A Discussion with Gerry O'Hanlon, S.J., Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Ireland

With: Gerry O'Hanlon

July 27, 2012

Background: In this exchange in Dublin on July 27, 2012, Gerry O'Hanlon, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed social theology and how the Catholic Church's lived understanding of authority may shift in the future. O'Hanlon points to the recent economic crisis as an impetus for deeper discussion about societal values and the role of the Church's social teaching in shaping culture and society. He also considers how the decision-making structure of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit Order can effectively incorporate open participation and debate without eliminating an ultimate central authority.

Please give a description of your vocation and history with the Jesuits.

I joined in 1965, aged 18, immediately after finishing Jesuit secondary school. I felt called to the Order, and no matter how much I wanted to shake the feeling—I wanted a wife and family as much as the next person—I simply couldn’t. After joining, I trained mostly in Ireland, but spent some time elsewhere in places such as Frankfurt, Canada and Belfast (1983-1986). I was then appointed Irish Provincial before arriving at the Centre as social theology officer in 2005. I’ve been here ever since, working on issues of theology in the public square. Since I’m trained in theology, not public policy, I take a somewhat different approach to politics, policy and economics than some of my colleagues here at the Centre. For the past few years, the majority of my work has focused on two topics, namely the financial crisis and investigating the internal culture of the Catholic Church in response to the sexual abuse crisis and our response to it.

What exactly is the work of a social theologian, and what have been your findings in terms of the financial crisis?

I begin from Catholic social teaching and natural reason to make a case for theological goods in the language of social goods. In other words, key tenets of Catholic social teaching—focus on the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor—are reasonable not just on Catholic or theological grounds, but on logical and social grounds, and my job is to argue for them as such. In today’s Ireland—in today’s Europe—we can no longer presume the belief of the average citizen, so social theology is important to keep Catholic social teachings in the national conversation and consciousness by demonstrating that they are accessible to and preferable according to natural reason independent of belief. This is a powerful and important resource for society, and it’s important the Church learn to speak in this “normal” language of social discourse now that overtly Christian discourse is likely to be off-putting. The Church has a long tradition and a broad vision in the realms of education, culture and politics, and in order to keep those traditions and visions alive, we need to articulate them in terms that people are willing and wanting to hear.

One of the key lessons of social theology is its emphasis on culture. We’re not going to fix our politics or our economics until and unless we fix our culture. Ultimately, that’s a project based on and led by values—if we place the highest value on money and growth-creation, we’ll get the economics of money and the politics that enables it. Too often, we’re not aware of the culture that drives our political and economical systems, and modernity has been too eager to compartmentalize political science, economics and sociology as independent and barely-related disciplines. This has helped enable wealth and economic growth to become ends in themselves, which has in turn fostered a false sense of individuality. Society isn’t built without roads, hospitals and other public goods paid for by the public purse. We don’t want to lose sight of the dignity and freedom of the human person, but we do need to rediscover the conditional notion of societal and individual flourishing being intimately linked to one another.

What does social theology have to teach us about how to move forward?

Too often today, we take a sort of perverse pride in describing our financial and political woes as “intractable” and hiding behind the label while doing nothing about the problems. Social theology emphasizes that we can’t use the eschatology of a broken and imperfectible world as an excuse to avoid trying to better the one we’ve got. Plenty of once-“intractable” problems have been rolled back thanks to sustained social action, and the world is undoubtedly better for it. The old Irish concept of meitheal, communal action in the original sense of log-rolling, has really suffered in the past number of years, and we’ve got to bring it back. We have to imagine a way forward that is value-led and fully thought through. For too long, Irish culture has been anti-intellectual in the sense of refusing to think through problems or the proposed solutions to them—and the Church certainly has not been helpful in that regard. We need a lot more democracy and a lot less pragmatic, reactive governance. The election of Michael D. Higgins as Uachtaráin (president) is a good sign—he wants to build up a republic in the best sense of Wolfe Tone and the highest ideals of the French Revolution—but we’re a long way from seeing his vision really animating the whole of society.

The crisis has actually helped somewhat in that respect, since we’ve been called to a national realization of having gone astray. That said, people are mostly holding their breath right now, and there doesn’t seem to be any real vision for the future, just a constant response to the now. We’re the poster boys in the EU for the austerity doctrine (which we take some pride in), so we’ve been marching pretty thoughtlessly to orders from Brussels for a few years trying to stay in the EU’s good graces. To be sure, the EU is a good thing, but we refuse or neglect to think through the potential effects of its policy prescriptions at our peril. As you can see, economic inequality has gone up pretty dramatically in the last several years, and the country is still in thrall to finance and markets in a way that leaves government impotent to reform either. Instead of playing realpolitik all of the time, we’ve got to start thinking ahead and introducing some real value-driven thinking a la Scandinavia, which has probably the world’s most value-led social and economic policy.

What can the Catholic Church and/or the Jesuits contribute? Your record on value-led thinking is strong, but the Church isn’t very popular right now.

You’re right—the greatest weakness in Catholic social teaching right now is the Church itself. People hear what we have to say, see the reason in it, but then ask the logical question: “And how does your hierarchical, opaque institution reflect that teaching?” Whenever the Church speaks officially right now, people hear it against the background of the sex-abuse crisis and obviously undemocratic internal structure of the Church. The bishops are censorial, self-censoring and not subsidiary, so people take what they say with a huge grain of salt. They recognize that the Church—even the official Church—has good things to say and is doing good work, but until we go in the collegial direction suggested by Vatican II, we’re not going to be taken very seriously when we argue for democracy, values and subsidiarity.

Based on your research, what do you feel needs to change in the deep culture of the Church?

We’ve got to dramatically increase participation in decision-making and teaching—again per the suggestion of Vatican II. We should bring back the tradition of having national and global synods of bishops and lay people to discern the signs of the times and bring teachings in line with the sensus fidei—the sense of the faithful. Evolution of doctrine is neither inherently wrong nor new, and it’s far worse to stand on a point of pride while watching the gulf between official doctrine and popular praxis widen to the point where Catholics ignore whole realms of Church teaching. We’ve got to recognize that this isn’t an unconsidered phenomenon, either—the sexual revolution isn’t a universally good thing, but today’s Catholics aren’t ignoring us because they’re just too lazy or lusty to listen. Rather, we’re seeing in many cases the considered, value- and experience-led dissent of people of good faith, and it’s damaging to the hierarchy and the faithful that teaching and practice can’t seem to be brought in line.

To be clear, we should not do away with authority or even centrality entirely. Looking at the Anglican Communion right now, it seems clear that much of its trouble derives from the fact that it lacks a tradition of having an ultimate central authority. In the Roman tradition, we are used to looking to Rome for ultimate adjudication, but we’ve got to get back to the tradition of the early Church, which relied on Rome mostly as final arbiter, not primary mover. In the ancient Church, national, regional and local churches developed and grew their faiths with far more freedom, and most of the questions that made their way to Rome were those of schism—had a particular church or sect gone too far or introduced an interpretation that could not be called Catholic? In the post-Vatican II consolidation of power, the situation has reversed itself: Rome leads, and deviation is schismatic. Too many bishops have bought into that system and become followers rather than leaders, and too many lay people are no longer willing to participate in a Church that allows them little or no say.

What about the Jesuits? You’re historically tied to the papacy by the fourth vow of personal and institutional loyalty to the pope.

We are finally starting to see some rethinking of the issue of authority within the Society and the relationship between the Society and the Holy See. Within the Order, the old model of administration—from the father general to the provincials to individual Jesuits—is being updated to include a new layer of national conferences between the father general and the provincials. The debate as to the specific role(s) and power(s) of the national bodies is still open, but the need for this kind of national-level administration is clear. As for the relationship between the Order and the Vatican, that’s obviously a very sensitive issue. Luckily, we’re starting to see some new thinking there, too. Too-unthinking support of a system that is doing a lot of harm in the Church only perpetuates that harm, and we’re starting to consider if and how to set up a respectful and constructive critique of Vatican policies without unduly harming or undoing our special relationship with the Holy See. Because of our deep tradition of and instinct for obedience, this is a hard thing for Jesuits to consider, but if we conclude that the model of the Church that’s being operated now isn’t adequate to cultural realities, the best thing for us to do may be to offer constructive criticism of the institution. We’ve got to start aligning what many Jesuits are saying in private with what we say publicly, otherwise we face the prospect of living with the same kind of painful cognitive dissonance experienced by faithful Catholics who considerately practice contraception.

As a former provincial, you’ve served as a Jesuit administrator. How would you describe the decision-making process within the Order (and how that might go into renewing the Society and the Church)?

The basic outline of Jesuit decision-making is that we have an open debate in which we freely express opinions and listen carefully and respectfully to others, then the person in authority takes a decision. The process makes decision-making and following easier, since (at best) everyone feels he was able to voice his opinion and be heard. When that’s the case, decisions are thought through and organically derived, and are respected as such by those affected by them. It’s a good combination of vertical and horizontal debate and decision-making, and it helps people feel that they’ve been taken seriously. It also helps that the process is replicated up and down the structure of the Society: the way in which I made decisions for the province was mirrored in the way decisions were debated and taken by the father general in consultation with provincials. When everyone trusts that lines of communication are open up and down and that his concerns are being acknowledged and voiced up and down the line, he can trust that the decisions taken are being taken in an informed and considerate manner for the good of the Society.

Finally, could you provide a snapshot of the state of the Church in Ireland today? We’re a long way from the worst of the Troubles, but Ireland isn’t as reliably or committedly Catholic as it once was (and is still sometimes assumed to be)?

Without meaning any disrespect, I’d say belief and practice here is becoming more Protestant-esque in the sense that people take a much more á la carte approach to faith than they used to. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the danger is that it plays into the culture of individualism that is so rampant and doing such damage in our culture at large. It also risks throwing the baby out with the bath water: a proper critique of authority shouldn’t lead to a rejection of or lack of respect for any and all authority. If we want to live together, it takes authority to keep the community together, and that needn’t be a bad or oppressive thing. The obvious warning to the Church is that unless we change the nature and feel of our model of authority, we’re going to lose what authority we have left.

Secularization is making it more difficult to be faithful in daily life, and the default assumption is rapidly becoming that we can do without God. Those of us who don’t feel we can are thus finding it harder to articulate the message and mystery of transcendence and sacraments. We need to reimagine and re-discern the ways in which we as a Church and as people find God in daily life if we’re going to keep going in the modern age. Frankly, I think Ignatian spirituality has a big role to play there. It’s very well received by religious and non-religious people alike, as well as with non-Catholics and non-Christians. If we’re discerning the signs of the times, that seems like an obvious one to pay attention to and see what it is about this way that makes so much sense to and appeals so broadly to so many people.

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