ERIC HODGENS. Storms and Synods.

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.

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Angela Dupuche

Thank you Eric you put so clearly! After 10 years of working through The Consultation with The Laity in1985, Renew, Tomorrow Church, Deanery Discernment, all of which went nowhere I’m one of the ones who walked away disillusioned! I don’t have any confidence in the Plenary Council 2020!

Rosemary O'Grady

Talk of crises and perfect storms is exciting and interesting, but, as I am sure everyone who reads and contributes to these pages and in particular to this forum is aware- there has been a concerted effort at containment occurring in the RCC (Roman Catholic Church) since the Royal Commission was announced in 2013. Anxious and dedicated ‘management’ has been occurring ever since; what we see now is the consequence of 5 years of strategizing and preparation (to deal with the open floodgates). All this, focussed on ‘child sexual abuse’ is aimed, in addition to the obvious, at concealing from… Read more »

Gregan McMahon

“The Australian bishops are attempting to address today’s issues by convening a national Synod in 2020“ , you say. It’s almost a joke, isn’t it? Like sitting on the Truth and Justice response to the Royal Commission for months. The hierarchy would no doubt justify both with some derisory argument that the Church thinks in terms of eternity, so that temporal concerns are beneath their notice. This is the sort of official insolence that makes lots of people wonder whether the institution is worth salvaging at all. It did a lot of good in the past, but now seems a… Read more »

George Szylkarski

Hi Eric Hodgens . In your Storms And Synods essay you postulated that “…. Authority now came from the people, not from the king (or pope)…….” Your definition of authority would have been closer to reality had it read “……….not from king (or pope or god)…..” I deliberately used small case for God to mirror reality. Let’s not delude ourselves. The times we (pope and bishops included) live in are post Christian and post God with their logical consequences. The church is like a giant Titanic, hitting numerous ice bergs, but being so big the captain finds it impossible to… Read more »

Peter (PJ) Johnstone

We can all wish for a “synod that is more like a colloquium of equals, set up and run by a group untainted by the old power”, but we all know that that is not going to happen unless bishops themselves accept their responsibilities to act now on the Royal Commission findings and recommendations, and address the four intertwining crises identified by Eric. Instead, they are kicking these issues down the road to their Plenary Council 2020/21 hoping to enable the continuation of business as usual without accountability, transparency or inclusiveness (particularly avoiding the real inclusion of women in the… Read more »

Words and Actions – Manus Dextra and Manus Sinister Words (Manus Dextra): The new to be Archishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, has vowed to right the grievous wrongs of the past ,and rebuild trust following child abuse scandals which have rocked the church. That is such incredibly good news! He is going to fix the whole thing, we can just sit back and watch in awe. That anyone could say such a ridiculous thing is indicative of being out of touch with reality and only interested in saying things that sound correct. Actions (Manus Sinister): Xavier College Reunion censors sex… Read more »

Michael D. Breen

As in so many well intentioned pieces about reforming the church there is little acknowledgment of the systemic nature of the church problems. The hierarchy are not going to give up their status and will try to pretend they will help with the clean up or even be responsible for it. And again and again the laity are happy to hang it on the hierarchy. One almost feels sorry for them. There is a story of a confrere of a newly made bishop who congratulated the neconsecrate and said, “Good on you Jim. From today on you will never eat… Read more »

Dr Jennifer Anne Herrick

Thank you Eric for offering a good summation of the crises facing the Catholic Church and offering a solution of a coloquium of equals. Avery Dulles raised a variety of alternatives long ago as to how the Church can be understood apart from Institutionally. One crisis not raised in your article is the extension of an issue that is raised. The extension of the abuse issue resides in recognising that ordained do abuse laity and pre-ordained. The fact this serious and widespread issue is overlooked speaks to its continued concealed hiddeness. The hiddenness of this extended abuse beyond those under… Read more »

Michael J Wood OM

Well Said, Notwithstanding your apt allegory of the Perfect Storm and your very comprehensive sumarary of its strengths and weaknesses. I wonder if we could be so bold to raise a further question that seems to be left begging. Where is God in all of this very human Fiasco? What is God actually doing? What is His Plan and Purpose, in spite of our very best, but dismal efforts, of the old ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop syndrome of a Hierarchy, who have seriously lost their way? After all, He is not an absentee Landlord, as many seem to suppose? As… Read more »

Garry Everett

Thanks Eric. You are spot on! The National Synod was dreamed up by the Bishops of Australia (or more correctly by one Archbishop whose motivations appear to have been mixed). There was no consultation with the laity about the process, and as a result we have an ossified approach rooted in canon Law designed to protect the powerful and the institution. Your perfect storm was avoidable, but once again the Bishops missed the boat. Until the focus is squarely set on a reform of the culture, there can never be a synodal style Church As Francis Sullivan from the Church’s… Read more »