Democracy in Social Drift

23 Aug 2001

Democracy in Social Drift

Dr Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns addresses the International Humbert School, Castlebar

23 August 2001

When one reaches my age and is in receipt of the OAP and the free travel allowance, one should be very careful about stating that anything is “in drift” except oneself. This is especially the case when one is speaking of something as young and as vibrant and as beautiful as democracy. I agree with the sentiment expressed by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man, except for all the others”.

Old age is supposed to bring with it a certain mellowness of perspective. In fact I see no evidence of that and have come to believe that the natural condition of the old, in commenting on the world they live in, is too often fearful while that of the young is too often angry, very similar to that of the conservatives and liberals respectively. The life of a single human being is so wondrously mysterious and so incredibly complicated; how infinitely more complicated is the network of relationships that go to make up a “democracy”. In commenting therefore on a social drift in democracy, my first appeal is for an understanding of the complexity of the subject.

Democracy and “social capital”

Nowhere is there greater need for this than in dealing with the concept of social capital. Having said that, I think the concept of social capital is a useful one in addressing tonight’s topic, Democracy in Social Drift. Social capital is a term used to describe the benefit to a community when people come together for some common purpose. When the total number of people belonging to community and voluntary organisations increases or declines, the social capital of a community increases or declines.

One of the best-known proponents of the social capital concept is Robert Putman in his mammoth 541-page book Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Not only the title of his book but also the illustrations on the front cover and the back flap illustrate the author’s central thesis, namely, the collapse of American community over the past four decades. On the front is a picture of a solitary bowler; on the back a photograph of the bowling team that Putnam belonged to in 1955, illustrating the fact that although 91 million people bowl in the US, the proportion who bowl in leagues has declined almost 75 percent since the group photograph was taken. Putnam uses the pictures as one small illustration of the decline in social capital across the board in groups such as the Boy Scouts, Rotary groups, trade union and professional organisations, involvement in community projects, but above all in the area of civil engagement. There are more than ninety graphs in the book showing, among other things, a decline in the proportion of people who voted, attended a public meeting, served on a committee, signed a petition, or wrote to a public representative.

More troubling are the losses Putnam documents as the result of the decline in public capital in areas such as children’s well being, health, tolerance, economic equality. He measures social capital in a community by an index of organisational life, volunteerism, informal sociability and social trust.

Putnam, a Harvard heavyweight – he is Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Centre for International Affairs there – has a whimsical sense of humour. In an earlier study on political and economic development in Italy he concluded that the best way of measuring whether an Italian province was progressive or not was to count the number of choral societies it had! The choral society was a proxy for the stock of social capital in the province.

Putnam, although he sees the churches from the perspective of an outsider, regards them as “a crucial reservoir of social capital”. Here in Ireland, I notice that when results of surveys are published demonstrating that fewer people are attending church services, the vast majority of commentators either pose the question to Church leaders, “What are you going to do about this?” or suggest that better homilies and more attractive liturgies are the answers. Indeed they might and we should all work hard on these areas. Recent scandals are also cited as a reason for nonattendance, and I imagine that they also are part of the story. But I have long suspected that there is something deeper happening
here and I would like to see the findings correlated with findings in the areas of the drop-off in the number of people who vote, who volunteer for community service, who attend school meetings or neighbourhood watch schemes. I suspect that the drop-off in church attendance is no isolated happening but could very well serve as and early warning system pointing to a great psychological disengagement on the part of a growing number of citizens from the life of the community in areas such as politics, trade unionism, parent-school relationships, civic and fraternal organisations, and volunteerism.

Government partnership with faith-based institutions
More than Putnam have expressed their convictions that the churches are indeed great reservoirs of social capital. Former Vice-President Gore during the recent US Presidential elections called for a working partnership between government and faith-based institutions. President Bush has gone further in at least attempting to put political structures if not legislation in place to further these ideas.

Here in Ireland, we have always had this kind of partnership throughout the lifetime of this State, in schools and hospitals, for example. Things have progressed further in recent times and we have this partnership currently operating between government and faith-based institutions such as the Catholic Church’s Trocaire, Cura and Accord, the latter being the organisation that prepares people for marriages and counsels those already married. These organisations are already in receipt of substantial government funding and there is nothing illegal, covert or unconstitutional about this. Our Courts have ruled on this.

However – and I am speaking on nobody’s part except my very own – I think that, unless very carefully assessed and monitored on an ongoing basis by both sides, it might prove to be at best a mixed blessing. First of all, there is no escaping the stark truth that he who pays the piper pays the tune, and the State’s tune is not – and should never be – the tune of any church. Secondly, the principal partner, the State, will always have – and rightly so – its own agenda, an agenda which will differ radically at times – and again rightly so – from the agenda of faith-based institutions. Thirdly, a faith-based agency, in receipt of substantial State funding, will gradually become a place where the “volunteer” will gradually be equated with “amateur” and will become an oddity, and shortly a casualty, in an organisation of professionals. [Let the amateur be consoled by the remark: “Remember! Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs. The Titanic was built by professionals!”

The Catholic Church should have learned a long time ago to use a very long spoon in dealing with government, any government, no matter how well meaning. Or to mix metaphors, beware of the Emperor’s embrace, not to mention his bed! It is never a marriage of equals, there is no prenuptial agreement and the divorce proceedings can be very bitter and financially ruinous. The history of Irish industrial schools is but one example.


Further information:
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797