The document issued today (download here) by the Irish bishops, 'From Crisis to Hope: Working to achieve the Common Good', is a sharp, passionate and (mostly) stylish summons to Ireland to make a fresh start in the midst of its current crisis. Ireland must resist the temptation to "press the reset button" but engage in a self-examination leading to thorough reform, says the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
Aware that any criticism of Irish institutions would immediately invite the retort, 'Physician, heal thyself', the bishops prepared the way both with the remarkable feet-washing of abuse victims described by Fr Jim in the last post, and by dealing with the issue right on page one of 'From Crisis to Hope': this is a time of "suffering and despair” and of loss of trust in institutions – including, they immediately acknowledge, the Church.
Although the head of the Irish J&P Council, Bishop Raymond Field, stressed that the document was "not a pre-election statement" -- the issues addressed, he said, would be relevant for a long time to come -- 'From Crisis to Hope' specifically mentions the forthcoming elections to the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, and to the Northern Ireland Assembly (there is a single bishops' conference covering both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland) as opportunities to be grasped.
Ireland is in the grips of a number of simultaneous crises: financial and economic meltdown, vast debts, and a property crash. The self-confidence of the "Celtic Tiger" years has given away to anxious introspection, as well as fury at political and economic leaders.
The bishops issue a grim warning of “social fragmentation and violence” if the wounds generated by the economic and financial crisis are allowed to fester. Such violence “would cause incalculable suffering and herald a period of political and social instability which could take a long time to heal”, they warn, adding that their statement had been prompted by this "sobering truth".
Interestingly the bishops appeal not to their (battered) authority as church leaders but to what what they call the "role of religion" in releasing “the spiritual energy which empowers people to work for justice in the world”. This sounds more like Barack Obama than bishops of old -- but it seems well judged.
The document, symbolically launched at a Capuchin day centre for the homeless, leaps straight out of the social enyclicals, and especially Caritas in veritate, which is endlessly cited. The bishops counterpose what they call "the gift economy", driven by the principle of gratuitousness, to what they call the "bonus culture", based on the conviction that people are worth what they earn. Although there is some praise for free markets in the document, it calls for the Irish to reject “the capitalist cultural model that has dominated in recent decades” while praising what they describe as "the gift dimension of personal and societal living” underpinning civil society. It is the neglect of that "gift dimension", the bishops contend, which “lies at the root of what has gone wrong in Irish society”.
The document describes the impact of the financial crisis on ordinary people as “striking and frightening”: numbers looking for work have risen by 40 per cent in two years, while people struggle to juggle overwhelming debts, especially from their large mortgages. The home, say the bishops, has become “a burden, a source of insecurity and a constant reminder of the insurmountable debts”.
They criticize the blithe assumption that the current malaise is merely a temporary crisis which requires new technological measures, urging Ireland to look to the catastrophic loss of trust in banks, agencies, and Government itself. Acknowledging that "the Catholic Church is one of those core institutions in which there has been a breakdown of trust in Ireland in recent years”, the bishops call for the Church “to take account of its own failings” and “to put into practice the principles of social justice which we teach”.
They go on to call for Ireland to take advantage of the opportunity to reform institutions, resisting the temptation to “press the reset button”, and to restore the balance between what they described as "the essential elements of a just and sustainable economic model: freedom, efficiency, solidarity, protection of the environment."
The bishops are wary of government seeking to persuade people to share the pain of the crisis equally; the concept of the common good, note the bishops, is counterbalanced by need to protect the weak and vulnerable. Appealing to the Caritas in veritate concept of a “threshold of decency”, they criticize proposals to reduce the minimum wage, which they say mainly affects un-unionised migrants.
But perhaps the most interesting passages are the ones where they take aim at what they call the rise of a new "more radical individualism" in Irish society. Liberal individualism is praised for promoting tolerance and freedom, but not for underpinning free-market capitalism. With the collapse of socialism’s influence on politics, say the bishops, “we are witnessing for the first time the emergence of a more radical individualism which has little sensitivity to the nature and significance of belonging to a society”. Loosening the bonds of solidarity has been accompanied by “adulation of individual success and the fear of individual failure”.
In a sudden outburst of rather academic language, the bishops say: “If indeed this proves to be the case that a significant number of young adults have uncritically accepted the individualist and highly competitive cultural paradigm of late capitalism, it is not something that can be ignored as of little consequence.” Low self-esteem and suicides among the young, they say, are proof of the prevalence of this "paradigm".
'From Crisis to Hope' is a well-judged document. It feels prophetic -- even if Ireland is in no mood to listen.