An Irishman's Diary


Oikoumenikos: of or belonging to the entire world. It has defined the intellectual ethos of educated elites across the Western world since the second World War: its quintessence is that people of different religious and national identities could and should come together by harnessing their collective goodwill within new and benign institutions. Oikoumenikos: it bore the UN, called together Vatican II, caused SALT and the end of nuclear tests; it gave us the Green movement, and spawned peace movements in South Africa, the Middle East, and the North.

Oikoumenikos is the Sermon on the Mount of our time. At our dinner parties and our ardfheiseanna, our synods and our assemblies, nobody who wishes to be intellectually respected or liked would ever dispute the rightness of Oikoumenikos.

Obvious values

That is why Oikoumenikos has got away with it for so long. But it is in fact largely bunkum. To be sure, that it is virtuous is undeniable - and, virtues being good things, Oikoumenikos is useful, if only for restating certain obvious values which most religions contain, and which so easily become lost within the hubris of consistory and cathedral.

But Oikoumenikos only really works when the restatement of its general pieties coincides with the clear self-interest of an institution or a polity. Take the green movement. Since very few people passionately long to see the earth despoiled, forests felled and species after species falling into extinction, the Greens preach to a people who are predisposed to their general message. But when it comes to detail, and how we live our lives, we largely cease to listen. Oikoumenikos loses much of its power the moment it tries to command us individually.

So we should be grateful to Cardinal Ratzinger for reminding us of the limitations of Oikoumenikos, and for restating a fundamental position which is so easily lost in the verbiage of good intent. We are similarly indebted to Ariel Sharon, though I do not put that vile man in the same category as the Cardinal. We are, if we choose to be, enlightened in comparable if different ways by the Real IRA, Ian Paisley and Jeffrey Donaldson. In their own way, they speak for us all; for there are some parts of virtually every one of us that Oikoumenikos doesn't reach. They are our core positions from which, either as individuals or as groups, we will not budge.

Possession of Jerusalem is a title deed which Oikoumenikos does not reach, and in the name of that title deed, fearful things are done, the evil of the deed mitigated by circumstance, the doer exonerated by the casuistry of situational ethics. In how many Jewish homes in Israel is the killing of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah by Israeli soldiers placed in some extenuating context? And the killing of the ambulance driver who went to the boy's aid - might that too not be viewed in some exculpatory light?

Core positions

Of course it may if the light is named Jerusalem, whose title deed lies at the irreducible core of Zion. And it is the restatement of irreducible core positions at the very beginning of discussions about Oikoumenikos which in our bienpensant, Oikoumenikos world mark out the extremists. But as Oikoumenikos and its babbling retinue encroach deeper and deeper within cherished values and approach any group's core, an explosive blend of insecurity and tribal pride results.

At that point, he who was zealot is revealed as prophet and redeemer; then is a young boy gunned down with merciless deliberation: then is such a deed exonerated; then will amnesia draw a discreet veil over murder.

Vigil over the core belief is not an Israeli characteristic but a human one, and is not confined to polities, but extends to the worship of God and the tribal forms it takes. Did all those good people who were so wrapped up in Oikoumenikos really believe that the Catholic Church had lost its core belief that it was the one true church, founded by the Son of God and sustained by a unique apostolic succession? Only by the most optimistic reading of theology's chicken entrails could the soothsayers of Oikoumenikos actually believe that those who guard what they genuinely believe to be the flame of Unique, Revealed Truth would gaze on other flames at other shrines and approvingly declare them equal to their own.

Therein lie the dangers of Oikoumenikos; for it must inevitably lead to unrealistic expectations, which when in due course disappointed, can create a far more furious fire than that which Oikoumenikos was intended to extinguish. Yet this doesn't mean Oikoumenikos is always wrong. After all, its sophisticated naievety helped bring peace of a kind to Northern Ireland.

Old positions

But in the process Oikoumenikos has violated two central cores, and the evidence suggests that the self-appointed guardians of those cores, the Sharons of the North, are summoning recruits, as those who fell under the power of Oikoumenikos are losing power. Old positions are being retaken, old mantras resung. Oikoumenikos might well have made the ground barren for those who want war in the short term, but core values hold their vitality long after the balm of Oikoumenikos has passed.

For Oikoumenikos is simply a millennial opiate, a passing heresy whose adherents bid us put away our banners, disarm and live in peace. We should listen to them closely, by all means, but remembering the fissile material at the core of all human identities, we should keep a big stick beside us nonetheless.