President's Office - Citizenship, Social Exclusion And Christian Responsibility

Citizenship, Social Exclusion and Christian Responsibility

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski
President of Dublin City University
Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, 5 November 2000.

It is a great privilege for me today to be addressing this congregation on the occasion of this very important service in the life of Christchurch Cathedral. In preparing for this service, I decided to look for some characteristics which Christchurch Cathedral has in common with my university, DCU. It clearly is not the architecture, as those who know DCU will confirm; but the university and the cathedral are both important Dublin institutions. Perhaps Christchurch suffers a relative disadvantage by not being in the North side of Dublin (which is where the real Dublin is to be found), but we are both Dublin institutions nonetheless.

This is an important issue, because being part of a community is a significant aspect of the human experience. More generally, we all feel we are part of something greater. So for example, part of the human condition to recognise, seek out and stand in awe before the majesty of creation:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? (Psalm 8)

We are now within what used to be known as the `octave' of All Saints Day, a feast day which reminds us of the `great cloud of witnesses compassing us about', and that we are part of a greater community.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

One of the major characteristics of Christian worship and of the Christian life is that it is corporate in its essential characteristics. The liturgies of the major catholic churches are centred on an awareness of a greater community, including both the community of the family of the church, and the community of `angels and archangels and the company of heaven'. Christian life more generally, from its earliest New Testament developments, was based on an understanding of the importance of the entire fabric of the society of believers.

The idea of `citizenship' is an important part of this understanding of the Christian corporate experience. The term `citizenship' itself is drawn from ancient Greece, where it denoted the full membership of the local, city-based community. But the concept has also been used to describe the community of believers: we are `members' of a larger body from which we draw our strength and for which we have direct personal and collective responsibility. This understanding has been visible in a wide range of theological and spiritual writings, in hymns and religious poetry and in liturgical texts.

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
Sing all ye citizens of heaven above

Christianity therefore is a religion which espouses and requires a sense of social responsibility.

In the secular world, the concept of social responsibility is accepted but, equally, is under threat. The European Union, for example, has promoted the idea of a European `citizenship', but has developed no effective sense of what this should mean in practice, away from the geo-political arena. In individual countries, including Ireland, the entire social fabric has been subjected to enormous stress as prosperity has been successfully `individualised' and collective responsibility has been marginalized. In the UK, this kind of attitude was driven to its logical extreme when Margaret Thatcher famously declared that `there is no such thing as society' - perhaps not intending to follow Hobbes (Leviathan), but evoking similar sentiments. Hobbes had written as follows of the natural human state: `No arts, no letters, no society; ... and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Similar sentiments had derived from the period following the Reformation, with its individualist ethos, drawing on the `nominalism' of late medieval times.

The consequence of the modern individualising trend has been to create a climate in which prosperity and progress is accompanied by a significant degree of `social exclusion'. This exclusion affects the uneducated, members of minority racial and cultural groups, the homeless and the simply unlucky. Worse still, it creates an impression that ignoring these excluded groups is not wrong or, to use Christian parlance, is not sinful. Success is not a reward for virtue in this mindset, success is virtue, and failure is sin.

A successful economy needs a sense of individual industry and effort, and individual responsibility, and individual reward; it needs acceptance that commercial enterprise is desirable and good. But it also needs a sense of inclusiveness, and a sense of shame when groups are excluded or marginalized.

Christian churches have struggled with these issues, and found it hard to address them adequately. I recommend as required reading one Anglican thinker, the noted writer R.H. Tawney. And in particular, I recommend his book 'The Acquisitive Society', published in 1921. One of the themes he pursues is the obligation of Christian churches to have a clear and Gospel-compatible message on social conditions, a duty which he felt most churches had abandoned in the 19th century:

'Possessing no absolute standards of their own, the Churches were at the mercy of those who did possess them. They relieved the wounded, and comforted the dying, but they dared not enter the battle. For men will only fight a cause in which they believe, and what the Churches lacked was not personal virtue, or public spirit, or practical wisdom, but something more simple and more indispensable, which they could not impart, because they did not possess it - faith in their own creed and in their vocation to make it prevail. So they made religion the ornament of leisure, instead of the banner of a Crusade.'

Tawney mocked the social message of the Churches as being a Gospel 'which affirms that the power of religion in the individual soul is nicely proportioned to its powerlessness in society'. Such a gospel, he argued, simply meant that social conditions of people, including the conditions which informed their moral choices, were left to be determined by the economic conditions of the day, and he predicted that as people perceived that religious morality was not influential in the decisions of politicians and business leaders, it need not trouble them too much either. He concluded from all this that a welfare society based on Christian - i.e. Gospel-based rather than denominational or organisational - principles would provide an ethical basis for society and a set of principles on which Churches could develop a social theology. His views were very influential in the Labour Party of Britain, and thus contributed to the thinking which led to rapid establishment of the welfare State by the Attlee government in 1945.

For Christians, there is a particular responsibility to speak out in such matters. Questions of personal lifestyle, including questions of sexual morality, are of very minor significance alongside the major sin of social exclusion, and the churches have risked falling into disrepute and losing the respect even of the faithful when, apparently, they have given more priority to lifestyle issues than to social justice issues.

However, there is a significant body of theology relating to social equity and progress.

Some of the theology was set out in Pope John XXIII's encyclical letter of 1963, Pacem in Terris, from which the following summary has been constructed. Human rights, said John XXIII, include the right to life; the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and the necessary social services; the right to be looked after in the event of ill-health, disability, widowhood, old age, unemployment.

Some of this needs to be given a more modern slant, with a greater awareness and acceptance of new forms of commerce and technology, and an understanding of the very different demographic characteristics of modern economies compared with those of the 19th and early 20th centuries; but it could be developed successfully in this way. In the interests of the survival of the churches in the new emerging society, but more importantly in the interests of the emergence of a society which is fair and just and capable of meeting social needs and relieving social tensions, the churches must urgently reassess how they speak to the world, and how they view their responsibilities. And we, as individual Christians, must play our own active part, in recognition of the fact that there is something greater than us of which we are a part, which nourishes us and which we must ourselves support. We must re-discover a new sense of an inclusive Christian society.

Members of the Church of Ireland of my generation and older will recall regularly hearing, saying or singing the canticle `Urbs Fortitudinis': `We are a strong city' - Dublin is a strong city, and Ireland is a strong country. The canticle goes on:

`Open ye the gates.'