In the wake of the historic decision by two-thirds of Irish voters to repeal the 8th amendment, which gives protection to the life of the unborn, Irish Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon speaks to Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications.
Addressing the issue of conscience, Dr O’Hanlon says that many Catholics who voted on Friday felt torn by the referendum and did not see it as a black and white issue. He believes those Catholics who voted on both sides were thoughtful, intelligent adults who were capable of listening to what the Bishops had to say, and who then followed the dictates of their conscience.
He says that many of the Catholics he knew who voted for repeal were particularly cognisant of the hard cases such as rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities. He also says that there were Catholics, who like Pope Francis and others, had consistent ethic of life. They also had a deep sense of compassion that was not just the preserve of the ‘yes side’. Those Catholics needed to have confidence, as does the Pope, in the joy of the message they proclaim, he says.
In his interview he also addresses the crisis that this outcome poses for the Catholic church in Ireland. The moral authority of the Catholic church is in tatters at present, he tells Pat Coyle, and there is always the danger that it becomes an irrelevancy. He notes the alienation felt by many women not just at present, but also as a legacy of the past, and the control over their bodies that many women felt the church exercised.
But he notes that Friday’s decision also offers a significant opportunity for the hierarchy and church leaders to engage in authentic dialogue with its members so that effective change can take place. He says the church has no choice now but to engage in worthwhile dialogue with the culture it is a part of. That means it needs to listen sympathetically as well as offering its own critique.
In the past, Gerry O’Hanlon has called on the Bishops of Ireland to initiate a listening process throughout the dioceses of Ireland, implementing the desire of Pope Francis to create an inclusive, synodal church where the voices of the faithful are heard and acted upon. Bishop Brendan Leahy held one such synod in Limerick which was widely appreciated by the people there, according to Gerry O’Hanlon, but he was the only Bishop to initiate such an important event.
The Bishops need to act and act now, according to the former Irish Jesuit Provincial, adding that the Pope’s visit in August may give them the spur they need to begin the process of working with the laity to create the type of collaborative church that is close to Francis’ heart.