We must learn to balance our spiritual needs with our economic ones


Irish society is long familiar with the costs of economic failure. Emigration, the breakdown of peripheral communities, poverty and unemployment were the public manifestation of failure.

We have come a long way in recent years and to a large extent this has achieved what was aimed for four decades ago, namely economic wellbeing. How we manage this success must now be the crucial question.

Ireland in all its dimensions is increasingly shaped by the needs and agendas of the corporate world. Big corporations are the engines which drive most aspects of political, social and economic life. They also shape the education agenda of the society, which also influences the individual at the level, in particular, of consumer needs.

We are being shaped by technology and finance, large corporations and the increased power of investment capital. Information in the guise of a vastly-expanded media machine underpins this new order, and it has come to signify the "natural order of things".

Our economic success is to be welcomed. No longer are our young people forced to leave their own land to find work elsewhere, and there are many other quantifiable benefits.

But are we forgetting something? Are we losing sight of the big picture?

A few years ago Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, addressing members of the European Parliament, warned of an over-emphasis on economics and politics in Europe whilst down grading or even ignoring the spiritual. He told the parliament that Europe must search for a soul as a matter of urgency. And, of course, the concept of a just society automatically follows.

Coming, as we are, to being a successful economy, is there not an urgency for us to start getting the balance right? There is more to a country than being an economy. Every human being has social and spiritual needs as well as economic ones.

Already there are indications that to pursue a singular economic, consumerist agenda is at the cost of wider issues such as communal concern. The human search for meaning, nourishment of the soul, questions as to who or what we identify with, our social and civic responsibilities, ultimately give way before a society which is in every sense careless, rootless and senseless. It is likely to beget a place lacking a spiritual core or the in-built restraints that come with an awareness of the many dimensions of progress.

Already events are bringing the message home to us. We don't need preachers or teachers to tell us any more. It must now be obvious that our huge demand for instant communications - faxes, mobile phones, and the Internet - is paralleled by a serious breakdown in relationships.

Events such as personal and family breakdown, the vulnerability of the elderly and other sections of the population, the continuing demise of some communities, the exclusion of large sections of the population from the benefits of growth all confirm the need for a wider approach.

Indeed, the stresses and strains of being involved in the fast lane of the corporate world are now also only too obvious.

Even more important is the fact that growing numbers of people are willing to admit to being "spiritual", even if far fewer would call themselves "religious". The human heart is normally searching for the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. I think there is a space in every person which only God can fill.

Where then is meaning coming from, and how is it defined? Who determines values? What does belonging to the human family mean? President Havel's warning makes a lot of sense for us in Ireland.

He says: "Human beings must pay a heavy price for the attempt to seize nature, to leave not a remnant of it in human hands, to ridicule its mystery; they must pay for the attempts to abolish God and to play at being God."

It is important, then, that we get involved in a serious debate on some of these issues. With this in mind a conference will take place this week which will remind us what we are losing sight of in the rush to become more wealthy.

This conference, with the title Are we forgetting something? Our society in the new millennium, will introduce us to our much-neglected cultural and contemplative tradition. It will attempt to put our economic boom in context and will touch on the consequences of a soulless society.

Sense of place, managing change, community, the human family, voluntarism are all topics which will be addressed. It will be opened formally on Thursday by the President, Mrs McAleese. Speakers will include Prof Joe Lee of UCC, Mr John Lonergan, governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr David Begg of Concern, Sunday Business Post columnist Tom McGurk, Dom Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey, economist David McWilliams, and Dr Mary Redmond, founder of the Irish Hospice Foundation.

IT IS becoming increasingly obvious that if human needs are to be taken account of then it is crucial that we work towards a partnership between ordinary people and the world of corporation, institution, organisation. The dichotomy between these and local people, and in particular the excluded and the poor, has become significant.

What drives the process is the need for corporate survival and profitability. This in turn breeds a new species of individual whose measure of success is in their level of loyalty to the company.

Promotion and relocation seem to go hand in hand. The result may be that many individuals who achieve high office are often typecast company men/women and are less connected to the community.

A similar process is at work in such institutions as political parties, the churches, and farmer organisations. Effectively, representative democracy does not allow the people to take part except in a very superficial way.

Is it any wonder that people have become cynical and indeed distrust big organisations and institutions? But the corporation/institution cannot continue as a citadel on a hill walled off from the community.

Partnership with the local community seems essential for the future. Our society will have to give serious thought as to how interaction with the community is facilitated. Our conference will try to move the debate in this direction and a centre will be established to move this forward.

The conference to which Father Bohan refers takes place at the West County Hotel, Ennis, from October 29th to November 1st.