During this year’s official commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the senior chaplain of the Irish military, Monsignor Eoin Thynne, delivered a brave homily in which he largely eschewed the customary bromides of Romantic Irish nationalism, speaking, instead, about the ethical collapse that had taken place in Ireland during the economic boom. It is a moment of national trauma in Ireland—the consequence of the financial meltdown and the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. Combining, as he does, the duties of a priest and a soldier, it would have been unfair to expect Msgr. Thynne to address the pedophilia crisis and his Church’s cover-up. But on the economic crisis, he was unsparing. These days in Ireland, it often seems as if the morning papers do little but itemize one more insolvency of a former high-flying property company, or the further indebtedness of the major Irish banks—all of which have already had to be partly or wholly nationalized. The new glass and steel condominiums along the Liffey River stand largely empty, much like similar developments in Florida, Nevada, and Spain. And while Ireland is now also receiving immigrants from Africa, the Maghreb, and the Indian sub-continent for whom, of course, an Ireland in economic difficulty still seems almost unimaginably prosperous), it is also once again seeing many of its own young people—the best and the brightest, as immigrants most often are historically—leave the country in search of more promising futures in continental Europe, Australia. Canada, and the United States.
The story of the Irish boom has its particularities. Unlike France, or Britain, or Germany (not to mention the United States or Japan), Ireland had never been rich before the boom. To be sure, after entering the European Union it had grown more prosperous, thanks to generous subsidies from Brussels. But real, home-grown prosperity came only in the 1990s. Now, Irish people are waking to realize that it was not prosperity at all, but a combination of a banking system so leveraged that it had to collapse at some point, and an economy whose prosperity depended almost entirely on property prices continuing to rise. If the Irish economy in the boom years was not exactly based on a confidence game, it was not based on much that was solid either. And in a country like Ireland, with a small and inter-connected political and economic elite, the involvement of the major political parties in enabling the madness—while not yet fully illuminated—is virtually certain to have been deep.
In his homily, Msgr. Thynne called for forgiveness for all this, but left no doubt about how much there was to forgive. “Enlighten hearts,” he said, “with a willingness to forgive those who have been contaminated by the virus of corruption, selfishness, and greed. Those whose pride and arrogance have inflicted misery and hardship on our people…Give us the courage to improve ourselves and to shape a society built on a solid foundation of ethics.”
Listening to him speak, I found it hard not to be overcome by an unseemly envy. For what American figure with an equally important official role in this society has put what has happened in its proper moral context? And do not, please, tell me it is Barack Obama. Doubtless, the president means well. But one cannot appoint people to fix the crisis who come from the Wall Street firms that caused the crisis, or denounce the insurance companies while crafting a bill that will benefit the insurance companies (not to mention making a back-room deal with the pharmaceutical industry), and have the right to claim the moral high ground. Yes, if I have to choose between Obama and his enemies (whether the enemy in question is the Tea Party movement, the Republican Party, AIPAC, or, for that matter, the Jihadists), siding with the president seems to me the only sane choice. Sane, but profoundly dispiriting. The doctrine of the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not much more edifying than that of sauve qui peut. Why is it apparently impossible for the archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, a man of immense power in America who is also a person with a genuine social conscience and a long history of activism on behalf of the poor, to make a speech about the selfishness, greed, and ethical collapse of American society during our boom years in a context as likely to draw public attention, and, in doing so, shift the terms of the debate, as the one chosen by Msgr. Thynne? And the same question should be asked of the Reverend Rick Warren and of the leaders of the North American Baptist Conference and of the American Association of Lutheran Churches when they pronounce—as they hardly have been shy about doing—on the moral condition of the Republic.
This society is in moral freefall, and it is idiotic to pretend otherwise. People of my political bent tend to blame capitalism in all its inherent nihilism and cruelty, while social conservatives tend to see the demise of any coherent social order on the collapse of what my father called Sacred Order. To say this is emphatically not to say that these are apocalyptic times. That is far, far too easy. The apocalypse, like the barbarians at the Roman city’s gates in Cavafy’s great poem, offer a kind of solution, a kind of consolation, just as the story of Samson is consoling only because it ends with him pulling down the pillars of the temple. But these are stories: There is absolutely no historical basis for thinking immoral societies cannot endure or flourish. Indeed, to believe so is, historically, a monotheistic conceit, and in its essence millenarian rather than historical.
How societies conceive themselves is another matter entirely. Most societies, whether they bowed before Baal or Yahweh, Jesus or Goldman Sachs, have thought themselves moral. Today, as anyone who can bear to read the The Wall Street Journal Opinion page, or Investor’s Business Daily will know, the rich once again believe they are rich not because they are lucky or because they are powerful and have created a system that largely serves their ends and their interests, but because they are deserving, and have worked hard. And to those who say that this was what American capitalism claimed in the Gilded Age or the Coolidge administration, the capitalist propagandists of our day like Amity Shlaes or Daniel Henninger indignantly demand: What was wrong with the Gilded Age? And perhaps they will even win the ideological battle, at least for a while. Nietzsche, cutting to the point as always, wrote that, “Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”
But this does not mean there is no such thing as truth, or that it would not be a relief, if only once a year, say—perhaps during a national day of remembrance (after all, every country has one)—someone in a position of real influence and authority saw fit to tell the truth rather than spin it. The rest of the time we could go back to business as usual.