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A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A View from Ireland

17 May, 2011

116 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

visionIn the wake of the succession of scandals and institutional failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ held a series of discussion with lay people on the question: what is our vision for the church? Drawing on the inclusive vision and wisdom of the Second Vatican Council, Fr O’Hanlon presents what he calls The Way Forward – the outcome of the discussion in seven theses which he gives in Chapter Five (see below).

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ is a staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute. His most recent books are Theology in the Irish Public Square and The Recession and God: Reading the Signs of the Times.



Foreword by Paddy Carberry SJ 

1: Historical Context – New Testament up to 19th century 
2: Historical Context–The Long Nineteenth Century, including the First Vatican Council (1789-1958) 
2.1: The Nineteenth Century
2.2: The First Vatican Council – 1870
2.3: Post Vatican I developments
2.4: Reflections on the Long Nineteenth Century
3: The Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965 
General Description of the Event of the Council
The Vision and Teaching of the Council in more detail Summary vision
Concluding Reflections
4: After Vatican II up to today 
Part One: Vatican 11
Part Two: The Current Situation
4.1: Analysis
4.2: The Church as Organisation
4.3: The Key issue: the balance between primacy and collegiality
5: A Way Forward – 7 Theses 
Appendix: Dialogue with the Faithful – Steps Towards a National Consultation 



The church is called to be ‘the light of the nations’ (Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican II). Its mission is to preach the good news of the reign or kingdom of God, the reign of justice and peace which overcomes evil and sin. And so the church is called to be a sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, of the unity of all humankind (LG, 1), a sign of hope for the whole world that, often despite appearances, ‘all will be well’. Each member of the church is called to holiness (LG, ch 5), to that unity of the two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbour.

The rhetoric is lofty, but the reality that we experience is different. Far from being a ‘light for the nations’ we often, today, experience the Catholic Church as a source of embarrassment and shame. The immediate cause of this is the awful reality of clerical child sexual abuse and the serious mishandling of this by church leaders. But, happy fault (felix culpa), through this awful reality more and more people are becoming aware of a wider and deeper malaise in our church, to do with a clericalist culture and overly centralised organisational structure that do scant justice to the nature of the church as the People of God (LG, ch 2) (1) and mean that the church is in need of more radical reform. This awareness is a grace and carries with it a responsibility: we are being asked by God, it seems to me, to re-examine what it means to be church, to imagine a new vision, and to begin to take the steps to implement this vision.

The situation is grave. An informal conversation has broken out among church members, including those who have ‘left’ the church, often out of the earshot of bishops and priests. This conversation is peppered with phrases like: ‘They just don’t get it’; ‘Things will never change’; ‘The bishops are the problem’; ‘Rome is just as bad’; ‘I am sick of the church’; ‘It is not nice being a woman in this church’; ‘Get real’; ‘Nice documents are not enough’. The temptation to reject the institutional church is considerable and, in its place, to retreat into a privatised spirituality or, more rarely, a social activism inspired by gospel principles.

And yet, at times, we do catch a glimpse of the rich reality behind the lofty, even exhilarating rhetoric of church as ‘light for the nations’. At baptisms, weddings, funerals, in the holy lives of individual women and men, in the gospel-inspired and church-affiliated work for justice and peace, we know that the church is being true to its vocation and that, without it, we would be the poorer. Without the church it is easy to imagine the gospel message degenerating into sectarian factionalism at worst, and, at best, a sincere spirituality which would simply not have the ‘institutional legs’ to survive the tough challenges thrown up by the message of Jesus to our world.

As a boy in Drumcondra in the late 50s I experienced a then traditional form of this ecclesial richness – I recall the excitement and pageantry of Corpus Christi processions, the Papal and national flags flying from my granny’s house, the solemn procession with the Blessed Sacrament, incense, and hymn singing. All seemed well. We know now that all was not well then, and is not well now. The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture referred to in the Murphy Report has revealed a church with major institutional problems. These concern, in particular, the mode of governance and distribution of power at all levels, the absence of the voice and perspective of women in decision-making bodies, and the failure to consult adequately in forming church teaching and law. The latter means that, particularly in matters relating to sexuality and gender, the ‘sense of the faithful’ does not receive what is taught in peace, as rooted in their Christian experience of life. There has been revealed a culture of undue deference in our church and a lack of collective responsibility that extends much more deeply and widely than the issue of sexual abuse alone.

We know that, above all, it is God who will renew us and our church, that our holiness in our pilgrim way will be ‘genuine though imperfect’ (LG, 48), and that we will always remain a church of both saints and sinners. Still, this eschatological perspective is never a pretext to avoid repentance of those sins of which, through God’s grace, we become aware. We are called, then, to play our indispensable role, imbued with the patient love of God, in the renewal of our church. We do so with some humility, aware that the high moral ground proved lethal for the Pharisees, Pelagius and so many other zealous historical reformers. But we do so as well with a firm commitment rooted in our hope of the guidance of the Holy Spirit at this time of challenge and opportunity, this kairos for our church.

In this context, despite the urgency and gravity of our situation, it would not be wise to respond in a simplistically reactionary way, substituting one kind of populist authoritarianism for another that was elitist. We need some careful thinking to inform what I believe is a period of ‘communal discernment’ for our church – here in Ireland, but universally also. In this context too it is a hopeful sign that the informal conversations referred to above are now also taking place more formally at parish and even diocesan level in the Catholic Church in Ireland (2). At the nub of our problem is the need to find a better balance between centralisation, papal primacy and the proper autonomy of local churches and of the lay faithful in particular. In this context I like the formulation of Ladislas Orsy: ‘We are at a groundbreaking stage. For this reason we ought to formulate our questions with utmost care. Our aim is to search for better balances without damaging vital forces (3). We need, then, to be true to what is good in our identity and history, and yet to respond more adequately to the needs of the world of today.

Perhaps the recent (2010) Papal visit to Britain can be a good image of this need for better balance ‘without damaging vital forces’ – it was wonderful that the visit gave so much encouragement and put the issue of religion firmly back in the public square, and yet one wondered if such enormous focus on one person and his office could facilitate the need for local churches to exercise their divinely mandated autonomy without undue deference (4).

I will be proposing that the Second Vatican Council – the most authoritative, modern faith and gospel-based vision of the church that we have at our disposal – is our best resource for the kind of renewal that we require (chapter three). In returning to this vision we will of course have to take into account developments that have occurred since the council, the new ‘signs of the times’ which have arisen since (chapters four and five). And, to understand Vatican II itself, we need first to look back, even very briefly, at where it all started (with Jesus Christ) and how we got to where we were when Vatican II was called into being by Pope John XXIII (chapters one and two). This ‘looking back’ is not primarily an exercise in history as such, but more a necessary context-setting through which we may better formulate our questions. In this way we can hope to note some of the complexity that is involved and yet do so in a way that does not paralyse, but allows us to be better prepared to discern and take responsibility for the concrete actions needed to shape the future that God wants and is leading us towards. I will propose that a National Assembly or Synod of the Irish Catholic Church would be the best next step on our journey into this future (chapter five and Appendix). I want, then, to present a kind of rudimentary ecclesial faith-map, with a view to allowing us to imagine the direction we need to take, and the kind of reasonable detours and bridge-building we need to pursue in order to overcome our current road-blocks and return to the ‘way of the Lord’ that true discipleship involves.

This book originated in a number of talks given last October, 2010, as part of the Arrupe Seminar Series at Manresa Jesuit Centre of Spirituality, the majority of participants being lay faithful. I want to express my particular gratitude to those wonderfully engaged and constructively critical participants, to the pioneering Director of Manresa, Fr Paddy Carberry SJ, who invited me to speak and to staff member Cormac McConnell who brought the event to fruition with such energy and commitment. The book makes no pretensions to theological originality, except in so far as it aims to deepen a conversation between a contemporary, scholarly theology of church on the one hand, rooted in scripture, tradition and the Second Vatican Council, and, on the other, the ‘signs of our times’ here in Ireland, but also more universally in the Catholic Church. As such it may serve as a background resource to all those who are concerned about renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland or further afield, be they Catholics, other Christians, those who are seekers and doubters of all kinds or, indeed, interested fellow citizens. It may be of relevance, then, to the general reader, while being of particular interest to those with even a little theological background. I would hope, too, that the book may stimulate theologians to widen and deepen a conversation which will become more and more necessary as attempts at renewal gather pace.
I would also like to thank my Jesuit Provincial John Dardis, and his successor Tom Layden, for their support, not least in relieving me of the duties of administration to enable this project to be realised; to the then Acting Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Eoin Carroll, and his successor John Guiney, SJ, as well as all the staff of the Centre, in particular Cathy….


1. G. O’Hanlon, ‘The Murphy Report – A Response’, The Furrow, 61, February 2010, 82-91; ‘The Future of the Catholic Church – a view from Ireland’, Studies, 99, Autumn, 2010, 289-301; ‘Culture and the Present Crisis in the Church’, The Furrow, 61, December, 2010,655-666
2. ‘It is clear that, this year, the church in Ireland has experienced the beginnings of structured dialogue at many levels’ — Bishop Seamus Freeman, Ossory, in ‘Rite and Reason’, The Irish Times, Tuesday December 28, 2010, reporting as Chairman of the Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Faith Development on the fruits of responses to Pope Benedict’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland from parishes and dioceses throughout the island of Ireland, including over 3000 written contributions.
3. L. Orsy, Receiving the Council, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009, p 12
4. See also Kevin T. Kelly, ‘The Pope in Britain’, The Furrow, 61, 2010, 609-612



The battle for the Promised Land waged and ‘…
As long as Moses kept his arms raised, Israel has the advantage …
But Moses’ arms grew heavy,
so they took a stone and put it under him and on this lie sat,
Aaron and Hur supporting his arms, one on one side, one on the other;
and his arms remained firm till sunset’ (Exodus 17:11-12)

Not all will agree with all details of the analysis presented in the preceding four chapters (See CONTENTS above), but many will agree with much of it and most will agree that our situation is grave. In this context we need a conversation, a listening and talking, to come up with an agreed way forward. My proposals here are intended as a contribution to this process: it is much too early to present a cut and dried blue print, but neither must we allow complexity to paralyse us.

We may anticipate much resistance: human beings are normally afraid of change, an institution as venerable and well-defended as the church has long experience of how to maintain the status quo and, besides, there are no easy solutions to the relationship between primacy and collegiality at all its many levels (even if we have more than enough pointers in ecclesial and secular spheres to permit us to take responsible initiatives). The temptation to ‘ride out the crisis’ will be great, not least because everywhere we are surrounded by truly good, ‘nice’ people who will hope that with a bit of tinkering, better management and communications strategy, the current basic model of church may survive. We need to resist this temptation and use the crisis as an opportunity to imagine something different, new, more faithful to Vatican II and to the New Testament. We have a serious obligation ‘not to stifle the Spirit’ (1 Thess 5:19). In this spirit I offer the following seven ways forward (not quite on a par with Luther’s 95 theses, for which the patient reader may indeed be grateful!

1. ‘As long as Moses kept his arms raised…’– the centrality of prayer
Our baptism, our being in the church, is a call and gift from God. We are also creatures of our own times, times when secularism has made deep inroads into our imagination and consciousness. In this context we easily tend to forms of Gnosticism, Donatism and Pelagianism, to imagine that reformation depends primarily on our own efforts and that it implies a rigorism and perfectionism that are elitist and uncharacteristic of the church of saints and sinner called by Jesus Christ. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God, are gifts of the Holy Spirit and it is in response to these gifts that we go forward. One thinks again of the Gamaliel principle: if this is from God it will succeed (Acts 5:38-39). And so we need to find ways of building prayer into our communal discernment, of asking for the kind of freedom that prayer gives, the kind of freedom that can acknowledge the goodness of other people and yet can firmly assert opposing truths, that can rest at peace with the ‘already, not yet’ eschatological proviso which is intrinsic to the coming of God’s kingdom in history.

Sometimes prayer is used as a substitute for action or as a kind of softening of the brain and mollifying of the spirit that leads to blandness. But this was not the prayer of Moses (during the battle, in Exodus 17), not the prayer of Jesus (his opposition to the Scribes and Pharisees, the money-lenders in the Temple), not the prayer of Ignatius of Loyola nor of the rest of the saints. Rather, I am speaking of the type of prayer that leads to decision (discernment) and motivates action, that keeps 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.

In many of the issues we have mentioned, without prayer we will simply not get started at all or quickly give up, such are the difficulties involved. So, for example, how is a woman, sensitive to her status within our church, to take on this battle when there seems so little hope of progress? In this, and in many other issues, we have all heard phrases like ‘they’ll never change’ many times over the past few years as the church has seemed to blunder from crisis to crisis with little sign of learning. Do we imagine that Jesus had it easy, do we not recall the grumbling of the people on the march to the Promised Land, do we not remember that Abraham was asked to ‘hope against hope’, do we think it will be different for us? We need as church to root ourselves deeply in the soil of a dynamic, action-oriented prayer and spirituality — and the pope was right about this in his letter to us, and this is precisely where places like the Jesuit Retreat Centre Manresa (location of the series of talks which were at the origin of this book) and the many other centres of spirituality in Ireland can offer resources to all of us at this difficult but hopeful time.

2. The voice of the lay faithful needs to be heard
I remember in the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, which I attended in 1995, we issued a decree on the laity which, inter alia, described the church of the new millennium as the church of the laity.’ Around that time too there was a lot of talk around the notion of ‘creative fidelity’ (2)— a sense of wanting to be loyal to the church, but recognising that sometimes, often, this loyalty required the kind of creativity which could ruffle feathers. I have tried to sketch a context in which the role of the faithful, according to Vatican II, is primary, and yet is located within a polity which gives due respect to ordained leadership. And so, as Orsy put it, ‘we are at a groundbreaking stage … we ought to formulate our questions with utmost care’ (12). I am not advocating a reactive rejection of all authority: quite simply, this would no longer be the Catholic Church. But what I do think is required is for more and more lay people to speak up with the kind of responsible freedom which represents the sensus fidelium so treasured in conciliar documents and to claim that consultative and deliberative role in decision-making that is consonant with the letter and spirit of Vatican II. It seems to me that the momentum is with laity in these days: it will be laity who will exercise the kind of moral leadership which will get things moving.

Within laity I want to refer in particular to the voice of women. This is surely an unmistakable ‘sign of the times’, to which the church is arriving ‘a little breathless and a little late’ (well, very late, to be honest!). How can creative and faithful ways be found to honour the role of women in our church? (3)

There will be many suggestions as to how to mobilise the voice of the faithful in Ireland, including those of young people. I note that this is already happening — parish councils, parish assemblies, the Naas march, the creation in Dublin, Armagh, Down and Connor, Kerry and elsewhere of diocesan structures in which laity participate, the ‘structured dialogue’ initiative of Cardinal Brady and the Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development in response to the papal letter to Irish Catholics (4) and supported by the Association of Catholic Priests (5), and much more. It seems to me that all this could be helped if some kind of data base could be built up of what is happening (including the use of contemporary social communications media like Facebook and Twitter, for which young people often have a particular facility). There are many skilled facilitators and processes designed to help groups conduct meetings in a safe space: I note, for example, the Omega process run by Mary Redmond and Una Henry and used in Ballyboden and elsewhere to help parishes conduct open meetings in a constructive way (6). All this will take time, and it will be messy: we need to re-invent those corporate habits of conversations, familiar to other churches, which centuries of clericalism have deleted from our corporate memories.

In time — and it need not be such a long time — we will identify the need to tackle systemic blocks (What, for example, happens when a sympathetic parish priest is changed and the new man doesn’t allow meetings? Is canon 129 going to prevent a real share in decision-making?) and the need for a wider exchange at diocesan and national levels.

3. Bishops need to exercise real leadership
Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are graphic in their excoriating condemnation of religious leadership which is derelict in its duty — the bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34), the Scribes and Pharisees, blind leaders, hypocrites laying burdens on people (Mt 23). Our own leaders have gone through a most difficult time, with reprimands not just from media and general public, from church faithful, but also from the pope. Yet they are good men, trapped in a culture which has outlived its time (7). And now, given all that has happened, given the responsibility to ‘challenge the prevailing culture’, they have a real opportunity of a redemptive change of style. This, I suggest, should occur on three main fronts.

First, they ought not to confuse ‘strong leadership’ with making decisions on their own: the Sacrament of Orders does give them a particular leadership role — and this must remain —but arguably what is most required of strong episcopal leadership today is precisely to empower the voice and effective participation of the laity. Secondly they need to act as a group with more common purpose (see below, n 4). And thirdly they need to take on a more adult, assertive role vis-à-vis the Holy See, to ‘own’ their own diocesan responsibilities, to articulate the ‘sense of the faithful’ and not simply have recourse to Rome for solutions to every question. The culture of deference has been revealed, in the CSA scandal, to be an enemy of the gospel. It is time now for our bishops to turn their backs on this culture, not just with respect to CSA but in all their dealings, including with Rome. They owe this to us, the church. The Apostolic Visitation offers a real opportunity for this different style of leadership: it should be used by Irish bishops in an open way to accept well-grounded criticism but also to articulate their own difficulties with how Rome has handled matters. Bishops should no longer use the default mechanism of ‘peace with Rome’ as an excuse for failing to listen to and articulate — in public and to Rome — the real concerns of the faithful in their dioceses. The practice of Willie Walsh in this respect should become the norm rather than the exception — remember the phrase of Maximos, ‘repressed truths turn poisonous’.

Several recent interventions by Irish bishops in this context are worth noting — Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert, in a little-publicised contribution, said that among the topics discussed with the pope on the occasion of the infamous February 2010 meeting between Pope Benedict and the Irish bishops were ‘a new understanding of sexuality and the role of women in the church’, while he personally spoke to the pope about ‘the responsibility of the church in Rome. The obligation of secrecy, originally promoted for the best of reasons, led to a culture of cover-up. The necessity to involve our own Irish state and report criminal activities was not emphasised. The failure to reply to correspondence gave a very bad impression … I felt there was a good response … there was recognition that some of the Roman congregations were not helpful in the past. Canon Law is to be updated to take greater account of the problem of clerical child sexual abuse. The obligation to report crimes to the secular state was recognised and will be encouraged’ (8) The sense is of an open, respectful and robust dialogue, and we need to hear more on these lines.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has, indeed, gone on record in this vein, noting time and again the deeper roots of our ecclesial crisis in Ireland and occasionally being explicitly critical of dealings with Roman congregations, even if, curiously, seemingly remaining cautious about structural reform (9).

I note, in addition, the more recent Advent 2010 Pastoral Letter of Bishop Bill Murphy of Kerry in which, reporting on a Diocesan Listening Exercise from May 2010 in response to Pope Benedict’s letter to the Irish people, he writes that he is’commit-ted to the empowerment of lay people based on real collaboration at all levels, and to the inclusion of women in decision-making in our diocese (10).

Archbishop Dermot Clifford, chairman of the Bishops’ Council for Research and Development, noted, according to reports, that Ireland’s ‘best, most loyal’ Catholics have been ‘highly critical’ at meetings with bishops and that this was also found to be the case in surveys conducted on behalf of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which, when processed, will have ‘a huge amount to tell the priests and bishops (about) what people are thinking on the ground’ (11).

And finally, Bishop Seamus Freeman of Ossory, reporting on the beginnings of a structured dialogue involving lay faithful in response to the papal Letter, notes that the participants expressed disappointment ‘that child sexual abuse was not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in church structure and function in the pope’s letter’, that there ‘was no critique of the role of the Vatican, and little or no acknowledgment of the exclusion of lay people from roles in which they can contribute’ and that ‘many respondents called for dialogue relating to sexuality, clerical celibacy and the exclusion of women (not just from ordination)’ (12).

On a different, but related issue I note that it will also be appropriate to think through the method and criteria used for the appointment of bishops, with much more transparency and wider consultation to be recommended, including the effective involvement of lay faithful. We need, with Rome, to question what has now become the custom of exclusively Roman appointments to the episcopacy.

4. The Episcopal Conference needs to act more effectively
The resistance of some bishops to collegiality in Vatican II was not so much to do with relationships with the papacy as with the desire to maintain autonomy within the area of their own Episcopal Conference. The initial incompetent response of the Irish Episcopal Conference to the child sexual abuse scandal has been a great let-down. Of course, since then, thankfully, progress has been made, not least with the establishment of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church under Ian Elliot. But there is little sense of effective decision-making and communication from the Episcopal Conference and this is a great scandal – not just because of the CSA issue, but, more widely, because it leaves a significant leadership vacuum in our church. This issue cannot be allowed to drift on with a shrug of the shoulders or on the pretext of a theological appeal to the primacy of the bishop in his own diocese. There is a responsibility on our bishops to act and communicate cohesively and effectively and it is incumbent on them to make the appropriate organisational and cultural changes to allow this to happen.

Following the analysis presented here it seems to me the most effective initiative the Episcopal Conference could take would be to empower lay involvement in the church, according to the vision of Vatican II. I recall the words of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich at the 1987 Synod of Bishops, when he advocated that the hierarchy needed to set about ‘awakening the sleeping giant’ that is the laity, going on to note that ‘feminism can no longer be considered middle-class madness or an American aberration’ (Fahey, 334).

I would suggest further that the best way to bring about this empowerment would be to convene a National Assembly of the Irish Church, in preparation for which there would be discussion at all levels – parish, diocese, episcopal conference – and including an outreach to the disaffected and already alienated from the institutional church. The assembly might be focused on some kind of open question like: ‘In the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what sort of church do we want for the future?’ This project would give cohesion and energy to all the local, diocesan and even national initiatives mentioned in nn 2 and 3 above and would send out a strong signal that the Irish Catholic Church, in repentance and humility, wants to fulfill its divinely mandated mission to our world. There is a danger, unfortunately, given the overly-bureaucratic and ineffective nature of the Episcopal Conference, that bishops will satisfy themselves with having ‘listened’ to the faithful, with little effective follow-up. The bishops need to grasp the need for ‘accountable listening’ and a National Assembly, with appropriate follow-up mechanism built in, would be a clear signal that they had grasped this need and were prepared to exercise real leadership (13).

5. Engagement of the Irish Church with Rome
Again there needs to be a more robust, adult engagement of the whole Irish church with the church of Rome. As I have argued consistently in these pages, I think there are many good reasons for strong central leadership, but not at the expense of local autonomy. The German bishops are representing strongly about the details of a new German translation of the Missal: we are faced with the introduction of a new English version this year, the process towards which was extremely controversial, and yet there seems to have been little public expression of views by the Irish Hierarchy. Why? And what of the publicly stated desire of the bishops a number of years ago to introduce the more communal forms of the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a more regular basis in Ireland: why did they simply acquiesce to Roman demands not to do so? Again, one is not arguing for dissent for its own sake, not even for a re-run of the famous controversy over the date of Easter which saw Ireland and Rome lock horns in the past. What is involved, rather, is a more adult assumption of responsibility for oversight of the Irish church – a God-given mission of the Irish episcopacy.

One does well to anticipate the difficulties of this kind of approach: ‘…which of you, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? … or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand?’ (Lk 14:28-32). Would ‘standing up’ to Rome mean acrimony in the short-term and simple defeat in the long-term and, if so, can that be a prudent way to proceed? Because, down the road, this more assertive way of acting might well involve a questioning of 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 the other controverted issues touched upon here around ecclesial teaching on sex and gender. But Irish Catholics know well that it is not in the gift of our bishops to solve all outstanding issues, and they would not expect this. What would help, though, is if the Irish bishops alerted Rome to the simple fact that certain teaching has not been received in peace by the Irish church. Of course we are far from this point now, but it is as well to anticipate what may happen if the Irish bishops agree ‘to take the lid off’ and allow for a more generous space for discussion within the church. If that happens, and if issues arise which Ireland on its own cannot handle, it would still be a wonderful service to the universal church if Ireland was able to request a Third Vatican Council to broach such issues, including, of course, the reform of the Roman Curia that has already been mentioned. This kind of respectful representation has a long and venerable tradition in our church — going back at least to Paul’s reprimand of Peter over his attitude to the Gentiles — and, done in the proper spirit, would be both courageous and prudent.

6. We need to recruit the skills of many disciplines in our project
I refer of course to theologians, canon lawyers, historians but also to political scientists, social psychologists, cultural experts, group facilitators and so on — the issue we face is complex, and if liberating the voice of the faithful is a necessary first step it will not be sufficient on its own. It will take skill and expertise, as well as goodwill and boldness, to engender those habits of conversation and decision making within our church in a way that does not destabilize the many other vital forces that are at work in the body of the church, not least the effective leadership from the centre. Again, we need with humility to acknowledge the help we can obtain from secular fields of expertise. I can imagine, for example, that many bishops would be daunted by the proposal to have a National Assembly of the Irish Church since they themselves might not have the skills to facilitate such a meeting and could only imagine a kind of chaos ensuing which would have detrimental effects. But this need not be so — there is plenty of expertise, both within and outside the Irish Catholic Church (not least from other Christian ecclesial bodies) — which would facilitate a positive outcome.

7. To be a ‘ light to the world’ —
The church, as noted in LG and GS, exists for the kingdom, to be a light for the world. The holiness of its members — love of God, expressed in love of neighbour — means that the world should find in Catholics a source of hope (anchored in a luminous relationship with God, who is there to save us all and who is faithful to this promise) and of affective and effective companionship to all those who suffer. One senses that too often as church we lose sight of the preferential option of Jesus for the poor, so well expressed in Catholic Social Teaching. We are asked to resist the ‘might is right’ dynamic running through so much human discourse and activity (the survival of the fittest/greed is good). Why, for example, in Ireland, such a Catholic country for so long, are we noted for a social conservatism rather than a bolder application of Catholic Social Teaching? Our conversation about church vision and structures should never be too introverted or narcissistic: it needs always to be at the service of the wider outreach of Jesus Christ to our world. And of course it is precisely in applying Catholic Social Teaching to the church itself (the dignity of all, the implementation of a model of government that values subsidiarity, solidarity) that we may hope to achieve a greater consistency between what the church preaches and what it practises, and hence to offer a more credible witness to our world. This witness is always needed, not least at this time of national and global financial crisis, with attendant human suffering on a grand scale.

I have argued that the Catholic Church in Ireland – and by implication worldwide – is in need of radical renewal. This need has been exposed by the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and its mishandling by church authorities, but the exposure has revealed a wider and deeper structural and cultural malaise. At the heart of this malaise has been the failure to appropriate and implement the vision of church outlined for us at the Second Vatican Council, the most authoritative modern faith statement of ecclesiology. I have proposed seven ways forward as a means to address this most serious situation.  One way of combining these ‘7 ways’ would be to declare 2012-2015, the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, ‘the years of the Council’ (Orsy, 152), when we recall its memory and expose ourselves to the transforming light and force of the Spirit. We could do this in tandem with the preparation for and holding of a National Assembly or Synod of the Catholic Church in Ireland. We could do so in the sure hope of offering a providential response a our calling as church to be a ‘light to the world’.


1. Decree 13, Co-operation with the Laity in Mission, par I of Decrees of General Congregation 34 of Society of Jesus, 1995
2. I note, in this context, the publication by Francis A. Sullivan SJ, Creative Fidelity, Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1996.
3. One notes that popes were not always elected by cardinals and that, more to our point, cardinals were not always in Holy Orders but also included lay people – hence the creative suggestion that perhaps the church should consider the option of women cardinals. Sometimes suggestions like this are regarded as ‘cheap shots’ and it is true that the implications (of non-episcopal cardinals, for one) would need to be thought through. But they do have a more serious and constructive ‘shock value’ in that they help to uncover false blocks in an establishment commonsense that surely has an admixture of nonsense, to use Lonergan’s phrase. In this way they may help also to release our imaginations towards something more wholesome and sane.
4. Bishop Freeman, ‘Rite and Reason’, The Irish Times, 28 December 2010
5. See Statement of 28 December 2010, reported in The Irish Times, Wednesday 29 December 2010, which also says that ‘the time may well be right for some form of assembly or synod of the church in Ireland’
6. Mary Redmond, ‘Omega: The People’s Voice – Reflections on Parish Consultation’, The Furrow, 62, February 2011, 73-78
7. For a fuller analysis see O’Hanlon, The Furrow, 61, December 2010, 655666
8. Bishop John Kirby at Mass in St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea on Sunday 21 February, 2010. Press Release 23 February 2010
9. See homily at 30th anniversary Mass on 20 November 2010 to commemorate Frank Duff, in which Archbishop Martin insists that the abuse scandal has opened our eyes to a much deeper crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland which has ‘lost its way’; and that renewal and reform of the church, in response to this crisis, was ‘not about media strategies or structural reform’ but would come about from the ‘community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself’ – The Irish Times, Monday, 22 November 2010. It would be strange if Archbishop Martin were to argue against structural reform, not least given his own reform of structures within the Dublin Archdiocese. There is no contradiction between personal and communal conversion on the one hand, and structural reform on the other – on the contrary, the one implies the other, as the church’s own teaching on personal and social grace makes clear.
10. Bishop Bill Murphy, Pastoral Letter, Advent 2010
11. The Irish Times, Monday 6 December 2010
12. Bishop Seamus Freeman, Chairman of the Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development, op cit.
13. See Appendix for fuller account of the rationale and nature of a National Assembly.



There is almost universal agreement – ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ (St Augustine, as quoted in the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 12) – that the Irish Catholic Church is in crisis. The crisis is due in the first place to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and its even more scandalous mishandling by church authorities, as revealed in several reports (Ferns, Ryan, Murphy, Cloyne to come).

However, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has stated on many occasions, the abuse issue has opened people’s eyes ‘to a much deeper crisis’ (Irish Times, 22 November 2010). This includes, at a personal level, a growing religious indifference and a drift towards a more secularised vision of life. At institutional level it involves, among other things, an increasing impatience and anger with the distribution of power and the non-collegial exercise of governance at all levels within the Catholic Church, a sense that the continuing absence of the voice and perspective of women in decision-making bodies within the church is unconscionable, and that church teaching on sexuality and gender is foreign to the experience of many good people and is received with incredulity.

There is a growing awareness that, despite the many ‘nice’ and genuinely good people in positions of authority, the Irish Catholic Church has been mired in a culture of clericalism that is secretive, defensive and excessively deferential. This awareness is reflected in the many informal conversations taking place among the faithful, not to mention ‘outsiders’ and indeed among bishops, priests and religious themselves, peppered by phrases like: ‘Things will never change’; ‘The church is a horrible place for women’; ‘They just don’t get it’; ‘The bishops themselves are the problem’; ‘What kind of parallel universe do they live in?’; ‘Get real’.

For many the Irish Catholic Church is no longer a ‘light to the world’, a ‘kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God’ (LG, 1), that space of mystery in which love of God and neighbour is nourished and developed so that God’s reign of justice and peace becomes more realisable. In this context Archbishop Dermot Clifford, in an interview to mark the 40th anniversary of the Bishops’ Council for Research and Development, is reported as saying that Ireland’s ‘best, most loyal’ Catholics have been ‘highly critical’ at meetings with bishops and that this was borne out by surveys conducted on behalf of the Catholic Church in Ireland (Irish Times, 6 December 2010).

For some, the dimensions of this crisis have been a bridge too far and they have effectively opted out. Many others are hanging on by their finger nails. There are some who dispute the gravity of the situation, taking comfort in the notion that it is was always thus and that Jesus will be with his disciples till the end of time (Mt 28:20).

However, there is also evident the kind of active engagement at parish and diocesan level, described by Mary Redmond and Aoife McGrath in this volume of The Furrow, often encouraged by many priests and bishops. In this context one notes, as one among many, the listening exercise carried out since May 2010 in the Diocese of Kerry, published in December 2010 with an accompanying letter by Bishop Bill Murphy stating that ‘I am committed to the empowerment of lay people based on real collaboration at all levels, and to the inclusion of women in decision-making in our diocese’ (2). And, at a more national level, Bishop Seamus Freeman, Chairman of the Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Development, has given an interesting account (Irish Times, 28 December 2010) of the beginnings of a national ‘structured dialogue’ in response to Pope Benedict’s Letter to Irish Catholics.

I would suggest that it would be a real sign of hope in our situation if we could envisage a National Consultation (Assembly/ Synod – the title can be decided later) of the Irish Catholic Church. This would give focus and added impetus to all the formal and informal conversations taking place at parish, diocesan and even national levels. It would be an earnest of our acceptance of the gravity of our situation and of our desire to respond in a collegial manner which honours the indispensable role of the baptised faithful and is consistent with the vision, letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council of the church as a communio of persons at all levels.

A National Consultation
There are many possible ways to go about the process of a National Consultation. I suggest one, in order to stimulate discussion.

One could set up a Working Party of about 8-12 people (lay faithful, a blend of women and men, theologian, canon lawyer, church historian, sociologist, expert facilitator, priest, religious, bishop). They would advise on the form of a national meeting (assembly/ synod?), and initiate a first round of effective consultation of the faithful around some sort of open question like: ‘In the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what sort of church do we want for the future?’

On the basis of this consultation, and with further expert help if required, they might draw up short Working Papers on different topics of concern, to include issues of faith, practice and structures, as they arise.

This group would also advise on who should attend the national meeting (one might envisage groups to include bishops, priests, religious, lay faithful, different social classes, the ‘ecclesially disaffected’, victims and survivors of clerical child sexual abuse, and members of other ecclesial communities), as well as the method of selecting those who would attend (a mixture of election and appointment?). The group might be helped in their task by seeking advice from other churches who have engaged in a similar process – for example, from participants in the Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980, from other Christian ecclesial communities among whom there is a more habitual practice of synodal discussion.

The time-line for the process might be:

2011-2: Announcement of project by Episcopal Conference, appointment of Working Party who begin initial consultation and draw up working papers.
2012-3: First phase – structured conversation at parish level, with help from working papers
2013-4: Second phase – structured conversation at diocesan level
2014-5: Third phase – National Meeting, with built-in follow up process.

This time-line coincides with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II (1962-5), but could in fact be considerably abbreviated. The process has the capacity to integrate or to run parallel to other initiatives already under way at parish, diocesan and even national level – one thinks, for example, of the Eucharistic Congress in 2012.

Risks and Opportunities
It might seem that this project is a distraction from the need to address the child abuse scandal or, worse, that it was being used in a cynical way by the church to distract attention from same. It should be clear from the outset that a National Consultation is no substitute for what the church has already committed herself to in terms of child protection, and that this work should of course continue and be reinforced. However, it is not an insult but rather a tribute to survivors and victims of clerical child sexual abuse that the church should now seek to address the deeper cultural factors which undoubtedly contributed to this great scandal, that it should, in repentance, now seek to ‘challenge the prevailing culture’. And, conversely, it is questionable whether the church itself should postpone the National Consultation on the grounds that it’s better first for the Cloyne Report to come out, until, in short, the abuse issue is fully addressed. All matters of timing are delicate of course and require prudential judgement: but given that there may be other reports after Cloyne, given that it will take at least a generation to address the abuse issue, is it not better to tackle with urgency the underlying culture which has contributed to our poor response to abuse?

The project might be seen in terms of a structural, managerial ‘fix’ at odds with that ‘mystery’ of the church of which the Second Vatican Council speaks (LG, 1) and which is rooted deeply in faith. However, we know that in the incarnation mystery and the divine took flesh and that culture, structures and institutions are part of God’s kingdom and need addressing, just as personal conversion also does. The words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin are apt: ‘… renewal and reform of the church … will only come from within the church, that is from the community of men and women who listen to the Word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself’ (homily, 20 November 2010). But, of course, this renewal will be institutional as well as personal – the two go together, as Archbishop Martin has acknowledged in several other contexts.,’ In order to ensure that this faith dimension remains primary throughout the process, it would be important that prayer and worship are intrinsic to every stage — we want to be engaged in a discernment of where the Holy Spirit is leading, which will include but cannot be reduced to factors of organisation and management.

It might be feared that this project could be infected by a Pelagian, even Pharasaical zeal for perfection that failed to realise the eschatological truth that the church in its pilgrim way is gifted with a ‘holiness that is genuine though imperfect’ (LG, 48). We will do well, then, to remember that we are a ‘holy church of sinners’, without ever using this recognition as a pretext to avoid repenting of our sins.

In this context we will do well also to avoid seeing the initiative in the simplistic terms of a Trojan horse used by ‘progressives’ to discomfit ‘traditionalists’. It would be naive to suggest that the catholicity of our church does not include the kind of diversity which on some issues extends to outright difference and opposition. We should not use prayer as a way of avoiding these issues, but rather as a way of creating a safe and free space whereby we can learn to respectfully talk and listen to one another, to ‘fight fairly’ and together find a way forward. Similarly, as in all human endeavours, we can expect new power plays and infighting as the old certainties are questioned. We do not start from scratch in this — our church was founded at a time when its treatment of the Gentiles was the kind of major controversy which threatened unity. This controversy was faced head-on (see, for example, the reprimand of Peter by Paul in Gal 2:13), with confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We on this island have a secular paradigm of some success in this dialogue involving diversity — the Northern Ireland peace process — from which we can learn. It would seem likely in this context that any National Consultation would be a first rather than a last step in a process — deep differences require time to iron out. In this context one is reminded of the observations of some who took part in the Liverpool Congress in 1980 that while the event itself was successful, there was a failure to follow-up; and of Nuala O’Loan’s proposal that national synods could be held every three years or so (Studies, 99, Autumn, 2010, 271).

It might, finally, be objected that bishops could not possibly hope to deliver what might emerge in an open process of accountable listening like this and, if they failed to do so, their last state would be even worse than their first (Lk 11:26). But — as seen by what is already happening in Kerry, Armagh, Down and Connor, Dublin and many, many other dioceses in Ireland —much can and is, gradually, being delivered. It is true that there will inevitably emerge issues which involve the whole church, and Rome in particular, which Irish bishops on their own cannot solve. But Irish Catholics know this well. What would help would be real, accountable listening, an appropriate creative response within Ireland to the issues that can be tackled locally, and then firm representation to the wider church, including Rome, with respect to those issues of current church teaching and/or law which are not being ‘received’ within Ireland in peace. This might even, in time, lead to the convocation of a Third Vatican Council to address the serious outstanding issues that face the universal church, in which case the Irish church would have done the whole church some service.

The role of bishop in the Ireland of today cannot be an easy one. The temptation to either lie low and hope to ride out the storm, or to exercise ‘strong leadership’ without accountable listening to the People of God, must be considerable. But the words of the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich at the 1987 Synod of Bishops offer better counsel, when he advocated that the hierarchy needed to set about ‘awakening the sleeping giant’ that is the laity, going on to note that ‘feminism can no longer be considered middle-class madness or an American aberration’ (4). To give space to the lay faithful to exercise their baptismal responsibilities, even at the expense of some short-term confusion and a stepping back in terms of their own power and control — would this not be a worthy contemporary manifestation by bishops of the kind of biblical leadership of service taught by Jesus and exemplified by his washing of feet?

It would of course be possible to envisage some kind of National Consultation of the Irish Catholic Church without episcopal initiation, organised by lay faithful and/or priests, religious. However, it would surely be better for all concerned if the bishops were involved from the start.

With God’s help, and in a spirit of repentance and humility, we can use our hearts, minds and imagination to renew our church so that it may, once again, become a ‘light for the world’. An effective National Consultation, building on what is happening at parish and diocesan level, would be a major step towards the ‘committed programme of ecclesial and individual’ renewal called for in the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI (2010, n 2) and so deeply longed for by Irish Catholics.


1. Reproduced, with permission of the editor, from O’Hanlon, The Furrow, 62, February, 2011, 88-93
2. I also note the remarks of Bishop Murphy at the launch of Share the Good News, Wednesday 5 January 2011:’… all too often involvement of the laity is seen by clergy and the laity themselves as ‘helping Father’. That is not what is envisaged in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, in Christifideles Laici, the Code of Canon Law and other authoritative documents and statements’; and he goes on to quote from Pope Benedict’s address at the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome in May 2009: ‘Consecrated and lay people … must no longer be viewed as collaborators of the clergy but truly recognised as ‘co-responsible’ for the church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.’
3. One notes his insistence on the establishment of Parish Councils within the Archdiocese of Dublin, and his call for abroad National Forum on the future of educational provision and the place of faith education within the Irish educational system …’ (Address at the launch of Share the Good News, Wednesday 5 January 2011).
4. Michael A. Fahey, ‘Church’, in Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, John P. Galvin, eds, Systematic Theology, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992,327-398, at 334.


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