Ansari Institute Presents Dynamic Conversation on the Future of the Catholic Church and Liberal Democracy

Author: Rebekah Go

Provost John McGreevy offers his perspective as Dean Scott Appleby and Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese look on.

On Ash Wednesday, one of the most popular and important holy days in the Catholic Church, audiences were treated to an engaging conversation between two Catholic heavy hitters as they discussed the future of the Church, which has seen a significant movement from within advocating for increased democratic freedom and greater involvement of the laity in church decisions. This was a timely conversation. In what some have called The Year of Democracy, where over half of the globe’s populations will vote for their nation’s leaders and even as many worry about democratic backsliding in the United States and abroad, many are looking to their faith communities and leaders to see how they might embrace - or reject - democratic principles.

John McGreevy is the University of Notre Dame’s Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and is an acclaimed historian, with a focus on both American and global religion and politics. His book Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis was published in 2022. Mary McAleese, served as the eighth president of Ireland from 1997-2011 and is also an author, academic, and lawyer who holds a degree in Catholic canon law. She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders and is an ardent catholic who is known for holding liberal views on homosexuality and women priests. The conversation was moderated by Scott Appleby, the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame and professor of history and scholar of global religion.

To begin the conversation Dean Appleby invited Provost McGreevy to provide a historical overview of the Catholic Church’s relationship to Democracy beginning with the French Revolution. In doing so, McGreevy discussed five distinct eras wherein at times the Church faithful - those who make up the body of the church - enthusiastically embraced democratic ideals and even helped to establish democratic governments throughout the world, and yet the Church hierarchy itself struggled to embrace the concept.

Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese offers her perspective as Provost John McGreevy and Dean Scott Appleby look on.

According to McGreevy it was not until after World War II, when the world writ large saw the incredible dangers and horrors of fascism, that the institutional church became a strong proponent of democratic governments. McGreevy noted that Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher and political thinker who spent a fair amount of time at the University of Notre Dame was one of the strongest proponents of a Catholic case for Democracy, arguing that democracy furthered Catholic social teaching.

However, even as the Church hierarchy eventually came to embrace Democracy principles, it did not internalize those practices in its own structure. As Mary McAleese reflected on the history of the Church and its relationship to political entities, she noted that most countries also adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shortly after World War II. However, within the Catholic Church there is no such declaration because, according to McAleese, Canon law did not agree. “It actually says emphatically that all those rights can be compromised by the magisterium of the church.” Further, she said, because of this disconnect, “we are somewhat today in a state of chaos with regard to the role of the magisterium.”

McAleese noted that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, with its emphasis on authority and obedience, presents obstacles to a vision of greater democratic participation. Furthermore, some within the hierarchy may view calls for democratization as a threat to their power and influence, fearing that greater involvement of the laity could diminish their control over decision-making processes.

Author of "Cathonomics" Anthony Annett asks a question.

Despite these challenges, McAleese believes that democratic reform within the Catholic Church continues to gain momentum and sees hope in the current Synodal process currently underway at the Vatican. Pope Francis, with his emphasis on mercy, inclusion, and social justice, has initiated this reform within the church. His calls for a "synodal church," where all members are invited to participate in discerning God's will for the church, have resonated with many who seek a more democratic and participatory ecclesial community.

In the question and answer that followed the talk, McGreevy noted that it is yet to be seen where the Church might land. He noted what he called a surprising movement in American Catholicism towards a more authoritarian magisterium: “I don’t think it’s a popular movement at all - but there is a segment of really I think American intellectuals, more than any other place, that seems to be drifting in that direction, and that amazes me. I never would have predicted that.” Yet, noted McGreevy, with over 1.2 billion baptized Catholics - moving in different directions on multiple continents - Pope Francis has a very difficult job.

Geeta Anantandand offers her thoughts to former president of Ireland Mary McAleese after the talk.

McAleese considers today as being a pivotal moment for the Catholic Church in a number of ways including the inclusion of the laity and of women. Yet, like McGreevy, she echoed that it has not been smooth sailing. “The Synod on Synodality has revealed a massive - massive - area of disconnect between the magisterium of the church and the magma; the huge massive groundswell of the faithful of the church on five continents who have been quietly talking among themselves since the 2nd Vatican council.” And she sees the potential not only for a “considerably reformed magisterial teaching, but a different type of magisterium” altogether.

Following the discussion, everyone was invited to join an elegant reception in the great hall of the Hesburgh Center and were encouraged to join the many opportunities at the Nasr Book Prize Multifaith Symposium and other conversations on “the world as it should be” over the next few days.

This conversation and others from the the Nasr Book Prize Multifaith Symposium can be viewed on the Ansari Youtube Channel.