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?

  • I dont want to get involved in a wider “public” discussion as it should really only involve those who wish the Catholic Church well.
    Fr Gerry O’Hanlon and to a lesser extent Fr Peter McVerry appear to be leading the “intellectual” fight back becoming of Jesuits.
    But many will lean to the more “human” utterances of Abbot Mark Paterick Hederman of Glenstal (no less academic but with I would suggest a certain wider reach) whose suggestions are much more radical.
    Historically without a recognised Church (and a peasant church rather than the aristocratic church of Italy, Spain, France, Bavaria and a faux aristocracy of England) the relationship between Rome and the Irish bishops has always been peculiar.
    “Laudabiliter” (a “doctrine” invented by Pope Adrian IV) is largely ignored or in modern terms risible but the modern meaning (domination of Rome over nations rather than christian kings) is still credible in Rome…..especially in the context of Ireland with no intellectual or aristocratic clout.
    The appointment of bishops to Ireland it is fair to say was inconsistent but so indeed was the wider policy towards Ireland ….always dependent on a changing domestic and European political climate for example the British funded the founding of Maynooth (with an oath of allegiance soon dropped) as a response to the French Revolution.

    The problem is whether the Irish “clerical” Church (ie the only Church to whom Rome listens) can assert a degree of independence that the “lay” Church wants and needs….a difficult task as the Church (both clerical and lay) has lost a lot of liberal voices leaving the Irish Church little more than a “conservative rump”.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Longfellow wrote the following poem, which correctly puts the emphasis on each individual striving to live a good life. For individuals, reform is therefore more important than for organisations – and the organisation that is the visible structure of the Catholic Church has lasted for 2,000 years, without changing its core message. So it must be generally doing the important things right.

    “We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” However, in the light of this familiar Christian funeral committal prayer, I am not sure if Longfellow (see second verse*) believed that the human body (dust) and soul, together have an eternal destiny. If, for example the Church organisation watered down its “certain” message about the Resurrection – and reformed this prayer to read “in the UNSURE and UNCERTAIN hope” it would be no longer following its leader – and the flock would cease follow the organisation’s appointed earthly shepherds:

    What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

    TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
    Life is but an empty dream!—
    For the soul is dead that slumbers,
    And things are not what they seem.

    Life is real! Life is earnest!
    And the grave is not its goal;
    Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
    Was not spoken of the soul.*

    Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
    Is our destined end or way;
    But to act, that each to-morrow
    Find us farther than to-day.

    Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
    And our hearts, though stout and brave,
    Still, like muffled drums, are beating
    Funeral marches to the grave.

    In the world’s broad field of battle,
    In the bivouac of Life,
    Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
    Be a hero in the strife!

    Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
    Let the dead Past bury its dead!
    Act,—act in the living Present!
    Heart within, and God o’erhead!

    Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time;

    Footprints, that perhaps another,
    Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
    Seeing, shall take heart again.

    Let us, then, be up and doing,
    With a heart for any fate;
    Still achieving, still pursuing,
    Learn to labor and to wait.

  • backstage

    I am fascinated by the energy, enthusiasm and naivety of people in the Catholic Church who think that it can change. It may be possible to tinker with the edges, e.g. Mass in English, etc, but it is a system, a hierarchy of authority in which lay people will never have a role of any significance. The reason is simple: a system run on hierarchical authority survives on control and the church cannot control ‘free-thinking’ lay people or indeed clergy. Like all systems it spits out those who want to tamper with the system – this is a systematic reflex, all systems do it – e.g. try changing the civil service. I’m sure this is a bright guy, but it seems to me like an exercise in intellectual naval gazing. I always remember Sir Humphrey saying, ‘ Theology is a device for allowing non-believers to remain within the church’.

  • abucs

    What is mentioned above sounds quite reasonable but what we’ve learnt with people wanting to remake the Church over the last 60 years is that it is what is not said which is the danger.

    The Church is largely its laity. I am always hesitant when people try to split the laity from the clergy and praise the former and attack the latter. To an Irishman it appears too much like divide and conquer.

    It is well known that since Vatican 2 a small minority of Catholics have tried to de-Christianise the Church under the cover of using pseudo liberal, democratic and social ideals which are suppoed to be ‘more Christian’.

    They have failed in their attempts.

    Many Churches around the world were caught in this ‘new age’ which was really a Marxist ruse to get rid of religion and replace it with a common secular humanism. Those Churches accepting that doctrine are now in terminal decline and/or beset with infighting.

    The structure of the Church with the Pope appointing Bishops has protected the Church from that push (which globally is itself waning now). What was once ‘the new modern way’ becomes very quickly the old and tired, beset with its own problems and failures.

    The Church is the oldest and most successful institution in the West by a long, long, long way. It knows what works and what doesn’t.

  • Backstage accuses the Catholic Church of being:

    “a hierarchy of authority in which lay people will never have a role of any significance”.

    May I remind Backstage that Jesus was a layman.

  • apollo293867

    “May I remind Backstage that Jesus was a layman”

    and may I remind you a great deal of us believe he was made up and used by all churches to oppress and keep us in chains.

  • backstage


    If Jesus was a layman in the Catholic Church today he’s be ostracised as a radical and no more listened to than the rest of the lay Catholics.

  • Los Leandros

    Well said abucs & articles. The Catholic Church survives & thrives because of it’s counter-cultural nature & it’s intellectual integrity. Pope Benedict being the intellectual par excellence. Most Protestant Church’s have given in & accept the kind of puerile liberal/feminist dogma advocated by O’Hanlon. With disastrous results. While the Church is hated it will thrive. The liberal/feminist fundamentalists love the wishy/washy/declining Protestant sects. The logic is simple.

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