By Alan Holdren
Five days before national elections, Ireland’s bishops are urging voters and politicians to show “strong leadership rooted in justice, a concern for the common good and a commitment to defend the most vulnerable in our society,” as they head to the polls or campaign for office.
The “eyes of the world are on Ireland” to see how they will respond to economic and political turmoil in the country, the bishops said in an ambitious pre-election document issued by their justice and peace department Feb. 21.
To illustrate their concern, the bishops released the document at a press conference held at a Dublin homeless shelter run by Capuchin Franciscans.
“We want to raise awareness to and acknowledge the suffering of so many, many people because we are involved in economic and financial crisis at the moment,” Bishop Raymond Field told CNA in a telephone interview following the press conference.
The bishops “core aim,” he added was to help voters by highlighting “the values that should inform the choices that they are about to make at this critical time.”
Bishop Field said the crisis is “an opportunity for change, a chance to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build our positive experiences and to reject negative ones.”
In 2008, the government officially announced that the country was in a recession after more than a decade of strong growth. Since the economic bubble burst, unemployment rates have almost tripled in Ireland.
Ireland’s ongoing financial crisis was the major factor in the dissolution of the Irish government just one month ago. Support for prime minister Brian Cowen and his Fianna Fail party bottomed out after their leadership was blamed for the continued recession.
In their response to the crisis, the bishops underscored the role of religious leaders in “reawakening the spiritual energy which empowers people to work for justice in the world.”
Politicians and voters must focus attention on the “real cost of the crisis” – the human lives effected by economic dislocation, the bishops said.
The bishops blame the crisis and a breakdown of trust in core institutions in Ireland – including the Catholic Church. They say this loss of trust has encouraged “a more radical individualism.”
They describe an atmosphere ever more influenced by self-interest, an individualistic culture shaped by “advanced capitalism.”
Consumerist ideals are threatening a traditional value system based on the nation’s Christian heritage, said the bishops.
“Perhaps the most damaging consequence which flows from the increasing cultural dominance of consumerist capitalism is the emphasis which it places upon monetary success as a measure of personal worth,” the bishops said.
Banks and financial institutions need support as essential elements of a functioning economy and successful culture, the bishops said. However, “they must be at the service of society and contribute to the common good,” they added.
The bishops call for this change to take place through action based on “gratuitousness” – or free giving – and concern for solidarity among various social groups and a shared commitment to the common good.
They also urged efforts to strengthen the traditional family and to protect the right to life.
Their message takes inspiration from the teachings of the landmark 2009 document on social justice called “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth), in which Pope Benedict XVI appealed for recognition of the “integral development” of man as the core concern in in decision-making.
The time is right for change, say the bishops in the document. The parliamentary elections in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland offer a “crucial moment of political change; change which is taking place against the background of justifiable anger.”
The “wounds” of the crisis are deep and if they go untreated, say the bishops, they “could engender a cultural climate in which the specter of social fragmentation and violence cannot be ruled out.”
According to a Feb. 21 analysis in the Irish Times daily, change in government is on the way. Fianna Fail is predicted to lose its majority in the Republic’s parliament for the first time since 1932 in favor of a single-party or coalition government led by the Fine Gael Party, the primary opposition.
A Times’ survey showed satisfaction with the outgoing government to be at record lows. The paper predicted a win for Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny as prime minister in the Feb. 25 election.
However, the outcome is still uncertain. The Times reported that 30 percent of voters still have not made up their minds.
Bishop Field said the bishops are urging Catholics and others to turn out for the elections.
In a time of “great crisis” and widespread international neglect for the common good, this election is “particularly important,” he said.
“I certainly think that the Catholic voter should vote, number one, because every election is important, that they should vote according to their conscience and we hope that the sanctity and dignity of human life would be defended at all stages.”
He said that the bishops are also “hoping that the common good will be enshrined … not just in the election but post-election as well.”