Gerard Mannion obituary: Lay Catholic theologian who sought reform

Supporter of Pope Francis was an internationally important proponent of ecumenism

Gerard Mannion

Born: September 25th, 1970

Died: September 21st, 2019

The death of Gerard Mannion at the age of 48 has robbed the Catholic Church of one of its foremost contemporary theologians, one who played a globally significant role attempting to reform it.


A notable supporter of Pope Francis, the subject of his 2017 book Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism: Evangelii Gaudium and the Papal Agenda, Mannion was notable as a lay person in a world often dominated by clerics. In total, he authored or edited nearly two dozen works of theology and related subjects.

Mannion was born in England to Irish immigrants, Michael and Theresa (née Moloney). He held an Irish passport and was close to his father’s roots in Four Mile House, Co Roscommon, where he was interred after his sudden death in Washington DC, in September. Educated in Northampton at Thomas a Becket Comprehensive School, he made significant steps for one from his hardly privileged background to King’s College, Cambridge, where he took a BA in theology, and then to New College, Oxford, where he completed a doctoral thesis in religious philosophy on Schopenhauer.

Mannion had been based in the US for many years, where, successively, he had worked at the University of San Diego, California, and then at Georgetown University in the US capital, where, at the time of his death, he held the Joseph and Winifred Amaturo chair in Catholic studies in the department of theology and religious studies. He was also a senior research fellow at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown, where his work focused on the role of the church in the world, on social ethics, and on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Academic roles

These were just two of many academic positions he had held, which also included stints at Oxford, Leeds, Liverpool, Leuven (Belgium), Tubingen and Toronto universities. In addition, he was an honorary fellow of the Australian Catholic University, a 2004 Coolidge Fellow at Union Theological Seminary/Columbia University in New York, and a “selected participant” in the programme on Teaching the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project at Dartmouth College’s Ethics Institute.

An extraordinarily energetic networker, Mannion was the founding chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network (EIIRN) and, at the time of his death, president of the International Network of Societies for Catholic Theology. As recently as early September, he had been a guest at the school of religion at Trinity College Dublin, where he delivered a lecture on Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

Mannion could perhaps best be described as an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary, someone who, in his writings and teaching, sought as vigorously but also as gently as he could, in a very contended area, to make the church fit for purpose in the 21st century. A strong proponent of ecumenism, he had many friends and colleagues across different religious denominations.

At the time of his death, he was working on a book on what he termed “the Art of Magisterium” . According to German-based scholar Vladimir Latinovic, vice chairperson of the EIIRN, “he intended to show how power in the church should be used properly . . . from the conversations I had my feeling is that Gerard disliked our church leaders (except for Francis who he adored). He realised though that they are a necessary evil so he worked with them.

“Gerard was a good theologian, and any good theologian is neither progressive or conservative because you need to see all shades of grey between black and white. In some things he was conservative, where this was required (for example in his loyalty to his own tradition), in others he was progressive (a good example would be his support for women’s rights in the church) . . . I would say he was much more on the progressive side but not in any disruptive manner.

“He was very much pro-women’s ordination but he would never say that the Catholic Church should start ordaining women right now . . . he did not want to hurt the church but to help her recover.

Hated hypocrisy

“He was definitely for taking Communion with other Christians but, again, he was not disruptive. For him Communion was above form so he was not so obsessed with this.”

Latinovic added that “Gerard hated hypocrisy and he was always for the option where people would live normal lives . . . he was very much into allowing priests to marry. He also thought that abuse of children by clergy has a lot to do with the fact that priests are not marrying.”

Mannion’s work was refreshing, energetic and thoughtful, especially his work on Catholic social teaching, according to former president of Ireland, and now prominent theologian, Mary McAleese, “Through tough times for the church as it deals with gaping wounds self-inflicted by a discredited and dysfunctional management system which has not served the people of God well, Gerard continued to both defend and challenge it. Not an easy task.”

Mannion had a passion for rugby, which he played both at school and well into adult life; a party of friends of his, in Tokyo to support the Irish team there in its recent attempt at World Cup glory, presented a framed photograph of him to an Irish pub in the Japanese capital.

Gerard Mannion is survived by his partner, Amanda Elkin, and by his sisters Maria and Julie, and by nephews and nieces to whom he was particularly devoted; all of his books were dedicated to his family.