Saturday 3 April 2010

The long road to the kingdom

This article appeared in the April 2010 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine of the diocese of Limerick & Killaloe

The Penitents (Los Penitentes)

Ice melting at the foot of a glacier near the south wall of Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, the highest mountain in the Americas - the Aconcagua glaciers have reduced in area by 20% since 1955 as a result of global warming. Photo by Lucas Hirschegger.

Bravo, Paddy Anglican!

Canon Stephen Neil hit the nail on the head in his article last month when he wrote, ‘The task we face is how to reintegrate (politics, economics, religion and environmental stewardship) and create a sustainable and healthy society for all Creation’. That is a vision of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a big ask, isn’t it? But Christ announces the kingdom is coming and calls us, his followers, to build it.

The four-fold crisis we are living through – political, economic, religious and environmental – is very deep. Building the kingdom will be neither quick nor easy. We the people are confused, demoralised and angry at what has happened to us. Our leaders remain for the most part deep in denial about their responsibility for landing us in the mess. I don’t think much will change until they move beyond denial. For recovery to take place, they will surely have to make way for fresh faces that are not compromised by past misdeeds and errors and can command the respect of the people. But we the people will have to change too, because all of us bear some responsibility.

The psychology is important, I think. Human beings must pass through distinct psychological stages in order to process guilt: initial denial is followed by shame, then penitence in which hearts change, before recovery is possible. How far down this road have we travelled so far?

The Golden Circle
The tent at the Galway races is long gone, but lives on in memory as the enduring symbol of the golden circle of venal politicians, megalomaniac developers and grasping bankers. Bankers anticipating bonuses borrowed short on international markets and lent long to fund developers’ ever more grandiose projects. Both greased the palms of politicians, who in turn obliged with light touch regulation and rezoning, and bought our votes with goodies paid for from windfall stamp duties. The greed of all three worked together to inflate an asset price bubble which was bound to burst. Similar cycles of greed were at work in other countries, but few were as intense as ours. As the rest of the world begins a faltering recovery after the global crash, Ireland remains stuck in recession. Incomes continue to fall, services are being cut further, young families struggle to pay the mortgage on homes worth a fraction of what they paid, youth unemployment balloons and another lost generation emigrates. As I see it, the golden circle is the main cause of our economic woes, though most of us colluded in it.

Many developers have gone bust and lost personal fortunes. Most senior bankers have been forced to resign and one has been questioned by the Gardai. I confess to a certain guilty pleasure, what the Germans call schadenfreude. Some show signs of shame, but most not – and certainly no penitence. They scrabble to keep as much as they can of the personal fortunes they made during the bubble they engineered, even as they look to the rest of us to recapitalise their banks and buy their bad debts through NAMA.

And what of the politicians? Fianna Fáil has led coalition governments since 1997. Brian Cowan was Minister of Finance from 2004 until he became Taoiseach in 2008, presiding over the golden circle at its most manic. He and his party must bear the lion’s share of political responsibility for what has happened. Yet they are in complete denial and shamelessly cling to office – I am lost for words! But let’s not forget who voted them there – we the people did. And they cling on in hope that we will do so again.

Time for a ‘Velvet Reformation’?
As we all know, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been in ever deepening crisis since the Murphy report was published last year. It was bad enough to learn over many years how some priests and religious abused children both sexually and physically. But the Murphy report revealed that this evil was compounded by a culture of secrecy and cover up at the highest level, which allowed the perpetrators to continue their abuse. Bishops criticised in the report tried at first to deny they had done anything wrong, though four have since resigned. In March it was revealed that Cardinal Sean Brady himself swore two abused children to secrecy 35 years ago.

Faithful Roman Catholic laity and priests are as shocked as the rest of us. They feel angry and betrayed by their leadership. Perhaps part of their anger is with themselves, because very many in their heart of hearts must know that they colluded in the evil by not shouting stop. Fr Enda McDonagh, former professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth, has proposed a 12-step recovery programme, involving laity in the process of healing the church. Pope Benedict has just issued his long awaited pastoral letter - in it he points to grave errors of judgment and failures of leadership by his brother bishops. Garry O’Sullivan the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper has called for a ‘Velvet Reformation’ in which the entire hierarchy is replaced.

It is too early to know how all this will play out, but it does appear that the outrage of laity and lower clergy is forcing the hierarchy out of denial to admit shame for the damaging culture they presided over. It is a good sign, but time will tell whether they can move on to true penitence, a prerequisite for renewal, which will probably require wholesale changes in personnel and a shift of power from clergy to laity.

We Anglicans may feel tempted to thank God that we are not like them. But that would be to behave like the Pharisee who thanked God publicly that he was not like other men – Jesus you will remember preferred the private contrition of the humble publican. We should remember that there are skeletons in our cupboard too, and that many of us used the excuse that it was none of our business to keep silence when we heard rumours of what was happening. Rather we should show solidarity and come to the aid of faithful Roman Catholics in ecumenical prayer as they struggle to reform their church.

Who is responsible for Global Warming?
The fourth part of the crisis is the failure of environmental stewardship. Its most dangerous symptom is global warming, largely caused by increasing emissions of green house gases from burning fossil fuels, destroying forests, and intensifying farming. To reverse it will require coordinated action by people in every country.

Global leaders meeting in Copenhagen last December disappointingly failed to reach the international agreements that are necessary. Despite its fine words our government has also failed to hold back Irish emissions as it promised, among the highest in the world per capita.

Perhaps the main reason for these failures is that responsibility for emissions does not lie so much with governments as with the personal choices and decisions of countless individuals around the world, particularly those in rich countries – people like you and me. Very many of us remain in obstinate denial that there is a problem at all. Even those of us who admit that there is a problem do not yet feel real shame for our bad choices and decisions. Until we do we will be denied the gift of penitence, ‘to live simply that others may simply live’.

The road to the Kingdom will be long and we have barely started down it.

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