The Catholic Church is facing a perfect storm. How well will an Australian National Synod deal with it?
The 19th century was a stormy period for the Catholic Church as the papacy battled to regain its European dominance undermined by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. How appropriate that the First Vatican Council final vote declaring Papal Infallibility was accompanied by thunder and lightning – a massive storm. Papal power won out in the long run as Paul Collins has shown in “Absolute Power”. But – at a price.
Four intertwining crises are currently creating a perfect storm for the Catholic Church.
The first crisis stems from the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment and its progeny – human rights. This brought us cars in the garage and democracy in the forum. Authority now came from the people, not from the king (or pope). It took time to catch on. The Amish stuck doggedly to the horse and buggy – the Church to monarchy. But when the ordinary punter woke up that he was being taken for a ride the game was over.
The second crisis is clerical sexual abuse. Priests have held consecrated authority for centuries, yet 7% of them have been found to be child abusers. Nothing deauthorises a consecrated class more than being found out harbouring criminals. No wonder that transparency is taboo for power institutions. Nowhere to hide.
This leads on to the third crisis – corporate coverup of the crime, blaming the victim and persecuting the whistle-blower. Today’s social sciences have a lot to say about crisis management, but monarchs don’t readily take notice of new ideas that are not their own.
The fourth is the inevitable outcome – the very culture of the institution is exposed as defective.
There have been signs along the way that something was wrong.
For instance, a leakage of membership attributable to the crises. Sacrosanct doctrine no longer makes sense in a new intellectual context. If not properly re-articulated, grand truths and values can be thrown out because the trappings take priority over the essence. This leakage has been relentless since the 1980s.
A second sign is the 50-year drought of priestly vocations. Noone wants to join, though they lined up in abundance in the 50s and 60s. This is at root an institutional problem. Ministerial service is essential to Christianity. Sacral status is not. But the sacred fortress is hard to undo when the system dictates that the only ones who can change it are those who hold the power.
A third sign that something is wrong is priests being found to be sexual offenders. This awareness began as a suspicion and has snowballed to the stage that official investigations have determined that in some dioceses up to 7% of clergy have been guilty of paedophilia. Australia has led the way in investigating the problem with its Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sex Abuse. But Australia’s findings have been replicated in Ireland, the USA and England.
Now that the problem has exploded in Chile, it would be unreasonable to think that the rest of Latin America does not have the same problem. Charges in India and Sri Lanka would seem to be just the start of an Asia-wide exposure.
And it goes to the top of the tree with two cardinals suspended due to substantiated sexual allegations and another facing trial.
A flow-on of clerical sexual offending has been the corporate mishandling of the problem. The response of bishops has generally been bad. They have taken the understandable, but misplaced, step of covering up. In their defence, they have been labouring under the canonically legislated non-transparency of the Pontifical Secret. But there is a weariness with an institution that has so embedded its structures, doctrinal formulations and rules that they have become fossilised and doubled locked by being attributed to God.
This concealment has now reached criminal level. A cardinal in France is facing a charge and the archbishop of Adelaide has been convicted of non-disclosure. It would be rash to think these will be isolated cases.
The Church seems to be facing a perfect storm.
One way Pope Francis is trying to come to grips with today’s challenges is by breathing life back into the Synod of Bishops. His focus is on synodality (everybody walking the path together) rather than collegiality (the bishops working together as a college). Synodality involves everybody, not just bishops.
The Australian bishops are attempting to address today’s issues by convening a national Synod in 2020. It is here that we come up against the fourth wave of the perfect storm – the very culture of the Church. A national synod is a creature of Canon Law. Its powers and procedures are already set in legislation. Bishops alone have a deliberative vote and are jealously protective of their privilege. They will involve the laity – but as subjects, not equals. This type of synod is not synodal. Hierarchy is inbuilt into the culture – a culture that itself needs review.
Many of Australia’s bishops are half-hearted about the idea and are doing little to move it along. Knowing laity who have experienced diocesan consultations such as “Tomorrow’s Church” and “Renew” have been burned off by making enthusiastic efforts producing no results. Why bother? The synod, being a creature of this church culture, is part of the problem.
It is a perfect storm. The situation is critical. But maybe there is a solution. We need to stop resisting change. The enlightenment was a mixed bag – but it did force us to use our brains.
Hierarchies jealously protect their status – but pastoral leadership of equally respected believers achieves Jesus’s objective more effectively. Cultures can change – but not without reordering values and procedures and a clearing out of the old guard. A synod that is more like a colloquium of equals, set up and run by a group untainted by the old power has the potential of re-building after the storm. God knows Jesus’s community of faith (not ideology) and his central message of love, forgiveness and loyalty is just what will be needed when the storm subsides leaving a chastened church.
Eric Hodgens is a priest of Melbourne Archdiocese who is now living in retirement.