Catholic Church must develop new role to survive

 

If the church is to have a future it has to replace the ethic of control with a radical ethic of service, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.

IRISH DEBATE is very good at presenting people with false alternatives. As we stumble tentatively towards some kind of new settlement for the provision of social services, we seem to face another one. If, we are told, we don’t want church control of schools and hospitals, we must have State control. If the church hands over ownership of primary schools, everything will be run by bureaucrats from the Department of Education in Dublin. One hierarchy will be replaced by another.

It ain’t necessarily so. Public ownership isn’t the same thing as rigid State control. There is, and will always be, an important place for voluntary organisation, including that of religious communities and people of faith.

Our problem in Ireland is that the peculiar intertwining of nationality and religion, predating even that of church and State, left us without a clear sense of what governments should do. We have never, to this day, developed a strong sense that there are basic aspects of health, education and welfare that belong to citizens as of right. Partly because the church would not allow it to do so, the State has never accepted the responsibilities that are part of the European welfare model. In return, the church has never quite accepted that it is part of civil society. We have had the paradox of a State that behaves as if it is a charity and a church that behaves as if it is a government.

The answer to this is not some sort of crude statism. We need to accept that the State’s job is to provide all citizens, regardless of class or creed, with access to the necessities of contemporary life. We need also to accept that giving people their rights is not the same thing as meeting their needs. Even in the best-governed, most well-resourced and humane welfare state, there will always be room for voluntary organisations.

The different roles can be summed up by saying that the State must be impersonal, while voluntary organisations must be personal. By saying that the State must be impersonal, I don’t mean that it should be faceless or cold. I mean simply that the State has to see everyone as an equal citizen.

It has to use resources in an accountable and transparent way, which means that it has to be able to measure the outcomes of the services it delivers. It cannot be swayed too much by emotion or sentiment.

That idea of the impersonal State is very important, but it is also obviously insufficient. People, especially when they’re vulnerable, need something beyond their rights. They need company. They need presence. They need someone to listen to them and someone to speak up for them – sometimes against the State. People with schizophrenia, for example, should have a right to appropriate mental health services, delivered with humanity and decency as well as with efficiency and fairness. But they also need the somewhere to go and talk when they’re lonely or frightened, someone who will listen without making judgments or prescribing medication.

I’m not suggesting that there has to be a Chinese wall between the State and civil society organisations. In many cases, voluntary groups are better at delivering State services. Within a framework that guarantees the rights of those who are using the services, voluntary groups (whether motivated by religious or humanitarian ideals) can be more innovative and flexible than State.

Crucially, they can retain a degree of independence because they have their own sources of funding. This matters for two reasons. It allows them to be unaccountable in the best sense – free to try out new approaches that might not work, and to do things that cannot be accounted for. (How do you measure the worth of an hour spent holding a dying person’s hand?) And it allows them to criticise the State and advocate for the people they work with. These are invaluable assets.

It would be a travesty to suggest that only faith-based organisations do this work well, but equally so to deny the importance of a religious motivation for many of those who do it. The problem is simply that in Ireland too much of this religious effort is on the wrong side of the divide between the State and civil society. It is concentrated on holding on to what are properly State functions – the ownership and control of schools and hospitals. It is tied up in the assertion of hierarchical dominance in a way that is implicitly hostile to democracy, accountability and the idea of social rights.

If the church is to have a future it has to replace that ethic of control with a radical ethic of service. It has to place itself, not as a quasi-government, but out there in the wide field of voluntary activity in which people do good things for their own sake. It has to recognise that the old compact weakened the State to the point where it could not protect vulnerable citizens and corrupted the church to the point where it committed and enabled systemic atrocities. For its own sake, as well for that of society, it has move on.

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