Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has warned the Catholic Church here not to get entangled in trying to define the family in the lead-up to a global church meeting on the topic in Dublin 2018, writes Religious and Social Affairs Correspondent Joe Little.

He also warned Irish delegates preparing for the event - that Pope Francis has said he wants to attend -against rushing to tell people what to do without first recognising the greatness, beauty and courage of very many Irish families.

The Archbishop of Dublin was speaking at a national conference marking the beginning of preparations for the World Meeting of Catholic Families which his diocese will be hosting in August 2018.

In speaking notes for his keynote address to almost 700 Catholic activists in Drumcondra, Archbishop Martin began by praising Pope Francis' document 'The Joy of Love' (Amoris Laetitia) published six months ago.

It is the Pontiff's "effort in drawing together the main strands of a process" involving two summits representing the world's Catholic bishops which he summoned in 2014 and 2015 and the results of a questionnaire he asked to be circulated globally to parishioners before the first summit.

He told the representatives of the country's Catholic families their task at today's meeting was to determine how the "Church in Ireland wishes to respond to that gift (document) and to the challenge Pope Francis has proposed".

He agreed with remarks by the Archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Gerard Lacroix, expressing disappointment that so much media coverage of 'The Joy of Love' focussed exclusively on discussions about firstly, the ban on giving Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and, secondly, homosexuality.

Dr Martin warned that much comment "not just by the media but also by many bishops" that focuses on those issues "in an isolated way…. has ended up in people not seeing the creative pastoral approach within which Pope Francis wishes us to deal with these two important issues which require urgent, intense and caring attention within the Church". 

He praised Pope Francis for his emphasis on mercy and for always moving "outside the conventional box. We owe it to him to look more attentively at his pastoral approach".

"Pope Francis frames his reflection on marriage and the family around the concept of mercy".

'The Joy of Love' has not been an uncontroversial document. Bishops and Cardinals have publicly criticised the document or have tried to place their own interpretation on it in such a way as to fail to grasp the insights of Pope Francis.

They fear that the emphasis on mercy will weaken the promulgation of the truth. One commentator, the Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, noted how many synod bishops were uneasy with the emphasis on mercy. They said that people need much more to rediscover a sense of sin. There is certainly truth in that.

"But he (Father Spadaro) adds: "The Gospel proclamation that the Lord has died for us, has died for me, is not the proclamation of sin. The proclamation of the Gospel is that of mercy: in the light of the mercy of the Lord's forgiveness, I understand my sin, I comprehend my sin. If there is no perception of a merciful God, the sense of sin is merely a sense of guilt, which is often useless."

Archbishop Martin warned that if we have difficulty in understanding that 'God's name is mercy' (the title of a book by Pope Francis), "or if we have some name of our own for God, then we may well have ended up with a false God.

"We have then to ask: 'If the name of God is mercy, how did we end up, especially in Ireland, with the idea of a harsh condemnatory God who seems to wish to judge us in our sinfulness and humiliate us?' If we have created such a God then we misunderstand both God and sin. Sinfulness is not about breaking arbitrary rules: sinfulness is failure to love and failure to be merciful. 

"When I was in the seminary we learned much about sexual sins. 'The Joy of Love' talks above all about paths to spiritual growth to help couples and families find true fulfillment and freedom in the Gospel and the Church's rich teaching on marriage."

Dr Martin praised Pope Francis' pastoral method for urging us to address problems directly. 

"Let me quote Father Spadaro once again: 'One cannot enlighten reality without first having heard it'. We have to listen. It is not the case that we should retreat into a closed culture or into a safe comfort zone and hide.

"Father Spadaro continues: 'The human being is not an element extraneous to the Gospel. The Gospel is not an abstract doctrine that strikes people from the outside like a stone. It must be incarnated in lived lives, in experiences'.

Archbishop Martin said: "You see that there is no such thing as the ideal family. There are many problems which we must address. But this does not mean that we renounce presenting an ideal, which men and women and young people can aspire to and hope to achieve.

"Cardinal Lacroix notes that we are not called to dilute the Church's teaching or diminish it but we have to find a way to interest and help our brothers and sisters to grow in it. We do this, he stresses, by accompanying people, by helping them to discern what is fragile in their lives, what is difficult, what is not up to par with what the Gospel is asking and then invite them to grow in the understanding of and fidelity to what Jesus demands.  'We have nothing to impose, we have something wonderful to propose,' the Cardinal had said.

Dr Martin noted: "We have often begun by condemning those who fail, when we know that none of us comes to live the fullness of the Gospel right away.

"Pope Francis recognises the difficulties we have in understanding the teaching of Jesus in our current cultures. He says that: 'At times we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete and practical possibilities of real families'. He admits that: 'We find it difficult to present marriage as a more dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment rather than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful … We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.'

Dr Martin added that the current Pope had stated that that Christian morality is not "a never falling down", but "an always getting up again, thanks to this hand which catches us".

He said Pope Francis had told him the hosting of the World Meeting of Families (WMF) by Dublin was a gift to the Irish Church. In an interview with the Irish Independent last May, Dr Martin said the Pope had told him that either he or his successor will visit Ireland for the event which is scheduled to take place in Dublin from the 22-26 August 2018.

Archbishop Martin told today's gathering in the Saint Patrick's Campus of Dublin City University the WMF should be a high point within a process "which should help us dispassionately to look to at the inadequacies of our pastoral work for families. You will remember that phrase: 'We cannot enlighten reality without first having listened to it'. But we cannot be satisfied with simply listening: we have to enlighten also. Our listening should not be just to the negative."

Dr Martin then made a thinly veiled appeal for no repetition on the part of the Catholic Church here of some of the criticisms of same-sex couples during the same-sex marriage referendum campaign a year-and-a-half ago when Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in a popular vote. The majority was 62% to 38%.

"Let me say something about which I feel strongly," Dr Martin said. "Do not allow ourselves to be become entangled in trying to produce definitions of the family. Family is such a trans-cultural value that it cannot be defined simply. We may find it hard to define, but we all recognise what is family. We should not be rushing in telling people what to do, without first of all recognising what is great and beautiful and courageous in so many Irish families."

During the 2015 referendum campaign, the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Dr Kevin Doran, stated in a radio interview that gay couples with children are not necessarily parents.

He told Newstalk Breakfast that even if a gay couple has children, "people who have children are not necessarily parents".

The following day, he issued an apology through the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, who reported that Bishop Doran regretted any hurt that his words may have caused, either in the way they were said or 'the way they were represented'.

In 2013, before he was ordained a bishop, Dr Doran openly challenged Archbishop Martin for not preventing Dublin's Catholic Mater Hospital from complying with that year's Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. The measure was the first in over 20 years to legislate for the Supreme Court's 1992 judgement in the 'X Case' which sanctioned an abortion when the life of a mother 'X' was at risk due to the threat of suicide.

Dr Doran resigned from the board of the Mater Hospital following the hospital's decision to comply. The legislation had been strongly opposed by the Catholic Bishops' Conference here which said it would make the direct and intentional killing of unborn children lawful here, was morally unacceptable and unnecessary in the context of ensuring that women receive the life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy.

At the time a spokesperson for Dr Martin said he believed the Mater Hospital had always been "scrupulous" in trying to defend both the life of mother and the unborn child and the hospital had a great tradition of caring for very difficult pregnancies and doing it well and within the ethos of the hospital over many years.

The spokesperson added that the Archbishop would seek further clarification on the exact meaning of the hospital's statement that it would be complying. That statement had said: "The Mater Hospital has carefully considered the Act. The hospital's priority is to be at the frontier of compassion, concern and clinical care for all our patients. Having regard to that duty, the hospital will comply with the law as provided for in the act."

Bishop Doran was Secretary General of the last global church gathering in Ireland, the International Eucharistic Congress of 2012, which was held in the archdiocese of Dublin where he had worked until he was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis less than two years later.