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Colum Kenny: Our society is on brink of collapse, fear bishops

IRELAND'S Catholic bishops will warn that the "wounds" caused by financial turmoil and government austerity measures could lead to violence in the streets.

They are also openly critical of the "bonus culture" of financial institutions and semi-state bosses earning six-figure salaries at the same time as budgets for vital services are slashed as part of government cutbacks.

In a statement to be issued tomorrow, the bishops will say ordinary people "would find it difficult to countenance the present position whereby large six-figure salaries continue to be awarded to senior executives of semi-state companies at the same time as cuts are being made to the minimum wage, disability allowance and State pensions".

They also address the growing trend in house repossessions and the spiralling debt experienced by many families.

"The speed with which the consequences of the financial crisis have been felt by individuals and families throughout Ireland has been both striking and frightening," the bishops say.

"For many people in Ireland today, the home, which should provide a place of warmth and security, has become a burden, a source of insecurity and a constant reminder of insurmountable debts." The bishops are clear that their pronouncement is not a political manifesto, but they say that calls by politicians for everyone to "share the pain" may be exploited at the expense of the weak and vulnerable. They also want voters to think ethically before voting for candidates or policies that are overly individualist or consumerist.

Worried by "considerable financial and political turmoil throughout the island of Ireland, which has brought suffering and despair for many people", they believe that "the wounds generated by the crisis run deep and, if allowed to fester, could engender a cultural climate in which the spectre of social fragmentation and violence cannot be ruled out".

"With elections fast approaching on both sides of the Border, there are real opportunities for political change," they say, adding that religion plays a role in political and social life by "reawakening the spiritual energy which empowers people to work for justice in the world".

The bishops will be speaking tomorrow under the umbrella of their Council for Justice and Peace, launching a 20-page document entitled From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good.

Homing in on the "bonus culture" of recent decades and on what they describe as "the resultant inequality and damage to social cohesion", the bishops want voters to remember the "common good". The bishops say that this era in Irish history "should be viewed through the lens of hope rather than crisis management".

But they add that "this will only be possible if we can learn from past mistakes and challenge the capitalist cultural model that has dominated in recent decades".

They describe this as "a consumerist model of personal and societal fulfilment, where everything and everybody has a price, a stance that ignores the really important things such as love and indeed life itself -- they are literally priceless".

They are concerned too that the reduction in the minimum wage "affects a very small proportion of the working population -- mainly migrants who are not represented by unions and have no power".

In the US, bishops have been accused of turning their institution into a single-issue church because of a concentration on abortion. The Irish bishops, tomorrow, will have a much broader agenda.

But, as the election looms, they will also restate traditional teaching on the right to life of the unborn as "a non-negotiable element of fostering the common good".