Wednesday 19 December 2018

David Quinn: Depth of recession is proof of need for moral authority

David Quinn

The other day, Richard Bruton had a go at the European Union over the bailout deal that it and the IMF have more or less imposed on us.

He accused the EU of "looking at Ireland like a prodigal son who must be got into line". He said it was thinking of the bond-holders first and was "taking a penal approach to the cost of money".

Actually, this would rather mean that the EU wasn't treating us like the prodigal son at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, because when the prodigal son returned home after wasting his inheritance, his father forgave him unconditionally. That's why we like the story.

So, if the EU really wanted to treat us like the prodigal son, it would give us a grant, and if it wanted to treat us even a little bit like the father treated the prodigal son, it would charge us a much lower interest rate than 5.8pc.

It's odd, though, that a politician should make a biblical reference in talking about the economy when our churchmen seem singularly reluctant to do so. With regard to the Great Recession, the church is the dog that did not bark.

This isn't to say that the church isn't doing its best to help victims of the Great Recession. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is out there doing what it always does, helping the needy.

Diocesan agencies like Crosscare in Dublin are doing the same. In fact, a new book called 'American Grace' co-authored by Robert Putnam, the academic who wrote Bertie's favourite book, 'Bowling Alone', confirms what other studies have found, which is that religious folk are more charitable on average than the non-religious.

So even though religion gets a fantastically bad press, on the ground it is ordinary Christians who usually do most to keep the show on the road.

Therefore at this level the church -- and not just the Catholic Church -- is putting its best foot forward.

Where it's failing is at the level of preaching. On Sunday, there was a golden opportunity for priests to preach about the recession. The Gospel reading for the day described how, at the time of Noah, no one expected the Flood and everyone was living it up right up until the moment when Noah closed the door of the ark and everything was swept away.

Substitute 'recession' for 'flood' and this passage couldn't be more relevant. But I wonder how many priests took it as their cue to preach about the recession? Very few, I'd guess.

Why not? I'll offer two reasons. The first is the scandals and the second is a fear of sounding judgmental and moralistic.

This country is, in fact, facing two recessions, an economic one and a moral one. The moral recession has been caused by the loss of moral authority suffered by all the major institutions of society.

No one trusts the banks anymore. Few people fully trust their politicians -- although many of them are, in fact, trust-worthy -- and almost no one trusts this Government.

The State is considered incompetent and self-serving and public servants are no longer regarded as servants but are seen instead as one more group that stuck its nose in the trough during the boom.

As for the Catholic bishops, their moral standing has obviously been devastated by the abuse scandals. And while ordinary Mass-going Catholics often hold their local parish priest in high regard, the priesthood itself is held in much lower regard than it was.

This is the major reason why the vast majority of priests keep their sermons as inoffensive as possible and therefore as unchallenging as possible.

But even if the scandals had never happened, this would probably still be the case because priests are still trying to live down the days when they had a reputation for condemning everyone and everything.

In addition, a lot of priests are in the grip of a distinctly Pollyanna-ish theology, which refuses to see the bad in anything and affirms almost everything.

Therefore the church stood by, helpless, while the boom went completely out of control because it didn't want to be attacked as a kill-joy and because it had been so badly discredited.

Instead what we got were worthy exhortations about the need to share the fruits of the boom more equally.

But one of the key functions of the church is to act as moral guardian. Sometimes it's supposed to be a 'kill-joy'. When greed and hubris ran amok during the boom, no one and nothing was there to rein them in.

A more credible church might have persuaded us to curb some of the excesses of the boom, and if that had happened we might not be in as much of a mess as we are now.

It turns out, therefore, that the collapse of the church's moral authority has consequences that we barely suspected and which extend far beyond it into society itself.

Irish Independent

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