All Change - How Ireland Turned Its Back on Dogma

Irish Times
September 18, 2010

Grafton Street, Dublin. Survey reveals a psychological landscape that in many respects is so utterly changed that it would be almost unrecognisable to an earlier generation.

OPINION: The strong message from the Irish Times survey is that we have become more open, more tolerant, writes MAUREEN GAFFNEY

THIS WEEK’S Irish Times social poll is a snapshot in time. We are caught frozen in the moment, staring at the camera. It shows us worried, anchored firmly by concerns about the present and even more about the future: rising unemployment, the ongoing financial crisis, the impending cutbacks. At the margins are anxieties about tax increases, maybe even the prospect of emigration. The dream of reunification of the country or concern about immigration – nationalism in its oldest and newest forms – hardly register in the national consciousness. The snapshot also reveals a cultural and psychological landscape that in many respects is so utterly changed that it would be almost unrecognisable to an earlier generation.

For what was once the most powerful institution in the land, the Catholic Church, the poll results must be deeply disturbing. If the Catholic Church were a political party running for election, and if these survey results were the actual vote, then this could be described as a rout. And this is on top of the ongoing outrage about the church’s response to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse. There is a comprehensive rejection of the position of the church on matters of personal morality and on how the church itself is governed – the issues it most publicly embraces. Sex outside marriage, cohabitation, women priests, celibacy, attendance at Mass – the majority of us now don’t agree with the church on any of these positions, with younger people particularly alienated.

There are, of course, subtleties in the response. Many may indeed still regard abortion as morally wrong (the survey did not probe that), but not so abhorrent that it would prevent about half of us from helping a friend to have an abortion abroad. We may admire celibacy when freely chosen for moral or religious reasons; we may personally value virginity in a potential partner – but we reject these values being turned into dogma.

In fact, we don’t find the church’s position on anything to do with sexuality or women credible. The sexual revolution, the development of effective contraception, the growth of the women’s and gay rights movements – all these historical shifts have left the church stranded with an archaic psychology of sexuality.

The church’s pronouncements on all these issues are so much at variance with the lived experience of most people as to terminally undermine its credibility in the area of intimate relationships. This has profound consequences for the future of the church. Intimate relationships have become central to our sense of self and to our personal identity, so the church has lost the most profound connection it could make with us.

If further evidence was needed of the church’s mismanagement of its relationship with the faithful, here it is: our rejection of the position of the church on these matters has not happened because people have stopped being religious. Nine in 10 of us still describe ourselves as Catholic, and 58 per cent as strongly or moderately religious. The pollsters speculate that being Catholic may simply have become a badge of convenience. I believe it is far more likely that we retain a deep, unarticulated attachment to religion for all kinds of reasons: as a source of spiritual sustenance; as a way of understanding and dealing with the insufficiency of being human; of making sacred the great transitions in our lives – birth, growing up, finding love, dying.

We look to the church to be a life-enhancing community of equals, to make life better, nobler, more dignified, more full of meaning and love. Instead, what we are offered is an elite, remote hierarchy and a diet of dogma, restrictions and petty institutional rules. And the ordinary footsoldiers of the church – the local priests and religious – seem as powerless as ourselves to change things.

So how have we fared morally without the church’s moral guidance? Remarkably well it seems, if a little unsure about the boundaries of personal freedom and the internal contradictions in our position. Casual unprotected sex does not appear to bother us too much. Watching pornographic films is not much disapproved of. Yet at the same time we worry about young girls being sexualised by fashion and the media, and almost certainly we would strongly disapprove of watching child pornography. There are inherent tensions in these positions because the seepage of pornography into fashion is insidious and the barrier between adult and child pornography is becoming increasingly blurred.But the strong message from this poll is that we have become more open, more tolerant, more generous, particularly in relation to people who are gay, lesbian and transgender. More of us (mainly older people) may want to ban the wearing of the burka than not, although that may be more to do with the staunch support for women’s rights than intolerance of religious beliefs. We are also remarkably open to quite radical legislation regarding assisted suicide and organ donation. We have managed to transform ourselves not so much by adherence to high principles of rights and justice but by a very different, more feeling process which, paradoxically, may be our richest legacy from the revelations of the past 30 years. The heartbreaking stories of single mothers, forced adoptions and loveless marriages that poured out of the Gay Byrne Show in the 1980s and the cruel abuse of children from religious was exposed in the Ryan and Murphy reports – these revelations threw up a hellish vision of Ireland. It was a world that was entirely inauthentic – the pious rhetoric of religion and respectability crusting over the dark currents of power, control and suppression; where love and sexual desire had become sullied by shame and guilt.

As we engaged with these individual stories, we were appalled, moved to try to find a way to respond to the needs of other human beings, to change the systems that created such terrible suffering. Whatever about our private beliefs and principles about issues like divorce and abortion, we became acutely sensitive to individual context, to the complex details of individual dilemmas. Hard cases make bad law, we were told. But hard cases turned us, finally, into a compassionate society.

After all the debates and the controversies of the 1980s and 1990s, it seems we have reached a firm understanding and a negotiated compromise on issues in the moral and religious sphere. We have a provisional consensus, even if we don’t have universal agreement. That is one reason that as a society we have responded well to the clerical sex abuse crisis. We had already cleared up many of the confusions and misguided loyalties of the past. But we have not done the same work of debate and consensus-building in the civic and political domain.

While for the most part, we continue in our private lives to be decent, civilised and concerned for each other, we have not extended the ethical standards of our private lives in a sustained and consistent way into the public sphere: into what we expect of politics or the major institutions of the State.

But this poll suggests this may finally be changing. We are now expressing strong disapproval of behaviour like lying under oath, financial fraud, serious tax evasion, and (presumably public figures) making misleading public statements. Personal and institutional corruption are high in the public consciousness and have moved centre stage as issues to be resolved. We now say we want honesty, integrity and transparency to be the primary guiding values in economic and political policy making. We want politicians to pay close attention to the impact of their actions on people’s wellbeing, and to respect the rights, dignity and views of the electorate.

But the survey is silent on how confident we are about the capacity of our current political system to do that. Against a backdrop of increasing hostility towards and distrust of politicians, the answer is hardly likely to be reassuring. As for the Constitution functioning as some kind of blueprint for national values, our reaction is, to say the least, cool. Most of us no longer believe it resonates strongly with who we are or want to be, and needs some realignment with our current aspirations.

And that is the biggest unanswered question. What exactly are our aspirations for ourselves as a society? We may have successfully crossed the great divide between traditionalism and modernity. But up to now, the kind of sturdy citizenship we so admire in the Nordic countries has eluded us. The idea of citizenship remained alien, remote, irrelevant to our sense of identity. We loved our communities, but did not care much about the State. But we have finally made a tentative start at creating a set of civic virtues. We have begun to care about how our institutions are governed, not just in a formal corporate governance sense, but in a moral sense; about how we conduct ourselves as citizens in the way we make judgments and choices.

But we have a long way to go. The virtues essential for creating the common good – the strong norm of reciprocity and trustworthiness; the readiness to be compassionate; the willingness to modulate self interest; the sense of fair play; the sense of duty – are prevalent in Irish life at an individual and informal level. But what we now need is a mechanism, a connective tissue that will unite those individual virtues into an effective civic force for the broader common good. We urgently need to find ways to institutionalise those civic virtues into a covenant of citizenship that can become our north star to guide our behaviour as citizens at an individual and institutional level.

According to Edmund Burke, each successive generation possesses their society’s laws and governance in the form of “an entailed estate” given them for a lifetime use, with the condition that it be passed on enhanced, or at the least not diminished, to the succeeding generations. We are, he said “temporary possessors and life renters in it” and should not act as if we were the entire masters.

That conception of stewardship of a precious resource, of partnership between past, present and future generations, now seems achingly relevant. Of all the bad moments of the past year, the most desolate surely was the dawning realisation that it is not just this generation, but our children and grandchildren who have been deprived of their legitimate legacy. Against that exacting standard of stewardship, those who held high office are now being harshly judged on how they squandered that estate. And it is against the same standard that we will be judged by future generations.

At the heart of any process of renewal, is the call to service. The time is long past that we can leave the rebuilding of Ireland to the political classes. In a traumatised and now deeply distrustful Ireland, can we find, in Burke’s resonant phrase “the natural aristocracy” of leadership to show the way, to articulate anew John F Kennedy’s stirring admonition to his generation “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?


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