THE BRITISH churches threw themselves energetically into political discussion before the last general election. It has all gone rather quiet since, but the same controversies are now raging in Ireland. There, the Catholic Church has been forced to take the problems of prosperity seriously, in a way that the British have never quite done. These issues were argued over at a conference last month in Dublin among a rather high-powered bunch of economists, church leaders, business people, and, in a final half-hour summation, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern.
There has been a sensational increase in prosperity in Ireland. For the past eight years, the Irish economy has grown at something like 6 per cent a year. The Irish have created jobs nearly twice as fast as the Americans, whose own performance far outstrips the European average. The flow of migration is reversed: Irish people are now coming back to Ireland. Government policy has clearly shaped these outcomes. It has kept taxes low, improved infrastructure and education - and exploited its privileged position inside the European Union. Ireland is an example of the upside of globalisation. As business increases world-wide, so that world looks for useful partners - like the Irish.
There was lively debate as to what it all meant. There is a powerful commitment here to the idea of the common good - not just in Catholic social teaching, but in the Irish Constitution itself. That case was developed by the Jesuit economist John Sweeney, whose report for the Bishops' Conference set the scene. His paper argued that the common good must not be damaged in the pursuit of private aspiration. This principle applies no matter how much richer people get.
It takes some courage to say that when life is so much better now for nearly everybody. But, he argued, there is no merit in an Ireland where the people are divided by inequality, and where a decline in compassion comes with advancing affluence. The new prosperity has dramatically reduced the number of people in poverty - but the hardship experienced by the remaining minority is ever more desperate. A hard-faced attitude is being manifested towards the travelling community, and to immigrants and asylum- seekers - a sharp irony, given Ireland's former massive export of people. In Fr Sweeney's phrase, prosperity must have a purpose. It was put more racily by the Irish Times columnist John Waters, who feared for an Ireland that was "no more than a piece of ground on which various activities - work, drinking, sex, driving BMWs - might take place."
But another Jesuit, Patrick Riordan, took a different approach. …