Bishops seem short on new proposals but long on gloom


THE Catholic bishops submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is short on specific proposals and new ideas for Ireland and long on Pope John Paul's gloomy views on the state of the western world.

The bishops begin on a rare note of self criticism, admitting that Ireland's post partition isolation and defensiveness were unhealthy. It led to "abuse of censorship laws" and injustices to "some of our best artists and writers. Harm was done to the country's aesthetic appreciation. We can only look back on these aberrations with embarrassment."

However, much of the first two thirds of the lengthy submission is given over to a pessimistic philosophical essay cent ring on the ills of contemporary society in the Republic, with only passing mention of the North.

To this observer at least, this shows the influence of the Hierarchy's leading theologian, the Dublin based bishop. Dr Donal Murray, rather than the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Daly.

"We may welcome many things about the Ireland of the Nineties and dread the thought of a return to life as it was in the early decades of the century.

"It is hard to deny, however, that in many ways the Ireland of today generates less loyalty less sense off participation in a common purpose less enthusiasm, less pride less feeling of belonging.

"It generates disillusionment and cynicism to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the harsher, less prosperous Ireland of the past," the bishops write.

It is hard for the reader not to see in this a yearning for the certainties of Catholic Ireland in a pre consumer, pre Vatican Two, pre Northern conflict age, when the citizens of the Republic were content with a tight little world under the sway of their ancestral church.

The next passage has a similar tone. The new Irish State of the 1960s "began to experience the temptation to model itself indiscriminately on the more prosperous societies surrounding us," say the bishops.

This temptation both "heightens the attractiveness of economic goals pursued in isolation and suggests that the features of Irish society which differ from those of surrounding countries should, by definition, be seen as signs of backwardness".

"Yielding to the temptation to conform uncritically to the surrounding culture would mean failing to value the factors that unite us as a people," they go on. This is a strange statement to a forum discussing ways of overcoming the deep divisions among the Irish people.

The bishops clearly remain suspicious of too much pluralism. There is a significant section warning that pluralism must not be allowed to degenerate into moral relativism, for "if there is no objective truth, then not merely religion but the whole edifice of society is undermined".

The problem is, they quote the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, as saying "Pluralism gives rise to deep and intractable conflicts while at the same time undermining the principles by which they might be resolved. It disintegrates our concept of the common good."

On ecumenism, the bishops highlight the infrequent meetings of the Irish Inter Church Committee as a sign of progress and, more convincingly, note the work of the churches' Peace Education Programme in producing and diffusing peace education materials in schools.

When it comes to the need for dialogue, it appears the bishops have less in mind dialogue between Catholics and Protestants than the problems of dialogue between church and secular society.

They bemoan the "steadily deepening mutual incomprehension between religious and secular approaches in Irish society. There will be little real meeting of minds in a society which lacks a common language to discuss the major questions lacing it in the area of human rights $ and dignity, in defining a common purpose or coming to a vision of the common good."

In the section on the Catholic Church in Irish society, the bishops stress the role of the family, religious institutions and other "intermediary communities" between the State and the individual in preventing society from "becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass".

They deny the Catholic Churches' concept of the "common good" is sectarian or even specifically religious. It is, rather, "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment fully and more easily."

In a clear reference to recent Supreme Court and referendum decisions on abortion information and divorce, they warn "it would be a fallacy to imagine that a democracy is incapable of being oppressive".

THEY stress that the Catholic Church claims no political authority, although its demands that it should be entitled to preach the Gospel, make known its social teaching and comment on the moral implications of policies are often misunderstood or misrepresented as such.

Similarly they deny that they "speak only in the imperative mood", urging a reading of their collective statements to counter this charge. However, the imperative stance of the Pope on the right to life, and in particular abortion and euthanasia, is stressed.

Any significant mention of Northern Ireland has to wait until page 10 of the 15 page document. The bishops emphasise that "the establishment of proper relationships on this island is very largely a problem of respecting minorities."

Not surprisingly there is little give on the question of the Catholic Church's right to have its own schools. "Parents and pupils should not be expected to leave their faith and traditions behind them when they enter the education system," say the bishops. "Genuine pluralism does not seek to force the different groups into a single educational mould."

However, when they turn to education for justice and reconciliation in the North, the bishops often seem to be talking equally about the particular problems they perceive in the Republic.

"The most important emerging, area for Catholic, and all, education, is the growing emphasis on education for justice, globally and locally, whereas governments are tending to move towards an increasingly prescribed curriculum which emphasises the utilitarian and downgrades, values education, both individuals and social."

They are optimistic about the new, 1"culture of openness and accountability" because of the management of the North's Catholic schools having been transferred to a group of lay people, non Catholics and government appointees.

However, when it comes to working for peace and reconciliation, most of their emphasis seems to be helping deprived Catholic children break out of the cycle of underachievement, deprivation and alienation. There are few concrete suggestions about the role schools could play in overcoming sectarian barriers, other than a general audit of how schools are addressing the roots of division and conflict.

There are sections on the continuing and serious under representation of Northern Catholics in the workforce and on the importance of prisoner release in the context of the peace process. They urge changes to make the police in Northern Ireland more accountable, impartial and equitable and thus more acceptable to the Catholic community.

But these sections on the North contain nothing that is new or imaginative. There is little acceptance of the part the churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, have played in creating and fomenting Northern divisions.

It is almost as though the writers of the bishops' submission had decided that the Northern conflict was an issue of lesser importance when confronted with the huge challenge Ireland and by implication Catholic Ireland faces in the daunting new forces of contemporary political liberalism moral relativism and economic materialism.

It is a message we have heard endlessly from the present Pope. But some will ask whether a session of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to discuss the Catholic Church's role in the emerging, post Northern conflict Ireland is the right place for a re run of arguments which are applicable to practically any country in the modern western world.