One of the themes of the Pope’s recent visit to the UK was the engagement of the church in the public square. The Pope’s message was that churches – all churches, I suppose, but the Catholic Church in particular – could play a constructive role in informing debates about the common good.
A new book by Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, Theology in the Irish Public Sphere (Columba, 2010), is a sustained meditation on what that kind of engagement might look like. O’Hanlon is a staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute.
O’Hanlon argues that the churches have much to offer society – but that their gifts will go unheeded unless they are presented with humbleness and integrity.
That’s no small challenge in the present climate, where the Catholic Church has taken a battering in the media and in the eyes of many of the faithful. The Catholic Church has itself to blame for much of this.
It appears that the presses were held on the production of O’Hanlon’s book so that he could respond, in the Epilogue, to the Murphy Report on abuses in the archdiocese of Dublin. Any attempts by the Catholic Church to speak into public life in Ireland will take place in the long, dark shadow of the Murphy Report.
As O’Hanlon rightly observes, ‘we are at a watershed moment in Irish Catholicism,’ arguing that:
‘There is an institutional dysfunctionality at the heart of our church which goes beyond any simple notion of governance or management reform and which needs to be tackled’ (p. 228).
Part of this will involve addressing what O’Hanlon identifies as the ‘deeper causes’ of the abuses and the secretive handling of them: disordered attitudes about sexuality and power.
He links these ‘deeper causes’ to the teachings of Humanae Vitae, which he says have not been taken seriously by most laity; and the crushing of the vision of the church that emerged from Vatican II: a church in which clergy and lay forged relationships of collaboration, not domination. He writes,
‘But first it would seem that we need in Ireland to renew our own understanding of church, along the more participative lines envisaged by Vatican II and, in particular, with a greater role for women and without any veto on the kinds of issues that might emerge in a consultative process that will be required (1 Thess 5:19: don’t stifle the Holy Spirit!).’ (p. 229)
In his analysis of what could be done to begin healing the Irish Catholic Church, O’Hanlon is in line with what we’ve heard from other respected theologians, such as Fr Enda McDonagh, and, perhaps, not too far off what Fr Brian D’Arcy has to say.
Other areas that stand out in the book are O’Hanlon’s chapter on a ‘theology of hope,’ which seems essential for those who are part of a church so in need of healing.
Three entire chapters are devoted to ‘Islam and the Public Square,’ an often neglected and ill-informed topic of discussion among Christians in Ireland (and I include myself in their number!). O’Hanlon expresses some concern about an Islamic perspective on religion and the state that does not allow for their separation, but notes that,
Muslims can enrich Ireland enormously with their reverence for the transcendent and their passion for justice. They can perhaps also learn something of value from their contact with Christianity and the values of liberal democracy here. This will happen only if there is constructive engagement between the communities. (p. 126).
In sum, O’Hanlon’s book provides an open, inclusive Catholic perspective on religion in the public square in today’s Ireland. The prose is written at a level that can be understood by the interested lay reader, but at times the chapters – which were written over a period of time for different audiences and publications – lack context. If the book had included a short paragraph at the start of each chapter explaining the context and identifying who it was originally written for, this would have been a great aid to understanding.