The Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has said decades of service by countless Irish religious sisters and priests to the education and healthcare of people in Ireland and globally is being almost obliterated by a revised and narrow narrative that religious ethos cannot be good for democracy.
Speaking to a university audience in England this evening, Dr Martin said there is little appetite in Ireland for any serious questioning of the almost compulsory consensus on controversial issues.
He criticised a tendency to give the impression that when a school, hospital or other institution is related to faith matters, some special religious revelations underlie it which are unconnected with reason.
Delivering the annual Cardinal Newman Lecture at the University of East Anglia, he said that every Catholic position on concrete morals is argued from reason even when there exists a biblical warrant for that position.
"It is simply not true that the Catholic Church has a desire to create a theocracy in Ireland, north or south," the archbishop told his audience.
"However the church does expect that in a true pluralist democracy or republic, religion and faith will continue to have an important part to play in the national conversation," he continued.
He said it is important to acknowledge that the process of "secularisation" which leads to what the church recognises as the "rightful autonomy of earthly affairs", is very different from "secularism", which at times may quite aggressively seek to exclude the voice of faith and religion altogether from the public square.
Emphasising the importance for Catholics in Ireland to learn new ways of presenting their sincerely held perspectives alongside others of other faiths and none, and to encourage conversations on significant issues at a national level, Dr Martin praised President Michael D Higgins' 'Ethics Initiative'.
He underlined its finding last year that "there needs to be a renewed focus on the 'common good'."
However, Archbishop Martin said there seems to be little appetite in Ireland for any substantial critique of culture by people of faith, particularly if it presents any serious questioning of the almost compulsory consensus on controversial issues.
He said this strengthens a tendency amongst some in Ireland towards secularism, and a caricaturing of the church and people of faith as being "unmodern", "authoritarian", "hypocritical", "bigoted", "closed" to progress and personal rights and autonomy.
"At times we need to have a broad back in the public square, and, particularly so, on social media where people of faith often have to endure insult or ridicule, or even personal attack simply for being present in the public square at all."
Urging his church to adopt a compassionate rather than a condemnatory approach to wider society, Dr Martin said we live in a time when rising individualism is often accompanied by growing disaffection with public representatives and a more widespread disillusionment with society and a decline in the quality of public discourse and debate.
"The state will flourish," he predicted, "if it is able to sustain itself as a 'community of communities'".
But in a comment aimed at advocates of secularism, he cautioned that the State will struggle if such communities find themselves unwelcome or even forced to retreat from the public square.
Archbishop Martin said he is convinced that the failures of the past by the Catholic Church must not be allowed to define its members in Ireland but should instead help all of them working in the public sphere to learn lessons for the present about where church and society might today be similarly marginalising the poor, stigmatising the unwanted or failing to protect the most vulnerable.