Ireland’s Moral Ground Zero

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times Jan 2003

A new year has always been considered a good time for a new beginning.  Never did Ireland have a greater need of one, for there has never been a darker time.

True, in former centuries there have been periods of far greater violence and horror – but always then there was a residual trust in ourselves, a sense that our pain had to do with an alien presence which, once removed, would bring an endless idyll of peace and justice.

These times in Ireland we have totally lost that illusion.  Leadership in the major political party, and in the major church – in a free Ireland – has been fully revealed as fundamentally self-interested, insensitive and inept.  From the high point of national emancipation in 1922 Ireland descended to what must surely be its moral ground zero in 2002.

In May a general election was timed to allow the party in government to present a largely fictitious forecast of the economic climate that would prevail by the end of the year – bankrupting further the esteem in which politicians in Ireland are now held.

In October, Ireland’s only ecclesiastical prince declared on TV that he had failed to show basic Christian pastoral love for the victims of clerical child abuse in his own diocese because he had ‘so much to do’.   More recently it has become clear that we cannot trust him to remember that he told one victim that the rules he had agreed with great fanfare for the handling of child abuse cases in 1996 were mere guidelines, inferior to Canon Law.

Such behaviour corrodes the respect that is owed to the holders of high office – and diminishes the office itself.  We now know that the arrogance of power is not something to which we Irish are somehow genetically or spiritually immune.  We also know that the great gifts supposedly won in 1922 for the Irish people – of freedom and equal dignity for every citizen – are as much in danger from home grown careerists as they ever were from the agents of another state.

Irish politicians who ape the self-interest (and sometimes the cupidity) of the old ascendancy, and Irish churchmen who suppose that the Gospel can be properly exemplified by ‘princes’ in ‘palaces’, are teaching us these times a lesson we must learn quickly if we are not to suffer more of the same.   We are now witnessing the internal moral collapse of the ancien regimes that the rest of Europe went through in the decades before 1789 – a process delayed by our British problem.  Irish nationalism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that Irishmen themselves could never be as corrupt or arrogant as the old ascendancy.  Irish Catholicism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that an empowered Irish clergy would forever disprove the Catholic adage that power itself tends to corrupt.

So, despite all evidence, we are actually far better off than we were a decade ago – because we are no longer naive.  We simply need to face the truth – that we Irish are as prone to the old creeping disease of aristocracy (‘Me First’) in state and church as every other society – and move on from there.

We are re-learning, in other words, that the price of freedom – and equality – is indeed eternal vigilance – even over ourselves.

And we would be most unwise to suppose that because churchmen too have erred, their basic texts must also be tainted.  In July last year  in the USA the Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan attempted a diagnosis of the disease that had undone some of the largest concerns in his own country, beginning with ENRON.  That disease was, he said, ‘infectious greed’ – the tendency for people in a time of economic expansion to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.  ‘Infectious greed’ is clearly none other than the biblical sin of covetousness – the desire to keep pace with our neighbour’s good fortune.

The ongoing technological revolutions provide an endless stream of covetable goods, so we are all tempted, and we fail.  Politicians covet place and position – and the money to achieve both – and they fail.

Ecclesiastics can covet something also – eminence within the clerical elite, so the title ‘Your Eminence’ is an eminently covetable one.  So, along with ‘prince’ and every other worldly title, it should be abandoned in the cause of that ceaseless reform that another Cardinal, Newman, advocated for his church.  So called ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ was patented by the first Catholic bishop to accept the worldly privilege of social elevation.  When Catholic churchmen have all learned to share the same level ground with everyone else – as at least one Irish bishop thankfully has – they will quickly find the time they need to care for those their church has wronged – and even in time recover the integrity and moral authority of their office.

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