MacGill Summer School – “Beyond 2016”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Mac Gill Summer School and Arts Week 2015

Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin


Glenties, 24th July 2015


When Joe Mullholland first wrote asking me to speak at this year’s Summer School, one of the questions he suggested that might be addressed during this closing session was: “What would you put into your election manifesto?”  Let me say from the outset that I have no intention of running for political office.  Put in another way, there are enough problems to be addressed within the Church.  That said, I should also note that many of the problems that the Church faces are similar to those that the Republic will face as we enter into the post-2016 Republic.

The first word that comes to my mind as I think of what Church and State have in common in the challenges to be faced is the word “cohesion”.  Church and State both need new policies of cohesion. What do I mean?  Cohesion is not conformity or rigid ideology.  Cohesion, as is often the case, can best be defined by looking at its opposite – and that opposite might be defined as “going round in all directions”.

In May last, President Michael D. Higgins gave a remarkable address to the coalition of voluntary organisations called “The Wheel”.  His reflections were focussed on the principles which should guide a realistic future for Ireland as a nation and as a democracy and in a particular way the language which should guide such reflection.

The context in which this reflection should take place was well described by President Higgins:  “as we set about the work of transition from a society which was not the best version of ourselves to one which is grounded in a more ethical version of our Irishness”.  This could be transcribed to read also “as we set about the work of transition from a model of Church which was not the best version of ourselves to one which is grounded in a more authentic version of our being Christians”.

The fundamental thesis of President Higgins – and I will quote him at some length – was that “a major cause of our recent economic crisis was a failure to question, to scrutinise and to challenge the highly individualised projects of accumulation, and self-centred ideals of consumption, which over time had come to be substituted for models of public welfare shared in the public space and enjoyed in the public world.   An unrestrained competition has seen the extension of the space of the market to the centre of public policy on matters far beyond economic goods and appropriate areas of competitive choice”.

This is very close to an important principle stressed by Pope John Paul II in an Encyclical entitled Centesimos Annus (#39) namely, that “the economy is only one aspect and one dimension of human activity” and that “economic freedom is only one element of human freedom”.  If economic life is absolutised, if the production and consumption of goods become the centre of social life and society’s only value, not subject to any other value, economic freedom loses its necessary relationship with the human person, and ends up by alienating and oppressing”

To be at the service of the human person, economic activity requires an ethical and legal framework.  The market can only work within an ethical framework of trust.  The legal framework must however ensure that economic freedom is situated within a wider system of fundamental human values, and that certain “collective goods”  (CA, #40) are protected, and that certain fundamental human needs which “find no place on the market” (#34) do not remain unsatisfied.

The basic tension that both Pope John Paul and President Higgins spoke of is linked with what individualism and what community mean and how our economy and society are influenced by the manner in which we address that tension.

Is the politics of the Ireland today a politics which aims at national cohesion?  The answer must be no.  I am not pointing the finger at any individual or group, but at the system that seems to be evolving.  The fact that such a large number of Irish men and women opt to support independent politicians points to a lack of confidence in the traditional parties and perhaps even a lack of trust in “the political party” as we know it.

Some of the challenges have been identified here in Glenties during this week.  They are not necessarily Irish problems.  Certainly the emergence in most European countries of coalition governments means that while you vote for a particular election manifesto, what you actually get is not a coalition of manifestos but a compromise of manifestos.

In some European countries they have turned to the solution of “the grand coalition”, between the two major parties or even a wider group of parties. In certain situations this may be a good solution to urgent problems.  But it also brings an imbalance into the fundamentals of our political system where government and opposition have different yet important roles to play in a democracy.  Cohesion is never attained through conformity or simple compromise.

Why are people uneasy about political parties?  In some European countries political parties have been at the root of corruption, not simply for personal gain, but because of the way parties have evolved.    Politics and political parties constitute a very costly business in today’s word.  None of us this evening could even dream of having the funds necessary to run for President of the United States.  Political parties have in some countries become dinosaurs which consume vast amounts of money and obstruct the real purpose of a political party, which is that of mediating between policy formation and the citizen.

A democratic political system must not limit the role of citizens to voting in elections and referendums or being targeted in opinion polls.  Part of the role of the political party should be that of ensuring a real voice for citizens outside of elections and of involving citizens more in the decision making of government and local administration.  Where this does not happen, the result then turns out to be a political culture that becomes detached from the concerns and experiences of citizens and leaves the path open to deviations.  I am concerned that a poor policy on migration seems to be giving rise for the first time in Irish society to a political party focusing on the single issue of immigration.

The emergence of such a large proportion of voters in Ireland and indeed around Europe who support a range of independent candidates representing at times radically different views is significant.  Very often this is a protest vote.  Protest can be a strong message and a strong cry for change.  But you cannot run a nation on protest alone.  You need policy and you need cohesive policy.

Having lived for a large part of my life in Italy I have a fascination for Italian politics.  Initially I found the system of Italian political parties very difficult to understand, just as I am sure an Italian coming to Ireland would find it hard to understand our political parties.

The Italian system of that time was, in fact, a complex and quite subtle one, often totally misunderstood as being chaotic.  Despite the regular change of Prime Ministers and governments, there was a continuity guaranteed by consistent group of parties which worked within a flexible system of balances which could respond to change, even to the point of accommodating opposition parties of the left – with the exception of the Communist party – to enter into government.  The unique system was described by one of the geniuses of that system, Aldo Moro, later brutally assassinated, as “converging parallels”, a seeming contradiction of terms, but it often worked well in squaring circles.

That system involved two major parties – Christian Democrats and Communists – and three or four smaller parties.  The interesting thing is that today none of these parties exists.  It is fascinating today to walk the fifty metres which separated massive headquarters of the Italian Christian Democrat Party and the Italian Communist Party and find both buildings empty or transformed into ordinary office blocks.

Could Ireland experience such a radical earthquake in its system of political parties?  Indeed is that what is slowly beginning to happen in Ireland?  Where is the discussion taking place about the wider issues of what political parties are there to do?   Is pragmatism and spin-doctoring a safer bet?   Such reflection is not a luxury.  It is not dreaming at the expense of the day to day pragmatism.  In fact on many occasions it was the dreamers who brought about change in Irish politics and those occasional qualitative leaps which really changed the Irish political landscape over the past decades.

Lest I be accused of trying to resolve other people’s problems, let me look for a moment at the future of the Church in the post 2016 Ireland.  The first thing that the Church must do is to carry out continuous – what I have called – “reality checks”.  In some ways I regret that I ever used that term in a recent RTÉ interview.   What I said was taken up in the press – national and international, ecclesiastical and lay – all over the world and no two stories had the same interpretation of what I intended, indeed of what I actually said.

Perhaps I gave mixed messages.  The problem is that it is reality that is mixed and there are no black and white definitions of that reality and no black and white solutions, and media are not always good at accommodating subtleties.

A reality check is nothing more than discerning the facts in all their complexity and then facing the facts and evaluating how to address the facts in a culture that is ever changing.  The Catholic Church in Ireland will never again be the Church that it was twenty or even ten years ago.  The teaching of Jesus Christ will never be happy with being encapsulated in the culture of any time in history and especially past history.  The message of Jesus is perennially new and constantly challenges.  That does not mean that the present is better than the past.  There are many positive elements in today’s religious culture but also many elements which are less compatible with the Gospel message.

Things are improving within the Church but the moment I say that the Church has turned the corner the temptation is to think that things can now go back to where they were before.  Indeed there are signs within the Catholic Church that some – even young people – are seeking refuge from the challenges of life by adapting ways of the past and are retreating from dialogue with the present into the false security of imaginary better times.

The statistics show that the future of the Church will be a very different future.  Certainly there are great things happening.  Despite all the criticism of the Church, I think that there is very little doubt that among the most respected categories of people in Irish society today “our local priest” must be in the top five and for good reason.  I am afraid that “the bishops” as a group may be farther down on the popularity gauge.

There are green shoots of change, but people see the green shoots in different places and at times in situations which will need more than “converging parallels” to bring them to a sense of cohesion.

The same individualism which President Higgins identified regarding our Irish economy and our Irishness can be found within the Church.  An anything-goes Catholicism will never lead to cohesion.  There are many indications that what I call a “residual cultural Catholicism” is still strong in Irish culture and that should not be written off easily.  It would however be foolish to ignore the fact that that Irish cultural Catholicism has a clear generational sell-by-date printed on it.

The Irish Church needs a new generation of strong and articulate lay men and women.  It needs a strong laity which is not inward looking or caught up simply in Church structures and activities.  Pope Francis is certainly clear about one thing:  to renew itself the Church must reach out and must discern that renewal also within the economic and existential peripheries of our world.  Conformist Catholicism is not the answer; simply repeating doctrinal formulas is not the answer; an inward-looking Catholicism – liberal or conservative – is not the answer.  We need a new generation of Catholic lay men and women who are articulate in understanding their faith and feel called to bring the unique vison which springs from their faith into dialogue with the realities of the world.

There are some who would look on the introduction of faith into debates about public values in more secular societies as an obstacle to common reflection.  For them it would be the introduction of a divisive element.  And there are some on the Catholic side who would feel that they would be better listened to in interdisciplinary debate if they were to play their religious identity on a very low key.

The Church must of course be a teaching Church but it must also be a Church of dialogue which without renouncing its message is also able to engage the men and women and especially the young people of our time in reflection on where our lives as individuals and where our world is going.

Dialogue does not mean compromise.  It means engagement.  Reflection and critical debate about the type of society we wish to attain and sustain and the values which should underline it are part and parcel of the democratic process and all have the right to be participants, believers and non-believers alike.

I hope that in the run up to the 2016 celebrations historians will take a closer look at the religious roots of the thought of the main protagonists of the Easter Rising.  They were men and women, not always supported by Church leaders, but who were nonetheless able to develop a remarkable social manifesto in a Republican Proclamation which emerged from leaders who were unapologetically proud of the fact their ideas were inspired “in the name of God”.