PAUL COLLINS. Talking Heads in the Catholic Church


Two months from now Australia’s Catholic bishops will make their quinquennial visit to Rome reporting on the state of the church. During this visit ad limina apostolorum (‘to the threshold of the apostles Peter and Paul’) bishops meet the pope and officials of the Vatican to discuss issues facing their local Catholic community. Originating as pilgrimages to Rome, these five-yearly visits became obligatory during the over-centralization of the church in the nineteenth century. What follows is what the Australian bishops ought to tell Pope Francis and what he ought to tell them.

The bishops should begin by confessing that they are deeply divided among themselves, as revealed in the evenly split vote for bishops’ conference president in May 2018 between Brisbane’s Mark Coleridge and Sydney’s Anthony Fisher, with Coleridge winning simply on seniority.

Essentially there are three groups in the conference: there is a sizeable minority who follow the uncompromising, Cardinal Pell, boots-and-all style of Catholicism, now led by Fisher. The majority are essentially ‘neutral’. They feel they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and there’s justification for that as accusations of sexual abuse continue to surface. Afraid, their response is to run for deep cover. While reasonably competent administrators, they offer little genuine leadership or pastoral care to the community. Finally, there’s a tiny minority who understand the terrible situation of Australian Catholicism, try to provide pastoral leadership, and are committed to the theology and practice of the Second Vatican Council.

Thus, we’re left with an unhappy, mediocre episcopate, mainly as a result of the reactionary, conformist priorities of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, together with the baleful influence of Pell in Rome on bishops’ appointments. No wonder able, intelligent priests are nowadays turning-down episcopal appointments across Australia and the world!

The bishops also need to tell Francis that the Catholic community has plunged into the worst crisis of its entire history. We thought we’d seen it all during the four years of child abuse Royal Commission, especially as terrible stories of abuse and mistreatment of children by clergy and Catholic institutions were recounted.

But George Pell’s conviction leaves that for dead. Australian Catholics are stunned and outraged at the bishops’ lack of accountability. They have left us utterly leaderless, offering nothing but clichés, with the outstanding exception of Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen. Long confessed that he felt ‘awful and empty inside,’ but placed this within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most of the others were ‘shocked and distressed’, but said it would be ‘inappropriate and inflammatory’ to make further comment on Pell’s conviction. No leadership there, no reference to Christ or the gospel.

The bishops don’t have much else to offer Francis. With declining practice rates (only 8-10% of self-confessed Catholics go to Mass semi-regularly), a massive shortage of priests (just over 50% of priests in Australian parishes now are foreign-born) and a complete collapse in affiliation among young Catholics, the picture is bleak. The one optimistic note is that the ministries least controlled by bishops—Catholic health, education, social services and Vinnies—where some 80% of the church’s service is delivered, are in good shape. These ministries are almost completely run by laity and largely funded by government.

What should Francis tell the bishops? First, he’ll tell them to jettison their silly outfits like mitres, skull caps and other hang-overs from history. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about pharisees wearing ‘wider phylacteries and longer tassels’ (Matthew 23:5). Bishops need to embrace gospel modesty. This doesn’t mean no ceremony, just simplicity.

For Francis, abandoning paraphernalia symbolizes a deeper change to make pastoral care rather than power, a bishop’s primary priority. The church is here to serve, not to promote an ideology of gender, sex, reproduction, or end-of-life issues. Francis has made it clear that the real moral issues are care for nature and highlighting the dangers of global warming, as he made clear in his revolutionary encyclical Laudato si’. Here he also questions the radical anthropocentric dominance of humankind over nature, and he reintegrates humankind back into the biological matrix from which we emerged by emphasising the connectedness of all reality. He says it was the mystics who first ‘experience the intimate connection between God and all beings, and thus feel that “all things are God,”’ quoting the sixteenth century Spanish lyric poet and mystic, Saint John of the Cross.

If Francis knew the expression, he’d also tell the bishops that the ideology of ecclesiastical hierarchy—hierarchism—is a stranded asset, unsellable anywhere, least of all to anyone trying to follow Jesus. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is about power and bishops are initiated into it through papal appointment and ordination. In the process, baptism is forgotten and equality in the Christian community is lost. Francis needs to challenge bishops to abandon power and become leaders. By ‘leadership’ I mean an ability to articulate in oneself the meaning and purpose of the church, plus the facility to support others in realizing their gifts and strengths. An experienced opera conductor thus explained leadership: ‘I need to have so integrated the musical score that on the night I can focus entirely on facilitating and supporting the singers and musicians, so that together we can realize what the composer intended.’ Spot on!

This kind of leadership can only emerge from the community. The whole focus of the church needs to shift from hierarchical priorities. Catholics shouldn’t waste time on bishop-sponsored activities like plenary councils. They should concentrate on developing lay leadership, particularly women’s leadership. Laity and priests need to act strategically in developing new structures in parishes and dioceses to which everyone is responsible, including bishops. Leadership in the church is something earned, not granted by ecclesiastical appointment.

This will be resisted, just as Francis himself is being undermined by the diehards. In a church at rock-bottom we need a new vision, and it is from the laity that that vision will come. The age of hierarchs is already over.

Paul Collins has worked for more than fifty years for renewal in Catholicism, both as a priest and layperson.


Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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19 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. Talking Heads in the Catholic Church

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Purple and green: the colours of Women’s Liberation. Good Start.

  2. Peter Donnan says:

    Paul Collins writes: “the ideology of ecclesiastical hierarchy—hierarchism—is a stranded asset, unsellable anywhere, least of all to anyone trying to follow Jesus.”

    At a high mass many years ago, in a procession of more than 70 clergy, a priest friend of mine, well towards the rear, said to me “We know our pecking order to a peck!” The same, I think, can be said of the army, academia and pubic service life. This model was imported into the Church from the Roman Empire around Constantine’s time; it is the antithesis of the simplicity of the beatitudes and gospel values generally, though we all possess different charisms and talents which can contribute to Christ’s kingdom.

    Paul’s advice to “jettison their silly outfits like mitres, skull caps and other hang-overs from history” is, sadly, so apt and obvious. For a huge hoot, conduct a web search for ‘cardinal raymond burke cappa magna.’ His absurd train makes any modern bride look very unfashionable indeed; he, the ‘bluntly outspoken conservative critic of Pope Francis’ in ‘Eureka Street’ words, and defender of ‘established dogma’. Years ago a Gay Mardi Gras visitor said ‘The senior Catholic clergy like to tog up like us but they hate to share the dressing room!”

    If serious church reform is to occur, it can start with dismantling the ’trimmings and the outward show’ but as this article indicates, it needs to replace the stranded asset of ecclesiastical hierarchy with gospel values.

    Bishop Long stated it this way at the Royal Commission:: “People still address me, especially the faithful Catholics, as “Your Lordship”, and I sort of cringe at that. Or when they come to see me, or they come to meet me, they kiss my ring. I’m not very comfortable with those sorts of practices because they encourage a certain infantilisation of the laity and that creation of the power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained.”

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      I concur.
      Also: advice gratis to yr mate Bishop Long: sell the ring and send a few little kids on school excursions, with a few bob in their pockets.
      Equality trumps Authority- every time.

      • Peter Donnan says:

        Hullo Rosemary,

        I do not personally know Bishop Long but S. Browne (SMH, 2017) reports: “The Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long Van Nguyen, has told a royal commission he suffered sexual abuse by a member of the clergy after arriving in Australia as a refugee from Vietnam in 1981.”

        I have seen him speak once at a public meeting and his message is one of change and reform in the Church; he speaks with a prophetic voice but in my view he does not possess the formidable political presence required to shake up the Australian bishops. But there is an old saying: ‘Soft words crush bones.’

  3. Gerard Hore says:

    While I agree with the overall tone and most of the content of Paul Collins’s article, I’m left wondering what kind of Church we would have if it abandoned all efforts at leading and teaching (and praying and sanctifying ) and became just a servant or a set of service agencies. The problem arises if we accept it’s an either/or question rather than recognising it’s an arena in which we must find a both/and solution.

    We Catholics have to have, in Pope Francis’s memorable phrase, “the smell of the sheep” on us always. But we also will sometimes have be, as Simeon said of Jesus, “a sign of contradiction” to many among whom we live. Doing that in a loving way is a huge challenge. Again, not either/or but both/and is required.

    Let’s step back a little from a viewpoint that, as far as the Church in Australia goes, the whole show’s had it. Isn’t it theologically impossible for a Catholic, especially a Vatican II Catholic to think that way? We speak of the Church as though it’s just us. We hardly ever seem to advert to the fact that the Church includes Jesus Christ. The Church is to be, in fact, his most clear presence in the world. That’s the only good reason I can think of to rejoice in my baptism into the Church. Any structures or actions by Christians that obscure that presence need to be eradicated ; that’s tough because, except for Jesus, we’re all sinners, but it doesn’t mean we resile from striving to make those changes.

    Twice in each Sunday Mass, we Catholics proclaim the fact that the Church is holy. Do we believe it or not? Do our Church leaders believe it or not? Let’s not get too down on ourselves and the Church, so far down that we can no longer find a way up. Let’s obey in every possible sense that curt command we hear at every Mass, “Lift up your hearts!”

    • Ed Cory says:

      Peter, re your last paragraph. What is ‘the Church’? Is it the bureaucratic, centralised, power-hungry, controlling institution, with highly theatrical ceremonies featuring men in fancy dress performing in ornate buildings? Or is it a community of believers/practitioners coming together around the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The former is an unholy mess, the latter are struggling with that recognition.

      The latter will not, can not, ‘lift up their hearts’ until their betrayal, which is also the betrayal of Gospel values’, has been addressed.

      • Peter Donnan says:

        Hullo Ed

        Your posting identifies two models of Church. Ideally, the organisational/ceremonial model should be an outward manifestation of the community of believers who come together around the Gospel of Jesus Christ; certainly in harmony with it, rather than in opposition.

        • Ed Cory says:

          Peter, yes, ideally, all manifestations of Church should be in harmony, and in harmony with the Gospel. It is evident that (in my typology) one is not in harmony with the Gospel, and increasingly not in harmony with the other as more of its failings become known. Opposition is directed not at the Gospel, but at the corruption of the institution, although I would call it confrontation rather than opposition.

          (PS, although I addressed my first reply to you Peter, it was meant to be addressed to Gerard. Nevertheless I thank you for your response.)

  4. Peter Dwyer says:

    Paul Collin’s piece was forwarded to me by a friend. I read the article and for one who is forty years outside the tent I still appreciated it. But I am not sure why I care. Maybe because I still care for those inside the tent.

    I agree with Paul that the theatre and hierarchy need to cease as does the hypocrisy, or at least self deception, of servitude to the “people”.

    How do those in the tent do this? I don’t know. Not an overnight job. Spirituality can be a mature business and leadership should be divorced from clerical office. Maybe the hierarchy should have faith in the laity to articulate the meaning and purpose of the Church. Let them go. The hierarchs may be surprised how much the laity care for each other, and even the hierarchs.

    Be conscious, and I am sure that the people will, that those who left the tent may not want to return because they have been hurt by the church, or those in it.

  5. Stuart lawrence says:

    The old men who are the bishops have a friend in the rupert murdoch newspapers and the australian christian lobby to up hold christian morals and the Liberal national party what a load of garbage

  6. Margaret Tisch says:

    So much wonderful food for thought above. When will the hierarchy wake up? We are blessed to have Bishop Vincent Long as Bishop of our Diocese of Pzarramatta.

    Margaret Tisch

  7. Mary Tehan says:

    In the week that Cardinal Pell was convicted of child sexual abuse crimes, I received emails from a parish that has been holding meetings related to Stewardship … all designed to herald “achievements to date”. An archivist I know has also recently resigned from their position at a catholic religious agency because this person no longer wishes to cover up “negative history”. I, as a woman of faith, am being sorely tested on the front line of Mission. Does anyone honestly think that the long shadow of church patriarchal influence is at the tip of its tail? I find hope outside of this scaffolding … and yes, Jennifer, Dulles’ book is a good read!

  8. Joan Seymour says:

    Let’s regard the Bishops in general as excommunicate. Their practices – as distinct from their principles – have broken and reduced the Body of Christ, so the Church needs to leave them out, at least until they return, as individuals, as equal members of the laos, the people. Let’s just get on with things in our parishes, schools, hospitals and works of mercy and charity. Stop asking for permission, or seeking guidance, from anyone who identifies as a hierarch. This will be very, very difficult to do if you’re a senior manager in a Catholic hospital or school, but do your best. The rest of us will look after the parish and its mission, whether the PP is for us or against us. As for leadership – Lao Tzu told us that the best leaders leave us thinking, once our aims are achieved, that ‘we did this ourselves’. What a good Catholic lad was Lao Tzu! Because we’re going to have to do it ourselves…

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Atta Girl, Joan; and not for the first time!

      • Might we also have some care-bears and hear that your World Youth Day has been paid for .

        Otherwise a parish so forsaken that ‘The Greens are evil’ is not discerned –as not about your children’s health or future -will for the probably saintly Chinese merely be “All reality is ever in balance between the potentials and the actuals of the cosmos, and these are eternally harmonized by the spirit of divinity.” *

        It’s also interesting that the aware of disenfranchisement appear to be providing the most constructive appreciations -while abuse reconciliations as comments need to range from the implicit and fascist nuances –that “the people of God’ proposals might give to further Youth Day appeals (?) ; to American Cardinals publicly declaring that molesters ‘are being persecuted’ (?) ; and now Paul Collins reminds if Vinnies is running well –then any organising to worship Francis Bergoglio’s let’s propose reforming Military Dictators -is virtue bound within itself and/or ‘ the Chilean solution’ (?)

        ” Bergoglio declined to appear at the first trial of the junta as well as at subsequent proceedings to which he was summoned. In 2010, when he finally did submit to questioning, lawyers for the victims found him to be “evasive” and “lying.”

        Bergoglio claimed that he learned only after the end of the dictatorship of the junta’s practice of stealing the babies of disappeared mothers, who were abducted, held until giving birth and then executed, with their children given to military or police families.

        This lie was exposed by people who had gone to him for help in finding missing relatives.”

        Global Research reports that the Vatican supported the collaboration between the Argentinian Catholic Church and the dictatorship during the ‘Dirty War.’ In 1981, another new pope, John Paul II, traveled to Buenos Aires in a show of support with the junta, kissing Gen. Galtieri and uttering not a word about the tens of thousands of Argentinians who’d been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disappeared. [Global Research News, Digital Journal, 2013 ‘the talking heads and Chinese Grandmothers of the Plaza of Mayo?? thanks

  9. peter Bowden says:

    I agree that the church should return to the laity,and the good things they are doing. Ever since the bishops seized power in 325 AD and told us what we should believe, and the subsequent appalling persecutions of people who believed differently, Catholicism , and Christianity, has lost sight of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Or the Sermon on the Mount ? That is what Catholics do now . A revival in practice of those beliefs, would energise the church

  10. Tom Smyth says:

    In February this year Pope Francis met with representatives of the various Bishops’ Councils, in Rome, to discuss sexual abuse. My lasting memory of this meeting will be the picture of a Church full of old men wearing purple caps and green capes. A group of these old men have the power, under Canon Law, to make deliberative decisions at our Plenary Council. Their decisions will have a great impact on the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. Hopefully, they are genuine and committed to the Plenary Council process and that they will be open to the many ideas presented in the submissions already forwarded by groups and individuals. This is a critical time in the life of the Church in Australia. People are hoping for great things from this coming Council. I hope and pray that these hopes are realised.

  11. Peter Johnstone says:

    Stimulating piece as usual, Paul, but I’d like to explore two sentences: “The whole focus of the church needs to shift from hierarchical priorities. Catholics shouldn’t waste time on bishop-sponsored activities like plenary councils.” I agree about the sadly inadequate ‘hierarchical priorities’ and I’m very wary of traditional synods as simply legitimising autocratic control, but it is possible for plenary councils and other synodal forms of Church decision making to become a means of changing those hierarchical priorities, through mobilising the people of God. The Council must of course be designed with full respect for the People of God in contributions, representation, and decision making. And you could reasonably assert that that ‘if’ is long-odds. The commitment of many bishops to a genuine Council is questionable; many only supported the Plenary Council as a means of kicking the can of Royal Commission issues down the road for a few years. It seems however that there is now reason to hope that our bishops have, arguably unwittingly, stirred the sleeping faithful into expressing their previously silenced views on the state of their (the People of God’s) Church. Many Catholics are now rejecting the ‘pay, pray and obey’ model and asserting their right and duty to demand reform of their Church. Let’s hope and pray that the consultation process is genuine. It is notable that many renewal groups are testing the Plenary Council process for its integrity and have drafted considered submissions; renewal groups will be insisting that the people of God be heard both before and at the Council. As an example, Catholics for Renewal has submitted and published a detailed submission addressing the mission of the Church and the urgent reforms that are essential – see
    It is of course essential to transparency that the many submissions that have been lodged be published to aid an informed discussion by the People of God.

  12. Jennifer Herrick says:

    Indeed the age of hierarchs is already over, but do they realise this? As I have noted elsewhere, what we need to engender is not new structures which leave the Institutional Model in place but, a NEW MODEL. I suggest, the Model of Communion. There are others. All would be an improvement on the Institutional Model currently in play. Dulles’ book “Models of Church” ought to be on all Catholics interested in reform, reading list! It’s only been 45 years since it was written, after all….

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