What I think is the most needed change in my own Catholic Church, at least in the United States, is a recovery of the inclusive spirit of the Second Vatican Council. I sometimes ponder what it would be like if we all lived up to the teaching expressed in Lumen gentium, no. 32: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ.” Vatican II moved in the direction of inclusion not only regarding lay-clergy relationships but also though building connections with other Christians, with people of other faiths, and with the world overall. Long live equality in spiritual dignity!
Polarization currently grips life in the United States. In a 2020 book, Ezra Klein draws upon a wealth of social scientific studies to document the significantly increased polarization in contemporary U.S. society and politics. The U.S. Catholic Church, it appears to me, has mostly been swept along in the tide. In a polarized world, people are not simply divided—on either side, people basically tend to despise the people on the other side.
In a polarized world, people are not simply divided—on either side, people basically tend to despise the people on the other side.
Most of my theological writing over the past decades has been aimed at developing inclusive frameworks that bridge the divisions that haunt us. Yet as centrist as I try to be, it is fair to say that when the shoe drops, my foot comes down at least slightly on one side of the dividing line. Still, my goal remains inclusion. I try to abide by the position of the early nineteenth-century Catholic patristics scholar, Johann Adam Möhler, who held that heresy is less often because of the positions one holds and more often because of holding one’s position in a narrow and exclusive manner .
Gerard Mannion and I stood on the same side of the cultural dividing line, but Gerard was not a centrist in the way that I am. He took clear and strong positons and defended them with great energy. Where I was a mediator, he was a prophet. Where I sought to be inclusive, Gerard hated all forms of exclusion. One could wonder if Gerard’s radical embrace of inclusion was based on the principle that the enemy of his enemy is his friend. I jest. Gerard was the incarnation of an inclusive spirit. He wanted everybody at the table, even if a few of them would be people he might argue with or even yell at. He was a networker, a builder of community. He was the founding figure of an international research network.
Gerard taught me something important about the spirit of inclusion. I was with him at an Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Trent in March 2009. We were in a bar late at night. Gerard was speaking about one of his favorite topics: how terrible were the ecclesiological positions of a certain cardinal archbishop, who had already by that time been promoted yet higher. Gerard listed four or five of these awful ecclesiological positions, which were mostly about linking communion ecclesiology with certain juridical and authoritative structures. I told Gerard that, for the most part, I agree with the awful positons that he had listed. Gerard, who knew my work well, said, “No you don’t, Dennis, no you don’t. You don’t agree with those positions. You may say the same words, but when you say them you are speaking as a human being. You don’t use those ideas to exclude people. You use them to include people. You don’t at all mean the same things.” Aside from whether or not I completely agreed with every aspect of Gerard’s analysis of his nemesis, I was deeply struck by his claim that I misunderstood the reality of my own positions. For Gerard, an intellectual position expressed in an inclusive spirit is categorically different from a position expressed in the same words but apart from an inclusive spirit.
For Gerard, an intellectual position expressed in an inclusive spirit is categorically different from a position expressed in the same words but apart from an inclusive spirit.
Gerard believed in and lived out the principle of equality in spiritual dignity in many realms, including lay-clergy relations, ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and church-world affairs. He made great efforts to promote scholars of various races, ethnicities, and genders. He brought together the young and inexperienced with world-class established figures. He prepared for the kingdom of God by frequently practicing how to celebrate as well as how to make sure that everyone is invited. He made me ponder: What would the church be like if we all lived out this spirit of inclusion?
- See the distinction between antitheses that require unity and contradictions that reject unity in Johann Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church or the Principle of Catholicism, ed. and trans. Peter C. Erb (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 194–198.