PAUL COLLINS – Will the Vatican play ball?

We now have the recommendations of the Royal Commission (RC) to the Catholic Church. Many of them request the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) to take specific issues to the Vatican requesting that they be implemented. The question immediately arises: how will the Vatican react? What will Rome do? What I’ve tried to do here is foresee something of that reaction.

The ACBC has already essentially agreed to take the RC’s recommendations (Vol 16, pp 154-157) to the Holy See. They will probably try hard to get Pope Francis and the Vatican to take them seriously.

So, what will happen? Despite Pope Francis saying that the RC’s report “deserves to be studied in depth,” and that “the Holy See remains close to the Catholic Church in Australia… as it listens and accompanies victims and survivors in an effort to bring healing and justice,” the Australian bishops know that convincing Rome of these recommendations will not be easy.

Perhaps their first problem will be rhetorical. The recommendations are expressed in blunt, Anglo-Australian English that calls a spade, a spade. While I strongly agree with almost all the sentiments expressed, unfortunately that’s not how business is done in Rome. Latin culture specializes in una bella retorica, having a certain subtlety and rhetorical style which they feel to be much more important than blunt clarity. Many in the Vatican will find the recommendations unsophisticated and callow.

Second, references to the seal of confession and voluntary celibacy (recommendation 16.18) won’t go down well in Rome, and will strengthen the hand of those who see the RC’s conclusions as going too far. That’s exactly why the Australian bishops have already ruled out changing the seal of confession, knowing they’d be on a hiding to nothing.

Voluntary celibacy would be seen in the Vatican as an internal church matter, nothing to do with an antipodean, secular judicial body. The best approach the bishops could take here is to accept Pope Francis’ recent offer to bishops’ conferences on the ordination of viri probati, mature married men with some theological and pastoral training.

Actually, Francis has not said that he is willing to make celibacy voluntary, but rather that where there is a drastic shortage of clergy (and he is specifically thinking of Brazil and Central America), he will consider the ordination of married men if bishops’ conferences ask him. Certainly, Australia is facing a serious clergy shortfall, especially in vast rural dioceses, and I suspect he would listen sympathetically to the ACBC.

Third, child sexual abuse is not a first order issue in Rome. Yes, there is a realization that this is a problem in Western countries, but there is no real determination to do anything decisive about it. Sure, some people in Rome “get it”, but there is also a strong feeling that this is an innings the church has to bat out, hoping that it will eventually go away. Vatican expert, John L. Allen agrees saying that there is “little perceived sense of urgency in the Vatican these days about the on-going challenge of reform” regarding sexual abuse (Crux, 18/12/17).

Rome will also be defensive when the RC asks the Vatican “to publish criteria for the selection of bishops” and “establish a transparent process for appointing bishops” including participation by laypeople (Recommendation 16.8). Reform-minded Catholics have been saying precisely this for years. This is exactly the process I called for in my books Mixed Blessings (1986) and No Set Agenda (1991). Also, in October, 2008 the group Catholics Speak Out published a leaked copy of the actual criteria Rome uses for the selection of bishops in Australia (Copy at Catholica, 28 October 2008).

Many of the RC’s recommendations concern particular issues of canon law. Most of these recommendations would be widely supported by canonists in the developed world. But the RC’s up-front recommendations 16.9 to 16.17, which refer to specific points of law, will be perceived by the Vatican as confronting. They will be seen as state interference in church affairs. The Vatican already reluctantly concedes that local churches must obey state law regarding child protection and mandatory reporting, but on these canonical issues they will perceive the RC as hectoring them.

Their riposte will be: we legislate for a worldwide church, not just for far-away Australia. There’s some truth to this. Australians do, at times, think very parochially as, of course, do most cultures, and it will be precisely for that reason that Roman canonists will respond to protect the legal status quo.

However, the bishops may have a well-placed, influential supporter in the Vatican: Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, i.e. papal foreign minister. Gallagher, a Brit from Liverpool, was papal nuncio in Australia from 2012-2014. Unlike his predecessors (and successor)—except American Archbishop Ambrose de Paoli (2005-2007)—Gallagher “got it”; he understood how the Australian church “worked” and he has maintained contacts with Australia. As number two in the Secretariat of State and a good friend of his boss, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Gallagher will be a sympathetic and effective ally for the Australian bishops.

In the end what all this means is real change is the responsibility of the local church. With the exception of the canon law issues, all the others—the need for transparency and accountability in the Roman curia, the role of women in ministry, married priests, training and psychological assessment of candidates for priesthood, the future of seminaries, and on-going, mandatory professional development for clergy and religious—have been on reform agenda for forty years.

The RC most certainly gives reform-minded Catholics a boost as we do what we are called to do: renew our church. The bishops need to know that on this the laity support them as they tackle Rome. If successful, Australia could lead the world.

 Historian and broadcaster, Paul Collins, has been working for the renewal of the church for forty years.


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Dr Collins’s response to the report of the Royal Commission was (necessarily) done quickly. I wonder if he has had occasion to revise any of his observations? They struck me as having been made fron a very “Vatricano-centric” perspective. Certainly it is true — and this would make all of those curial peopple very uncomfortable — that our Australian Royal Commission was (inter alia) probably the most thorough, balanced and invormed investigation into the “values” and modus operandi of the Catholic Church in its entire 2000-year history. When their sense of affront settles down, those Vatican people ought to realise… Read more »

Interestingly, there are no responses here from women. yet. What makes anyone think that ACBC will try to get Francis and the Vatican to take seriously the recommendations of a bunch of Protestant / whatever, busybodies? The reports were barely off the presses before A/b Hart, and A/b Fisher – defiant in the habit that once adorned the Inquisitors, announced that they’d be having none of this Interference. Sexual abuse is universal, and is about adults as much as about children; it is universally abhorrent to all systems of ethics in all recorded cultures. What the Vatican thinks is irrelevant.… Read more »

Michael Leahy

With the qualifications expressed by Kieran, Paul’s assessment of Rome’s likely points of resistance to the RCs recommendations is probably accurate. However, if we recall the Roman stance to reform proposals in the lead-up to Vatican II, we would have to conclude that the prospects of the reforms getting up were much worse then. Eventually, the bishops of Vatican II came to ‘get it’. It is the process of inducing them to ‘get it’ now that is served by the RC’s recommendations. At least now the Australian bishops have the sensation of a driving boot behind them locally to motivate… Read more »

Thanks Paul, and thanks Kieran. As I view it all I think the Royal Commission did an outstanding job. I thought it really clever putting the onus on the Australian Bishops to take the message to Rome as the Royal Commissioners themselves have no jurisdiction in Rome. The trouble is the paucity of leadership now left in the Church. We’ve had more than two centuries of the clericalist culture with the possible exceptions of Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis. Most of those who’ve been promoted up the hierarchical tree in the institution were largely selected for this commitment to… Read more »

Kieran Tapsell

“Their riposte will be: we legislate for a worldwide church, not just for far-away Australia. There’s some truth to this. Australians do, at times, think very parochially as, of course, do most cultures, and it will be precisely for that reason that Roman canonists will respond to protect the legal status quo.” The Royal Commission accepted that the Church’s official policy for centuries as expressed in canon law was that priests who sexually abuse children (and other serious crimes as well) were to be stripped of their status as clerics and handed over to the civil authorities for punishment in… Read more »