Treating believers as outsiders can have risks

On Wednesday last, in the light of the revelations made by Mr Frank Dunlop at the Flood tribunal, Vincent Browne declared that…

On Wednesday last, in the light of the revelations made by Mr Frank Dunlop at the Flood tribunal, Vincent Browne declared that he was going to "clear the decks" on his radio show and concentrate solely on the events of the day.

In a rather delicious irony, the planned topic for the night was to have been a discussion of the New Testament. It is tempting to comment dryly that from what we heard at the tribunal, the values of the New Testament had been cleared from the decks long before last Wednesday night.

The Rev Robert Dunlop, a Baptist pastor, was in studio that night to discuss the New Testament. Towards the end of the programme Browne finally remembered him, referred to him several times as a "complete outsider", and asked him what he made of Frank Dunlop's admissions.

This is an interesting vision of the universe, in which the journalists and the politicians are presumably the insiders, and the person of faith is the "complete outsider".


In the event, Mr Dunlop did rather well, quoting from a passage from Isaiah which spoke of "no justice in the courts" and "groping blindly for truth at midday."

Is "complete outsider" the only position available to people of faith in today's Ireland? There is a sense in which that might be no harm. People who are outside the inner circles and who are beholden to no one can act as important critical voices, or as advocates for those who otherwise would not be heard. One thinks of Peter McVerry or Sister Stanislaus as people who work in that way.

But there is another sense in which people of faith are often treated as complete outsiders and it might not be so healthy. In one of Robert Mankoff's cartoons an adolescent son addresses his father. "Dad, if a tree falls in the forest, and the media are not there to cover it, does the tree really fall?"

Among those who work in the media there is an often unquestioned assumption that religion is a minority interest, dying on its feet. A more sophisticated version of this is the hasty acknowledgement that people are no less spiritual than they ever were, but that institutional religion is dead. Metaphorically speaking, no trees are falling, because the media are blind to them.

Yet in spite of almost gleeful reiteration that Mass attendance is in free-fall, we still have one of the highest Mass-going figures in Europe. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are in decline, it is true, but has anyone noticed how many young people and older women are pursuing degrees in theology? Or how many new movements of lay people have grown up since Vatican Two?

It might be interesting to correlate the decline in religious vocations with the rise in new lay movements. It may well be that many of those who, in the past, would have become priests or nuns are instead becoming members of lay movements such as the Nazareth Community or Sant' Egidio.

Never heard of either? Not surprising, really, in an Ireland where there is now an assumption that religion or religious conviction has no part to play in the public square, that it must be bracketed and seen as a purely private concern.

Yet surely it is a perversion of pluralism to say that certain arguments, notably "Catholic" ones, have no place in our public discourse? It is scarcely progress to replace religious orthodoxy with secular orthodoxy.

Secularism is a belief system, too, and one which is arguably more exclusive of the experience of ordinary people than religious orthodoxy ever was. Not that this is a plea for a confessional state. Religion must take its place and present its case in ways which are reasonable and accessible to non-believers.

It could well be argued that those who took part in the alleged bribery and corruption revealed by Frank Dunlop were reared in "Holy Catholic Ireland", and still showed themselves remarkably impervious to the commandment "Thou shalt not steal".

No one is suggesting that there ever was a golden age of religious belief when we all acted as saints and scholars with more interest in our prayer books than in brown envelopes or plastic bags. The old-fashioned word for what went on with regard to planning is sin, and Christianity is clear-eyed about the fact that sin is ever with us.

Yet one of the great dangers is that the constant revelation of corruption becomes more than a justifiable reaction against abuses of power, whether those abuses be in politics or religion.

John Habgood, former archbishop of York, referred to this as "the culture of contempt". It goes beyond healthy exposure of wrongdoing into an attitude of corrosive cynicism about all institutions. When this happens it is very dangerous.

One of the ties which hold a society together is a shared code of behaviour. We are shocked by those who allegedly took bribes because it offends against our sense of what is just and right. That sense of justice has been deeply influenced by the norms of the Jewish-Christian tradition.

SOME in the media seem anxious to hasten the demise of that tradition, but perhaps they might pause before they do so. It is not so easy to invent a moral code which is binding on people. Many theorists work on the assumption that self-interest is enough to ensure some kind of basis for moral behaviour.

Most of us drive on the correct side of the road, not just because it is the law, but because we will be killed or injured if we transgress that norm. Self-interest acts as a reinforcement of a norm.

Yet self-interest takes us only so far. Self-interest can lead to accepting backhanders in spite of the needs of a community for coherent planning. Religion functions as a significant carrier of common values, such as the importance of truth and honesty. To weaken religion is to weaken the hold of those kinds of value still further.

This may seem to be straying dangerously close to an instrumental view of religion, the kind of cheerful agnosticism epitomised by Francis Fukuyama who declares in The Great Disruption that people should affiliate to a church not because they believe in what it teaches but because it performs important social functions.

On Easter Saturday, in this most significant of years for Christians, to suggest that this is the sole function of religion would indeed be a travesty. For Christians, Easter is a reminder that the deepest yearnings of the human heart for meaning and community have been met in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

That is a central life-shaping reality for many thousands of Irish people and as such it deserves respect.

Incidentally, when Vincent Browne finally got around to the New Testament on Thursday night, the number of callers to, and the interest shown in, the programme were further proof that the trees go on falling in the forest without, and occasionally even with, media coverage.