Gerard Mannion speaks at the "Vatican II: Remembering the Future" conference in May 2015 at Georgetown University.

Gerard Mannion: Profile of a Connected Scholar

By: Henry Brill

December 17, 2019

Gerard Mannion: a leading Catholic theologian and prolific organizer who spent a career building international networks to connect scholars, practitioners, and political leaders. His work instituting and leading global research efforts will continue to shape inclusive conversations on systematic theology and interdisciplinary scholarship on Ireland long into the future.

Mannion has been called one of the “foremost contemporary theologians” of the Catholic Church. The acknowledgement was well earned. During the course of his career, Mannion authored or edited nearly two dozen books on the role of the church in the world, social ethics, and ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. A number of these publications were products of the many international conferences Mannion organized as a key figure in the field of theology. 

A scholar who published widely in theology, Mannion also made countless contributions to life at Georgetown and the broader academy. As co-founder of a program at the university focused on Ireland, Mannion helped to break down disciplinary boundaries by sponsoring cutting-edge research, conferences, and teaching on the country in global perspective. 

Although dedicated to rigorous scholarship, Mannion also played an active role in public life. He contributed to a number of popular media outlets, often pushing the Catholic Church to face its problematic past. In 2015, Mannion appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show to discuss efforts to reform the Vatican Bank. More recently, after the Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting clerical sexual abuse was released in summer 2018, Mannion published a blistering piece in TIME magazine, where he called for the U.S. bishops to resign en masse in order for the Church to rebuild trust. 

Prolific scholar. Academic leader. Public theologian. The roles Mannion played allowed many to benefit from his intellectual gifts and organizational talents. The Berkley Center takes his passing in September 2019 as an opportunity to reflect on the contributions Mannion made to the center and the wider Georgetown community, as well as the field of theology. Interviews with his friends and colleagues provide a personal look at how Mannion touched the lives of scholars, students, and practitioners with a generous spirit and a quick wit.

​Journey to Georgetown

Born to Irish immigrants in England, Mannion earned a B.A. from King’s College at Cambridge University followed by a M.St. and D.Phil. from New College at Oxford University. Receiving an education from such elite institutions—a pair colloquially known as Oxbridge—played a key role in shaping how Mannion viewed the world. “A foundational experience for Gerard in his education would be a fairly common English experience, which is the working-class intellectual going to Oxbridge,” shared colleague Cóilín Parsons, an associate professor of English at Georgetown.

Exterior of King's College Chapel, Cambridge University. Photo by Pablo Fernández, 2015.
Exterior of King's College Chapel, Cambridge University. Photo by Pablo Fernández, 2015.

Experiencing the privileged world of Oxbridge as a working-class student continued to frame how Mannion approached personal and professional relationships, well into his own tenure at elite institutions in Europe and the United States. Peter Phan, Ignacio Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown, remembers how Mannion invited him to give a series of lectures on Asian theology at Liverpool Hope University, where Mannion was an associate professor at the time. After the lectures, the two paid a requisite visit to the Beatles Museum, a popular commemoration of the British rock group. But what Phan remembers most is not the lecture series or museum visit but rather something closer to Mannion’s roots: a trip to a blue-collar neighborhood in Liverpool.

Row houses in Liverpool, UK. Photo by John Naughton, 2013.

“He took me to a very poor neighborhood of public housing and allowed me to see and talk to people,” remembers Phan. “So already he was very interested in two things: Church reform, occasioned by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and social justice.” Mannion placed social justice at the center of much of his research, including a co-edited volume on Catholic Social Justice: Theological and Practical Explorations, essays highlighting the role of women in Church life, as well as work promoting interreligious dialogue to overcome social and political divisions with the Ecclesiology Investigations International Research Network.

Landscape view of Roscommon, Ireland. Photo by James McNamara, 2009.

But Mannion did not pursue social justice only as a research agenda. “I think of him as a person who is very interested on a practical level in the question of justice," remembers Phan. “I thought part of it came from his background as an Irish immigrant to England. He grew up working-class but was able to go to Cambridge and Oxford. He felt very much the debt that he owed to the people to enjoy the same benefit.”

By engaging marginalized voices in international conferences and edited publications, Mannion worked to repay that debt and quickly became a leader in global theology. In 2014, the Irishman brought his inclusive scholarship and leadership to Georgetown, where he held the Joseph and Winifred Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and served as a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center until his death in September 2019. While at Georgetown, Mannion worked tirelessly to build connections between scholars, politicians, and practitioners from all corners of the world.

​Building International Networks

One of the many ways in which Mannion worked to foster connections was through his work with the Ecclesiology Investigations International Research Network (EI). Serving as founder and chair of EI, Mannion led a major interdisciplinary effort to organize conferences and support scholarship on ecclesiology and ecumenical dialogue across the Christian tradition as a whole.

Reflecting on the formation of the network, which was formally founded in 2007 but whose roots date back to 2002, EI Vice Chair Vladimir Latinovic shared how Mannion shaped its vision and mission as an organization. “His feeling of where the Catholic Church should be is instilled in the foundation of EI: The Church should be open and liberal, close to the average layperson, and exemplative of high ethical standards,” shared Latinovic.

EI participants attend a lecture at the July 2019 "Stolen Churches or Bridges to Orthodoxy?" conference.

Mannion connected scholars and practitioners from all over the world to foster the inclusivity of EI and to reflect the diversity of the church.

“He was motivated to reach out and involve more and more theologians around the world,” shared John Borelli, special assistant for Catholic identity and dialogue to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “He was emphatic about the global character of theology today.”

Gerard Mannion and Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in 2018.
Gerard Mannion and Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in 2018.

EI has sponsored high-level international conferences on an almost unheard-of basis, putting into practice the vision Mannion held for a global and inclusive theology. Under his leadership, EI organized conferences in East Asia, Europe, South Asia, and North America—oftentimes hosting more than one major conference each year. The network has also maintained a steady presence at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion, where the Ecclesiological Investigations Program Unit Group came into being in 2005.

Mannion served as a driving force behind the many conferences where scholars from a wide range of backgrounds convened to consider critical questions on the role of the church in contemporary society.

Gerard Mannion and Peter Phan at the July 2016 conference “Christianity and Religions in China.”
Gerard Mannion and Peter Phan at the July 2016 conference “Christianity and Religions in China.”

“He was a true networker who was able to connect with lay theologians and cardinals, people from the political world, and publishers,” commented Latinovic. “His ability to make friendships and find common ground with such a wide group of people was key to developing the diversity of our network today.” 

By finding common ground, Mannion organized conferences where participants reflected on major themes in church history from diverse perspectives. 

“He would always take these highpoints of history and say, ‘Okay, how can we think of this in terms of the church,’ and would then bring people of all denominations to focus on the particular issue,” shared Phan.

Bishops outside St. Peter's Basilica during the Second Vatican Council.

One such historical highpoint: the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Mannion organized a conference on “Vatican II: Remembering the Future,” a four-day meeting held at Georgetown in May 2015 to explore the impact, legacy, and promise of the council.

Participants in the May 2015 "Vatican II: Remembering the Future" conference attend an event at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Among the many other meetings commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, this particular conference was unique for engaging scholars and practitioners from beyond the Roman Catholic tradition to reflect on how the council impacted—and was impacted by—religious communities from around the world. Prominent Roman Catholic thinkers and leaders, including three international cardinals, also joined to provide reflections and responses as part of the ecumenical dialogue.

The open exchange and dialogue at the conference exemplified the spirit of the network and its very raison d’être.

“What the EI events seek to do is to invite and encourage all participants to become as involved throughout the days we are together as fully as possible and not simply to speak about dialogue here, but genuinely to engage one another in dialogue both during and beyond the gathering itself,” said Mannion in his opening remarks to the conference.

Moving beyond the meeting was always a key goal for Mannion, who worked to put theology in conversation with debates on contemporary issues. 

“He understood that risks of an ‘abstract theology’ and wanted to make her an interlocutor of our time,” said Debora Tonelli, permanent researcher at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler and Georgetown representative in Rome.

Gerard Mannion talks about the worldwide release of the encyclical. Gerard Mannion describes how Pope Francis has shaped global environmentalism with the release of Laudato Si in 2015.

Mannion worked to connect theology and society by organizing conferences on topical events such as the 2013 election of Pope Francis, the theme of an EI event on “A New Vision for the Church: Pope Francis’ Agenda for the Church, World, and Social Justice” held at Georgetown in March 2014. The timely conference explored Evangelii Gaudium, an apostolic exhortation released by Pope Francis just four months prior. Participants considered how the document informs the papal agenda for Church reform, social justice, and global peace.

José Casanova, Dennis Doyle, Sandra Mazzolini, and Gerard Mannion (L-R) speak at the conference "A New Vision for the Church" in March 2014.
José Casanova, Dennis Doyle, Sandra Mazzolini, and Gerard Mannion (L-R) speak at the conference "A New Vision for the Church" in March 2014.

Essays from the conference were released in the volume Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism: Evangelii Gaudium and the Papal Agenda, edited by Mannion and published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

The cover of Catholicism Opening to the World and Other Confessions, an EI publication.
The cover of Catholicism Opening to the World and Other Confessions, an EI publication.

The volume was just one of many EI publications. Under his leadership, EI developed long-standing relationships with major publishers such as Bloomsbury/Continuum and Palgrave Macmillan. The series Mannion edited with the two publishers total over 40 volumes—from conference proceedings to scholarly monographs. But the EI publication series were not just the usual collection of arguments over systematic theology and ecumenical dialogue. A deeper current of social justice ran through how Mannion approached the publications, edited with an eye toward diversity and inclusion. 

“You can see how many young people he brought together in his publications of conference papers,” shared Phan. “These people would have never had a chance: They are mostly young and come mostly from the Global South. He intentionally did this as an act of justice to promote younger scholars and to bring in fresh voices from the so-called margins.”

Dennis Doyle and Gerard Mannion talk after the conference "A New Vision for the Church" in March 2014.

Although an important part of the network, the publication of conference papers was never the primary goal of EI. Mannion was more focused on bringing people together for face-to-face dialogue on some of the most pressing problems facing the church. “He would always say, ‘The real fruit of the conferences are not in the papers, but in the corridors, the meals, and the conversations,’” remembered Phan.

These conversations on topics such as global migration and inclusion in the Church eventually made their way beyond the conference corridors. “EI was beginning to make an impact in the last few years in terms of Church structures because Gerard involved a lot of very important people,” reflected Borelli. 

Plans for the network to continue as a critical voice in ecclesiology are still in the works. “This all will be extremely hard, but we hope that in the year to come we will know more about what direction EI will take,” shared Latinovic. “What I know for sure is that it won’t be easy without him!” The foundations Mannion laid for EI—with its commitment to fostering connections, sponsoring interfaith dialogue, and advocating for Catholic Church reform—ensure that some of the most exciting work to emerge from the network is yet to come.

Putting Ireland in Global Perspective

Mannion also applied his expertise in building interdisciplinary networks to his role as co-founder of Georgetown’s Global Irish Studies Initiative (GIS), alongside Professors Irene Jillson and Cóilín Parsons. 

GIS was founded in 2016 to promote interdisciplinary teaching, research, and conferences on Ireland in a global perspective. Co-founding a program focused on Ireland was a natural fit for Mannion, a rugby fanatic who was born to Irish immigrants in England. 

Parsons remembers the passion Mannion brought to the initiative, a first-of-its-kind project. “He was very enthusiastic about creating an institutional home for the study of all things Irish at Georgetown,” recalled Parsons. “When we sat down—Irene, Gerard, and I—we realized that we had no interest in replicating Irish studies programs elsewhere.”

Portrait of Archbishop Bishop John Carroll by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1804.

Georgetown is uniquely positioned to host the initiative, which builds on its history and core strengths as an institution. The Irish and Irish-American communities have continued to shape the history of Georgetown since 1789, when the university was founded by Irish-American Catholic bishop John Carroll, S.J. Prominent Irish-Americans have endowed key components of academic life at the university, including the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and the McCourt School of Public Policy.

GIS also appeals to the expansive outlook of Georgetown faculty and students, who engage questions of international significance on campuses in Qatar and Washington, DC. It was precisely these historical connections and the global focus on teaching and research at Georgetown that led Mannion to help form GIS. 

“Gerard’s point was that this is a historically Irish-Catholic university on the east coast of America with a global outlook that didn’t have a program that thought about Irishness in global perspective,” remembered Parsons. “We all wanted to work on that, and Gerard was among the most enthusiastic about it."

Although established less than four years ago, GIS has already sparked new conversations on Ireland at Georgetown. 

Integrating Irish and American experiences of civil rights activism, the initiative co-sponsored a day-long conference on “Civil Rights in Transatlantic Perspective: Northern Ireland and the United States, 1968–2018” in December 2018. The conference commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland and the anniversary window of major events in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement by bringing together activists, diplomats, and politicians from both countries to reflect on their shared history.

Panelists at the December 2018 "Civil Rights in Transatlantic Perspective" conference.
Panelists at the December 2018 "Civil Rights in Transatlantic Perspective" conference.

The conference was part and parcel of the highly comparative approach that GIS takes in putting Ireland in global perspective. “Ireland is a case study for a whole lot of quite commonly replicated structural changes especially over the last century or so,” shared Parsons, citing a wide range of issues such as international migration, racial change, and poverty reduction. “There are really interesting stories to be told in Ireland that can be microcosmic versions of the story of the world.”

Peace Wall in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photography by Roberto Casalone, 2012.

One such story: the resolution of political violence in Northern Ireland during the 1990s. GIS co-sponsored “A Generation of Peace: Northern Ireland, Then and Now,” a day-long conference held in April 2018 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mannion, an active member of the Irish community in DC, used his connections to bring key actors in the Northern Ireland peace process to Georgetown. A host of high-level Irish diplomats and politicians joined former Senator George Mitchell and former Congressman Bruce Morrison, who played leading roles in reconciliation efforts, to consider the history of the peacebuilding process, as well as prospects and challenges for the future of Ireland. The conference culminated with a talk by Senator Mitchell, who then joined Mannion for a conversation and question-and-answer session.

Former Senator George Mitchell in conversation with Gerard Mannion.
Former Senator George Mitchell in conversation with Gerard Mannion.

Although focused on Irish reconciliation, “A Generation of Peace” also allowed for reflection on broader themes, reflecting the global outlook of the initiative. In his opening remarks to the conference, Mannion suggested how the longstanding conflict in Ireland offers “the chance to reflect upon the destructive forces unleashed when we accentuate otherness in negative and pejorative ways.”

GIS continues to pursue a unique vision of Irish studies by supporting research and teaching on Ireland at Georgetown. 

“One of the things that we really want to do—Gerard, Irene, and I were in lockstep on this—is to build the research and study of Ireland into all levels of the university,” shared Parsons. “Our main focus right now is to ensure that this work is shared not only horizontally across the schools, but also vertically across all levels of research at Georgetown.” 

As GIS continues to expand its work on campus and presence within the field, Jillson and Parsons plan to memorialize the formative contributions that Mannion made in shaping the unique outlook of the initiative. 

“He would really want us to persevere so one of the things that we are going to do, Cóilín and I, [is we] are going to continue discussions about how we commemorate his role in some very specific ways,” shared Jillson in a phone interview with the Hoya. “It is really important that people know that Gerard played such a vital role—that is essentially an understatement—in the realization of this dream.”

A now well-established academic program at Georgetown, GIS will continue to follow the initial vision shaped by Jillson, Mannion, and Parsons. “That vision,” in the words of Parsons, “is to build this program to one of the best in the country and to say that Georgetown will be a home for the most innovative and most comparative vision of Irish studies.”

Pursuing the Common Good

As a senior scholar with leadership positions in the field, Mannion never forgot his dedication to radical inclusion and the common good. His practical interest in social justice shaped how Mannion worked to support junior scholars who often lacked experience and connections in the field. When GIS hosted a regional meeting for a major Irish studies conference in 2017, Mannion worked behind the scenes to counsel graduate students. Parsons recently received an email from one such conference participant, who shared how Mannion helped to calm her nerves before a big presentation: 

“Gerard just sat down beside her and told her, ‘You’ve got it. You can do it.’ And that meant the world to her. I didn’t know that Gerard was doing this. I thought that Gerard was off doing all kinds of fancy things at this conference. But it turns out that he was walking the corridors and talking to people and making them feel welcome, especially junior scholars. That’s just the kind of person he was.”

Gerard Mannion talks with an audience member during the March 2017 "Theology Without Borders" conference.
Gerard Mannion talks with an audience member during the March 2017 "Theology Without Borders" conference.

That willingness to support the work of others is probably why so many of his friends and colleagues mention the same quality when describing Mannion: generosity. “Not just generosity in that Gerard would always be the person standing there who would have ordered you a drink long before you thought you even needed one,” shared Parsons, “but also an intellectual generosity, a real curiosity and a willingness to hear from other disciplines. Gerard was always open to hearing new voices.”

Intellectual generosity helps to explain the overwhelming number of projects and commitments Mannion pursued simultaneously. From an active research agenda to major leadership roles at the university and disciplinary levels to engagements in public theology, Mannion enriched the lives of countless scholars, students, and practitioners. But what motivated such a breadth of involvement?

Reporter Joshua J. McElwee speaks with Gerard Mannion at the 2018 event on "Covering the Catholic Church and Pope Francis in a Time of Crisis."
Reporter Joshua J. McElwee speaks with Gerard Mannion at the 2018 event on "Covering the Catholic Church and Pope Francis in a Time of Crisis."

“For Gerard it was this really deep love of the Church,” shared Julia Lamm, professor of theology and a faculty fellow at the Berkley Center. “I think it really came from his Catholic faith and trying to hold the Church accountable and to bring out the best it has to offer as he criticized it. Even when he disagreed with people, he was always so civil and so charitable."

Brilliance. Faith. Generosity. These are just a few of the qualities friends and colleagues associate with Mannion. It is suggestive that Mannion spoke of the subjects of his own research in nearly the same terms. That is how he described Saint Francis and Saint Clare in the introduction to his edited volume of essays presented at the 2012 EI meeting in Assisi, Where We Dwell in Common: The Quest for Dialogue in the Twenty-First Century:

Statue of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photograph by Kent Kanouse, 2014.

“The mission of Francis—and that of Clare, also—was grounded upon compassion. Francis realized that compassion offered a profound explication of the mysteries of the universe. It grounded his metaphysical sensitivities, his theological orientation, his moral and pastoral principles and activities, and his all-embracing social ontology. It represented a fundamental option manifested in total commitment to love of neighbor, to love of the poorest, most oppressed, neglected, and despised of neighbors above all else.”

If “Gerard Mannion” stood in for “Francis” or “Clare” in the passage, would the text be less true to any considerable degree? That is not to beatify Mannion, for surely a faithful scholar so known for his wit would have something clever to say at the very suggestion. It is only to highlight how Gerard Mannion shone as a bright light within the Georgetown community and beyond. Let us celebrate his life and scholarship by striving to create a more just and connected world.


Gerard Mannion

September 25, 2019

The Berkley Center and greater Georgetown community mourn the loss of scholar, colleague, and friend Gerard Mannion, who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday, September 21. A memorial Mass was held on October 4 at 3:30 p.m. in Dahlgren Chapel.

Gerard Mannion

September 10, 2019

On September 10, Senior Research Fellow Gerard Mannion offered a lecture on "Pope Francis and the New Political Theology: Moral and Social Leadership for a World in Need" at Trinity College Dublin.

Refugees Eating in an Abandoned Building

September 17, 2018

Senior Research Fellow Gerard Mannion, chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations network, helped coordinate EI's twelfth annual conference at the University of St. Michael's College.

Gerard Mannion

August 20, 2018

Senior Research Fellow Gerard Mannion writes in TIME magazine that recent revelations about the Catholic Church's handling of clerical sexual abuse highlight a crisis of moral corrosion and corruption embedded into the Church that requires radical action.