Most Rev Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns remarks at the Conference of the Carers Association, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Friday 7 September 2001
T.S. Eliot once wrote:
We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
In reading and writing recently about the concept of social capital, the old Irish saying, “Ní neart go cur le chéile” [Strength results from pulling together] keeps coming to mind.
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. The Taoiseach had this to say about social capital in a speech last March:
“I believe that social capital is a concept which deserves to be discussed in much greater depth. It has the potential to be a very positive influence in public policy development in this country and throughout the European Union. It is a concept which puts communities at the centre of our debates and it helps us to find a framework to explain and address the linkages between areas which are seemingly very different”
He may not use the exact term, “social capital”, but it underpins a great deal of what your national secretary, Stanley Warren, speaks about and writes about and talks about in a very practical and down to earth manner.
“Give us the tools and we will do the job,” he writes. “That is what we ask Government today. To give us the means so that we can play our small part in growing a community where everyone is cherished equally and where the needs of all are fully met.”
For the first time in its history Ireland has the wherewithal to bring about greater equality. There are hopeful signs that our people will pay more taxes to do this, but there are also signs for all to see that more and more State funding alone will not solve our problems. The health services are a good example of this. The other great partner in the project must be the community, or rather an entire network of communities. Partnership is the way ahead, or there is no way ahead. For the first time in our history there is enough money to tackle our problems. The question is whether there is sufficient will and enough partnership, enough community.
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 non-attendance, 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.
Are we witnessing an increase in individualism, a retreat from the common good in all its forms, a decline in the cardinal virtue of solidarity? Personal isolation seems to be increasing in all areas of life, not just of faith. “It is at that fundamental level that it has to be analysed. We are losing our social capital, not just our Mass-goers,” writes Clifford Longley in The Tablet of 3 July 1999.
Sadly enough, there are signs, even among the younger generations, of this “psychological disengagement”, in voting patterns, for example. Protesting on the streets of Prague and Genoa seems to me to be a pretty silly and futile exercise when one doesn’t bother to vote on the streets of Dublin and Wexford. A failure to vote is a betrayal of the truly poor and needy. Despite all the rhetoric about corruption in politics, a failure to vote says more about the selfishness and individualism of the voter than it does about the quality of the politicians who represent us.
Nor is it good enough to continue scapegoating and playing “the blame game”, Ireland’s greatest national pastime. Sometimes I think that we have been so long in an anti-Brit, anti-establishment mode in Ireland that it doesn’t see to have dawned on us that we have been in charge for almost a century!
Now our bluff is being called. We have the means and the resources to achieve equality. Do we have the will and the necessary generosity of spirit? The Brits are long gone; so are the excuses. We Irish alone are in the dock of history and future generations will be our jury.
Issued by the Catholic Communications Office on behalf of Most Rev Brendan Comiskey, Bishop Of Ferns
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797