3/4/06 Social Care in changing Ireland

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Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Dublin Institute of Technology, Mountjoy Square, 3rd April 2006

        As a seminarian in Clonliffe College, I spent my summers working in a centre for ex-prisoners in London.  It was there that I first came into regular contact with the professional world of the caring professions and began to take an interest in and read contemporary writing on social work theory in Britain.
        After ordination, I was sent to Rome to continue my theological studies and my professor, a remarkable Italian moral theologian, asked me if I had any ideas on what I would possibly like to write a thesis.  My immediate suggestion was on “A comparison of the Anthropology of British Social Work Theory and biblical anthropology”, and I had even brought my books with me from Dublin to facilitate my work.   I was a little dismayed when the Professor replied: “But there is no one here who could moderate a thesis on British Social Work Theory, why do you not think about writing something on Saint Paul?”.

        From my limited experience in social work, I had learned enough about dealing with people to recognise when there was no point in pushing something any farther, so Saint Paul it was to be – and in hindsight I do not regret it.

        I recall that experience today to stress that every scientific theory in the social work area is inspired by its own anthropology, its own understanding of who the human person is, and is of course coloured by such anthropology.  There can be debates around and between different visions of anthropology. The challenge is to ensure that anthropology does not become ideology, that it does not become self-serving to the detriment of the real needs person that you find yourself dealing with.

That struck me when I read in one of the initial reflections in a note I received about today’s meeting.  The note read: “It appears to us that in adopting a holistic view of a child’s wellbeing, spiritual and religious needs may largely be ignored”.  Clearly there would be something odd with a holistic approach which excluded something, namely spiritual and religious needs.  It could hardly call itself truly holistic, if that word is to mean: “relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts”.

There are of course social work theories where the anthropological underpinning would indeed leave aside as unimportant the spiritual and religious, would play down the role of the spiritual and the religious or at the minimum would leave room for it only if the client, or patient, or resident explicitly asked for it.

In a world in which the religious dimension is often considered to belong exclusively to the private sphere, it can be difficult for some to engage with the spiritual dimension of the person in services provided within a pluralist framework.  Pluralist however does not mean secular.  Pluralism should not ask individual or communities to leave their values and religious heritage on the street corner before they can enter into the dialogue of the public square.  People have a right to ensure that their religious identity is respected and a right to be able to bring that religious identity with them into their contribution to public debate.
There is at the same time a growing realisation of the importance of the spiritual in the make up of a person and of the importance of that dimension in a process of healing and personal realisation. Most healthcare institutions provide today enhanced chaplaincy services, supported from public funds.   It is important however also to remember that spirituality is often undefined and can mean many things.  It is not the same as religion. One can find social work theories which will gladly embrace the concept of spiritual, but will become more resistant when it comes to religion and especially the religion of organized religious confessions.

I remember debates at the United Nations in the nineties where there was great difficulty in introducing reference to the spiritual dimension of the human person.  This resistance came  especially from the more secularised Western countries, who were at times almost allergic to any reference to anything even vaguely religious.  They were surprised to find that the defence of the spiritual came not just from the Vatican, but from some rather unexpected allies.  It was the era of Gorbachev, who was stressing that the crisis in the Soviet Union was indeed a spiritual crisis. Even the Chinese delegate spoke of China’s efforts to enhance spirituality, adding hastily however that he was talking about “Chinese socialist spirituality”.  So with unusual allies, spirituality won the day.

In the past, especially in Ireland, the Church filled many gaps in the social and educational structures of the country.  Now there is an ever stronger move towards “professionalism”, and on the role and responsibility of the State to provide or at least guarantee access to service for all.  With the stress on access for all, can come a trend to stress the pluralist character of the service to be provided and a reticence about anything that would impose any type of religious ethos.

It is important to remember that the Second Vatican Council clearly stressed that the act of faith can only be the free act of a human being.  Religion, the act of faith cannot be imposed, but must the result of the free choice of an individual.  Religious institutions indeed have been providing services to people of all faiths and none and proselytism is something that is not part of the programme of any of the major Christian confessions.

The Church has the right and obligation to be active in the formation of consciences and thus indirectly of public opinion.  The most original contribution of Church organizations to social reflection is to stress the unique anthropological vision which springs from the Gospel and which, I believe, can be readily appreciated and assimilated by social theory and practice even in pluralist societies.  Indeed reflection on that Gospel inspired anthropology can bring a genuine enrichment to social reflection.

The fundamental principle guide the process of enlightening consciences is charity.   This might surprise some.  The word charity has unfortunately become debased or devalued in our English-speaking world.  Many people today would say: we don’t want charity, we want justice and we want our rights; we don’t want charity, we want development.

        But as a Christian believer I cannot abandon something which is fundamental to my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ.  The disciples of Jesus are to be known by their charity, by their love for one another.  What I have to do is to rediscover, for myself and then for others, the true meaning of charity, of Christian love.  That meaning is very different from the debased value of charity as hand-outs. I must show that true Christian charity brings an irreplaceable contribution to reflection on relationships between people and among peoples.
Self interest, comparative advantage, competition or long term national interests are all too often the motives which today govern relations between peoples.  What we have to do, I believe, is to recover the notion of charity and love in the fundamental dimension of gratuity in our relations with others.  That is the remarkable thing about God’s love:  God loves gratuitously; God does not ask anything in advance.  The Letter of Saint John reminds us that just “Jesus loved us first”.   The believer is called to mirror such gratuitous love.

        In the caring professions the other can never just be a client, someone we manage, much less a threat.  The other must always be our brother or sister, someone whom I am linked to with a relationship of love.

Poverty is the inability for people to realise their God-given potential.  Fighting poverty means that we invest in human capacity, we enable people to be the people that God wishes them to be.   We rejoice that they can be so, equal in dignity to us.   It means that we personally feel hurt when there are others in the world who are unable to have the same opportunity to fully realise themselves as we are.  Our relationship is one based on love and respect for the other, in their inherent dignity and freedom.

A relationship of charity between people will mean a desire to enhance their dignity and their capacities and thus also of their freedom or liberty.  It means recognising the other fully as persons.

        The fundamental principle of social policy today should therefore be that of enhancing human capacity.  People should never the objects of social policies.  They are its subjects.  Subjectivity is of the essence of being human. Human beings anywhere in the world are subjects with potential.  The more individuals are enabled to realise that potential the better it will be for all.

Human beings must be enhanced so that they can form subjective, participative human communities, which become the artefacts of their own future.   We should even be happy when the people of the developing countries become our economic competitors.  Social policy aims at putting people in charge of their own lives and future. Social workers should normally be in the business of putting themselves out of business.

        This is very different from the assistential models of the past – what too many people call charity – which looked only at delivering certain services and programmes.  It is also different from the other more modern theories which look on social services as business.  Let me explain.

In working in the area of international development, one discovers often that many NGO’s turn out effectively to be – or turn themselves into being – just the privatised arm of governments. They are looked on as being better able to delivery certain services and, let’s not forget it, they are cheaper.

Let me stress that I am not against applying business criteria to the running of caring institutions and services.  There is need for rigid efficiencies and good business practice in the delivery of social services, but the measure of efficiency should have to do with enhancing dignity as well as with productivity.

There is room – even need – to establish new forms of partnership between public sector, business and civil society.  At the same time, it is important to maintain one’s sense of qualitative identity.   Church inspired groups have to be attentive to the temptation, that through working with business institutions, we water down that concept of gratuity, which should inspire our work, because we can easily become compromised by current policies and flavours of the month, simple budgetary constraints or policies in which liberal economics becomes the dominant motif.

        Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his first Encyclical Letter to the theme of God’s love and how it is reflected in the Church and in society.  He stresses especially the role of politics in the just ordering of society.  The role of the Church and the role of politics are looked on as distinctive.  The biblical affirmation of giving the things of Caesar to Caesar is an important affirmation about the correct distinction between religion and politics.  But it also a warning against any deification of politics.

The Encyclical warns that “the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.  She cannot and must not replace the State.  Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. (Deus Caritas Est, #26, a).

The role of religion within social policy and with the working interaction between those delivering social and educational services must be looked on anew in very generation to ensure that the legitimate requirements of the past are not canonized into the path for all times.  That is part of the debate going on in Irish society and this is something to be desired.

        What is important is that this debate be careful not to take place on ideological grounds or even in terms of the pragmatic needs of the moment.  Much of the development of social care in Ireland sprang from the desire of individuals and communities to witness to the love of God.  While the concrete realisation of the contribution of Christians can and must be reviewed as situations change, to marginalise that contribution would be to impoverish social reflection and leave aside the contribution of Jesus Christ who represents the gratuitous and superabundant love of God, the best antidote to the measured and packageable model of our consumer society.