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Recession and God

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  • This is a different account of the current recession in Ireland and world-wide. Gerry OHanlon SJ draws on the rich resources of the Christian tradition to argue for the need for a new, more socially responsible, economic paradigm. He proposes a vision for the common good, inspired by the values of justice and solidarity, which rules out any simple return to business as usual. Instead he urges that we use this time of crisis as an opportunity to pool our resources (both secular and religious) in committing oursleves to the search for a more sustainable future. This extended essay shows the relevance of theological thought for practical living, of Christianity for the public square.
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    In this scholarly and exciting essay, Gerry OHanlon shows the relevance of real Christianity, as found in the Scriptures and filtered through Catholic Social Teaching, for current economic woes. Service of ones fellowman by those who identify themselves as Christians, including bankers and financiers, combined wirth just punishment fror wrongdoers, can bring vitality to a damaged society.

    - Dr Finola Kennedy, economist and author

    Our world in these days needs a lot more than the angry, sometimes hysterical moralising, which is common and is passed off as a kind of surrogate religion in secular times writes Gerry OHanlon SJ

    There is talk these days of a papal visit to Britain. This should come as no huge surprise: Gordon Brown has already had three meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and sees the Vatican and the Catholic Church as an important ally in the struggle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which include the eradication of poverty and an environmentally sustainable economic future for us all.

    In similar vein, in this country, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has resisted the notion that religion is fit only for the private domain of personal living: Faith cannot be relegated to the protective atmosphere of an isolated glasshouse. In todays world, a strong faith can only develop within the public square, in a challenging debate with the realities of life and progress (Doctrine and Life, 59, March 2009, p3).

    What might a strong faith, a reading of the signs of the times, contribute to our present economic crisis? Given the grave crisis in our banking system, our financial markets, and the so-called real economy where the rate of unemployment is spiraling, with all the great strain this puts on individuals and relationships, can Christianity provide a word of hope that can ease worries and sleepless nights?

    Free market

    There are at least three crucial elements which Christian wisdom can bring to the table of our present struggle. First, a constructive critique of the market economy. Catholic Social Teaching in particular values the relative contribution which the free market can make, but refuses to absolutise it. While it values profit, competition, entrepreneurship, it does so in a way which subordinates them to the notion of the common good. It calls for regulation of the market in all its facets, the kind of regulation that is virtue and not just rules-based and is subject to global and not just national governance. It notes too that certain human needs (for example, health-care, education, social housing) cannot be met by market processes alone.

    Secondly, going deeper, the Christian critique of the dominant culture of our day, which fuels the common-sense decisions of bankers, financial traders, property developers and politicians, is that it is excessively individualistic and has too thin, too slight a notion of what is right and wrong. We need instead to develop a culture in which the common good, understood more robustly, is central, and values like justice and solidarity with the poor are operative. We need to use our present crisis to encourage a new kind of thinking and leadership which will want to create a more just economic, social and environmental future in which the egregious inequalities of the past have no place.


    When one stops to think about it, the search for a new, more socially responsible economic paradigm, and a new culture, in which the individual and social are together respected in the search for the truly good life, far from representing a return to business as usual, is in fact a call for radical reform, even for peaceful revolution. Is this pie in the sky? Well, in an interesting remark in 1984, Pope John Paul II notes that there is sin involved in taking refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world. The third contribution that Christianity can offer is to ground hope, hope for the long haul. Christians believe that in Jesus Christ evil has been definitively overcome, that if God be on our side, who can be against?, that we need not be afraid, that now I create the new heavens and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, that, in short, we may realistically hope for at least partial anticipations in this life of that full flowering of the Kingdom of God which is post-historical.

    Of course the more urgent issue is to re-stabilise our economy and to take the necessary measures to do so. But the more important issue is to plan for a different future, and this requires more than technical competence, but also an ability to dream - Where there is no vision the people perish (Proverbs, 29: 18).

    It may be objected that the Church is in a weak position to offer this kind of word of hope, that it has been damaged by the child sexual abuse scandals, that it struggles to have its voice heard in the public square, not least due to the operative assumptions of a sometimes hostile media. But, would it not be a huge dereliction of responsibility for Christians to turn our backs in fear at a time of great need? Why, with the power of the Good News and the presence of the Holy Spirit, should we stay huddled together in the Upper Room, afraid of the world outside? Might we not use the occasion of the imminent, long-promised new social encyclical from the Vatican to bring this Good News to the whole world?


    Of course, we do well to offer our gifts with respect and modesty, knowing that we are sinners, that we get things wrong. But our world in these days needs a lot more than the angry, sometimes hysterical moralising which is common and is passed off as a kind of surrogate religion in secular times. We need cool, clear and radicial thinking. And we need hearts and imaginations full of hope and courage. These qualities are rooted in the Christian narrative. And so, even if we continue to disagree on many things, we need at this time of crisis believers and non-believers alike to come together in mutual appreciation of the gifts they bring to the table in the search for a better future.

    Gerry OHanlon, SJ, is Acting Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. His new publication The Recession and God: Reading the Signs of the Times was published on March 23, 2009

    - The Irish Catholic

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Recession and God

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