Brendan Hoban on Gerry O’Hanlon’s new book
Back in 2005 I wrote a book, Change or Decay: Irish Catholicism in Crisis. Its central point was that the Catholic Church in Ireland was dying on its feet and if we didn’t take action it would die in front of our eyes. It really was a matter of Change or Decay.
At the time many thought it simplistic, needlessly dramatic and somewhat over the top. Things really were not that bad! Surely the Catholic Church had weathered even more violent storms in the past – the persecution of the Penal Laws and so forth. After every storm doesn’t a calm descend to remind us that perspective is everything? Been there, done that, survived to tell the tale.
Well, yes and no. That was before the publication of the Dublin and the Ryan reports, the resignation of bishops and the era of constant crisis that continues unabated. That was before a profound clarity emerged from the scandals of sexual abuse and the institutional failure to deal with them.
That clarity has convinced us that there is a deeper malaise in the Catholic Church that has to do with the twin problems of a debilitating clericalist culture and an overly centralised organisational structure that are cutting off oxygen from our understanding of our Church as God’s People. The Church is not the Pope’s or the bishops’ or the priests’. The Church is the People of God.
Few need to be convinced anymore that the Catholic Church, in Ireland and throughout the world, stands in need of radical reform.
In a new book, A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A View from Ireland, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, a Jesuit theologian, agrees that the situation is grave. While an informal ‘conversation’ has broken out among church members – ‘They (bishops / priests) just don’t get it’, ‘Things will never change’, ‘Rome is just as bad’, ‘Get real’, ‘It’s not nice being a woman in this church’ – what is needed, he suggests, is a period of ‘communal discernment.’ In other words structured discussions at parish and diocesan level that would help to create ‘a better balance’ between the authority of the Pope, centralised decision-making and the proper autonomy of local churches.
What O’Hanlon proposes is a new vision for the Catholic Church though the vision is not new. It’s the teaching of the Catholic Church as enunciated in the Second Vatican Council. We’ve had it for the last half century. The problem is that we didn’t take it seriously. Now we need to shape a road-map that allows us to come to terms with where we are and, acknowledging the road-blocks and the necessary detours around them, to find a new direction.
While O’Hanlon recognises the temptation to ‘ride out the crisis’ or to reassure ourselves that a bit of tweaking here and there will help the present ‘model’ of church to survive, he believes we need to use the present crisis to imagine and create a church more faithful to the vision of Vatican II.
So O’Hanlon proposes, as a way forward for the Irish Catholic Church, 7 theses or propositions.
The first element in the ‘communal discernment’ he envisages is the centrality of prayer. This is not the kind of prayer that’s often used as an excuse for doing nothing! This is a form of prayer that leads to decision and that ends in action. It is a form of prayer that will sustain the conversation through the inevitable difficulties and frustrations along the way.
His second proposition is that the voice of the people needs to be heard. This needs an imaginative and creative balance between on the one hand the primary role of the people (as laid out in Vatican Two) and due respect for ordained leadership. This needs people to speak out, even if clerical feathers are ruffled in the process, and to claim that consultative role in decision-making that Vatican Two envisaged. This will take time and patience and courage. We need, O’Hanlon writes, to ’re-invent those corporate habits of conversation familiar to other churches, which centuries of clericalism have deleted from our corporate memories.’
His third proposition is that bishops need to exercise real leadership. Strong leadership is not to be confused with bishops making decisions on their own. What is needed is an ‘empowerment’ of the voice of the people coupled with a need to take on a more assertive role in relation to Rome. The culture of deference to Rome has to be reassessed. The Irish bishops, O’Hanlon contends, owe this to the Irish Church. Peace with Rome at all costs is no excuse for failing to articulate the concerns of Irish Catholics. An open, respectful and robust dialogue is what is needed.
A fourth proposition is that the Irish bishops need to act more effectively and more cohesively and that they need to make the necessary organisational changes to achieve that – one of which is to empower lay participation along the lines suggested by Vatican Two. The way to do this, O’Hanlon believes, is to convene a National Assembly of the Irish Church, in preparation for which there would be discussions at all levels on a subject like ‘What sort of Church do we want for the future?’ And any discussion would need to have an appropriate follow-up mechanism built into it.
A fifth proposition is the need for a more robust, adult engagement between the whole Irish Catholic Church and Rome, even possibly a Third Vatican Council to broach issues that need to be faced. A sixth proposition is that a range of skills of many disciplines need to be recruited to sustain the kind of conversation we need. And the last proposition is that our conversation about church vision and structures should be a ‘light to the world’, a witness to the world.
Gerry O’Hanlon believes that our present difficulties as a church have revealed a structural and cultural malaise at the heart of which has been the failure to implement the vision of church outlined by the Second Vatican Council.
Next year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Two. What better way to do that than a National Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church with God’s people at the very heart of it.
(Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J., A New Vision for the Irish Catholic Church, A View from Ireland, Columba Press)