Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s inaugural Irish Institute of New York lecture: “New Ireland, New Church”

18 Oct 2007

18th October 2007
Inaugural Irish Institute of New York Lecture

Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

Glucksman Irish House NYU, New York, 18th October 2007

Titles can mislead. I was happy to be able to choose the title for this lecture myself. Being a busy Archbishop I generally have far too little time for reflection on the broad subject of how I should be focussing my energies and the energies of the Church to address the challenge of an Ireland which is changing and a Church in Ireland which is changing.

When I hold meetings with my priests there are those who ask “when is he going to announce the plan?” They want to see a strategic plan, a fixed agenda for the Irish Roman Catholic Church in a changing Ireland in the coming years. I do not have one. I am not sure that you can have one. I look on my task as a journey of open-ended reflection on the relationship between faith and culture in the Ireland of tomorrow. It must be a journey made together with many, a journey involving the Catholic community but also people of different religious backgrounds and people of none – if that absolute category really exists.

I chose the title myself, but there is a problem with the title. It could easily let me fall into a temptation, a cart and horse temptation. Which comes first? The temptation is to ask where is Ireland going and then to ask how the Church should react. The temptation is to think that the Church must react to changes in society within the agenda set by that changing society, and then find or recover a role for the Church.

The Church, however, must not only react; it has its own contribution to make – welcome or not – to shaping the Ireland of the future. It is easy to overly simplify the reality of the New Ireland. Ireland has changed but Ireland will continue to change. The pace of change continues to grow. Today’s New Ireland may well not be the New Ireland of the next generation. If the Church’s task was simply to react to and adapt to society, it would inevitably always be yesterday’s Church. The Church must be present within Irish society and it has its own leadership role to play.

The Church has contributed and contributes directly to the New Ireland. The quality of Irish education has often been identified as a key factor in the transformation of the Irish economy in the last decade or so. The role of the Church in the delivery of primary and secondary education establishes it as an important agent as well as the object of change in Ireland. The role of the Church in education will change, but not vanish.

The well established commitment of the Irish people to the developing world, which has found a very welcome expression in the increased funding of overseas aid by the Irish Government, owes much to our long tradition of Church missionary activity.

Various Church groups and organisations have been involved in the partnership process which is also identified as making a critical contribution to our economic development. When I look at the suburbs of Dublin which were “developed” without any attempt to accompany house-building with the infrastructures of community, I see the enormous contribution that parishes have made to building social cohesion and solid communities in the most diverse areas. In some places the parish is among the very few groups involved in community building.

The final reason why I am anxious to avoid the temptation is more strictly theological. It is in the nature of the Church that it must always seek to make itself new. When I speak of New Church I am not talking in terms of a marketing makeover intended to recapture market share or to present an image of a Church putting its difficulties behind it. New Church must be forged in fidelity to its mission to bring the timeless Good News of Jesus Christ to a new generation who live in an Ireland that is very different from the Ireland of the past and to challenge that generation to understand that message.

The message of Jesus is unchanging, it is a message that continues to speak of God’s unconditional love for all people; the Church, which is called to proclaim that message and to make Jesus present in every age, must always be in the process of renewing itself to ensure that it can be an effective teacher of and witness to that message. Where it has failed, it must recognise and admit that fact and set out again – not by going “back to business” as before – but by returning to what is most authentic in its roots. The Church must change in its relationship with the realities of society, but it must never retreat from engagement.

Two themes in particular dominate contemporary reflection on Ireland: the peace process in Northern Ireland and the extra-ordinary economic success with the changes that prosperity has brought. Perhaps these two processes are much more intertwined than we think. The economic progress in the South played a significant part in shaping the framework which permitted the developments in the North to take place. Unionists would hardly have been tempted to talk to representatives of a nationalism which had not been able to achieve economic success. The success of the Northern Ireland peace process will depend to a great degree on the way in which two economies can be integrated for the benefit of all. The challenge of establishing a new economic model for all of Ireland is a challenge for our own country but also for the friends of Ireland around the world, especially in the United States.

In speaking of Northern Ireland, allow me to express publicly here my congratulations to Archbishop Sean Brady on the announcement that he is to be made Cardinal. Archbishop Brady has quietly, day by day, used his wonderful talents as a listener and a bridge builder in sustaining the peace process. I see his appointment also as a sign of the interest of Pope Benedict to come to Northern Ireland, if not in the immediate future. Such a visit, alongside one of Queen Elizabeth to Dublin, would have the symbolic meaning of ending an era of our history and opening to something new, North and South.

Work must now be intensified on the North-South dimensions of the peace agreements. There has been very little reflection on how the changing North-South relations will change the religious geography of Ireland. The fruit of such a North South dialogue will be inevitably a new Irish culture or perhaps various models of a new all-Irish culture. The political realities are one thing. All Ireland economic cooperation is expanding and an “all-Ireland cultural zone” is emerging. The numerical balance among religious denominations will change. Inevitably the strong adherence to a denomination which was necessary to survive in troubled times will loosen. What will take its place? Is the New Ireland going to be increasingly more secular?

Economic progress has brought to Ireland all the temptations of affluence and these temptations will spread rapidly in a more prosperous North. Let me be clear, I am not among the merchants of gloom who feel that a little bit of economic downturn might be good for the Irish soul. I do not belong to the prophets of doom who have been accused of trying to talk the economy into a crisis. It is important that we recognise and, indeed, celebrate the great advances that have taken place in Ireland. Economic progress has brought the temptations of affluence, but it has also reduced the extent of the harsh poverty and the limited opportunity which characterised Ireland for so long. For that, we all thank God.

The increased economic prosperity experienced by many in Ireland has certainly brought with it a wider diffusion of consumerist and materialistic values. This is evidenced by very marked increases in consumer spending on luxury goods. There is a tendency, relatively new in Irish society, to display wealth. There is a considerable market for publications that celebrate the wealth and affluence of those who are perceived to be successful.

The notion that personal success is determined by economic achievement and the capacity to support an overstated lifestyle has insinuated itself into the mentality of many younger Irish people. This change of mentality is demonstrated by the difficulty experienced in recruiting young people towards some caring professions that would traditionally have enjoyed a certain social prestige but that are now seen as low paying.

Some political and social observers have defined this as a “growth in individualism” and have sought to draw attention to the negative consequences in terms of a loss of a sense of community and a decrease in instances of voluntary activity. The Government has responded to these trends and has established a task-force to promote volunteerism and to highlight the valuable social capital created by such activities.

But here also I refuse to be overly negative. There is evidence that to some extent Ireland has found a balance between its older communitarian values and the new emphasis on material success. The 2004 global survey by The Economist placed Ireland in first place in terms of happiness and quality of life. The survey attempted to compare happiness around the world. It is based on the principle that wealth is not the only measure of human satisfaction. The index of 111 states combined data on incomes, health, unemployment, climate, political stability, job security, gender equality as well as what the magazine called “freedom, family and community life”. Dealing with Ireland the report noted: “Although rising incomes and expanded individual choices are highly valued,” the report said, “some of the factors associated with modernisation – such as the breakdown of traditional institutions and the erosion of family values – in part offset its positive impact. Ireland wins because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new (the fourth highest gross domestic product per head in the world in 2005, low unemployment, political liberties) with the preservation of certain cosy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life.”

It would be mistaken to imagine that the future involves continuous growth and uninterrupted prosperity. On-going social changes have to be monitored and new challenges have to be addressed if the current social and economic cohesion is not to splinter.

What are the current problems? Various economic commentators have pointed out the increased levels of personal borrowings by Irish people. This week our newspapers have highlighted a very significant increase in the number of home repossessions.

Fears about growing levels of unemployment add to the challenges we must confront. For the last 10 or 15 years the Irish economy has required increased numbers of workers and we have seen unprecedented levels of immigration in addition to the return of many Irish who had been forced by economic circumstances to emigrate in previous decades. It is often forgotten that our recent prosperity has fostered a new emigration from Ireland, an emigration of choice by of people who wish to gain experience, to enhance their talents or to use their talents in another country or indeed just to have some fun.

If there were to be a significant decrease in employment available in Ireland it could give rise to a situation where competition for jobs would test our social cohesiveness and perhaps fuel some of the latent xenophobia that has been noted by various surveys and reports. Those who have come to Ireland seeking work are not just valuable drivers of the economy at a time of growth but are human beings whose worth is not dependent on their economic productivity.

Thankfully, so far no political party in Ireland has cynically tried to play the card of fear of immigrants. Ireland, taking all things into consideration, is very much a welcoming community. I was impressed in the days last week at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when I visited our Dublin Mosques, to hear it consistently said that Muslims feel more welcome and integrated into Irish society than in most other European countries. Immigrants have enriched our society, our economy and our communities. We need however to seriously look at how we can foster social cohesion in an increasingly pluralist Ireland.

An increasingly pluralist Ireland will have to ensure that our educational system provides opportunities for the best quality education for all the children who live in the country. I am pleased to note that the Minister for Education has announced an increased school building programme, especially in North Dublin where there has been a shortage of school places and a fear that immigrant children were not getting a fair deal. The problem is serious but it will not be solved by polemics. I seriously worry that the recent polemics, apparently around the question of better integration of immigrants, may have entrenched a negative image of immigrants and false images of schools with high numbers of immigrants. This could create a climate where many parents will opt out of integration, through opting for schools of various kinds which are elitist as regards class size and ethnic mix.

I might also add that in my visit to the Dublin Mosques many parents thanked me for the ethos of our Catholic schools which, as one man said, “allowed my children to become Muslims”.

Notwithstanding the great achievements of the Irish economy, there are still today huge inadequacies, for example, in our public health services and there continue to exist communities where poverty and social inequalities are endemic. If we have not been able to overcome these difficulties in a time of plenty, we will struggle to ensure that the poor do not pay the highest price in the event of Government income and, consequently, public expenditure falling. I would have a special concern for the elderly, especially those elderly who do not have private health insurance or adequate pensions, and how they might fare in such circumstances. One of my great fears is that if we do not address the challenges of an ageing population we might find ourselves, having decried the inadequacies of past institutional care for children, providing similar poor quality care for our elderly. It would be a singular tragedy if the generation, which through their work paid for and laid the foundations of the Celtic tiger, were to be abandoned to poor quality care by the tiger’s cubs.

Many older people tell me of their insecurity and fear in a society where there is an unacceptable level of violence. I am constantly shocked by the level of violence, of different origins in Ireland. The levels of violence are lower than elsewhere in Europe, but we cannot be satisfied with that. We can thank God that the political motivated violence in Northern Ireland has ended, but we now have the violence of gangland leaders who feel that they can impose themselves and their ideas and their power by violence. We have senseless violence among young people which inevitably ends up in multiple tragedy. There is a new culture of meaningless violence which only creates a climate of vengeance and fear and retaliation. It is a culture which breaks down and destroys neighborliness. That is not the direction which life in modern Ireland should be taking.

We need to make another qualitative leap in politics which works to sharpen our model of an integration economic growth and equity and building up a strong civil society which will hold politics answerable by judging its results for the life of each citizen and society as a whole.

Let me come back to the Church before I fall into another temptation that I regularly encounter. As someone appointed comparatively recently as Archbishop, I am constantly being asked for media comment. Almost invariably, I will be asked questions about Irish society, perhaps about the social role of the Church, but very rarely about my “paid job”, about faith, about religion. A bishop is not just a social commentator with a difference, though comment on society has a long tradition going back to the Old Testament prophets. Their insights were incisive and have not always lost the relevance. The Old Testament reading of a few Sunday’s ago, reminding us that “tampering with the weighing scales” was defrauding the poor, needs very little effort translation to make it relevant to today’s world.

A bishop’s job is to talk about God; to talk about the message of Jesus Christ, that Jesus who was God but who appeared in human form, in human poverty. This was not simply one of many possible choices which God’s plan could have adopted. Jesus was born poor because he wanted to tell us something about God. God reveals himself not through holding on to prerogatives of being God but above all in self-giving. Those of us who are the followers of Jesus are called then to do with our worldly possession what Jesus did with his life.

The bishop’s task is to preach a message which values self-giving as just as important as having; a message which stresses superabundant generosity to a world where everything is measured and quantified and you just get what you pay for. To preach such a Church convincingly the Church has to change and return to its roots as a more evangelical Church, free from intricate relationships with power and the consumerist mentality.

There is, however, another question that lies in the background here. Is there any room for God in the public square of the New Ireland? In an earlier period of Irish history Catholic Church buildings were relegated off the main thoroughfares; is religion itself being today removed from society’s main thought thoroughfares, into the world of the purely private?

I would again take a theological perspective on this question. Christian anthropology, the Christian understanding of what it means to be human, begins from the insight that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God: this is seen as a universal truth about our nature and does not depend on whether humans themselves recognise God or not. To be human, therefore, is to exist in relation to God whether one believes or not. Having been created in the image and likeness of God, it is rooted in our human nature that we should desire to be loved and to love.

This insight gives me absolute confidence that the core message of the Gospel will continue to resonate in the hearts of the citizens of the New Ireland. Moreover, the basic command of Jesus that we should love one another and that we should express that love in the service of our neighbour, especially our poorest neighbour, offers to humans a way of living that will enable them to be fully human and society to flourish. Sadly, there have been many occasions when structures from within the Church have damaged that pristine vision, but even in bad times there has been an extraordinary recognition of the work done by individual priests and religious and by lay women and men inspired by their Christian principles. The Irish will never give any institution 100% marks. There will probably be a special corner of heaven for those Irish who will have found something to be negative about in their eternal reward.

It would seem that many people seem to make an unarticulated distinction between the local Church, which is generally perceived as making a positive contribution to the lives of individuals and communities, and the institutional Church, which is viewed as being distant and removed from the reality of people’s lives. The understanding of the local Church is primarily defined by people’s own experiences at a local level. The perception of the institutional Church is determined often by media coverage; it is also evident that many people, particularly many women, feel very alienated from the institutional Church.

There has been a sporadic debate in Ireland for a number of years centring on whether Ireland has lost its soul. At the heart of that debate are the foundational questions of what it means to be human and the ultimate purpose of life. The fear being expressed by those who are raising the possibility that Ireland may have lost its soul is more than a fear about the loss of influence of the Church or about lower levels of religious practice but the fear that Irish society has become overly materialistic and that more fundamental human needs for love and for unconditional acceptance cannot be addressed by material goods.

If financial success and the lifestyle that goes with success and celebrity were to become the dominant criteria for evaluating a person’s worth then we would be sending a very dangerous message to young people, a message that would in the final analysis undermine not just institutionalized religion but many of our most important civic values. A person who loses his or her soul has ceased to be human: a society without a soul would be inhuman. I do not believe that Ireland has lost its soul. There is too much goodness and generosity to be found in many different sections of Irish society, within and outside the Church, to come to that conclusion.

The ethos of self-giving, volunteerism and good neighbourliness which contributes so much to the well-being of Irish society would be seriously threatened, however, if our growing preoccupation with wealth and consumerism were to lead people to a more calculating concern just for their own individual interests. Consumerism has powerful effect on the way people act and discern. A strongly consumerist society can easily undermine a sense of social responsibility.

What are the most important characteristics of the New Ireland where the Church, which must always be in renewal, is called to proclaim the message of Jesus? What are the characteristics of the New Ireland that could be said to offer a fertile ground for the Gospel? The French Canadian theologian, Rene Latourelle, spoke of “points of insertion” for the Gospel. Where are the “points of insertion” in Irish society?

Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of my ad limina visit to him last year asked me almost the same question. He asked, “Where are the points of contact between the Church and those areas where the future of Irish culture are being formed?”

We have to ask which areas of Irish culture seem most receptive to the message of the Gospel. What are the moments in the lives of individuals where they are most in need of the words and presence of Jesus? Are there such collective moments when the Church may have something special to say to the nation? What are the characteristics of the New Ireland that make it particularly difficult to speak of God and to touch the hearts of Irish men and women?

Certainly one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the New Ireland is the extraordinary level of confidence and energy that one encounters. I am not referring here just to celebrity Ireland. I think of the levels of confidence and self esteem I encounter among children in schools even in less wealthy areas, due to the work of great teachers. Gone is the conformism of the old school model to one of creativity and enhancement of talent.

People in Ireland have to work hard, at times too hard, with the effect that they are “time poor” This is a temptation for all us – including busy Archbishops – in today’s hectic world. People spend so much time commuting. House prices in Dublin have forced many to travel long journeys each day from Monday to Friday that they are exhausted at weekends and unable to enjoy the higher quality of life that they had hoped to achieve at a cheaper rate in a smaller rural town.

The sense of belonging to family is still strong in Ireland, especially in rural areas where identity remains linked to a sense of belonging to local community.

Family breakdown is emerging as a serious problem. Surveys of values continue to show that Irish people tend to have more traditional values on moral issues such as abortion, divorce and sexuality than their European neighbours. Surveys that focus on behaviour patterns, however, would tend to indicate that often the actual choices of young Irish people in these areas are not noticeably different from those of their European contemporaries.

There has been a worrying emergence among many younger people of what might be termed an “implicit relativism” in regard to ethical issues. Even those young people who hold very strong convictions about the immorality of abortion and contemporary expressions of sexuality are inclined to see these convictions as purely personal choices and they lack a developed notion of the objective nature of moral values. Consequently they tend to see abortion and casual sex as wrong for themselves but would be reluctant to criticize such behaviour in others. Their desire not to be judgemental may be well motivated but it can lead to an unwillingness to seek to embody moral values in public policy or legislation.

In terms of religious values in general, the results for Ireland in the European Values Study present a complex picture. Ireland scores highly by comparison with other European countries regarding those who profess themselves to be religious persons or when asked how important God was in their lives. Religious practice is comparatively high by European standards, but my personal impression is that there has been a more rapid decline in recent times and that this drop has been more marked among young people and in socially deprived areas. A number of economically deprived parishes in Dublin register ordinary practice rate of about 2%, with very low rates even at Christmas and Easter. I remember well my first Christmas Mass in Dublin after my return from Rome. It was in a Church only one third full.

Many new residential areas around Dublin have never developed a sense of community or of being a neighbourhood. Many established neighbourhoods are in transformation and newer arrivals are not integrating into the existing communities. These changes have also impacted on the reality of parish life – many residents of parishes have very little sense of belonging to a local community and even less of belonging to a faith community. This situation, paradoxically, could serve to create a new role for parishes as centres that take the initiative in fostering a sense of belonging. At a time when the Government is concerned to promote active citizenship and the concept of social capital it is important that activities that are promoted by parishes are articulated and fully appreciated.

“New Ireland, New Church: an Archbishop without a strategic plan”. I hope that that is not the image I am leaving you with this evening. I am genuinely convinced that the only way to move forward is through an open-ended dialogue with the realities of the world in which we live and the challenge that the message of Jesus brings to each generation. The Christian message, which has changed lives for the good throughout all the ups and downs of the history of society and of the Church, is as vital today as ever. It challenges each of us, it challenges the Church as organization; it offers all of us meaning and purpose and hope if we can encounter that message in its integrity and its fullness.

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