Twice in recent weeks, Fr James Clarke, Chair of the National Council of Priests (NCP), has stated that the majority of Australian priests and probably most laity support a comprehensive examination of all aspects of the Catholic priesthood and pastoral ministry in Australia including seminary formation of future priests. Clarke has also flagged that in their submission to the forthcoming National Plenary Council the NCP will also be calling for decisive action to be taken to address the issues related to the crisis facing the Australian Church as a direct result of the drastic decline of Australian-born priests in active parish ministry. The NCP is also calling into question the bishops’ policy on the run of importing foreign priests to make up for the shortfall.
Nationally, just over 51% of priests currently involved in parish ministry have been brought in from overseas dioceses or religious institutes in India, Africa, the Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Italy and elsewhere. It would be reasonable to assume that many if not most of these priests have been admitted to Australia on Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visas.
Close to 120 Australian-born diocesan priests will reach retirement age (75) within the next five years. Saving death or other factors, there will then be fewer than 400 Australian-born diocesan priests remaining in full time active parish ministry. Annual ordinations of Australian-born priests remain very low and approach nowhere near the number needed to replace those who move out of ministry in one way or another. The seminary system of priestly formation dates from the Council of Trent in the 16th century. It still involves a six-seven year programme of preparing celibate men for ministry in a Church and world both of which, however, have long ceased to exist.
Many foreign-born priests lack a number of critically important skills that are crucial for effective ministry in this country. Whilst appreciating the generosity and good will of these overseas-born priests, many have little or no experience of working collaboratively with laity, especially with women, in areas that require levels of competency they simply do not have. Profound cultural differences combined with significant challenges with language and the ability to administer parish finances competently and transparently are not uncommon. These factors, as well as sometimes inflated expectations of clerical privilege and entitlement, can make it near impossible for some foreign-born priests to understand and integrate the expectations of egalitarianism and shared leadership.
There are also questions of equity in rich western churches exploiting a situation of perceived abundance of priests in places such as Africa. In addition to the issue of reverse evangelical colonialism, Catholic bishops here in Australia and in other Western countries actively importing foreign priests would do well to listen to the complaints of their episcopal colleagues in Africa. Bishops there are raising concerns about significant numbers of their priests who are refusing to return home when their contracts have expired, who have simply disappeared into the host society for various reasons or who have remained on in ministry with collusion of the hosting bishops. The last could easily be interpreted as spiritual theft.
The National Council of Priests, with the support of probably the overwhelming majority of the Catholic laity, is calling for an end to the importation of foreign priests to make up for the steady but dramatic decline in the number of Australian born priests. Fr James Clarke of the NCP in a recent editorial writes, “(the foreign priests stop gap policy)…was a doomed experiment which admittedly had some modest success, but overall has failed dismally”(The Swag, Winter, 2018). It could be that the end of the scheme may come as soon as the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards come into effect.
While it seems likely that the discipline of compulsory celibacy for diocesan priests will continue to be the norm in the long term, there are viable solutions to the priest shortage that require not changes to Church doctrine but only to ecclesiastical law and a major shift in clerical imagination and nerve. The solution is not new and it was first proposed independently in two third world regions of the Catholic Church. Fritz Lobinger, Emeritus Bishop of Aliwal diocese in South Africa, and Erwin Kräutler, now Emeritus Bishop of Xingu in Amazonian Brazil, have suggested alternative models of priesthood to overcome acute shortages in their own deprived jurisdictions. They have proposed that the Church returns to an ancient ministerial model that is witnessed both in the New Testament and in the post 90 CE Church. It is that of the Elder, presbyter (See 1 Tim 5: 17-22 and Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Christians in Smyrna n 8 written around 109-110 CE). These men were held in the same high esteem as the Apostles and were regarded as the keepers of the early Church’s sacred Memory. Lobinger and Kräutler have suggested that married men, natural leaders and recognised by their communities to be of good character (viri probai) be ordained for priestly service in and for those local churches. These community priests would exercise a role similar to that of the early Christian Elders/presbyters. Importantly, they would not be financial burden on the community because they would make their living like every one else.
Pope Francis has given his active support to the viri pobati model of married priesthood and the Brazilian Catholic bishops are in conversation with the Vatican about making the proposal a reality. Speaking for the NCP and claiming the support of credible lay groups that seek lasting systemic reform in the Church’s structure and culture, Fr Clarke has expressed the need for a permanent viable solution to the priest shortage in the context of ongoing reform of Church life and ministry: “We’re hopeful the bishops will listen to priests and the people because the genie’s out of the bottle now. That’s been one of the great benefits of the royal commission. People are no longer afraid to speak up and the bishops and priests have to listen”.
David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal. He frequently contributes articles for group’s website. Some articles have been on-published in reform journals both in Australia overseas. The original article on which this post is based was published in the September 2018 issue of the Catholics for Renewal Newsletter.