Pluralism worth the name must cut both ways


The entry of Rory O'Hanlon into the debate about the Taoiseach and Ms Celia Larkin opens up an interesting line of thought for the public to consider. That is, is there such a phenomenon as a politically correct personal life? And if so, what is it?

These questions come to mind for the following reason. A few years ago Mr O'Hanlon was dismissed from his position as president of the Law Reform Commission on the grounds that he was a member of Opus Dei.

It was suggested that this membership meant that he could not possibly maintain an objective perspective on any matter, since his entire consciousness was coloured by Roman Catholic Christianity of the conservative kind associated with Opus Dei. So to preserve the impartiality of the Law Reform Commission, he had to go.

Membership of Opus Dei involves doing what is expected of all Roman Catholics according to the norms of that church. All that Opus Dei offers is a framework for doing so. This means regular attendance at circles and recollections, as well as a yearly retreat. These are the group activities which cater for the spiritual formation of Opus Dei members through scripture reading, reflection on kinds of prayer and ascetic practices, as well as Mass and Benediction.

Mr O'Hanlon was dismissed as president of the Law Reform Commission for being a Christian; specifically for being a Roman Catholic Christian who used the spirituality of Opus Dei as an aid in living his life in the best possible way as he thought fit. In other words, his personal life was found to be sufficiently objectionable to have him removed from office.

Why was Mr O'Hanlon's personal life considered to be so "politically incorrect" that he had to be dismissed from his post? And why, by contrast, is Mr Bertie Ahern's personal life considered to be a matter for himself only?

If there is a place and a role in public life for Mr Ahern, notwithstanding the fact that his personal life is controversial to some in Irish society, then there should be a place and a role for Mr O'Hanlon too, notwithstanding the fact that his personal life also is controversial to others in Irish society.

Real pluralism is about accommodating differences of perspectives, whether these be social, political or spiritual. It is not about uniformity; neither the uniformity of a particular politically correct kind of liberalism nor the uniformity of a particular interpretation of the Judaeo-Christian moral code. But it is not about exclusion either; neither the exclusion of those who hold views that a coterie of guardians of political correctness deem "politically incorrect" nor the exclusion of those whose lives are judged to fall short of the paradigm of moral excellence when scrutinised through the lens of a particular interpretation of the Judaeo-Christian moral code.

A genuinely pluralistic society is one that encourages and accommodates diversity; not one that discourages and suppresses it. It is one within which all individuals, whether they be single, married, separated or divorced can participate and contribute, secure in the knowledge that each one's participation and contribution will be respected by others.

That is not to say that a pluralistic society, is, of its nature, amoral, or one within which moral relativism reigns supreme. It is rather to suggest, firstly, that moral decision-making is far more complex than some would have us believe; and secondly, that personal moral decisions have social significance and consequences, a matter which others seem to have forgotten or overlooked.

IT IS interesting that scripture is sometimes used as a stick to beat the Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church into making pronouncements of a partisan kind. Mr O'Hanlon's citation of St John the Baptist's condemnation of King Herod for his adulterous relationship with his brother's wife is the stick he has chosen to berate the Hierarchy for its silence concerning Mr Ahern and Ms Larkin. But there are other passages in scripture which suggest that sometimes it is best to remain silent out of respect for another, rather than subject that person to the humiliation of a public condemnation. Christ, by his example, showed this "way of silence" on a number of occasions. Perhaps the Hierarchy's stance in this matter is guided by those passages, rather than the one preferred by Mr O'Hanlon.

The most humbling and enlightening dimension of living in a democratic society is that one comes to see that there is more than one perspective on anything and more than one way to interpret the scriptures. But ultimately, in any democracy, it means allowing the uni-perspectivalists make their voices heard alongside the multiperspectivalists. Somehow the truth manages to emerge amidst all the shouting, as it always does.

Dr Noreen O'Carroll is a lecturer in philosophy at the Milltown In- stitute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin.