JOHN WARHURST. Catholics grow restless at bishops’ lethargy.

Rather than despair at the absence of half of humanity in the clergy and disappearance of their adult children from the church pews, reforming Catholics are seeking to turn their old church around.

On 18 September, four lay leaders of the Catholic Church met the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Mark Coleridge, to put a comprehensive plan for deep change in the church.

The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform has waited since then for some sort of formal response from the bishops to the group’s appeals for urgent reform.

So far, nothing to report.   The bishops’ silence is eloquent testimony to the eerily inconspicuous posture the hierarchy has taken to the notion of reform since an initial flurry in their formal response to the searching recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse and follow-up recommendations by the church’s own Truth Justice and Healing Council.

Sections of the laity however are becoming restless.  Since 2012 the number or Catholic Reform Coalition groups around Australia has grown from three to 12.

One of these is Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn which late last month held a workshop to discuss reforms. More than 100 participated in discussion groups which proposed among several changes, radical reform of the Church — including ordination of women and married priests.

Besides expressing strong sentiments for change including an end to male priestly celibacy, the participants proposed dismantling clericalism and the autocratic powers of bishops, and infusing greater transparency into church administration and decision-making.

Six background papers produced to inform the workshop conveyed the evidence of a church in decay, of steadily declining and ageing priests and parishioners, subject to archaic governance practices and holding to an approach to women contrasting with 1,000 years ago when women played a more prominent role in the church.

Of particular concern was the failure of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to respond positively and actively to central reform recommendations of the Royal Commission.

The advice prepared for the workshop found that there appeared to be a lack of will and urgency by bishops to review the “business as usual” approach on governance of dioceses and parishes and on transparency, as recommended by the royal commission.

While the controversy over the bishops’ refusal to exempt child abuse cases from the seal of the confession dominated media reaction to the bishop’s response to the commission’s recommendations, there were other important elements including the bishops’ failure to request the Holy See to ‘consider’ voluntary celibacy.  The bishops had instead ‘informed’ the Holy See of that request.

The Royal Commission and then the Truth Justice and Healing Council handed Australia’s bishops unprecedented and powerful arguments for moving the church’s culture and architecture to a more contemporary and meaningful expression of Christ’s example.

While the bishops have instituted a process for reform to be considered at the 2020 Plenary Council, the lack of vigor and advocacy for much needed changes is disturbing.

Their lethargy contrasts with the passion that more than 100 lay people displayed at the Concerned Catholics workshop.

The campaign for change comes from faithful churchgoers.  Rather than despair at the absence of half of humanity in the clergy and disappearance of their adult children from the church pews, the participants are seeking to turn their old church around.

Many people who had previously attended the listening sessions conducted by the Canberra Archdiocese, felt this further workshop process of discernment and consultation would add depth to the 2020 Plenary Council’s deliberations not yet captured in the Archdiocese.

The Concerned Catholics workshop was led by experienced facilitators Terry Fewtrell and Di Van Meegan. Sister Clare Condon called on participants to pause and consider the spirit in which they might respond to the discussion.

Fewtrell said that through the workshop process “we want to channel our feelings and thoughts, whatever they may be, into honest, constructive and creative thinking”.

As a leading voice in the Australian church, Frank Brennan SJ, wrote in Eureka Street recently: “What we need is a listening and inclusive Church — a Plenary Council at which the clergy and the laity have a proper place at the table, at which the voices of the ‘rusted-on’ and the

‘cheesed-off’ Catholics are heard and at which the bishops are respectfully listening as much as speaking…’.

There is plenty the bishops still need to hear.  After the September meeting with Archbishop Coleridge, the Catholic Coalition Reform convenor, Peter Johnstone, wrote the Archbishop a follow-up letter raising 10 matters, including concerns that the bishops did not seem to grasp the concept of good governance requiring accountability, transparency and inclusiveness.

The Coalition questioned the Australian bishops’ seeming inertia on a variety of matters including the inaction on the commission’s recommendations to raise Canon Law issues with the Holy See, the bishops’ failed to see the urgency of the Truth Justice and Healing Council’s call for an urgent review of governance to report back by mid-next year and the need for all bishops to be actively engaged with the faithful in preparation for the 2020 Plenary Council.

The Coalition has challenged the prospect of inadequate lay representation on the Plenary Council summit which, in the earlier words of Archbishop Coleridge was meant to mark the end of “business as usual” in the church.

The Coalition has urged women’s participation in decision-making and argues that with current canon law women could head dicasteries (administrative departments) within the Vatican.

The Coalition has proposed that a woman be nominated as co-chair of the Plenary Council.  But because of canonical constraints she may have to settle for the title of assistant woman chair.

Hardly radical in the 21st Century.

Emeritus Professor John Warhurst is chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn which seeks an effective voice for lay women and men in the administration and direction of our church. 

Background papers, Concerned Catholics’ initial submission to the Plenary Council and the Archdiocese’s draft submission following the listening sessions are available on our website at






John Warhurst AO is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist with the Canberra Times and Eureka Street.

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6 Responses to JOHN WARHURST. Catholics grow restless at bishops’ lethargy.

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    All I want for Christmas is an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council of Canberra Goulburn !

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    Changes don’t /won’t come from the law as far as the church is concerned the heart has been hardened for far too long.
    History has proven that.

  3. john tons says:

    Well said John. Some of the suggestions seem to hearken back to the early Church – but then the sort of reforms advocated seem to surface on a regular basis. I suspect the intransigence has little to do with theology and everything to do with the exercise of political power.

  4. Jim KABLE says:

    What an interesting if outlandish suggestion – the laity at the table – bishops respectfully listening and then – presumably acting in accordance with that listening – or not. As one hopes will happen with recommendations from the Banking/Finances sector Royal Commission – that is – lots of banking CEOs/Directors/et al will be given gaol terms – in order to “send the message” – the same for all those holding up the compensation process for victims of callous Catholic “Fatherly” and “Brotherly” paedophilia. And one wants to ask how Philip Wilson got out of his limited “Bishop’s Palace” home detention – what were the behind the scenes negotiations going on there one wants to enquire – and when will George Pell be locked up? So many questions – and I am myself uninterested in “the Pause” – move now to action otherwise I think Lay Committees might just take over their churches – boot out the Bishops – and practise the Christian principles as laid out in Hole Scripture – women as equally able as men. Go on – it’s time. Bishops are now largely irrelevant – they’ve proved that – overtake them entirely.

  5. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    The ‘rusted-on’ and the ‘cheesed-off’ : is this what leading voices in the RC Church are saying today? and must the ‘Faithful’ listen, respectfully, to such vernacular propaganda? If so – Holy Mother Church is, once again, going nowhere.
    The language reminds me of a mid-20th Century Retreat-leader, stooping, chattily, to the ‘sheep’ of the Congregation he (serves)serves: A Ballarat Redemptorist, perhaps, or – ooops – better not ‘go’ ‘there’…
    Neither ‘rusted-ons’ nor’cheesed-offs’ are going to be equipped to deal with a meaningful agenda for a 21st Century Church. Too much remains to be concealed, or ignored like the response for which the Respectful are still waiting from Mark Coleridge & Co INC. A little radical propaganda might serve to ginger things up; a dose of rhetorical salts to tickle the sedentary livers of those who, currently, are stupefied by the public reaction to disclosures of their non-feasance and are, evidently, hoping that if they keep very still & quiet, the spotter-lights will be switched-off and they can escape.
    You won’t get that from current ‘leading voices’ in the RC Church: one of whom was reported to me only last week as tiptoing into a Melbourne Courtroom and whispering to the man in the dock: ‘Philip Wilson sends his regards.’
    The Reality is: the Voices in the RC Church have no idea how very little claim they maintain on the respect and audience of – well, almost anybody in Australia.

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