February 2020: Editorial

A Shortcoming in the Church’s Prophetic Ministry?

I can list many reasons why I am grateful to be a Catholic. One is the prophetic voice of the Church. Yes, the Church has feet of clay and we are far from the holiness to which we are called. But for all that, our Church remains troubled, hounded, by truth. There are some things which, for all our sins, we cannot cast off.

     I think of the Church’s steadfast advocacy for the unborn, which is of a piece with its advocacy for the vulnerable aged. I think of the vision of the human person, of human flourishing, of human sexuality, which has not been surrendered in the teeth of an ongoing cultural storm. To these can be added the Church’s ministry of reconciliation, her opposition to racism, and her willingness to call her own members to account on such issues.

     That said, the Church’s prophetic ministry, at least here in Ireland, is incomplete. This is hardly surprising, as it is in the nature of prophecy to respond to what is lacking, and considered response takes time.

     There is an aspect of everyday life which is corrosive of social capital, and about which the Church has been silent. It is an area where ordinary decency and commonsense are increasingly being stifled by legislation and bureaucracy. Like other organisations, the Church is subject to the legislation concerned; perhaps more than most, she feels a need to demonstrate unquestioning, uncritical compliance. This is hardly surprising either, given the Church’s failures in other areas.

     The legislation at issue does not contravene any clear moral imperatives, and this makes a prophetic critique that much more difficult. It is easier to grasp the opportunity to show earnest citizenship than to raise a red flag; and that, I’m afraid, is what is happening.

   What I have in mind is the General Data Protection Act (GDPR), which came into effect in May 2018. What I do not have in mind is some light-weight grumbling about another layer of bureaucracy. There is something far more substantial at issue, something that impacts not just on a few administrators, but on the kind of society we are creating – or acquiescing in the creation of.

     Is GDPR necessary? Of course! We know that digital behemoths like Facebook and Google need to be reined in. They will misbehave if they can get away with it. However, when the digital giants sneezed; the rest of us got the ’flu, and what is actually being reined in is a huge amount of everyday interaction and communication between ordinary citizens.

     Two years ago, requests for information about loved ones, times of visits to nursing homes, use of security cameras, enrolments for sacraments, genealogical searches, routine secretarial tasks, WhatsApp groups and group emails, booking forms and records, parish and community noticeboards and web pages, PCs, mobile phones, filing cabinets – and much, much more, were expected to be handled with commonsense, courtesy and good old-fashioned cop-on.

     Legislation was not lacking, and in the event of abuses, there were legal channels. There was no hue and cry, no demand for reform. But reform is most certainly what we got. Now, the matters listed above (and much, much more …) are the subject of minutely detailed procedures and protocols. Some argue that the procedures and protocols are themselves merely a codification of commonsense, courtesy and good old-fashioned cop-on, but that is not the case. Procedures and protocols are applied (imposed!) precisely where commonsense is deemed not to be adequate.

     What have we gained by the new legislation and the enormous raft of observances it demands? Well, if the conversion of routine confidences into ‘data’ is a gain, we’ve gained immeasurably. If the cultivation of neurotic sensitivity regarding personal details (one’s own or others’), is a gain, then we’re on the up and up. But I don’t believe the vast majority of ordinary people see it that way. I’ve heard quite a few sighs over GDPR, none of them sighs of relief that GDPR is keeping us all safe.

     I’m not suggesting carelessness with sensitive information, or a rush to civil disobedience, but I think that for the health of our society, an important conversation needs to begin. And the Church’s prophetic voice needs to be heard in that conversation.

Chris Hayden

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