Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

Witnessing for a reason: Connecting Christian values and public concerns

Prof. Philip McDonagh, DCU





Image by Allan LEONARD @MrUlster used by license CC BY–NC”

Peace is a true idea

The greatest privilege of my years of service in the Department of Foreign Affairs was to work for five years on the Good Friday Agreement, beginning in 1994. The Good Friday Agreement was not a mere ‘political fix,’ as some people might say. Words like justice, peace, relationships, and reconciliation were the lingua franca of the time. As Senator George Mitchell stated in Belfast last April, ‘peace is a true idea.’ But in that same speech, Senator Mitchell points out that ‘every one of us is fallible,’ and ‘history is never finished.’ So we can hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time. On the one hand, as Senator Mitchell said, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement ‘talks to the world’ in these ‘fractured times.’ On the other hand, as Archbishop Eamon Martin said in St. Anne’s Cathedral in January of this year, our agenda for the next fifty years as churches in society should be bigger and broader than our own peace process. Our coming together today to discuss wider challenges may even bring new life to the peace process itself.

The main sections of this talk

My argument this morning falls into three sections. First, I will argue that the missing ingredient in our politics is methodological. We often seem incapable of deliberation and discernment from a deep and long–term perspective, which is why the voices of the churches are so important. Second, I will describe three projects of engaged research undertaken by the Centre for Religion, Human Values, and International Relations here at DCU over the past two years. Third, and finally, I will offer four practical recommendations. 

Mercy and hope, like peace, are true ideas

Before I turn to my main argument, I want to acknowledge the continuity between our innermost sense of truth and trust and our commitment to truth in the public sphere. The risen Jesus forgives our sins. The same risen Jesus is our light and our hope in shared situations of apparently impregnable injustice or irreconcilable conflict. By bringing the mercy of Jesus to our wounded social structures we are giving expression to a facet of love. Mercy and hope, like peace, are true ideas.  

In his letter to Philemon, St. Paul makes it clear that the slave will only be asked to return to his master on the basis of an assurance that he will no longer be treated as a slave is usually treated. St. Paul’s practical dilemma is resolved through a deliberate act of mercy on the master’s part. This act of mercy at a ‘micro’ level will have long–term consequences at the ‘macro’ level. The slave trade, the denial of family rights to slaves, and ultimately the institution of slavery cannot survive in an atmosphere of interpersonal communication and communion. Today, even ‘micro’ decisions, if they are inspired by a sense of justice as a felt absence, anticipate a broader social change.

An effective economic and ecological transition depends on numerous individual decisions linked together by a common criterion of evaluation. This common criterion cannot be the standard of mere self–interest, which pushes us in different directions. How then can we picture ourselves as co–workers in a shared project? From a Christian perspective, actions that conform with hope will be in harmony with other similar actions, including other people’s actions. When we act in hope, we do not see ourselves as complete masters of cause and effect. The fruits of action are in some sense ‘given’. In this way, the ‘standard of hope’ becomes a way of understanding how separate actors, often invisible to one another, work together towards an unseen future. Hope, if restored to a fuller meaning in our culture, can help to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unknown – between today and a future that is perhaps not even imaginable.

The missing ingredient in our politics 

I turn now to my main argument, which concerns deliberation as a democratic practice. As responsible citizens, we are always entitled to ask whether our political institutions are addressing the most consequential issues and whether they have the scale, expertise, and authority to effect solutions. In a complicated and changing world, it is inevitable that our laws will fall short in some respects. To move forward in a consistent manner, we need a standpoint or a sense of direction. The paradox is that we cannot legislate for vision and values, for friendship, virtue, trust, or loyalty. Therefore, it is a truth of reason that democracy depends on cultural conditions that it cannot itself generate or guarantee. There is a distinction, or better, a dialogical relationship, between the granular provisions of the law and an underlying ethos or sense of direction. 

A shared ethos or sense of direction is not easy to achieve. In democratic societies, we are witnessing polarisation. At the international level we see a widening gap between the scale of our collective problems and our capacity for collective action. To borrow a phrase from Archbishop McDowell, there is a ‘missing ingredient’ in our politics. This ‘missing ingredient’ I would describe as the capacity for deliberation and discernment in a long–term perspective. First, we need to work with others to identify our most important cultural resources and to clarify great fundamental words such as love, hope, justice, mercy, and community. In a second phase, we need to apply our high–level values, our well–understood words, to particular situations in which the way forward is often far from clear. The places of encounter and discernment that I have in mind will complement, not replace, the day–to–day business of party politics and international bargaining.  

In the presence of Dr. Livingstone Thompson, I would recall that the Moravian thinker Comenius, following the Thirty Years War, proposed a consultatio catholica, a Europe–wide deliberation about our shared future. Comenius formed an overview of the several different poles of tension in Europe, envisaged new processes and institutions, and sought to place the different spheres of knowledge at the service of the common good. A few years ago, the French Roman Catholic bishops wrote about the need to ‘recover the meaning of politics,’ making a distinction between le politique, understanding what a shared life in society involves, and la politique, the specific actions and policies that we debate in each electoral cycle. For both Comenius and the French bishops, the new ‘ingredient’ that we need in politics is methodological: to reconnect overarching values and practical policies through exploring in greater depth the dialogical relationship between them. The voices of Christians, of other religious believers, and of all people of principle are indispensable if such a process is to bear fruit.

Three projects

Since the inauguration of our Centre in 2021 by the then Taoiseach Micheál Martin, we have completed three projects of engaged research in partnership and cooperation with the Irish Council of Churches, the Irish Inter–Church Meeting, and the Dublin City Interfaith Forum. 

The Conference on the Future of Europe 

The first project, part of our workstream on ‘multilateralism and methodology,’ was a submission in the name of all the churches and faith communities to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Some of you may remember our meeting here in the Helix in February 2022, bringing together church representatives, leading experts on the European Union, and a wide range of stakeholders. We sought to apply the founding values of post–war Europe to a range of current challenges including migration, housing, peacemaking, the media, and technology. Nothing like this was attempted in any other member State.

The Economics of Belonging

Our second multi–stakeholder project, on the Economics of Belonging, led to an interim report in February 2023. COVID–19 saw effective government intervention and many examples of dedication to duty on the part of key workers. The meaning of front–line work changed. To support our search for an overarching vision, we examined selected issues having demonstration value in the bigger picture: child food poverty, aspects of the criminal justice system, and housing policy. Since February of this year, we in DCU have done further work on public policies relevant to an ageing population. 

The ‘lessons learned’ during the pandemic include the following:

  • the importance of investment in the infrastructure of society
  • the need to avoid ‘bifurcation’ in the delivery of services such as healthcare
  • a new questioning of ‘efficiency’ as the main criterion for economic choices and of the role played by ‘incentives’ 

Resilience in global food systems

Our third project, concluded in July, concerned resilience in global food systems. Within this project we had five working groups, including working groups on food and the sacred and food and human rights. A central conclusion of our work was that believers and secular human rights activists can work together. This conclusion is something on which we can build in the future. There is even an opening here for political parties to appeal in a new way to the many voters who take their faith seriously. 

I will mention here the first of our many recommendations, which derives from the need for perspective and proportion in all political action: 

A values–led approach to politics and security in the perspective of 2030 or 2050 should give an over–riding priority to sharing the primary goods of life while also accepting a longer–term responsibility to promote the ecological and climatic conditions on which life depends.

Practical suggestions

Before concluding, I would like to put forward four practical ideas.

First, we should continue to develop our ideas on the ‘economics of belonging’ and ‘multilateralism and methodology.’ Perhaps these two workstreams can be combined in a new project on polarization and democracy.

Second, we should continue to explore the spaces in which public authorities can deepen their dialogue with churches and faith communities. One important avenue, but not the only one, is the European Parliament. A few months ago, the Co–Chairs of the Irish Inter–Church Meeting, Bishop Andrew and Bishop Brendan, wrote to the First Vice–President of the European Parliament, Dr. Othmar Karas, to propose the further development of the Article 17 framework, which is the Treaty provision providing for a structured dialogue between the European Union and churches and faith communities. The initial reaction of Vice–President Karas is promising, though of course the European elections in 2024 may limit the scope for new initiatives in the short–term.  

Third, we can move forward with our ‘economics of belonging’ project by organising a meeting here in the Helix in 2024 involving youth representatives. Keynote speakers from among young thought leaders in the arts and elsewhere could be asked to contribute. We might reach out to postgraduate students, including those in DCU who have taken part in our projects of engaged research. There could be a connection to the Shared Island Youth Forum launched by the Department of the Taoiseach in July. 

My fourth and final proposal is that we should ask ourselves hard questions about education and formation. We live in a society in which thought–leaders in several domains appear to have created self–referential codes of conduct which exist somewhat in isolation from one another and from wider social needs. ‘Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone’ is of course the only possible starting point for this discussion, but to explain myself, it seems to me that the leaders of many businesses and professions seem not to understand what ‘good work’ means in a human community. A symptom is the expectation of personal remuneration and personal consumption at a level that seems impossible to reconcile with ‘equality of condition’ as a political value. An associate editor of the Financial Times recently offered this critique:

What we have today is no longer a truly ‘free’ market system that allows for productive and fair transactions between buyers and sellers who exist on an equal footing, but rather, a system of concentrated power and oligopoly.

In the Septuagint and the New Testament, the just person’s capacity for looking into the truth of situations is one of the meanings associated with the Greek words krima and krisis. Here is Jesus in St. John’s gospel:

It is for krima that I came into this world, so that the blind might see 

Blindness, or ingrained structural bias, is bound up with our education and formation. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis sees an intimate connection between the future of Christianity, the future of humanity, and our ways of appropriating knowledge:

Our goal is not to amass information or satisfy curiosity but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening in our world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it 

We should have the equipment in our hearts and in our heads to examine the patterns of our behaviour in the light of all that we ought to know and can know. What does this mean for school education and for the way universities teach and study law, medicine, economics, international relations, and the sciences – not to mention theology?

Citizenship obligations in the kingdom

In conclusion, our baptism ought to lead to the appropriation of concrete citizenship obligations in the kingdom to which Jesus was the witness. St. Paul, in Philippians, identifies a ‘deep–felt mercy’ as a principal characteristic of those who embrace the new form of shared life. The spirit of mercy draws us into a differently imagined social space. Well–trained judgement exercised in company with others enables us to deliberate about the future, to identify what early childhood practitioners term the ‘zone of proximal development,’ and to move forward in hope.