The Catholic Church throughout the world is facing its greatest crisis since the Protestant Reformation, and particularly in the Australian Church. Already reeling from the exposure by a Royal Commission of crimes of clerical paedophilia and episcopal cover-ups, it has now been hit with the conviction on five such charges of its most senior leader, Cardinal George Pell. The credibility of the institutional Church, as provider of loving care to the vulnerable such as children, and announcer of God’s word to a world yearning for moral and spiritual leadership in meeting challenges like climate change, violent conflict and unequal distribution of wealth, is approaching zero.
There have been attempts to address this crisis at various levels within the Church. Recently, the Pope called a ‘summit’ of national episcopal leaders to devise some basic strategies for dealing with clerical paedophilia. The Australian bishops have called a national Plenary Council – a national assembly of the Church – to re-focus on its mission, and to assess where it stands and where it needs to go in order ‘to get back on mission’.
The calling of this Council is in itself noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, the convening of a national assembly of the Church for the first time in nearly 80 years is an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crisis it faces. Secondly, the bishops are also admitting that they cannot deal with the crisis on their own but must involve the whole Church in that task.
To their credit, the national bishops conference has established, in preparation for the Council, a consultation process to which all Church members are invited to contribute. A universal commitment on the part of the bishops to such consultation would have seen them establish specific processes for this purpose in their own dioceses. Most bishops have contented themselves, as have many parish priests, to referring people to the national online process. To date, something like 80, 000 submissions have been lodged by this means.
This consultation process is flawed not only by its openness to contamination by multiple submission campaigns but also for the absence of debate of difficult issues, debate which might form, and even change, people’s minds on them. Consequently, many are speculating about the adequacy and accuracy of the mind of the national Church that will be presented to Plenary Council delegates.
These doubts are exacerbated by the structure of the Council itself. Although participation of members other than bishops has been allowed since the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), bishops are still constitute the large majority. Worse still, only the bishops have a ‘deliberative vote’, one that counts in determining legislation by the Council, others having but a ‘consultative vote’. There is a real danger that these structures and voting rules will doom them to replicate and perpetuate the bishops’ hierarchical domination.
Many renewal groups of concerned Catholics have erupted throughout Australia to address that domination and the crisis in the Church. These organisations, of both lay people and priests, have refused to acquiesce in the drift of the institutional Church into irrelevance to the lives of contemporary human beings, and, most disturbingly, into the counter-witness to the Gospel borne by the clerical paedophilia scandal. One of these groups, Catholics for Renewal, recently lodged a very substantial submission (146 pages) with the preparatory body for the Plenary Council. The submission is entitled ‘Getting back on mission’.
‘Getting back on mission’ points to the consequences of the Church’s blindness to the signs of the times. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that the Church had placed the protection of its own institutional power, wealth and reputation before the protection of children. The Commission also found that the abuse of power by the Church and its personnel was rooted in ‘clericalism’, which connoted among other things a presumption of privilege and entitlement on the part of clergy and religious simply because of their religious status.
Central to the ‘clericalism’ malaise was the Church’s dysfunctional system of governance. Power within the post-Vatican II Church was still reserved to the hierarchy, a male, celibate caste. There is minimal engagement with or accountability of leadership to the general community. The Royal Commission found dysfunction even within the hierarchy: each diocesan bishop was accountable only to the Pope and so was free to do as he liked in his own diocese regardless of the views of his fellows in the national body of bishops. ‘Getting back on mission’ insists on accountability, transparency and inclusion at all levels of Church governance in line with the Church’s authentic tradition of collegiality and synodality in pursuing its mission.
The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in modern society to have so persistently refused to fully accept the implications of one of the most manifest signs of our times: the equality of women with men. Catholics for Renewal challenges the theology underpinning discrimination against women in the Church, very reasonably arguing that the bishops should not only press the case with Rome for reviewing the ban on the ordination of women, but should exercise their existing powers to appoint women to positions of authority within their own dioceses. This discrimination not only denies women the status to which their baptism entitles them, but also limits even their authority to exercise such ministries as pastoral associates.
The submission presents empirical data showing the substantial decline in the numbers of Catholics attending the sacraments, and in the numbers of priests and religious. It reports other empirical data showing that priests and people are increasingly seeing the sacraments as ritual performances rather than effective signs of their encounter with the divine at key moments in their lives.
‘Getting back on mission’ exposes the Church’s failings and makes considered recommendations. As a reading of the Introduction and Recommendations will show, much is at stake in this Plenary Council for this group. Can the institutional church be saved? The Plenary Council must have one objective and that is to ‘get the Church back on mission’. The challenge is enormous and cannot be achieved unless the Australian bishops listen carefully to the people of the Church.
The full text of the Submission is linked here.
Michael Leahy is a member of Catholics for Renewal.