Permanent Diaconate.

The Age of Consent

The Irish Episcopal Conference welcomes the report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Child Protection of 30 November last. The Bishops recommend that the proposals be subject to serious study and wide public debate. However, even at this stage, Bishops wish to register their deep concern at the lack of any reference to the moral issues involved. The question of child protection should not blind the public to the broader issues, such as the increase in teenage sexual activity and its consequences in terms of danger not only to their physical and psychological health, but also, and in particular, to their moral well-being. In this context, Bishops view the lowering of the age of consent to 16 with alarm, as this sends out the wrong signal to a young generation who, under the influence of teenage glossy magazines, peer pressure, and binge drinking, feel engaging in sexual activity as something trivial.

For Christians, sex is anything but trivial. Sex is sacred and is reserved for the loving, caring context of a life-long marriage, which in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions is a sacrament, namely a place of encounter with Christ. Sexual abstinence is part of the moral preparation for the radical commitment that constitutes marriage. Anything that would undermine the moral effort needed to preserve moral and physical integrity among teenagers must be resisted by any mature society.

Children need to be protected not only from irresponsible adults but also from themselves, until they reach the age of maturity, now considered to be 18. Further, the proposal to lower the age of consent also sends out the wrong signal to parents, who are themselves often confused as to how they should react in the face of their children’s activities. Parents also deserve the support of the State as well as the Church to help them in their difficult task of rearing children in an age dominated by moral indifference.

Finally, as Bishops, we cannot but express our amazement that politicians and public opinion makers shy away from confronting the basic demands of morality, namely what is right and wrong. Until such time as morality is respected for what it is – the bedrock of personal integrity and of communal life – Irish society, in the midst of increasing material prosperity, will continue its downward descent into moral chaos where literally anything goes.

Violence in Society:

Our buoyant economy continues to show us that we enjoy an excellent quality of life and that the social and economic development of our country continues unabated. Nevertheless, there is a deeply worrying aspect of our lives which is a cause of deep concern for all of us – violence. Violence in our country and in our streets has become commonplace. Violence in its many forms, is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of many families. Fear of violence has become a feature of our lives – especially for those living in some of our housing estates which have been scarred by murder, rape and abuse. The portrayal of violence in much of our media, television programmes, music and even video games, is poisoning the minds and distorting the lives of many of our children.

Our social fabric is being torn apart by a culture of violence that leaves people dead on our streets and gunned down in their own homes. Our society seems to be growing numb to human loss and suffering as yet another murder or assault is reported, another family devastated by a road death, and certain housing estates, themselves the subject of poor planning and inadequate maintenance, are constant reminders of the destructive culture of violence on an almost daily basis. No member of our community can ignore the moral and human costs of so much violence in our midst. No one can underestimate the destructive effects such violence has on the minds and attitudes of our young people and a threat to the very life of our nation.
Words and statements alone cannot stop weapons, contract killings, road rage, abuse and exploitation in all its forms, the destructive culture of drug abuse and binge drinking. But, commitment and conversion can change us. Person by person, family by family, community by community, we must take society back from the evil and fear that has come to dominate with its accompanying violence. We believe our faith in Jesus Christ gives us the values, vision and hope that can bring an important measure of peace to our hearts, our homes, and our streets. But it is not just our policies, or lack of them, not just our programmes that must change, but our hearts. The Bishops wish to acknowledge the hard work undertaken by An Garda Sochna and the PSNI. Police forces themselves accept that they alone cannot remove violence from our midst.

The Bishops call for an ongoing debate to be managed by our elected representatives and civic leaders both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, in order to devise ways to counteract the rising level of violence in our communities. Fundamentally, our society needs a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence with a renewed ethic of justice, responsibility and community. New policies and programs, while necessary, cannot substitute for a recovery of the old values of right and wrong, respect and responsibility, love and justice. The teachings of Jesus Christ are clear as are the biblical values of respect for life, peace and justice and community. The teaching of the Church on respect for human life and dignity, on right and wrong, on family, on justice and peace, on rights and duties are available to us. They are imperatives for the common good. Our faith challenges each of us to examine how we can contribute to an ethic which cherishes life, puts people before things, and values kindness and compassion over anger, intolerance, vengeance and lack of forgiveness. A growing sense of national fear and concern must be replaced by a new commitment to solidarity and an enhancing of the common good. As we prepare to celebrate this Christmas season of good will towards all human beings, we urge that we turn again with renewed confidence and heartfelt prayer to Jesus Christ who is the Prince of Peace.

The Permanent Diaconate

The Episcopal Conference has published the National Directory and Norms for the Permanent Diaconate, which has been approved by the Holy See. The diaconate is an ordained ministry which traces its origins back to Apostolic times. In about the fourth century, for a variety of reasons, including the rapid development of the Church, the permanent diaconate as a distinct ministry disappeared and many of its functions were absorbed into the role of the priests. Eventually the diaconate came to be regarded as a stage on the way to priesthood. As part of a process of renewal of ministries in the Church, both lay and ordained, the Second Vatican Council decided to restore the diaconate as a distinct ministry. It is permanent in the sense that it is not simply a stage on the way to priesthood, and those who are ordained will serve as deacons. The National Directory and Norms outlines the historical origins of the diaconate and how it came to be restored. It explores the ministry of deacons in the modern Church, and outlines how they should be selected and formed for their ministry. Some practical issues:
Ordained ministry
Deacons receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. There are three orders, bishops, priests, and deacons. Deacons would not normally wear clerical dress, but would wear vestments when officiating at the liturgy.
Eligibility
Candidates for the permanent diaconate would be men who have a good knowledge of the Gospel, a well established spiritual life, and a proven willingness to serve others, even at some personal cost. The minimum age for admission to the permanent diaconate is twenty-five years for a celibate candidate, and thirty-five years for a married candidate. The maximum age is sixty years. While married men may be ordained, deacons who are widowed do not normally remarry. In order to ensure that the diaconate does not conflict with the responsibilities of marriage, a married man may only be accepted as a candidate for diaconate if he has the formal approval of his wife. The wives of candidates are usually invited to participate in the formation programme and will often themselves take on a ministry of some kind in the Church.
Formation
There will be a preliminary (or propaedeutic) year before a man is accepted as a candidate. The formation programme itself will take three years (part time). It involves the serious study of theology and philosophy, as well as pastoral, spiritual and human formation.
Ministry
Deacons are not called to be substitute priests or to replace the lay ministry which is so essential to the life of the Church. Their principal responsibilities will be to proclaim the Gospel, to assist at the Eucharist, and to exercise a ministry of charity which is the logical out-flow from the Eucharist. The bishops are concerned that all Catholics will be helped to participate actively in the life of the Church, and the diaconate should facilitate that rather than being in any sense an impediment to that participation. The introduction of the permanent diaconate may provide an ideal opportunity in each diocese to look again at the meaning of all ministry (lay and ordained), and the relationship between the different gifts and different forms of service.
How and When
Now that the approval of the Holy See has been received, Bishops are free to move towards the establishment of the permanent diaconate. Once this decision is made, we might expect the first deacons to be ordained four years later.
Conditions of Service
As a general rule deacons will be appointed to a parish near their home, and entrusted by the bishop with specific responsibilities. Some deacons may take on specialised ministries which are in keeping with their gifts and experience. Most deacons will exercise a part-time voluntary ministry, but expenses associated with formation and ministry will normally be paid by their diocese or parish. Towards a Creative Response to Infertility In December 2001, Bishops made a submission to the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction (CAHR). In our initial response to the report of the Commission in 2005, bishops focused primarily on the issue of respect for the right to life. The document, Towards a Creative Response to Infertility, published by Veritas in recent days on behalf of the Episcopal Conference, is a more substantial response, and includes an analysis of the each of the 40 recommendations made by the CAHR. The bishops agree to a greater or lesser extent with nine of the recommendations, but disagree (vehemently in many cases) with the other 31 recommendations. The bishops begin by identifying a number of principles which for Catholics, are non-negotiable, and which underpin the approach of the Catholic Church, among others, to issues of human procreation. These are: respect for the right to life and bodily integrity; respect for the family; respect for the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. While the Church does not ask the State to legislate in accordance with her teaching, the bishops point out that the inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the State: they pertain to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his or her origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard:- every human beings right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death;- the rights of the family and of marriage as an institution and, in this area, the childs right to an identity of origin (ie that the essential natural link between the life giving role of parents, and their responsibility of care, would be upheld). Bishops believe that there is indeed a need for legislation to control the technology of assisted human reproduction. We are no less certain that any new legislation which would permit these fundamental rights to be eroded would ultimately be contributing to a serious decline in the standards of justice and equity in every aspect of our civil society.

Key issues addressed in Towards a Creative Response to Infertility
The right to life:

The Catholic Church rejects as totally unacceptable the recommendation of the CAHR that: The embryo formed by IVF should not attract legal protection until placed in the human body, at which stage it should attract the same level of protection as the embryo formed in vivo. Once fertilisation is complete, the organism has become a human being. There is nothing else it can be. It continues to develop and grow, of course. But all development or change necessarily involves some continuity; something in which the change takes place.

This something is the human individual. It has its own genetically unique body. It has its own substantial form, the human soul, which is its first principle of life. It is this principle of life which facilitates and directs the development of the person throughout the lifetime of the organism. While recognising that biomedical research is an essential element of healthcare and contributes to the saving of human lives on a daily basis, the bishops point out that the right to conduct research is not an absolute right. Irrespective of what positive law may decide, human embryos as genetically distinct individuals of the human species have natural rights which cannot be ignored. The goodness of research is vitiated when, as a necessary pre-condition, it requires the destruction of human embryos. The bishops welcome the recommendation that embryos should not be generated specifically for research purposes, but go on to suggest that the recommendation is illogical. Bishops point out that either embryos are entitled to have their right to life respected, in which case this recommendation is appalling, or they are not so entitled, in which case there is no reason for the restrictions. The illogicality of the recommendation is a result of the Commissions never having faced up to the fundamental question of the status of the embryo. The value of an embryo is not dependent on why it was generated, on the purpose which we assign to it or on how we feel about it.
Right to family:
In most cases of AHR, the CAHR recommends that the gestational mother (or birth mother) be recognized in law as the mother of the child and that her partner be recognized as the father. By contrast the commission recommends that, in the case of surrogacy, the child should be recognized as that of the commissioning couple. The bishops point out that the net effect of these recommendations is to suggest that children are property, the control and ownership of which can be agreed between adults, in a manner approved by law. We argue, on the contrary, that children are persons in their own right, whose primary purpose is not the fulfillment of their parents.
Cloning:
The bishops argue that the distinction made by the CAHR between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning is a totally spurious one, which has no basis in fact. Bishops wish to point out that human cloning, irrespective of its ultimate purpose, would always be reproductive in that the immediate result of cloning would be the generation of a human embryo. Any distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning is purely spurious.
Freezing of embryos:
Although it proposes that appropriate guidelines should be put in place by the regulatory body to govern the freezing of excess healthy embryos, the CAHR also recommends that , service providers should facilitate users who wish to avoid any treatment that might result in the production of surplus embryos. The bishops consider that many of the ethical difficulties which arise in assisted human reproduction result from the decision to produce so-called surplus embryos. Bishops have some reservations about the terminology here. While some embryos may be surplus to the requirements of the couple, we dont believe that any human embryo can really be considered as surplus because each embryo is primarily for itself and not for anyone else. One of the key issues in the recent case of frozen embryos (Roche v Roche et al) was whether the embryo can be regarded as unborn in the sense meant by article 40.3.3. of the constitution. The CAHR suggests that it is not clear whether protection applies from fertilisation or from some subsequent point in the process, and argues that clarity can only be sought either from the Supreme Court or by way of constitutional referendum. Bishops point out, however, that the Supreme Court can only clarify in the very questionable sense of interpreting the words of the Constitution in the light of what it believes or imagines to be prevailing ideas and concepts, but not in the sense of determining what the people intended when they enacted the Constitution and its amendments.
Critique of the pre-suppositions underpinning the report of the Commission for Assisted Human Reproduction:
The chairperson of the CAHR makes it clear that: the Commission sought to put forward a framework broad enough to be generally acceptable to all individuals and groups in society. The bishops wish to highlight that this statement does not take account of the fundamental question as to whether some ethical/moral principles form part of the foundation on which society, however multicultural, is built. The Commission begins its deliberations by accepting that everything is a matter for political compromise. Some of the implications of this assumption become clear as the document proceeds to draw conclusions.

NaProTechnology:

Bishops devote two pages of their document to a presentation of NaProTechnology. This is an approach to the treatment of infertility which seeks to make use of the natural procreative process and which has been used very successfully to treat even couples who have had multiple unsuccessful IVF procedures. The beauty of NaproTechnology is that it is couple centred, it respects the meaning of human sexuality, and does not place the embryo at risk. The bishops conclude by saying: We would strongly recommend that funding be made available for further research into the potential of natural procreative therapies and for the further development of existing NaProTechnology services.

Trafficking of Women:

Bishops call on the Irish Government to urgently enact legislation designed to address the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation into this country. It is important that anti-trafficking legislation is framed so as to offer assistance to women in such circumstances and not be used to deport them back to their countries of origin. The legislation must ensure that trafficked women are offered permits for temporary residency after they escape or are persuaded to flee from their traffickers – and this will give the women time to recover to some degree from the trauma and receive the necessary support. Trafficked women are victims of a horrendous crime which involves being lured to travel abroad for a better life and then forced into a life of violence in prostitution. The human rights of these victims of crime must be a central part of anti-trafficking legislation, offering the women protection, medical, social and psychological assistance. The Holy Father, when speaking about this aspect of migration in this years message for Migrants and Refugees, said: I make my own the condemnation voiced by John Paul II against the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, 29 June 1995, N.5). This outlines a whole programme of redemption and liberation from which Christians cannot withdraw.

ENDS Further information: Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678) Brenda Drumm Communications Officer (087 233 7797)