The General Humbert Summer School, Ballina
By Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh
Sunday 24 August 2008
Thank you Dean (Susan) Patterson for your very generous words. Thank you too for your warm welcome to this Cathedral Church of St. Patrick of the combined Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry. Please convey my good wishes and appreciation to Bishop Richard Henderson for his permission to occupy this historic pulpit. I realise that it links us directly to the remarkable events of 1798 and to his predecessor Bishop Joseph Stock. In a recent article in the Western People, John Cooney remarked that today I would be stepping into ‘the cathedral pulpit once adorned by the sagacious Bishop Stock.’ I do so very warily indeed!
The pulpit was not always a clerical preserve. It was originally a platform for public shows, speeches or disputations. It was only later that it referred to the raised structure from which the preacher delivered a sermon. As the following verse from 1695 reminds us however, the pulpit has rarely been the only source of dogmatic proclamation in society. I quote:
The Bar, the Pulpit and the Press nefariously combine,
To cry up an usurped power,
And stamp it right divine!
The Bar, the Pulpit and the Press have power. Each with their own autonomy, they represent the key determinants of opinion and policy in all but a few democratic societies – the Legislature, communities of faith and the media. The precise relationship between the three has varied historically. The balance of their influence and power variously shifted. When working at their best each respects the autonomy of the other and the space which the other is due in a free and flourishing society. When motivated by their highest ideals they are united by a common search for the truth and the promotion of justice.
It is in this context that I want to pay particular tribute to John Cooney, founder and director of the General Humbert Summer School. This school and others like it provide a vital forum for the dialogue between these three tributaries of influence which is essential to a vibrant and pluralist culture. Under John’s determined direction the Humbert Summer School has become one of the best known and influential events of the social and cultural calendar. I want to thank John and Chair of the school, Mr Tony McGarry for inviting me to give this Address. As John knows, I don’t always agree with him or with what I sometimes regard as his ‘colourful’ analysis of ecclesiastical events. Yet I am immensely grateful to him and to the other religious affairs correspondents for giving space to the religious view in Irish life. It is the view, after all, of the majority of people on the island.
John also had the foresight to frame this annual address around the memory of Bishop Joseph Stock. Bishop Stock was Church of Ireland Bishop of Killala from 1798 – 1810. His life was probably no more remarkable than many other Bishops of his time but for his famous ‘Narrative of what passed in Killala’. This was a diary of the dramatic events of the ‘98’ rebellion as they occurred here in Co. Mayo.
One of the most noted aspects of this Narrative is Bishop Stock’s repeated reference to the lack of sectarian violence in the towns and villages around Mayo during the 98 rebellion, in contrast to other parts of Ireland. In his own words, Mayo had ‘caught no portion of that malignant spirit of disloyalty and religious intolerance’ which had infected so many other parts of the country. The Narrative also communicates a disdain for violence, other than in the strict conduct of war.
The obligation to maintain a decency and courtesy towards each other in the midst of conflict was taken as a given between Stock and Humbert on the basis of their shared humanity. It is clear from the text that each had a respect for the inherent human dignity of the other.
And it is this which I suggest makes the Narrative of Bishop Stock a narrative of hope for our time. It draws us immediately into three issues which I would like to consider briefly this afternoon:
• The peace process in Ireland;
• The loss of Christian memory and values in Europe;
• The impact of this loss on the culture of aggression and violence in Ireland.
In light of theme of this year’s school, I will give more detailed consideration to the second of these, the loss of Christian memory and values in Europe. But first let me say a word about the Peace Process in Ireland.
The Peace Process
It is remarkable how often the history of Northern Ireland is used to argue that religion is an inevitable source of conflict in society. It is an easy argument for those who wish to see religion relegated to the private sphere.
Yet, as we all know the conflict here, especially in its later years, had relatively little to do with issues of religious dogma. In fact, I think it is increasingly recognised that the main Churches had a largely moderating influence on the levels of violence which might otherwise have emerged.
Europe was another moderating influence. The ideological vision of unity in diversity, the erosion of borders and the reconciliation of a continent marred by centuries of conflict of culture and history, this provided a new canvas for the future resolution of the ‘Northern’ problem. It was a brighter canvas, a wider and more assuaging one. While its influence was only one among many, it was a critical one. Just as people point to the rapid economic transformation of Ireland as an example of the success of the European economic project, so it is right to hold up Northern Ireland as an example of the success of the European social project.
Ireland owes a lot to the European Union. It is difficult to believe we would enjoy the political stability in the North or the economic progress in the South we do today without it. This should give us pause for thought when we reflect on Ireland’s place within the EU and our responsibility towards it.
Thanks in no small part to the EU the peace process in Northern Ireland is now rightly lauded across the world as a sign of hope that age-old conflicts can be resolved. By any standard it was and continues to be a remarkable achievement. Yet it remains a process. I believe it continues to be a robust and secure process. My confidence in it is strengthened by growing signs of maturity around formerly intractable issues such as parades.
In this regard the Orange Order deserves credit for what I believe are sincere and convincing efforts to promote dialogue and understanding. These should be acknowledged and reciprocated. Attacks on Orange Halls, such as those which took place last week around Armagh, deserve to be unequivocally condemned. They are symptomatic of a sectarian pathology which is evil and has to be continually challenged in our selves and every aspect of social, religious and political life.
Efforts to deal with the past are also important and may give deeper roots to the stability we now enjoy. The sensitivities around the commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the Omagh bombing, however, remind us just how difficult a task this will be. Let me take this opportunity to appeal directly to those who were responsible for the Omagh bombing. Before the innocent children, women and men you massacred I appeal to you to do the right thing before God. I appeal to your hearts and human dignity. Give yourselves up to justice in this world before you face judgement in the next. I also appeal to those who have information which could lead to the arrest and conviction of those who made or planted the Omagh bomb. You also have a duty before God to give that information immediately to the police. The families of those killed and the surviving victims have suffered enough. Help them to receive justice. If you have any humanity left in your heart at all, do all that you can to ease at least a little of their pain.
The pain which hovers below the surface of so much of life in Northern Ireland is a constant reminder of another important dimension of the European project – the power of memory.
Both personally and collectively, memory shapes who we are and how we act in the present. If we live apart from our memory and the influences which shape it, we detach ourselves from our deepest roots. Positive memories can encourage and sustain us. They are a source of wisdom and strength in the face of new and challenging situations. Negative memories can haunt us and hold us back. They can make us fearful and vulnerable in the face of new and challenging situations. With help and support we can hope to be healed of these memories. To suppress memory, on the other hand, is perhaps the most dangerous route of all. It leaves us rudderless with neither root nor hope. We have little wisdom to draw on, no experience or tested values to guide us, especially when challenges come.
And this brings me to my second point, the future of Christian memory and values in Europe.
Christian memory and values in Europe
In 1999 I attended the second Synod of Bishops on Europe. It had as its theme Jesus Christ Alive in His Church – the Source of Hope for Europe. One of the propositions of the Synod Fathers asked the European Institutions and the States of Europe to recognise that a proper ordering of society must be rooted in authentic, ethical and civic values, shared as widely as possible by its citizens. In the final message, the Synod Fathers called upon the Leaders of Europe to do a number of things;
• to protest against the violation of human rights of individuals, minorities and peoples;
• to pay utmost attention to everything that concerns human life from the moment of its conception to natural death and;
• to pay attention to protect the family based on marriage, for these are the foundations on which our common European home rests.
The Synod Fathers also asked European Leaders to care for migrants and to give the young people of Europe reasons to hope in the future.
In 2003, in his subsequent reflection on the Synod, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the institutions of Europe promoted the unity of the continent and were at the service of humanity. He noted with approval the aim of the EU at that time to propose a model of integration which would be supported by the adoption of a common fundamental Charter. This objective continues today in the form of the Lisbon Treaty and the associated Charter of Fundamental Freedoms.
Pope John Paul II, while noting his respect for the secular nature of the European Institutions, went on to ask that any such Treaty would include a reference to the Religious and Christian Heritage of Europe. He also asked that three things would be recognised:
1. The right of Churches and Religious Communities to organise themselves freely in conformity with their proper convictions;
2. That the Union respect the specific identity of the different religious confessions and make provision for a structured dialogue between the European Union and those confessions;
3. That the union would have respect for the juridical status already enjoyed by Churches and Religious Institutions within the States of the Union.
Much progress has been made in these areas. Ireland, as you know, was among the first countries in Europe to initiate the proposed ‘structured dialogue’, which is now legislated for in the Lisbon Treaty. This has been a very positive and welcome development. It is only one of the many reasons why the Catholic Church, as indicated by various Papal and Synodal reflections, is generally positive towards the European project and its founding ideals.
But this is a qualified support. As the recent referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland suggests, at least some of those who were previously enthusiastic about the founding aims of the EU, both social and economic are now expressing unease. The reasons for this are complex. But one reason influencing some Christians may be what Pope John Paul II described as the ‘loss of Christian memory’ in European institutions and policy. Successive decisions which have undermined the family based on marriage, the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, the sacredness of the Sabbath, the right of Christian institutions to maintain and promote their ethos, including schools, these and other decisions have made it more difficult for committed Christians to maintain their instinctive commitment to the European project.
This coincides with a fairly widespread culture in European affairs which relegates manifestations of one’s own religious convictions to the private and subjective sphere. It has not been unknown, for example, for individuals to have to defend their right to hold political, public or legislative office within EU institutions while professing a public commitment to their Christian faith, sometimes against very public and hostile challenge.
Ignoring this trend within the EU and its impact on people of faith has inevitable political and social consequences, not least on levels of support for the project itself. On the one hand, as Pope Benedict asked recently, ‘if the governments of the Union want to be “closer” to their citizens, how can they exclude from Europe’s identity an essential element like Christianity with which a vast majority continues to identify themselves?’. On the other hand, ‘A community that is built without respect for the authentic dignity of human beings, that forgets that each person is created in God’s image, ends up not doing any one any good.’
This is why it may be important for the EU to look again at a prevailing pragmatic attitude that compromises on essential human, moral and social values on the basis of the lowest common denominator. The experience of many Christians within the EU is that this lowest common denominator invariably coincides with the secular and relativist tradition within Europe – that which denies moral absolutes with an objective basis – rather than the religious view. In the words of Pope Benedict, ‘We end up this way spreading the view that “judging the goods” [of Europe] is the only way for moral judgement and that having a common good is synonymous with compromise. In reality, if reaching compromises is a legitimate act of balancing interests, it becomes a common evil every time it involves agreements that are harmful to man’s nature.’
Such an approach ends up with Christians as such being denied the right to intervene in public debates or at least having their contribution dismissed as an attempt to protect unjustified privileges, such as, for example the right to employ people who support the ethos of a Christian institution.
The same might be said of positions taken over stem-cell research, the status of same-sex unions, the primacy of the family based on marriage, the culture of life – the prevailing culture and social agenda within the EU, would at least appear to be driven by the secular tradition rather than by the Christian memory and heritage of the vast majority of member states.
This is in stark contrast to the prevailing political and social culture of the United States of America, a culture which prides itself on the separation of Church and State and on its diversity. Is it possible that the US has actually been more successful in balancing diversity with respect for religious freedom and conviction than the EU?
I was intrigued to discover last weekend that it was quite natural to expect the US presidential candidates to answer direct questions about their commitment to faith, their willingness to support faith based organisations, their position on moral issues and how it would affect their appointment of public officials. I look forward to the day we have the same level of openness and choice in our own elections here in Ireland and in Europe. Maybe then more people will be convinced that we are living in a democracy which is confident about diversity and respects the freedoms of all.
As it is, in Ireland, as in much of the EU, the prevailing political correctness and dominant media culture is one of relegation of the search for truth and the value of religion in society in favour of a political environment without God.
In this context, it is not surprising that we might speak of a European continent that is losing confidence in its future. From its foundation the EU is an historical, cultural and moral identity even before it is a geographic, economic or political objective. In the words of Pope Benedict ‘it is unthinkable that we can build an authentic common European house by disregarding the identities of the peoples of this continent of ours…. It is an identity built on a set of universal values in which Christianity played a role in moulding them, which gives it a role that is not only historical but also foundational vis-à-vis Europe. Such values, which constitute the continent’s soul,’ Pope Benedict continues, ‘must continue in the third millennium as a “spark” of civilisation.’
Without respect for its Christian memory and soul, I believe it is possible to anticipate continuing difficulties for the European project. These will emerge not only in economic terms but in terms of social cohesion and the continued growth of a dangerous individualism that does not care about God or about what the future might have in store.
And this brings me to my final and very brief point.
Culture of Violence and Aggression
The question of values cannot be detached from the culture of aggression and violence which is now giving rise to so much concern in our own country and further a field. We need a much more honest, respectful and constructive dialogue between the Bar, the Pulpit and the Press in Ireland and elsewhere about values in our society. Like the debate within the European Union, is it fair, is it representative of the views and convictions of the majority of people here in Ireland, that the media is so dominated by a secular view hostile to or disposed to relegate the value of religion? Is it possible to dream dreams and to imagine an approach to each other built on our shared humanism? Is it possible to agree that there are objective values for which we should have serious regard because of their implications for the good of society?
Could we agree for example, that peace is built on truth, including the stark truth that violence is ugly, demeaning and evil and therefore something never to glamorised, romanticised or trivialised?
Where is the honesty, for example, in arguing on the one hand that violence, promiscuity and lack of respect in the media has no influence on the attitude, values and behaviour of the young when billions is spent on advertising through the media precisely because of its power to influence attitudes and behaviour?
A great campaign has been launched recently which seeks to raise the awareness of the extent to which violence is being used, without question, as entertainment on TV, DVD, the internet and films. It asks that on the 2nd October, which is the UN World Day of Non-violence, Gandhi’s birthday, channels refrain from showing films containing violent scenes. This is a campaign which I wholeheartedly support. It poses important questions for the media which I hope they will not be afraid to ask.
The point at issue here is that we all share a responsibility to build the ‘ecology of peace’. We all have a role to play in influencing the social fabric and moral cohesion of a peaceful and what General Humbert often referred to as a ‘happy’ society in Ireland and the EU.
Violence dehumanises us all. Ten years after the Belfast Agreement it may be appropriate for Bar, Pulpit and Press to ask what price we have paid for the moral ambiguity in the peace process by way of encouraging a more general culture of aggression and violence. As it is there is danger that we will forget its evil and horror, that we will allow those with an interest in doing so to suggest it was justified or excusable. It was not. To fail to call it the evil that it was will undermine the ‘ecology’ of peace in the longer term.
Similarly, the claims and influence of secularism and relativism have gone largely unchallenged in Irish culture and media. It could be argued that they enjoy an uncritical acceptance which would never be afforded to religious faith. To a large degree this is true. This afternoon however I would like to suggest that there are signs of a small but significant change.
It may be that a growing number of people are questioning the prevailing orthodoxies of the ‘new’ Ireland, that they are reconsidering the value of faith, community and more traditional moral values. It may be that the still small voice of God is emerging with new appeal in Irish cultural and political debate, albeit it as a whisper!
That these three – Bar, Pulpit and Press – should continue to engage in this debate is essential for the ecology of peace in our own land. It is essential for success of the founding ideals of the European Union which I, with so may other Christians, wholeheartedly support.