Aiming to Bolster Ireland’s Families

Interview With David Quinn of the Iona Institute

DUBLIN, Ireland, MARCH 7, 2007 ( A new think tank in Ireland is making the case that marriage and religious practice are vital contributors to a healthy, well-functioning civil society.

The Iona Institute for Religion and Society, directed by religious and social affairs commentator David Quinn, was launched last month to disseminate evidence-based research in favor of the importance of strong families and religious values in Irish society.

Quinn, one of the best-known religious affairs correspondents for the Irish Independent, comments in this interview with ZENIT on the situation of the family and religious practice in Ireland.

Q: Why did you decide to found the Iona Institute?

Quinn: The chief reason is that there was no organization in Ireland making known the evidence that both marriage and religious practice have numerous social and personal benefits. Nor was there any organization dedicated to devising policies that might promote and strengthen marriage.

Marriage is under severe pressure from individualistic social norms and what might be called “the family diversity” view which maintains that all families are basically the same and there is no reason for the state to favor one over the other.

Q: Can you tell us something about the current state of Ireland from a religious and social point of view?

Quinn: From being a country noted for a strong Catholic faith, Ireland has become far more secular. Admittedly, the Church could be authoritarian, but the old Catholic morality has been replaced with an increasingly virulent morality based on political correctness, which can be equally intolerant of dissenting opinions.

A good example of this is the resistance there is to any suggestion that all family forms are not the same in terms of their effect on their members.

For its part, Mass attendance, which only 20 years ago was as high as 80% of the population, is now as low as 50%, much less among the young. The Archdiocese of Dublin estimates that in some parts of the capital city, it has dipped below 10%.

The heavily individualistic morality now prevalent in Ireland is leading to serious social ills. For example, crime has risen dramatically in the past number of years, as have rates of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

Q: Family has always been a major part of Irish culture. Has this been similarly affected by recent changes?

Quinn: The family in Ireland is in increasing trouble. In 1986, for example, 37,000 people had separated from their spouses. By 2002, this had surged to 134,000, or 10% of all married persons. One-third of all children are now born outside of wedlock each year.

Q: How have politicians responded to this growing problem?

Quinn: Irish politicians and commentators are largely burying their heads in the sand on this issue. Marital breakdown is the problem they are incredibly reluctant to talk about. Meanwhile, policies which actively harm family life are in plentiful supply.

Q: Name some of these policies.

Quinn: One is called tax individualization. It treats couples as quite separate individuals, instead of jointly. It pretends they have little or no relationship with one another, and no condition of financial dependence.

This tax policy is supposed to encourage both spouses to go out into the workplace, but it penalizes stay-at-home parents in favor of double-income families. A second example are proposed new laws to give gay couples and cohabiting couples “marriagelike” rights. These are currently being considered by Ireland’s lower house of Parliament.

Q: How does the Iona Institute propose to address these issues?

Quinn: By using the evidence. There is a growing consensus in the social sciences that traditional marriage works. Nearly all studies on this issue show that children fare markedly better when both their parents are married to each other, and worse in single-parent families and stepfamilies, although obviously there are plenty of exceptions. So the evidence is on our side.

This doesn’t mean penalizing single parents, however. It just means recognizing what the research, and common sense, tell us, and following that through to its logical conclusion.

Q: So why haven’t policy-makers already acted on this evidence?

Quinn: One reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that the family diversity view has no shortage of advocates. On the other hand, while there are still plenty of people who support marriage, no one is devising workable, politically realistic, pro-marriage policies.

The family diversity view has also succeeded in frightening many politicians away from pro-marriage positions. They are terrified of giving offense to people in non-marital families.

They are worried they will sound judgmental, although there is a world of difference between judging people morally, and making the practical judgment that marriage generally produces the best outcomes for children.

Q: You mention “strengthening civil society.” How does marriage do this?

Quinn: By being a moral transmitter, by socializing children, by encouraging parents to come together, and stay together, for the sake of their children.

It is true to say that each of us has a moral sense, a feeling about what constitutes right and wrong. But this needs to be formed, and for most of us it is our parents who give us this guidance. And here, as with so many other things, two heads are better than one.

Q: So what policies will you be promoting?

Quinn: We’ve only been in existence for a little over a month, and these things take time!

Nonetheless, we will have some concrete position papers published in the next few weeks in time for Ireland’s general election in the early summer.

We plan to have a paper on the inequality caused by the tax individualization law soon. We will also be publishing a response to the government’s proposals to grant marriagelike rights to cohabiting couples in the near future.

Q: You link marriage with religion. Surely these are two separate issues?

Quinn: Yes, they are. But they have this in common. Religion, like the family, acts as a moral transmitter. It inculcates in us certain values, it teaches us to be morally responsible.

There is a fast-growing body of evidence to show that religious practice does indeed have protective effects against problems like drug and alcohol abuse, mental illnesses like depression, family breakdown, crime, etc.

We hope to make this better known to people, including within the Church itself, and to encourage ordinary Christians to be more self-confident in asserting the importance of religion for society.

Q: Finally, why did you call your organization the Iona Institute?

Quinn: It is named after a famous monastic community founded on the island of Iona by early Irish monks. It’s a name that’s familiar both in Ireland and overseas, and carries a strong, positive resonance among all Christians, and even non-Christians.

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