Amid the turmoil besetting the Catholic Church in Australia, the announcement, after an in-house process, of a diverse team to advise the bishops on the 2020 Plenary Council has raised the hackles of reform advocates.
In a week of calamity for the Australian Catholic Church, there were mixed signals for those looking for reform from the hierarchy.
It is a time of existential challenges: the census revealed a sharp downturn in Catholic adherents and the Victoria Police finally dropped the long-speculated announcement of “historical” charges of sex abuse against Australia’s prince of the church, Cardinal George Pell, who has strenuously denied them.
But a separate development indicated how the church’s leadership is seeking to orchestrate change within its traditionally closed management structure.
That was the announcement of the names of 14 people who have accepted appointment to the executive committee to plan and prepare for the church’s most important national congress in decades, the 2020 Plenary Council.
Despite recent appeals from Catholic reform groups for more transparency and accountability in decision-making, the announcement came out of the blue, after an in-house process.
The announcement was made by the man emerging as the most senior figure in the Australian church, Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane.
The encouraging aspect of the committee’s make-up was its diversity: eight women and six men including 10 lay people, several of them ACU academics, and officials in church agencies.
Coleridge said “their appointment followed an extensive confidential process of consultation across the Australian Church to ensure diversity”.
The Plenary Council was “a response to the call of Saint Pope John Paul II that the Church of the third millennium discerns what the Spirit has been saying and to put into practice pastoral plans with the help of the people of God to prepare for the future.
“It also carries forward the call of Pope Francis for the Church to become truly synodal in its engagement with the whole Catholic community.”
The Plenary Council would play a crucial role in shaping the Church’s future in Australia. ‘This is no time for the Church to be putting up signs that say “business as usual”.
The Archbishop’s announcement drew fire from a reform group, Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn, which is pressing for a more transparent, laity-involved Church in the wake of the evidence given to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse .
The selection process unfortunately continues the “behind closed doors” tradition of church decision-making, according to Concerned Catholics.
Its chairman, Professor John Warhurst, noted that the appointments, “which do not include anyone from Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, were finalised after an “extensive confidential process of consultation.
“The consultation should have been public and inclusive, not confidential. Why not have asked for expressions of interest and make a virtue of the selection process?
“Such confidentiality is not a good start to what must be an inclusive and transparent process if the 2020 Plenary Council is to be successful in shaping a new future for the church following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“This is not to criticise the committee appointees who include some well-qualified Catholics from a range of sectors and backgrounds.”
Archbishop Coleridge said the Plenary Council will play ‘a crucial role in shaping the Church’s future in Australia’, and that ‘this is no time for the Church to be putting up signs that say “business as usual’.
“We heartily agree,” Professor Warhurst said. “But it is unfortunate that the confidential process of choosing the executive committee is very much business as usual practice in the Church.
“Archbishop Coleridge says the Plenary also carries forward the call of Pope Francis for the church to become truly synodal in its engagement with the whole Catholic community
“The way the executive committee was chosen appears to have avoided engaging with the whole Catholic community.
“Given the dwindling numbers of churchgoers so graphically shown in the census, the Church’s leaders must be prepared to open up decision-making to the faithful.
“I have recently met with Canberra’s Archbishop Christopher Prowse to discuss our aims for local reform, including the establishment of a laity-led Diocesan Pastoral Council and the re-establishment of a Women’s Commission.
“I am hopeful that we can achieve worthwhile progress on these matters,” Warhurst said.
Concerned Catholics are by no means a lone voice on the issue of reform. The national group, Catholics for Renewal is campaigning to eradicate what it says is the corrosive culture of clericalism.
The have issued an Australia-wide appeal to the bishops for the Church to become truly accountable with full involvement of the faithful, including diocesan pastoral councils, and diocesan assemblies or synods; with pastoral plans and annual diocesan reports.
The reformers are focusing on the issue of transparency and accountability, aware that there is no hope for deeper reforms like inclusion of women priests and married clergy under the present clericalism-bound arrangements,
But is there a glimmer of hope for more change in Coleridge’s words?
“We need to face the facts, and in the light of the facts, which aren’t always friendly, we have to make big decisions about the future. The Plenary Council will place the Church on a sound footing to respond to what is not merely an era of change but a change of era.’’
A change of era? Now that’s a big promise.
Mark Metherell is a former journalist and a founding member of Concerned Catholics.
To learn more about Concerned Catholics, please go to www.concernedcatholicscanberra.org