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Healing our rotten State from within

Legitimate criticisms of the church aside, our ailing society would benefit from a dose of soul, writes Stephen J Costello

Dame Iris Murdoch, the Dublin-born British philosopher and novelist, once said about her books: "Better to have fewer and more worthy readers." That same motto has been applied to the Catholic Church in Ireland: better to have fewer and more worthy believers in it.

So goes one train of thought. The other is calling for a substantial change in the structures and teaching of the church itself. One is for renewal, the other for revolution. But there are no signs of Rome relenting on any radical reform. That hints too much of Protestant heresy.

The Pope recently reiterated the ban on women being ordained to the priestly ministry. He continues to stand firm on his opposition to contraception. He has silenced some theologians and rapped the knuckles of others. Like Thatcher, it seems he is not for turning.

You have got to admire the man's guts. For the German pontiff is a veritable rock. As Vicar of Christ on earth, he stands for permanence in a sea of change, for absolute truth, not watery relativism, enduring the evanescence of the ages for eternity's sake. No secular waves are permitted to disturb the peaceful See of Peter.

And yet amid the chorus of legitimate criticisms levelled against Rome and the Catholic Church from liberals, victims of clerical sex abuse, angry agnostics, militant atheists, disenfranchised nuns and a swathe of secularists, there is another voice emerging, one that says there is something special about belief, that the faith that is formed and forged in childhood is nourishing, uplifting, essential and worth retaining even in this post-Christian Republic, that there is something sad and stale about a purely secular approach to life which seeks a world shorn of the sacred.

It was in evidence at the Eucharistic Congress in the RDS last weekend when I made my way in to hear Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey give a stimulating paper on James Joyce (that particular Saturday was Bloomsday) and the structure of the Mass. He made the point that the Church needs its conservatives and its progressives. His erudition and urbane humour shone through. This too is the church.

Ireland has been humbled if not humiliated as a nation. Our institutions have imploded. Neither church nor State commands much respect. Corruption, abuse and scandals have saturated the country's moral landscape. There is something really rotten in our Republic. From the light leadership of our politicians to the downright delinquency of certain clerics, from the programme of ashen austerity to global uncertainty and market unpredictability -- all these have all left a trail of anxiety and anger in their wake. There is a mood of depression in this recession. Integrity in high places has been in short supply.

So much for the bleak diagnosis. What of the prognosis? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel which is not the light of an oncoming train?

There are some signs of hope. The Eucharistic Congress harnessed positive energy, purpose and concrete proposals in the faithful present. Surely the State can do likewise? Innovators aim to 'change the nation'. Their entrepreneurial energy seeks to tackle the sources and not just the symptoms of the crisis. Their ingenuity and industry may yet provide some answers to the ills affecting us. Many projects have already been proposed, from creating a social stock market, to teaching adolescents empathy and resilience training, to introducing philosophy into secondary schools. Some months ago President Michael D Higgins urged a society in which the human spirit can flourish. 'Mental wellness' exhibitions and mind-body-spirit festivals have taken place around the country.

Surely it's now time for a serious debate about the type of society we want, about underlying values and philosophical principles. This kind of critical conversation was passed over in the Celtic Tiger years, where money mattered more than meaning. Greed without goodness spawned the Celtic Tiger. What's left isn't even a calf. The proud roar became a purr which, in turn, became a whimper. It is always better to put down an animal in agony.

Power without purpose and ethical excellence is corrosive. Power, in short, must be put to good use and that goes for both church and State. We can only change society and its structures when we first change ourselves. Politics, as the Greeks knew, is founded on ethics.

It seemed that in the past our political and spiritual leaders were motivated less by power and money and more by loving service. Surely now the stress should be on the pursuit of meaning, on the things that matter most? Maybe that's where we should start the rebuilding. A life of goods is not the same as the good life. When shoeless Socrates was asked about his simple lifestyle, he answered that he loved visiting the market "to go and see all the things I am happy without".

The unheard cry for meaning emerges from spiritual depths. It is the spiritual dimension that urgently needs to be tapped into, by which I mean the human sphere, where inner riches and vast resources of the Irish spirit lie dormant. Therein lies our strength. And the solution.

Our best asset is the Irish people themselves. We are our own unique selling point, as retailers are wont to say.

Every one of us is implicated in the running of this Republic, not just our politicians and priests. Small steps forward with the right mental attitude and positive outlook can begin the work of restoration. The time for change is now or it is never. Call it Eucharistic energy.

Dr Stephen J Costello is a philosopher and Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute: School of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis

Sunday Independent