DAVID TIMBS. The Catholic Church in Australia. Who has the Moral Authority?

For many of Australia’s Catholic bishops ‘business as usual’ meant denial that the culture, structures and processes of the Church were part of the problem. They had cut themselves off from the lived experience of ordinary Catholics and what they wanted their Church to be. If the planned Plenary (national) Council in 2020/2021 is to make any headway towards a ‘new business’ model, the bishops will need to undertake a very serious campaign of listening, post-haste.

At a recent meeting of Catholics for Renewal, a group of committed Australian Catholics who want their Church to more closely reflect Christ’s teachings and values in its governance and leadership, one member lamented the seriously degraded relationship of trust between Australian Catholics and their bishops. He observed that, during the recent plebiscite on marriage equality, many Catholics had decided that the ‘moral thing’ to do was not to vote according to the wishes of the bishops, but according to his conscience. The plebiscite result supports that conclusion, and no wonder.

During the ‘wrap-up’ session of the Royal Commission in February 2017, Catholics witnessed some concerning confusion, even disagreement, among the bishops on several significant issues of Catholic doctrine and policy. Such confusion certainly did not bolster their moral authority and credibility; rather the contrary.

Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the bishops’  Truth Justice and Healing Council put it well in a February 2018 interview with La Croix International: “The  truth is that Catholic Church leaders for decades sought to deny the history [of child sexual abuse], and to somehow contextualise it as a thing of the past. They never fully acknowledged that the culture, structure, and processes of the Church were part of the problem. Therefore the trust and credibility in these leaders has continued to decline, and accelerated in that decline over this whole period, such that people are questioning whether the church leaders have assimilated what’s gone on. There’s still the question, Do they get it? You can only ever tell if individuals get things by what they do rather than what they say. And I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Sullivan also attributed the bishops’ collective failures of governance to their reluctance to listen to the laity and to take them seriously: “What others would see as bureaucratic bungling, the clericalist model just says these things get done in good time. It’s a way of keeping people at a distance, a way of keeping lay people and others in their place.” (https://international.la-croix.com/news/francis-sullivan-reform-and-renewal-after-royal-commission/6859 )

In all this unholy mess, it would also appear that the bishops engaged the same PR consultants who are currently writing the spin to defend the errant CEOs and board members of Australia’s major banks and financial institutions. A cross-check of the narrative, language and excuses in both cases shows they are strikingly similar. First up there are the denials that any problems exist, then it is just a “few bad apples’, then comes the defense that the media is ‘out to get them’, then the mantra of ‘“the problems have been fixed and “the loopholes closed’, closely followed by the good news that better safe-guards have been installed, professional standards  lifted,   more police checks are on order, tighter appraisals and licensing requirements are in place, and better processes all round. To wrap it up, there are heartfelt apologies, and promises that they will sin no more.

None of the leaders or top echelons go to jail, and apart from some cosmetic adjustments and  shuffling at the top table, no fundamental culture change nor reform of a dysfunctional form of governance takes place, and before long it is back to ‘business as usual’,

Both royal commissions have revealed that the leadership of all these institutions are reluctant to admit that they effectively presided over, protected and perpetuated an organisational culture that led to the criminal violation of people’s human rights and dignity and, in some cases, the destruction of lives and livelihood.  While fixing protocols and procedures is laudable, appropriate and necessary, it is merely process. It does not come to grips with the core problem, namely, a fundamentally flawed culture which underpins the serious ’governanceissues of accountability and transparency.

Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen of Parramatta, in a 2016 homily, said: “Our  [bishops] reputation, our moral credibility, our trust capital, are effectively destroyed; destroyed in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, which in itself is a vestige of the old tribalist, clericalist, insular, self sufficient, self-contained, fortress Church.”


After the bishops announced that a Plenary (national) Council was to be held in 2020/21, they  made several positive preparatory decisions: appointing  advisory and facilitation teams, setting out a planning schedule, and recommending the establishment of ‘diocesan working groups’. All were sound and laudable decisions; but it would have been much better if the way those decisions were made had been more open and with broader consultation.  Decision making by church leaders that is not transparent, not inclusive of the laity, and narrowly based,  smacks of the culture of  ‘clericalism’, a ‘disease’ and ‘evil’ that Pope Francis says must be  purged from the Church. To their credit, the Australian bishops did pledge to do that at the Royal Commission, but as Sullivan has said: “You can only ever tell if individuals ‘get things’ by what they do rather than what they say.”

When the eminent Vatican II theologian, Yves Congar OP, wrote: “A great deal still remains to be done to de-clericalize our conceptions of the Church (without jeopardizing her hierarchical structures), and to put the clergy back where they belong, in the place of member-servants” (Poverty and Power. The Renewal and Understanding of Service, 1963), he was simply echoing the teaching of Jesus: that true greatness must be measured by altruistic service of others, not by self-aggrandisement.

Collectively, the Australian bishops must now discern, with great care and attention, what the Spirit, through the lived faith of the broader Catholic community in Australia, is saying to them. And they can only do this through listening. They would do well to re-acquaint themselves with Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s landmark tract, On the Necessity of Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine, where he speaks of ‘a temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens (the teaching authority of the bishops) when there was a catastrophic failure of the bishops during the Arian crisis. For 60 years during the 4th century, bishops collectively broke faith; but the people kept it. When the bishops lost credibility, the people continued to evangelize; and when the bishops collectively lost trust, the people remained steadfastly loyal.

A strong case could be argued that, collectively, the Australian bishops now find themselves in a similar situation, where, effectively, there has been a ‘temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens and a veritable role reversal: where those who were formerly the ‘taught Church’ have become the ‘teaching Church’; where those who were ‘the governed’ have become the leaders; and where those who were once the pew sitters have become the evangelizers.

If the 2020/21 Plenary Council is not to be just a ‘bishops’ event’ where only they have the ‘deliberative vote’ on what goes on the agenda and which proposals for reform are accepted or rejected, we will have returned to ‘business as usual’. To ensure that that does not happen, the bishops have no alternative but to begin post-haste a serious campaign of ‘listening’  to the ‘ordinary’ faithful of their dioceses. They have to come down from their episcopal pedestals, become truly humble like Jesus, empty themselves of all clerical arrogance and hubris, and listen attentively to what their people have to tell them. Unless they do that, they will not be able to become partners and co-sharers in what Newman calls the consensus fidelium (the ‘common faith sense’ of all the members of the Church).

It was also no coincidence that the Royal Commission recommended that there should be an honest and open conversation about the selection of bishops. For the first twelve hundred years of the Church’s existence, it was the custom for the laity and their local priests, together, to exercise an essential role in the selection of their bishops. Pope Leo the Great (440-461 CE) rightly stated: “He who has to preside over all must be elected by all.” Two centuries earlier, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (200–258 CE), referred to the involvement of local priests and people in the selection of their bishops as “a practice which is based on divine teaching and apostolic observance, a practice which is indeed faithfully followed among us and in practically every province.” He called it a suffragium (a ‘vote’).

The laity surely have a Christian citizen’s right to participate in this process, not solely for the 2020/2021 Plenary but now and always. It is not a concession or a favour.  The relatively recent practice of bishops being appointed by the Pope with little or no reference to the local clergy and people has run its course. Australian Catholics, now more than ever, want to reclaim the right to have a voice in the selection of their bishops,  And more: they want bishops who  will dialogue with them, listen to what they have to say, and be more in tune with their sense of the lived faith.

David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal. This is a condensed  version of an article entitled Who’s accompanying whom? published on the Catholics for Renewal website.


David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal and writes from Melbourne.

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6 Responses to DAVID TIMBS. The Catholic Church in Australia. Who has the Moral Authority?

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Perhaps the Catholic laity could take responsibility for the election of their bishop in every diocese before the Plenary Council in 2020. We could have the current bishop as a candidate and call for nominations from women and men. We could fund a process and ask the AEC to run the ballot. If there is a diocesan council it might support the process. If not, we might expect the present bishop to lose the vote. We could give money to winners but decline to donate to losers who are clerical, useless and Roman centric. It may take a while for elections to be the fashion here although there was a time when the Bishop of Rome was elected by the people of Rome before he evolved to be the Roman Pontiff. We could make a start by demanding archdiocesan council elections now.

  2. Avatar Irena Mangone says:

    I also think women must be consulted. Not just the women Who toe the line on matural family Planning, not every woman has a cooperative husband. They are looked down on as not truly Catholic .alsothe question of women deacons (personally i am not called to this vocation. ) but must other very well qualified. Women be denied. Also no doubt that sticking point. NFP. Will be the qualifier which is not fair as many have crosses to bear that others know Nothing about. Dared even mention Women priests. Or will i be excomunicated. For even mentioning this. .

  3. Avatar John Challis says:

    Two conflicting views on the “moral authority” of the encyclical “Humanae Vitae”on contraception :

    “The Catholic Weekly” April 29th. citing US Archbp Chaput: ” HV at 50: refilled,ridiculed… and right. It was probably the single most controversial Church teaching of the 20th. century. Yet Paul VI’s HV focussing on human reproduction and contraception has turned out to be eerily prophetic”

    Historian Paul Collins, in newly published “Absolute Power” (page 209): ” HV is the most disastrous papal statement of modern times, …. the argumentation is based on unconvincing arguments from natural law and outdated Aristotelian biology…..HV was an act of papal arrogance…… English bishop Christopher Butler argues that HV has simply not been “accepted ” by the church, which if fact invalidates it ”

    Surely, Catholic women, who are the ones most adversely affected by this misleading, and possibly erroneous document, should petition for it to be reviewed at the 2020 synod – this will really test where moral authority ultimately lies in the church.

    John Challis.

  4. Avatar PBOYLAN says:

    Watching the reporting and unfolding of Pope Francis three days conference with the Chilean Bishops reminds us that the Pope and his Bishops are morally and legally responsible for the negligence and facilitation of concealment of scandal that has allowed so many terrible crimes against children worldwide go unpunished.

    A Bishop or Cardinal heading each geographical division in the church, known as an Archdiocese or Diocese swears alegience to the Pope, not laity.
    Today, worldwide Bishops actions are directed by canon law, and if there is a conflict with civil law, he has to choose canon law, even if it means going to jail. (Senior Irish Canon Lawyer, Mon Maurice Dooley 2010).

    The Vatican’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley issues a statement, “That the crimes and sins of sexual abuse of children must not be kept a secret any longer…” That clergy is obligated to disclose abuse under the civil law (of the country or state). (Religious brothers and sisters, as well as senior laity, are not clergy under canon law, however, there are parallel provisions for concealing their abuse.)

    In Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and ACT have no mandatory reporting laws.
    Bishops (in many countries and states of Australia) are not required under Vatican law to disclose child abuse to the police. While these Bishops and clergy are not required to report clergy abuse, they are allowed to manage schools in many Dioceses.

    Under canon law, the new head of the ACBC Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge is under a Vatican directive to conceal clergy abuse.
    While Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has told child abuse inquiries it was ‘extraordinarily difficult’ to dismiss a priest, the former TJHC Francis Sullivan stated in a media interview in 2013 that it was up to a teacher to report if they suspected a priest abusing children at their school, not church authorities.

    A secular society that represents the freedom of religion has an interest in making sure its clergy (be they Muslim or Catholic or Hindu) do not sexually abuse children and if so report it to authorities.

    So long as the church and banks act as a law unto themselves, protected by limitless financial and legal resources and PR promoters, there will be continuous problems and growing distrust in leadership of the church and the agencies they manage.

    Australian Bishops could implement some quick fixes.
    A national public database of registered international priests (over 50%) working in Australia, accessible by citizens to check background clergy history is urgently required. The newly established Australian Ministry Registry (AMR) or database is not available to the Catholic community; it is blocked.
    A public database such as that used by most professions (lawyers, teachers, doctors etc.) would be adequate for the parishioner to make history checks.

    It is an Unholy mess!
    Catholic’s are exhausted by Australian Bishops to failure act to implement safeguards to protect their children.
    Many Catholics have walked away in disgust.
    Mary McKillop who bravely exposed clergy abuse must be turning in her grave.

    The deep respect for the good works of the Catholic church are being lost daily and many continue mostly dependent on government funding.

    Until the Federal and State Governments and Church fully implement the 409 recommendations of the taxpayer funded Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Abuse, children remain unsafe and survivors and families who revealed their devastating stories to bring about change, remain raw.

    ‘Sorry’ is a hollow word, if there’s no action.

  5. Avatar Jennifer Herrick says:

    I think the Laity would like a lot more than being able to have a voice in the selection of their Bishops. The Laity need the Bishops to understand who actually is The Church. They would be well advised in this to recall the documents of Vat II which articulate the concept of the Church as The People of God, i.e. the Church is not the Hierarchy, is all the faithful. If the Hierarchy were required to undergo annual professional development like the rest of us Laity have to in our work lives they could do no better than be asked to read, as a start, Lumen Gentium, 1964. Then if they put that into practice, we might get somewhere.

  6. Avatar J Knight says:

    I note the comparison between banks and Churches! It has many points of similarity and merit in terms of governing the governors.

    In respect to “many Catholics had decided that the ‘moral thing’ to do was not to vote according to the wishes of the bishops, but according to his conscience. The plebiscite result supports that conclusion, and no wonder” this lack of formation is as much the laity’s fault as the clergy. The people didn’t vote against the bishop’s wishes, but, unconstitutionally as it could be argued, voted unlawfully, and at odds to parliamentary, Natural and the law of common sense! There is no such creature as SSM – it is a departure from reality itself!

    Dwelling on “Collectively, the Australian bishops must now discern, with great care and attention, what the Spirit, through the lived faith of the broader community” and the fact that most of the faithful are in their own Arianesque / secularist heresy, this seems an impossible task!

    As for “The laity surely have a Christian citizen’s right to participate” in the election of bishops, my experience of local government elections is that this lack of informed consent is fraught with danger! See SSM and Church attendance as indicative and whether everyone should be voting?

    That brings us back to the “renewal Gnostics” and their agenda…and 48% of Catholic offenders were actually from the laity?

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