GARRY EVERETT. The Catholic Church at the crossroads.

The cross has long been a radical and confronting symbol among religious groups. In a similar way, at the crossroads of life, we are challenged by choices which will lead us to either good or ill. The Catholic Church in Australia  has reached the crossroads and there is an urgency to the choices that must be made. The old ways have run their course and new ways must be found.

In  Pope Francis , we have a leader who is challenging the Church with a new vision. Francis is a believer in devolution; he does not want every decision affecting the Church to be made in Rome. Recently he challenged the German Bishops to meet and to arrive at  “as near a unanimous decision as possible” on a contentious matter affecting Catholics and some Lutherans in Germany. More recently he received the resignations of all the bishops in Chile, following the catastrophic impact of the cover up of sexual abuse cases in that country.

When Francis speaks of devolution of decision-making, he is also speaking of devolution of responsibility. Many bishops have found this challenge too difficult. They are happy for Rome to carry the blame for anything that goes wrong.   In Australia, Archbishop Fisher in speaking about the Plenary Council  (a meeting of the whole Church: priests; religious and laity) announced that the Council could not change the Church’s teachings or discipline. In the current context established by Pope Francis, that may be too sweeping and extreme a statement.

The Catholic Church can sometimes forget that it is in, and on mission to, the modern world, with all the world’s problems and successes. It is one thing to have 2000 years of almost unchanged beliefs and teachings, and another thing to engage constructively with contemporary social issues showing some understanding of the need for change. The recent decisions by many countries regarding gay marriage is often regarded as a failure of the Church to convince people to adhere to Church teachings. Yet Pope Francis has signalled a different approach to homosexuality, and this approach is up-setting many Bishops.  What next?

Not long after his installation as Pope, Francis offered two pictures of the contemporary Catholic Church. The first was that of a museum, in which things were preserved for visitors’ admiration and wonder: teachings, beliefs, laws, architecture, rituals….. The second picture was that of a field hospital during war, in which medical and nursing services were being dispensed to any and all who were injured. Francis, a lover of mercy, favoured the latter picture .

In Australia, Catholics have been asked to answer the question: “What is God asking of us in Australia at this time?” The answer to that question can only be arrived at by way of personal and group discernment, which are difficult processes not always understood by a contemporary society expecting all answers to be in the 140 characters limit of social media.

The question is occurring at a time when the Australian Catholic Bishops are experiencing severe embarrassment at their inept handling of the sexual abuse crisis.  Their leadership has been called into question and, like that of the Chilean Bishops, has been found wanting. However, as Archbishop Fisher indicated, the Bishops think they  are still calling the shots.

Can the Plenary Council change the church in this country?  I think not, for three reasons. Firstly, no decisions for major  changes can occur without Rome’s assent.  Rome has deep divisions on most of the main challenges facing the Church. Secondly, the Australian bishops  lack the leadership know-how that is required to see change through to its culmination. Thirdly, the current Plenary Council  process being used , designed to fit the laws of the Church,  is not likely to reform the deep, underlying issue of church culture, which in this country is at the heart of all the problems the church faces.

As someone said: “If you always do what you always did; you always get what you always got”.  Do  the Catholic Bishops get this?

Now retired some 12 years, Garry spent more than 40 years in education, most of it in the Catholic sector. He has facilitated many change processes in the Church.  He maintains a strong interest in the future  Church.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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7 Responses to GARRY EVERETT. The Catholic Church at the crossroads.

  1. A very conservative lecturer in Canon Law in answer to a question said a bishop had the power to change anything he wished. We have Francis firing the bullets encouraging local dioceses to have the courage to do so with Benedict loading the gun. It is clear that if the Corporation is win back the trust of the Church which is its people [as Jesus, Paul and Stephen clearly taught] it is going to have to adjust its Roman, Medieval and Convict perceptions of an underclass in Australia and change its modes of communication, language and connection to achieve genuine dialogue , respect for the knowledge and intellect of its people and an openness of mind. Our young have left along with their parents and grandparents because many bishops and priests are no longer living in solidarity with where people are. They have turned to other organizations but there remains a deep yearning for that deeper perspective that does exist but those empowered to teach and lead can only react like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who ultimately led their country to extinction when crucifying the messenger did not work. For those of us who have been privileged to benefit through the theological educational doors opened by Cardinal Knox to follow Mannix’s pioneering work in general education , it gave us the weapons of intellect to dialogue in the trenches but how we yearn for a Monash , Pompey Elliot , Chauvel Weary Dunlop to come forward in our pastoral ranks.

  2. David TIMBS David TIMBS says:

    Someone should take Fisher aside to educate him on what National Synods actually do. Two of their duties are to address matters of discipline and doctrine. The archbishop, I think, is playing to either the Roman Curia or the few hundred wide-eyed young adults of the “Theology in the Pub” crowd from Parramatta days or both.
    Fisher, like a few others in the ACBC, is running a very clumsy distraction campaign to deflect attention away from the recommendations of the Royal Commission and from the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

  3. Good on you, Garry! Many Catholics have retired from the ecclesiastical dance-floor in which the conductor signals the orchestra to play the military two-step: one step forward and two backwards! This comes from trying to please everybody rather than doing the right thing. There are other bishops, such as Vince Long at Parramatta, but they are relatively isolated and the bishops insisting on maintaining a show of unity will only serve the purpose of silencing him. Such pusillanimity will not allow for good leadership to emerge. One senses, as you do, that without lay initiative, the Australian Catholic Church will ring in its own death-knell.

    • Avatar Joan Seymour says:

      You call it pusillanimous, I call it gutless – not a good look for our sunbronzed Aussie bishops. You call it ‘military twostep’ – a priest commented to us years ago that one step forward and two back is the Christian dance called the tripodium. Apart from that – spot on.

  4. Avatar Bill Burke says:

    I think you are right in linking reform actions with the church’s attempts to animate its mission in contemporary circumstances. This amalgam was the basis of progress during the Second Vatican Council
    Just a few observations:

    Church doctrines are more susceptible to change than you may think. With a few core exceptions, there has been an ongoing remodelling of doctrines through the centuries. For example, you would recall the prominance given to Limbo in earlier catechetics and the associated practical norms provided to Catholic Nurses – But, now the doctrine is no more!

    A Priesthood which blends voluntary celibacy with married clergy is, in fact, the oldest continuous tradition in the Catholic Church. Early in the second millenium, the Latin Rite mandated celibacy for Priests – but the Eastern Rites continued with choice. So, watch this space.

    Moreover, having a say in the selection of bishops had been a lay prerogative for more centuries than not. The early church experience of community election gave way to Medieval Nobles being able to put forward their candidates for appointment – but both instances exemplified lay involvement in Bishop appointments.

    One real impediment to progress in the present are the lingering effects of the approach Francis’ two predecessors had towards bishops. One of John Paul II’s first acts was to nobble the draft of the proposed new Code of Canon Law – Canons which encouraged subsidiarity were emasculated. After revising the code came other limits to local initiative. The theological standing of national bishops conferences was confined by a myriad of qualifications. And, before being offered an appointment a possible bishop was required to take an oath promising to only think and act just as the Vatican told him.

    Perhaps, most bishops do ‘get it’ – but, they are still learning to walk and talk for themeslves.

  5. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    Unless the current process used for the Plenary Council is changed, it can be changed -Canon Law is not written on tablets of stone – nothing will really change, in spite of what we are told by the representatives of the hierarchy and organizers .
    Is the hierarchy prepared to let the laity into the decision making process? If not, no amount of consultation will result in satisfactory change.

  6. Avatar Mary Tehan says:

    Thank you Gary for this thought-ful/filled article. People of deep and mature faith know that the Holy Spirit is always unable to be held captive to ideologies and cultures that continually produce death-dealing outcomes for all. Ultimately, the world needs this same Spirit to guide us to a life-generating, life-giving, life-affirming and life-expanding understanding of the world … and the wise approaches and actions needed to offer this into, and for, future generations. It never ceases to amaze me that Australians always look to overseas in this regard for specific answers to the Australian “condition”, when we have Aboriginal people here who have been adaptable and wise for 60,000 years and who have been and are generous and wonderful custodians of this land for us all to enjoy and prosper in. Just imagine what we could do here if alongside a mature and life-giving, life-evolving faith, we were companioned with indigenous knowledge of ecological well-being and harmony – graciously shared with all who are willing to learn and be transformed by. Having just been greatly privileged to complete a very expensive (self-funded) indigenous training course alongside other indigenous, and other faith traditions and none (it’s beauty is that doesn’t offend any tradition), I can personally vouch that it is a wonderful way to lean into a future full of hope and love (with eyes wide open). It’s in the daily practice that our world and our lives are truly transformed though … I intend to take and share these practices further asap, to those willing to learn and apply them in their lives. The Australian Bishops need to let everyone contribute to this unfolding … the task is too urgent to be held back by “business as usual”.

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