Friday, November 9, 2012
Ethics in Politics
This is the magnificent church of St. Mary in Dublin's Haddington Road. When Fr. Paddy Finn came in as Parish Priest he set about heating, lighting and decorating the church, and it is a credit to him.
It was not the only thing he did. He initiated a series of evening lectures which have been of a consistently high standard, of interest not only to Roman Catholics, but to other denominations and even non-believers. He has been honoured by the series being christened from here on in as The Patrick Finn Lectures.
I have attended a number of these and have already blogged on two of them: John McDade and Jim Corkery.
This is the magnificent lectern in the sanctuary, from behind which the lectures are delivered. Appropriately enough the speakers deliver their wisdom off the back of the Holy Ghost.
The title of Last night's lecture was "The Economic and Political Crises in Europe – A Christian Perspective" and the theme revolved around the place of ethics in politics and in the marketplace.
The speaker was John Bruton, former Finance Minister, Taoiseach and EU Ambassador to the USA. He explained that, having been an altar boy in his youth, and being imbued with the sanctity of the sanctuary, he ran the risk of being tongue-tied if he used the lectern, so he chose to deliver his talk from the lay side of the altar rails.
The question he asked boiled down to whether a person's religion, in this case Roman Catholicism, should have any bearing on their participation in politics or in the marketplace.
His thesis was that it is impossible to run a sustainable state or market by regulation alone. If people confined their participation to minimum observation of the law, the whole thing would fall apart. There had to be an added element of trust involved and that is where the ethics came in. For it all to work, most people had to behave reasonably and in good faith. In the case of believers, their ethics usually came through their religious affiliation or belief. So, in the case of Christians, this was the Christian perspective or response.
He was very careful not to imply that the response of non-Christians or unbelievers need be in any way inferior to the Christian one. Simply that the source of the ethics would be different.
Generally speaking people should be held accountable for their actions in this life and should be punished for their misdeeds. But, that done, there should always be an element of forgiveness to follow. People were entitled to a second chance and simply filling the prisons did nothing to improve the quality of society. He did point out, however, that he felt a belief in the next life did bring an extra dimension of accountability into people's actions in this life.
He criticised the more extreme interpretations of "choice" and "freedom" which prevail in many quarters today. He emphasised the constraints which should apply in favour of "community" and "human rights", noting the more recent emphasis on this aspect of "communion" in the Roman Catholic Church. He saw the Mass as a social activity. He instanced the case, in the past, of attendees saying the rosary during Mass as an example of the absence of participation.
The talk was followed by a lively Q&A session, in the course of which Mr. Bruton said he feared the UK could talk itself into leaving the EU, a move which would not be to its advantage at all. He also reminded Roman Catholics that they were not used to having to argue their case in a scientific or rational environment. To an extent hierarchical pronouncements had filled this void, but they would now have to come to grips with the secular environment in which they found themselves. He didn't think that this should be an insurmountable problem, however, as much of what Christianity stood for could equally be argued from a scientific or rational basis.
His comment on the (former) power of hierarchical edicts, and the consequent gaps in the rational armoury of many Roman Catholics, resonated with me.
The longer and more complex version of Mr. Bruton's thoughts above can be found in his contribution to the recent International Eucharistic Congress.