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Building faith, enhancing credibility

Gerry O’Hanlon envisages a more open Church in the future
by Eileen Good

Europe and the Roman Catholic Church is the title of an article by Jesuit priest Gerry O’Hanlon, featured in The Future of Europe, published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. In the article, Fr. O’Hanlon says that many people no longer listen sympathetically or at all to what the Church officially teaches, despite the fact that the Church has so much to contribute to the debate on the future of Europe. What can the Church do to enhance its credibility? He spoke to Eileen Good.

Gerry O Hanlon: Well, I think you are right to say that the church does have a lot to offer, and in the article that I wrote I mentioned the Pope’s letter The Church in Europe. That is a very wide ranging analysis of Europe – particularly of the kind of values which he believes that the Catholic Church and Christianity can bring to the whole debate about Europe. Catholic social teaching has a very well developed theory of political action which he thinks is valuable for Europe. And I think he is right. I think the teaching is really valuable. The question I raised then was, given that it is coming from the Catholic Church, would people listen to it? The Pope himself is conscious of this issue; he does say in that letter about Europe that the Church has its own credibility problems. The ones I mention are a bit different from his. He is talking about conversion, the need to be holy, and I think he is right there. I think people sense that we have a relationship with Jesus Christ – there’s something transparent about that and very convincing, and it’s good. But I also raise the areas of sexuality and power as areas where the Church might have difficulties in being credible.

Eileen Good: That is true, and I suppose for a large percentage of a generation today, including people who would be now in positions in Europe where they can bring about change, one of the areas if you think about sexuality is Humanae Vitae and the teaching on contraception. Many people of that age group probably don’t even know about it.

Gerry O’Hanlon: Yes, and there’s a funny thing there – I suppose people have a way of putting things to one side and getting on with their lives. Many people do that, I think. And the people you are talking about, leaders in Europe who might have a Christian or a Catholic background, they carry on. Yet they are still inspired by their Christian faith, by their Catholic faith. But I think it’s not good for an organisation to have a body of teaching which is so widely ignored and put to one side. From the organisation’s point of view, from the Church’s point of view, it does raise questions, when people get into trouble in other areas, as to how reliable the Church is as a teaching body. So, for good reasons or bad reasons, the church is perceived as lacking wisdom in such an important area in life. We’re talking about relationships and love, and that’s the main thing that really is of significance to people in the end – there are many other things that are important, but in the end they feed off that. If the church is perceived to be lacking wisdom – if some of the good ordinary Christian faithful and the thinkers in the church can’t accept its teaching, it raises big questions. I think that’s, if you like, a running sore in the church, a wound. And I relate it to the issue of power, because I think it’s not healthy that issues can’t be addressed in a more open kind of way. I think that debate can be divisive in the short term, but it’s been clear throughout the history of the church that issues are resolved through talking and through listening. And often teaching changes as a result of that, in a way that makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is leading us. I’d like to see this happening more widely and more openly within the church than happens at the moment.

Eileen Good: When you talk about talking and listening – does the listening happen? And if it does, where does it lead? Where can change be implemented?

Gerry O’Hanlon: I think a certain amount of listening does go on, and that’s why I say there are signs of hope. I mention that in the article. I think, for example, that the voice of the laity in general is being heard more than it was before. I think the Vatican itself… Somebody did a survey recently and worked out that – what was it? – 15% of those working in the curial offices in the Vatican are women. And there have been attempts to bring in experts who are lay people, men and women, to advise the Vatican. But I think it needs to be a bit wider than this. Several years ago, Cardinal Martini, who is now retired, called for a Third Vatican Council, where these things could be aired more openly. A number of people have talked about that within the Irish Church too – that maybe we need something to give us hope and to give scope to people to share their ordinary experience. I do think there is a lack of structured consultation within the church. There have been beginnings – parish councils, for example – which I think are important. But it needs to go higher than that. And I think that’s one of the steps that needs to be taken to ensure that this debate is real, that people have confidence in it, and that it will lead to change.

Eileen Good: You used the phrase “the elephant in the room”. Will the elephant go away?

Gerry O’Hanlon: I’d be hopeful it will. I mean it’s very hard to be a prophet, to foresee when it might happen. I suppose I am old enough now to have seen big changes in the church in my lifetime. A lot of people were very fearful of what would happen when the current Pope was elected. Yet I think he has written a beautiful letter on love and sexuality. It just shows what can be done – people can listen to the Pope with great respect. A lot of the secular press, particularly in Britain, were very receptive to that letter. Also, the Pope has begun to listen even to somebody like Hans Küng. They had a discussion in Rome. And that was a great surprise to many people, not least to Hans Küng. He declared himself very happy with it afterwards. So I think the Holy Spirit can surprise us, and people can surprise us. I’d still be very hopeful that change can and will occur.