Does Catholic opinion deserve special reverence in Ireland?

No, says Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, but we would all benefit from a more civil debate

Is it time to reboot the relationship between religious believers and atheists? Recent years have been characterised by noisy and often self-defeating arguments. Some humanist atheists appear so eager to convert others they forget that they’re supposed to be believe in freedom of conscience.

Some Christians are so keen to demonise secularism that they ignore the secular state is the best protector of religious freedom (a point acknowledged by Pope Francis).

In the face of real-world challenges like climate change, the refugee crisis and extreme poverty, theological one-upmanship seems self-indulgent and ridiculously narrow-minded.

Hats off then to Jesuit priest Fr Gerry O’Hanlon who is attempting to create a more constructive conversation between people of all faiths and none.


In a new book, A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times, he has gathered a number of public figures, including former trade union chief David Begg, academics Michael Cronin and Iseult Honohan, and senior senior civil servant turned Catholic deacon Dermot McCarthy, to try to articulate a "new project of human flourishing" in Ireland.

This week's Unthinkable guest, O'Hanlon, says Catholics are not pleading for special treatment. Rather, he argues, "we in Ireland are still in the throes of trying to find a good balance" between religious and secular interests.

Complaints from Catholics about intolerance towards their views can seem like special pleading. Modern debate, like it or not, is ungovernable, typically combative and regularly crass. Why should views expressed from a religious perspective deserve special reverence?

Gerry O’Hanlon: “The short answer is they shouldn’t. But some context may help to explain present perceptions.

"It seems to me we are living in a transition time in Ireland. We have gone from an era up to the 1960s when, in a culture at home with a sense of the transcendent, an authoritarian church, with the complicity of its adherents and thus of most of the population, expected deference and unquestioning obedience to its teaching. We have arrived at a time when, as Charles Taylor has noted, the new "social imaginary" is such that human meaning is derived from an exclusively horizontal horizon without felt need of the transcendent.

Religious voices should not expect any special reverence – except from their own adherents

“I think we are searching for a better balance of how to accommodate religious voices in a liberal democracy which wants to respect pluralism.

“No, religious voices should not expect any special reverence – except from their own adherents, when a constructively respectful, critical assessment is appropriate – and they need to learn how to participate in the rough and tumble of public debate as equals.

“However, all citizens, believers and non-believers alike, might well benefit from a less ‘ungovernable, typically combative and regularly crass’ mode of public discourse. We need to work together towards something more civil, considered and substantial.”

To the atheist, however, the Catholic Church is not debating as an equal. It continues to use, or abuse, its power by refusing to loosen its grip over organs of the state, for example, in education.

“This is one of the neuralgic issues in Irish life just now, as we move from a situation where the church dominated the provision of all kinds of State services historically, to one of increased secularisation, with the recent momentum from the latest Census figures showing a significant increase in non-believers.

“Ultimately this is a question to be decided according to the normal canons of a liberal democracy, when, after public debate, parliament and government take decisions about the allocation of limited resources in the context of competing rights and interests.

We need a richer concept of democracy than simple majority vote

“It is surely right that there be a re-balancing of the Irish educational system in favour of those who are not religious. At the same time, religious believers are also citizens and tax-payers, and their voices need heeding, even if, as the debate continues in tandem with an internal debate about a re-modelling of the Catholic church, believers may find a great deal of merit in locating aspects of education and formation in local parishes.

“But we need a richer concept of democracy than simple majority vote. Democracy at its best supports the rights of minorities, and this consideration ought to be part of the common good of any democratic society.

“Finally, one of the reasons to continue to support some degree of denominational schooling is that in many cases, apart from being good schools, they act as a bulwark against the dominance of a more a more technocratic educational model in which measured learning outputs are prioritised in service of a market-driven vision of life. This is in contrast to other important elements of human flourishing such as appreciation of beauty, commitment to truth and goodness, the exercise of imagination, memory and empathy.”

At the root of this issue and other flashpoints between Catholics and atheists is an understanding of secularism. When is the Catholic Church in Ireland going to make a definite statement that it supports the secular state?

"After centuries of the post-Constantinian settlement of Christendom in which there was symbiotic relationship between Church and State, the Catholic Church – in documents like the Declaration on Religious Freedom and The Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council – came late to the awareness of the value of Church-State separation and the autonomy of the secular.

“The Irish Bishops’ Conference statements on law and morality since the 1970s have taken their cue from the council’s declaration that people must be free to follow their conscience, subject to the requirement of the common good.

"[THEOLOGIAN] Patrick Hannon notes that in this context the bishops have evolved a mode of address of such issues having three characteristic components. Adverting to the distinction between law and morality, they reiterate Catholic teaching on the morality of each; acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of the lawmaker or citizen to decide what form legislation might take; and set out the conferences' view on the measure in question, in terms of its likely impact on the common good.

“Of course individual bishops have sometimes erred in the direction of a less nuanced position, more reminiscent of the authoritarian culture of the past. And arguably as a whole the conference still remains too anxiously paternalistic in its perceived role as moral guardian and needs to learn a new idiom of persuasion if it is to converse more successfully with the population at large. Nonetheless, the basic framework adopted involves a recognition of the value and legitimacy of the secular state.

“Of course there is still room, within this basic acceptance, for discussion about what form a secular state should take, and, in particular, how it might facilitate the emergence of a pluralist society in which both secularist and religious voices might find their place.”

Taking up your reference to “points of convergence”, Catholics and people of no faith do work side by side on certain social justice issues. Is there a particular cause best suited for collaboration, do you think?

“People of faith and no faith already work alongside each other on many different causes - homelessness, the two-tier health system, immigration and direct provision, the environment, a critique of our economic model and so on.

“I like the idea of [Methodist lay leader] Fergus O’Ferrall that a key, strategic area for constructive engagement would be the experiment of creating a network of a new citizen-based Civic Fora in each county and city in Ireland. The idea is to encourage the creation of a more participatory democratic order, in a context where there is a crisis of representative democracy and a cynicism around party politics. O’Ferrall is arguing for the creation of a Civic Republic in Ireland which promotes human flourishing and in which minorities are included, with a notion of well-being that extends beyond the measurement of GDP.”

How do we start a respectful discussion about meaning in an era when talk of virtue or “the good life” is attacked for being judgmental?

“I like the observation of the late legal scholar and secular humanist Ronald Dworkins that people of all faiths and none can find common ground by adopting a religious attitude, which accepts the truths of two central judgements: ‘The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance… The second holds that what we call “nature” - the universe as a whole and all its parts-is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder’.

“I think that performatively, whatever about formally, many people of faith and no faith do share these judgements.

Not everything of value is reducible to economics or hard science

“It is true that post-Kant a scepticism about objectivity has affected our culture, at least to do with anything that is considered non-scientific. And, in a post-truth age, even scientific evidence can often be ignored. Still, there is no future to this wilful neglect of truth and most people still choose to go a properly qualified doctor when they are ill, in preference to someone without training.

“There is a considerable task here for the academy to rehabilitate objectivity, while allowing for the value of authentic subjectivity, and to do so in a way which honours the less than certain but probable and necessary knowledge that comes from the so-called ‘soft’ sciences. Not everything of value is reducible to economics or hard science, and a world without wonder is dismal.”

How would you respond to those Catholics who think friendly dialogue with atheists is treacherous?

“After what historian John O’Malley calls ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the French Revolution up to the Second Vatican Council in 1962, in which, for various reasons, the Catholic Church set its face against modernity, and often limited its conversation with the world to an idiom of condemnation, the Second Vatican Council proposed a different and more humble stance.

“It recognized that the Church was there not for its own sake but, in biblical terms, ‘to serve the Kingdom’ and to do so by being ‘a light to the nations’. In this context it felt able to re-affirm the integrity of conscience, the value of Church-State separation, the value of cooperating with all men and women of good will in building up a world of greater peace and justice.

“There have been some wobbles since then, and attempts to revert to a kind of ‘integralism’ which would see a return to church control, or at least a kind of nostalgic retreat into separateness and isolation, in order to secure and reinforce a cultural identity which felt under threat by a too close assimilation ‘to the world’. But, as John Paul II often said, reiterated in spirit by Francis, Christians are urged ‘do not be afraid’.

“As countless engagements have shown - between Cardinal Martini and Umberto Eco in Italy, between Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas in Germany, to name but two - the dialogue between religion and atheism can be fruitful for all of us, can offer a richer understanding of what it is to be human.

“It is also true that believers can sometimes settle for a version of faith which domesticates and reduces God to a version of themselves. The God of the Bible - and of Augustine and Aquinas - is always ‘ever greater’. The hard questions around evil, suffering and meaning asked by atheists and agnostics are an important contribution to public debate, but also to religious self-understanding.”

Ask a sage:

Question: What can an atheist gain from religions?

German intellectual and atheist Jürgen Habermas replies: “[They] perform the function of articulating an awareness of what is lacking or absent. They keep alive a sensitivity to failure and suffering.”