Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor at Mass in St. Michan’s Church, Dublin to mark the beginning of the new legal year

03 Oct 2005

Press Release

3 October 2005

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor

at Mass in St. Michan’s Church, Dublin to mark the beginning of the new legal year.

St Michan’s Church, Halston Street, Dublin 7
October 3rd 2005

It is an honour for me, as a legal Philistine, to be invited to lead you in
this celebration at the beginning of the Law Year. Like King Solomon, faced
with the reality of having to make important decisions and judgements, we all
pray for ‘a heart to discern between good and evil’. (1 Kgs 3:9) Your judgements
will affect the lives of individuals and sometimes, through precedents, the
future direction of this society as this critical time in its development. That
is an awesome responsibility and together we pray that you will be given wisdom
and discernment to enrich your knowledge and experience. We are all capable of
making bad decisions – and as we ask for guidance, we firstly seek forgiveness
for time when we have failed to let truth rule in our lives.

There are – and have been – many ways of viewing law. It can be seen as an
administrative tool to support the good management of a given society. Some
assume it is there to vent the wrath of victims on offenders who have deserved
punishment. It can be pilloried by others as merely a weapon to protect vested
interests or as a self-serving closed shop. And like most Western societies we
remain ambivalent as to whether jail sentences are meant to reform, to punish
or just to keep offenders off-side. In the middle of so many contrasting voices,
it is good to pause as we all pause and seek guidance.

In the perspective of the Old Testament, a quite distinctive view of law appeared.
Law was not just concerned with the smooth running of human affairs, nor with
the punishment of offenders – but with the creation of a society where justice
and right order flourished, in the interests of human dignity. Laws were not
so much sent from on high to be obeyed with scrupulous care and fear. They
were there that people might discover their dignity and their responsibilities.
Law was a support in the creation of right relationships and thus a formative
power on the human spirit. The psalmist suggests that “the law of the Lord is
perfect, it revives the soul” (Ps 18). And in the New Testament, Jesus was
clear that all law and laws were subordinate to the commandment of loving God,
and our neighbour as ourselves.

Now that is easy to say – but not as easy to put into practice. Ireland is a
changing society and I recognise that we live in a society where secularisation
is quite rightly a vital force. We acknowledge the call to render unto Caesar
the things that are Caesar’s. Secularisation is not a bad thing. The secular
world does have its rights and rules. The Second Vatican Council recognised
clearly – and perhaps to the surprise of some – that “the temporal sphere
is governed by its own principles, since it is properly concerned with the
interests of this world” But secularisation needs to be distinguished from
the secularism – as a dogma, a worldview, a Weltanschauung – that is very
strong in the Western world. That belief system flourishes in a post-modernist
context where, it is insisted, there are no absolutes, no ultimate truth and
no definitive statements about right and wrong. That is not a neutral belief
but a clearly articulated belief system that is entitled to claim its place.
But it has no more rights that any other belief system and cannot expect to
have imperial rights over all citizens. Nowadays, few imagine that people of
Christian faith are somehow entitled to expect a theocracy. A secularist
hegemony is equally unhealthy. As believers in an incarnate God, we need
clarity to see where imperatives of faith and the rights of the secular
world can meet each other with respect.

But the dominant modern context of moral uncertainty does create appreciable
challenges for those who wish to be loyal servants of a pluralist state, and
yet who come with their own profound convictions about moral and other values,
based on the dignity of the individual. It can create real difficulties for
those who believe that it is possible to seek the Truth, and their duties as
servants of a society that doubts whether truth exists. Inevitably there
are many pressures when we have to live in a world of what Professor Simon
Lee helpfully called “uneasy ethics” . And as we know from the mouth of Pontius
Pilate, uncertainty as to the nature or possibility of Truth is not a new
just a post-modern concern.

The current Pope is very aware of the profound challenges that face us in
the current cauldron of change. In a document that came from his erstwhile
Congregation in 2002, it was stated
A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident
in the conceptualization and defence of an ethical pluralism,
which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason
and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore,
it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public
sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for
democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with
regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that
they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws
which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to
ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible
outlook on life were of equal value. At the same time, the
value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large
number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to
base their contribution to society and political life – through
the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy –
on their particular understanding of the human person and the
common good. (3)

As the then Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledges, this is not just a theological
problem but a real one that you face each day as you seek justice in society.
How do we build a society where there is little common vocabulary as regards
the moral language of that society? How, in a pluralist state, do we allow public
servants to have convictions without their being described as being dogmatic?

After all, while the bearer of the scales of justice may be blindfolded, law
is always liable to be exploited for many purposes. The ability to sin is not
restricted to church goers! You will be very aware of the background of so many
who appear before the courts, the people that you daily prosecute, defend and
judge. The social background of so many suggests that the guilty may also be
in some ways victims themselves. I was startled by the figures published five
weeks ago in the Department of Justice report which suggest that “disadvantaged
petty repeat offenders, and not serious criminals, make up a significant portion
of the prison population ..(and) the youth justice system is having virtually
no impact on helping young people escape a life of crime” It much be worrying
to you practitioners that half of the State’s prisoners have a history of
homelessness, and of these two thirds had spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
You are people of great influence in this society. I know that you would want
to pray for the wisdom and courage, not just to punish the wrongdoer, but to
keep asking why it is that modern liberal societies seem to keep producing
increasing levels of dysfunctionality. Emptying our psychiatric hospitals and
filling our prisons does not really seem to be progress.

The late Pope John Paul II was clear about how there was an energizing interface
between the rightful demands of the pluralist society and the contribution of
believers to that society. People of conviction are not a priori enemies of
social consensus and cohesion. The focus of any balanced community and the
interest of believers are both directed towards the creation of a healthy
society that respects the individual, builds solidarity and maximises the
benefits of social capital. Pope John Paul II said,
“A legal culture, a State governed by law, a democracy
worthy of the name, are therefore characterized not only
by the effective structuring of their legal systems, but
especially by their relationship to the demands of the
common good and of the universal moral principles inscribed
by God in the human heart”

In the Europe that we seeking to construct, Pope John Paul was keen to insist
that we are all working towards the creation of a society with values, where
life is cherished and the dignity of all individuals is cherished.

“The humanism which we desire advocates a vision of society centred on the human
person and his or her inalienable rights, on the values of justice and peace,
on a correct relationship between individuals, society and the State, on the
logic of solidarity and subsidiarity. It is a humanism capable of giving a
soul to economic progress itself, so that it may be directed to ‘the promotion
of each individual and of the whole person’”

There is thus no inherent conflict between serving the pluralist society and
trying to be true to one’s own deepest principles. We as a society, and primarily
through your work, face the challenge of how to ensure that the use of law a
service of the common good. If it remains only a game, then we reflect King
Lear’s assertion that “we are the playthings of the God, they kill us for their
sport”. If law is only a milk cow to be exploited for self-centred purposes,
then that will contribute little to the common good. If law ever becomes a tool
of the strong to blame the weak for being victims, to help the strong take
advantage of the weak, then it can reflect a Darwinian force, red in tooth an
claw, raging against her brood. When, after a natural disaster, the primary
assumption is that law firstly demands the defence of property rather than
aid to the suffering, then we are moving in an unhealthy direction. It is a
sinful blindness that assumes that the potential for sin and greed is
predominant only among those who wear baseball caps.

So we gather in prayer at the beginning of a new Law Year. You have a huge
responsibility and you bear that burden with dignity, compassion and wisdom.
We acknowledge the great clarity of thought and creativity that the legal
profession has shown over the years. You have contributed – and will continue
to contribute – much to the building of a society where all can live with dignity
and security. We ask only that these gifts of God’s Spirit will continue to
enrich your work. Our society still groans in one great act of giving birth,
as St Paul tells us. This service of justice will always remain a work in
progress. But as long as we see all of the parts of our society supporting
the right of all citizens, not just to do what they want, but also to know
love, hope, belonging and security, then the work of all of us will be seen
as building the whole and not just defending sectional interests. We are all
enriched by those who exercise the ministry of law on behalf of all of us.
Today is thus not just a day when we pray for you and your work, but a day
when we pray for our society that, with your unique and vital contribution,
it may be grow into a place worthy of being a home for human beings, all of
whom we believe are made in God’s image and likeness, all in need of healing
and all to be cherished equally.

+Donal McKeown
Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor