Ecclesial Formation in the Educational Legacy of Gerard Mannion

By: Easten Law

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

The legacy of a scholar is not only to be found in their scholarship or writings, but also in the hearts and minds of their students. Of the many things that Gerard Mannion was to the church and the academy, he was to me, a teacher. As a doctoral student in Georgetown University’s Department of Theological and Religious studies, I was gifted with several opportunities to study under him.

Today, just over a year after his sudden passing, the lessons Mannion taught me in both word and deed continue to resonate as I round the final corners of my doctoral studies. This essay is a reflection on Gerard Mannion’s educational legacy, asking what the implications of his teaching holds for the future of the church. When we look at the syllabi he curated, the tasks he assigned, and the conversations he facilitated, what do they say about Mannion’s vision for theological education and its role in ecclesial formation? Across my two years of coursework, Mannion taught three different seminars. Each provides clues to discerning the questions and tools he may have believed to be most important for future scholars of the church to engage. 

In line with the thematic focus of Georgetown’s doctoral program, Mannion led my introductory seminar on religious pluralism from theological and philosophical perspectives. In addition to traditional voices in theology and philosophy, Mannion added the work of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber as well as recent contributions from Mary Douglas and Peter Berger. Including them pointed us toward his greater conviction that matters of God and church were intimately tied up with our experiences of society and that religious pluralism was about far more than theology of religions. 

In the following semester, Mannion led a seminar on The Morality of Institutions, where he leaned further into his interdisciplinary sensibilities by integrating the social sciences with public theology and ethics to help discern how an institution’s moral character is formed and lost. This holistic perspective challenged us to consider the complex systems that produce clergy abuse cover-ups in the church and conflicts in the holy lands. The seminar was frank about the nature of systemic sin at work in the church’s institutional apparatus and yet hopeful in the work that could be done to potentially correct its course.

In our second year of coursework, Mannion led a seminar on the ecclesial history of Christian doctrine that he titled Traditions and Tradition: Dynamics of Christian Theology, designed to prepare my cohort for comprehensive exams. The course emphasized that history and doctrine are tethered to one another and that ecclesiological study ought to frame the church as an institution that reaches for heaven while nevertheless grounded on earth. This grounding in humanity means that there is an ever-present need for grace and renewal. From this standpoint, the history of the church’s many cleavages and convergences are signs of a self-correcting process that continues to the present: a product of many traditions woven together to realize a just and open community for all. The many shades of the church are, therefore, not simply products of division but also vehicles for grace.

The many shades of the church are, therefore, not simply products of division but also vehicles for grace.

Both in style and content, the three seminars were expansive and ambitious. In an attempt to leave no system of thought unexamined, Mannion typically assigned the work of multiple scholars for each session, ping-ponging us across different disciplines and fields. Thankfully, he also took care to curate specific readings that he felt best reflected each scholar’s contribution lest we drown in an unmanageable ocean of complexities. Even more intimidating than the reading list was Mannion’s insistence that, whenever possible, we present our responses to the readings face to face with the very scholar who wrote them. I was expected to not only give a presentation about Peter Phan’s work on interreligious relations to my classmates, but also to Peter Phan himself. A classmate of mine was called upon to explore the strengths and weaknesses of Francis X. Clooney’s conception of comparative theology with Clooney video-conferenced in to provide feedback. It was as if he was instilling in us both a sense of respect for those whose work we build upon, as well as a confidence in the value of our contribution to potentially challenge their deficiencies. Regardless of how we may have done in these classes (he was not one to pull punches if we were falling short of his expectations), Mannion inevitably closed every semester by treating us to dinner and drinks at a local Thai restaurant in Georgetown. This nearly ritualistic act of hospitality remains one of his greatest testimonies to his students of what the church ought to be: an abundant table open to all.

What does Mannion’s teaching say about theological education and its responsibility to the church’s contemporary challenges? First, it is clear that Mannion believed future scholars of the church must be multi-disciplinary in their analysis of the church in the world. Theological education will not advance the ends of the church if it cannot train leaders to think beyond it. Good and faithful ecclesiology is not possible without the resources of all scientific disciplines. Second, the work of the church is not one of theological idealism but of laborious institution building and reform. Christian ethics must be taught with concrete organizational contexts in mind. The church may belong to God, but it is directed by human hands that require due diligence to keep from entropy. Third, the history of the church, bloody scars and all, is not without the fingerprints of God’s handiwork. Our historical consciousness must be theologized, and the church must envision its future in light of all that has come before rather than ignore it. Lastly, and most importantly, the church must live out its mandate to be a vehicle of grace for all people, a place that forms prophetic strength and extravagant welcome for all. 

[T]he church must live out its mandate to be a vehicle of grace for all people, a place that forms prophetic strength and extravagant welcome for all.

Would I have learned these things from simply reading Mannion’s many authored and edited volumes? Certainly. But while many will continue to be strengthened and challenged by Gerard Mannion’s writings, no one will ever again be able to experience his distinct classroom. It is up to us, his students, to continue this legacy by bringing some of his passion for the church into our own endeavors.

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