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The Courage to Speak Freely

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One word which Pope Francis has made very much his own in the course
of his pontificate is the Greek rhetorical term parrhesia. Etymologically it
is a noun that means something like ‘complete speech’ – saying everything,
leaving nothing unsaid – but by extension it tends to mean speaking frankly
and bravely. As such it is a kind of anti-rhetorical rhetorical term. It’s about
not hiding behind figures or devices, or speaking with guile. It’s about having
the confidence and the courage to tell the truth as one honestly sees it. In
2014 the pope even told a gathering of bishops that this forthrightness was
a ‘basic condition’ of their meeting. ‘Let no one say: “I cannot say this, they
will think this or that of me…”,’ he told them; ‘It is necessary to say with
parrhesia all that one feels’. And of course, as he intimated then, to make
space for plain speaking is also to accept the duty ‘to listen with humility’.
Otherwise, the freedom to speak is a sham.

We are not used to popes telling Catholics to speak out freely. A much
more familiar model is the pope who intervenes decisively and normatively in
theological discussions and silences those who are judged to have crossed a line.
The Second Vatican Council may have effected a revolution in ecclesiology,
but significant aspects of what Yves Congar called ‘hierarchology’ remained
in practice. Popes continued to act as chief theologian, the investigations of
the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) into the orthodoxy of
theologians often fell short of contemporary standards of justice, the teaching
authority of episcopal conferences was curtailed, and whatever overtures
were made to collegiality and the sensus fidei, there remained a dread of
inviting open discussion and free speech.

Yet here we have Pope Francis repeating time and again that Catholics
must speak and act with parrhesia, and for the most part his actions and
gestures have been consistent with this. His determination to set the church
on a synodal path is perhaps the clearest indication, but there are many
others. He has sent messages of gratitude to Gustavo Gutierrez for his
service, though Gutierrez had been implicated in the repeated condemnations
of liberation theology by the CDF; and likewise more recently he thanked Sr
Jeannine Gramick for her fifty years of ministry to the LGBTQ community,
even though she was censured by the CDF in 1999. In other matters too
he has shown a fundamental preference for giving people freedom to speak
rather than taking it away. Witness his appointment of women to senior
Vatican posts; his invitation to a transgender man and his fianc e to visit him
in Rome; his public shows of respect for other Christian churches, Muslims,
Jews, and atheists; and even his recent remarks critical of ‘cancel culture’
for its tendency to silence disparate voices. His record is not perfect – whose
is? – but in all of this we see the pope both as a type of parrhesiastes himself
and as promoting a parrhesiastic culture in the church. This is a new way of
being pope.

Pope Francis’s use of parrhesia, it might be noted, is in effect an act of
ressourcement, the retrieval of an old value that was later obscured. Where
the term parrhesia and its cognates are employed in the Greek translation of
the Hebrew bible, the meaning is overwhelmingly positive. Michel Foucault,
in some of the last lectures he gave before his death (in Berkeley in 1983
and Paris in 1984), traces the genealogy of the term in classical antiquity and
the Judeo-Christian tradition. He notes that in the Old Testament parrhesia
is associated with wisdom, righteousness, confidence and courage. In some
texts it appears as an endowment of God, who speaks the truth, and as a gift of
God to God’s people. In the New Testament, the same characterisation holds
good. In the Gospels parrhesia is ascribed to Christ’s own self-proclamation:
first he speaks in figures of speech, but when the hour comes he begins to
speak ‘openly to the world’ (Jn 18:20) and says ‘nothing secretly’. Then, after
Christ’s ascension, the apostles cower in the upper room until the Holy Spirit
comes upon them and gives them the courage to speak ‘the word of God with
boldness’ (Acts 4:31). In the apostles and in Paul parrhesia is associated with
a prophetic compulsion to speak out; and particularly in Paul it is also a fruit
of the hope they have received, such that they can speak confidently in prayer
before God.

The pope develops these scriptural hints. He calls parrhesia ‘a grace of
God’, a gift of the Spirit, and the fruit of a ‘faithful and intense relationship
with God’. He adds that it ‘purifies the church and keeps it going’. He also
associates it with ‘standing up to arrogance’ and ‘preventing abuses of power’.
This is what he calls ‘the parrhesia of denunciation’: ‘It is proclaiming
human dignity when it is trampled upon, it is making the stifled cry of the
poor heard, it is giving a voice to those who have none’.

Why is it a surprise, maybe for some people even a scandal, that a pope
should talk this way? The truth is that even very early in its history Christianity
displayed a certain ambivalence about parrhesia. Foucault’s complex and
fascinating account of the early church identifies what he calls an ‘antiparrhesiastic
pole’, the deep suspicion which the fourth century ascetics had
of parrhesia, which they saw as a dangerous mysticism that failed to show
fearful reverence before God. In Foucault’s provocative judgement it was
around this pole that all the pastoral institutions of Christianity developed.
But maybe more interesting for present purposes is his observation about
what happened to parrhesia in its original milieu. In classical Greece, he
notes, as you move from Athenian democracy to the world of the Hellenistic
monarchies, parrhesia ceases to be an ethical attitude of the good citizen,
exercised in the public square, the agora; instead, it becomes centered on
the relationship between the king and his court advisors. The advisors may
speak openly to the king (taking a risk, no doubt), and the king may listen if
he pleases; but the people whom he rules have become ‘the silent majority’:
‘The place where parrhesia appears in the context of monarchic rule is the
king’s court, and no longer the agora’.

There are points of comparison here with the church in the early modern
era. A monarchical church emerged after the Council of Trent in the midsixteenth
century, and it had no room for a parrhesiastic culture. Open
speech, freedom, equality – this was the language of the enemy, first of
Protestantism, then of post-Enlightenment rationalism, liberalism, socialism,
and modernism. It had become critical for the church during the theological
polemics and political upheavals of the century after Trent to oppose
Luther’s egalitarian reading of St Peter’s ‘priesthood of all believers’ and
his distinction between the hidden and the revealed church, and the more it
did so the more it came to accentuate its own visible, juridical, hierarchical,
and authoritarian aspects. (‘We have learnt our catechism too much against
Luther’, Henri de Lubac lamented.)

In effect, what came to dominate was what Avery Dulles called the
‘institutional model’ of the church. The church was imagined firstly as
comparable to a politically-constituted community, where the structures of
governance and the stratification of members were legitimated by reference to
authority – in the church’s case, to the authority of Christ. And as ecclesiastical
authority and power emanate from Christ, increasingly they appeared in the
church to be drawn down from Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope. Then, the
more the church felt beleaguered by the world that lay outside – especially
during the ‘long nineteenth century’ after the French Revolution – the more
emphasis it placed on that authority. In a word, the church’s vision of itself
was deeply conditioned by its experience over centuries of upheaval and
embattlement, and gradually, as the sense of embattlement became a constant,
it came to see the marks of that conditioning as intrinsic to its nature. The
upshot was the understanding of the church notoriously described by Pope
Pius X in the encyclical Vehementer Nos in 1906. The church, he said, is
essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two
categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy
a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of
the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral
body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the
end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the
one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a
docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

It was under the nineteenth-century popes, Pius X’s immediate
predecessors, that the process was brought to completion. You had then what
Richard Gaillardetz has called ‘Roman Catholicism as a “counter-society”’,
sustained by ‘a vast institutional apparatus with the papacy at its head’. It was
a silencing culture. The ordinary authority of bishops was diminished, little
room was left for episcopal collegiality, and even theologians could only
work, to use a phrase of Newman’s, ‘under the lash, as the Persian slaves’. As
for the lay faithful, their job, as Pius put it, was ‘to be led’. This is the church
for which Giuseppe Alberigo coined the term Tridentinism – not created by
Trent itself but in the course of its reception.

Thanks mainly to the work of the twentieth-century ressourcement
theologians, the Second Vatican Council recovered the deeper and more
scriptural images of church that had fallen out of sight. Of particular
importance, of course, were people of God and communion. In both of these
there is an implied sense of acknowledging the participation of the ordinary
faithful in the munus triplex, the threefold office of Christ, those of priest,
prophet and king. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that the faithful
have a right to speak – to give personal witness and to teach – and that those
who hold office in the church have an obligation to listen.
In 2014, the International Theological Commission referred to the kind of
church depicted by Pius X, one with an active hierarchy and a passive laity
and a strict separation between the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia discens,
the teaching and the learning church, as a caricature which had been banished
by the Second Vatican Council. What the council did in effect was take its cue
from the ressourcement theologians, who had put the polemical categories
of the Counter Reformation aside and reconnected systematic theology to
biblical exegesis. To return to the Fathers of the church, as these theologians
did, was to recover the primacy of scripture in understanding the continuous
presence of God in the life of God’s people; and what emerged from this
recuperation was a richer, more historical, and more animated vision of the
church than the juridical model of more recent times could offer.
In her essay on synodality in this issue, Jessie Rogers, who is a member
of the Synodal Steering Group of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference,
discloses the richness of scriptural perspectives for imagining what she
calls ‘the life and mission of the church in a synodal key’. ‘The church,’ she
remarks, ‘is not a monarchy presided over by a pope. It is not an oligarchy
ruled by the bishops and the unfortunately termed “princes of the church”’.
She draws attention instead to Pope Francis’s fondness for the image of an
inverted pyramid, where ‘the top is located beneath the base’, and she cites
him to the effect that the only authority for disciples of Jesus is the authority
of service. ‘When we begin with the communion of all the faithful,’ she
remarks, ‘we invert the pyramid and create space for the gifts of each to be
recognized and released for the good of the whole’.

Through a range of scriptural images and of episodes from the early
life of the church, especially as depicted in Acts, Rogers provides a robust
underpinning for the pope’s vision of the synodal path. St Paul’s imagery of
‘one body and one Spirit’ through a common baptism is critical, but so too are
images of journeying and of missionary discipleship. ‘Much has been learned
on the journey,’ she notes, ‘but there is also much to unlearn, particularly
around the exercise of institutional power’. For this, a deconstruction of the
centre/margin binary is necessary. Rogers quotes Austen Ivereigh’s remark
that ‘all true reform involved the centre (hierarchical leadership) opening
up to the periphery (movements, prophets, initiatives, local realities) and
integrating it…’ Scripture provides instances of the early church having
to change its understanding as the realities of lived experience came into
conflict with received ideas. ‘I am struck,’ Rogers remarks of these, ‘by how
contested and difficult this shift is at the centre… compared to the fluid ease
with which it occurs at the margins’. The centre – the episcopacy – does of
course have its place in the body of Christ, but, as Rogers says, ‘it is a role
that cannot be effective unless a bishop can speak authentically as one of the
faithful and on behalf of the faithful because he has listened and discerned’.
Once bishops do this you have the makings of a genuinely parrhesiastic

The renowned Irish moral theologian Fr Enda McDonagh, who died in
February 2021, exemplified many of the traits that Pope Francis has sought
to foreground in the church. In her insightful and warm appreciation of her
old mentor, Linda Hogan remarks that every one of his works conveyed
‘the greatness of his intellect, the sublety of his vision and the depth of his
compassion’. Holding together in symbiotic union both the intellectual life
and life as it is lived was, for him, both a practice and a conviction. But – in
keeping with Pope Francis’s dictum that ‘realities are more important than
ideas’ – there is always a sense in Hogan’s essay that lived experience for
McDonagh was paramount in determining the moral character of actions.
Even as a young theologian, McDonagh’s approach combined a biblically
rooted morality centered on Jesus Christ with one that was based on
‘immediate experience of the moral call as a human phenomenon’. Once
again, it’s about giving precedence to the voice from below. It’s another way
of inverting the pyramid – it means only doing theology after one has listened
to the voices of the voiceless.

Enda McDonagh took seriously what Francis has called ‘the parrhesia
of denunciation’. Taking sides with the poor and the marginalised and
denouncing the injustice which they had to endure was a way both of
theologising and of life for him. When it came to issues in social ethics –
HIV/AIDS, same-sex relationships, political violence, war – McDonagh’s
habit, as Hogan writes, was to ‘reframe the ethical question’ and take as his
starting-point ‘the moral significance of God’s presence with the poor and
deprived’. This same perspective showed through his enormously important
work for peace and reconciliation in Ireland and towards having unjust
provisions removed from the Irish constitution. And in all his work, he never
lost hope. Even in the face of the devastating evil of sex abuse in the church
and the reprehensible cover-ups by church officials, McDonagh held to a
vision of ‘community-church’ which provided ‘a way into fuller faith and
not the way out’.

A question of growing importance concerning the outspeaking impulse
that Scripture’s use of parrhesia describes is this: What has the person of
faith to say to the world that lies beyond them, a world that grapples with its
own complexities and perplexities but without having recourse to revelation
or a divine economy? Framed differently: What place is there for theology
in a secular university? Con Casey of the Loyola Institute in Trinity College
Dublin addresses this issue from within the Institute’s own experience over
the past ten years. He argues that theology constitutes a tradition of enquiry
which, even if it draws on the resources of faith, truly addresses ‘the critical
and constitutive issues of human flourishing… in all its rich diversity’. ‘The
case for theology,’ he writes, ‘must be that it contributes in a distinctive
way to this tradition of inquiry, and that it brings specific and very powerful
resources to the engagement’. There is no doubt that over the past twenty
years the academic world is more receptive than before to the thought of
what the great religions of the Axial Age can offer to public rationality –
witness the complete collapse of the secularisation thesis, Habermas’s
post-secularism, and the fascination which such non-religious scholars as
Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and Giorgio Agamben have with St Paul and St
Augustine – but a deep skepticism remains in the broader population. The
Loyola Institute aims to address this in a Festival of Theology in May of this
year, dedicated to the theme, ‘Theology in the University: the challenges, the
relevance, the difficulties’.

Another angle on theology in the university is provided here, in a highly
personal and challenging essay by Martin Henry, formerly a lecturer in
theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (now St Patrick’s Pontifical
University). His issue, however, is less with theology sitting alongside other
disciplines in a secular university as it is with the very purpose of theological
education within the Catholic world. Maynooth’s recent 225th anniversary
is his prompt. His own experience there, first as a student, then as a lecturer,
leads him to query the goal and the value of theology within a university
system if it is subject to a tension which sits at the heart of Catholic intellectual
inquiry: exploration of the faith is encouraged, but it cannot be open-ended,
as that same faith needs to be defended too. It is not entirely coincidental,
Henry surmises, that in 1231 Pope Gregory IX endowed the University of
Paris with a bull that ensured its freedom from outside governance, and two
years later entrusted the Inquisition to the Dominicans. Giving with one
hand, taking back with the other.

It is perfectly clear that Maynooth has produced or hosted many excellent
scholars. Enda McDonagh may be preeminent among them, but he is far
from being alone. This very issue of Studies, as well as many previous issues,
has benefited immensely from the scholarship and theological acumen of
academics who have studied or taught at Maynooth. But Henry has raised an
important question about the limits of parrhesia, about the ambivalence that
haunts intellectual inquiry in the Catholic world. Perhaps, as he acknowledges,
the trouble lies with the very nature of theology. ‘All that theology can do,’
he writes, ‘is gesture towards what will always elude its grasp’. He recalls St
John of the Cross dismissing those who have caught a glimpse of the divine
as stammerers.

Another image from St John of the Cross comes to mind. Consider first
the celebrated (though surely apocryphal) last words of Goethe, ‘Mehr
Licht!’ – a call for more light, or enlightenment. This is the world of science
and reason. But in John of the Cross’s ‘Wisdom sayings’, the saint counsels
(in the translation of Terence O’Reilly, whose book on the Spiritual Exercises
is reviewed here) ‘To seek God, do without light / …not seeing is better / and
makes the soul more secure’.

This contrast in motivation and method surely points to one boundary of
parrhesia – the apophatic limit of the unsayable.


  • Doing the Truth- The Life and Religious Vision of Enda McDonagh

    Linda Hogan

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    With the passing of Enda McDonagh in February 2021 Ireland lost one of its most original and important theologians. The second half of the twentieth century saw a flowering of theological creativity in Ireland, as around the world, and in this context Enda’s brilliance shone through.

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  • Hitler Looks West- An Irish Diplomat’s Unwitting Role in the Plan to Alter Irish Neutrality

    Barry Whelan

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    On 24 August 1942 Ireland’s diplomatic representative to Spain, Leopold Kerney, met a senior figure in the SS (Schutzstaffel), Dr Edmund Veesenmayer, in a Madrid Café. The German had travelled under false papers on a special mission approved by the Reich Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentropp, to sound Kerney out on Ireland’s willingness to to alter its neutral policy in the war.


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  • Julien Green (1900–1998)- Exploring the Intersection of Religion and Literature

    Eamon Maher

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    The extent and quality of Julien Green’s work has earned for him a place in the pantheon of French, and, indeed, world letters. Born in Paris at the very start of the twentieth century to American parents, Green never felt completely at home in France or in the American South, where he went to pursue a university education.

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  • Some Reflections on Maynooth’s 225th Anniversary

    Martin Henry

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    I first went to St Patrick’s College Maynooth in the autumn of 1971. At the time I probably just took it for granted, perhaps too easily, that the mission of the college was to corroborate and sustain the religious beliefs of the Catholic people of Ireland, mainly by educating future priests and teachers of religion.

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  • Synodality- Some Scriptural Perspectives on Communio, Peripheries and the Sensus Fidei

    Jessie Rogers

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    Synodality is so much more than the current pope’s pet project or a passing fad. ‘It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the church of the third millennium.’ The challenge of synodality – to walk together as the whole people of God – is consonant with fundamental convictions that find expression in the New Testament. Scripture, therefore, offers a rich resource for helping us to imagine the life and mission of the church in a synodal key.

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  • The Case for Theology in the University

    Con J. Casey

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    In 2012 the board of Trinity College Dublin agreed to establish an institute for teaching and research in theology in the Catholic tradition. The institute, to be called the Loyola Institute, was to be on campus, and its academic discipline would be among the multidisciplinary academic engagements which comprised the mission and raison d’etre of Trinity College.

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