A New Vision for the Catholic Church – Book Review

The oft-quoted verse from the book of Proverbs, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish,’ (chapter 29, verse 18) opens a new book by Gerry O’Hanlon, A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A View from Ireland (Columba Press, 2011).

That verse could be considered an apt summary of the current state of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has been mired in scandal and seems to be suffering from a serious vision deficit.

O’Hanlon, a staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute, has been one of the prominent public voices attempting to get a conversation started about meaningful reform in the Irish Catholic Church.

This book is based on a series of lectures he delivered in October 2010 at Mansera Jesuit Centre of Spirituality in Dublin on the theme of, ‘what is our vision for the church?’

O’Hanlon asserts that the ‘current basic model of church’ cannot and should not survive, and sees the present crisis in the church as ‘an opportunity to imagine something different, new, more faithful to Vatican II and to the New Testament’ (p. 94).

The book, though a slim 116 pages, covers a lot of ground. The first three chapters are a quick gallop through church history, in which he demonstrates how significant changes have occurred in the church. This reminds us that the church structures and practices that we see today were not inevitable. The second and third chapters cover the key points of the first and second Vatican councils, providing a useful primer for readers unfamiliar with these events.

In the fourth chapter, he argues that the ‘key issue’ that both the Irish and the universal Catholic Church should explore is the tension between papal primacy and collegiality (the greater involvement of Catholics outside the Vatican in the governance of the church).

His fifth and final chapter outlines ‘seven theses’ for his way forward, which would re-form structures within the church and allow more significant contributions from laypeople. These are:

1. Emphasise the centrality of prayer. O’Hanlon says this is necessary because prayer can keep ‘us going over the long haul, through that ‘long march’ through the institutions that can be so painful that it really is a paschal experience, involving cross and resurrection’ (p. 95). Comparing the re-formation process that he envisions to that central experience of suffering in the Christian faith gives us some idea of how difficult O’Hanlon thinks change will be!

2. The voice of the lay faithful needs to be heard. O’Hanlon says particular attention should be paid to the voice of women, and provides a useful list of various initiatives that he believes are already bearing fruit throughout the island, such as parish councils, parish assemblies, the creation in Dublin, Armagh, Down and Connor, Kerry and elsewhere of diocesan structures in which laity participate, and the ‘structured dialogue’ of Cardinal Brady and the Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development (p. 97). He also recommends that ‘some kind of data base’ of these initiatives be developed (p. 98).

3. Bishops need to exercise real leadership. Throughout the book, O’Hanlon articulates what is a common view among some Catholics: that the Irish bishops have deferred to Rome and have not adequately grasped or communicated the concerns of the Irish laity to the Vatican. He also recommends questioning the ‘custom’ whereby Rome now appoints bishops exclusively, noting that this was not always the case.

4. The Episcopal Conference (also known as the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference) needs to act more effectively. For those unfamiliar with this body, the Episcopal Conference describes itself as ‘the assembly of the Bishops of Ireland exercising together certain pastoral offices for Christ’s faithful on the whole island of Ireland.’ O’Hanlon says that this body should ‘empower lay involvement in the church, according to the vision of Vatican II’ (p. 102). To that end, he recommends the convening of a National Assembly of the Irish Church, to include ‘an outreach to the disaffected and already alienated from the institutional church’ (p. 102).

5. Engagement of the Irish Church with Rome. Though O’Hanlon admits that it is unlikely this will happen anytime soon, he says he would like to see the Irish church raise questions in Rome about: ‘canon 129 (the role of laity in decision making), about the proper authority of Episcopal Conferences, about the canonical status of synods, about … other controversial issues … around ecclesial teaching on sex and gender’ (p. 104). He thinks that it ‘would help’ if the ‘Irish bishops alerted Rome to the simple fact that certain teaching has not been received in peace by the Irish church’ and it would be ‘a wonderful service to the universal church if Ireland was able to request a Third Vatican Council to broach such issues, including … the reform of the Roman Curia’ (p. 104).

6. We need to recruit the skills of many disciplines in our project. This is simply O’Hanlon’s call not to overlook the skills of Catholics from secular fields – political scientists, social psychologists, cultural experts, group facilitators, etc – when implementing reforms, especially if the process includes the proposed National Assembly of the Irish Church.

7. To be a ‘light to the world’ – emphasise the insights of Catholic social teaching. O’Hanlon laments that the insights of Catholic social teaching – including an emphasis on ‘the dignity of all, [and] the implementation of a model of government that values subsidiarity, solidarity’ – have not been applied to the church itself (p. 105).

O’Hanlon concludes by recommending that the years 2012-2015, the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, be declared ‘the years of the council … when we recall its memory and expose ourselves to the transforming light and force of the Spirit’ (p. 106).

What I most appreciated about the book were O’Hanlon’s practical suggestions for re-form in the church, some (a National Assembly) more realistic than others (the Irish bishops leading the way for a Vatican III). What the book lacked was a sense of Ireland’s inter-church and inter-faith contexts, including any detailed consideration about how this impacts on the current crisis in the church, as well as the possibility that other churches and faith communities might constructively engage with the Irish Catholic Church in its process of re-form.

But this is a small criticism compared to the disillusionment many already feel about the re-formability of the Irish Catholic Church, as detailed in Patrick Corrigan’s post on justice for abuse survivors yesterday and summed up by Patsy McGarry with the headline ‘Latest Actions Show Church is Unreformable.’ Are O’Hanlon’s visions simply doomed to perish?