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.



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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5 Responses to PAUL COLLINS – Will the Vatican play ball?

  1. Avatar Dr John CARMODY says:

    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 that; and also to realise that though (as Collins seemed rather keen to emphasise) Australia is only a relatively small part of the “universal church”, it provides — with the USA — a substantial proportion of its cash flow. And money talks in Rome. The Knights of Malta discovered than in 2017.
    When considered from the Australian perspective, the picture changes. Here (for all the nonsense being sprouted about “religious freedoms” by self-interested parties since the result of the “Same-sex survey” was announced) the secular law prevails — and that includes all of the advantages which the law provides for the churches. Take those away, and clerics might sing a different tune — especially when they realise (as the Australian bishops should have done by now) that they really have rather few friends.
    I’d also hope that, if Dr Collins were to re-think his position, he might withdraw his opinion that the RC report is — in important respects — “unsophisticated and callow”. NONE of those commissioners [or their outstanding professional staff] can reasonably be described in those terms. Indeed, in saying so might Dr Collins be a little “unsophisticated” himself? I attended almost all of the “Catholic wrap-up” sessions last February and I was greatly impressed by the courtesy, the thoughtfulness and the deliberation of the proceedings. That phrase seriously undercut the force of Dr Collins response and compromised its gravitas, I believe.

  2. 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. We are a sovereign nation. We make our laws and enforce them. If the bishops want to go to gaol for their principles – I say: Let them!

  3. Avatar Michael Leahy says:

    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 them in applying themselves to the task of persuading Rome. But it must not be the bishops alone who bear the responsibility for implementing the RC’s recommendations. The laity must not tolerate exclusion from the decisionmaking processes in relation to them in the Australian church. The stronger the support of the laity for the reforms, the more encouraged the bishops will feel in working for their implementation both locally and in Rome. In the longer term the Australian bishops in collaboration with their laity, as Brian suggests, may do things which shake the iron grip of Rome on the affairs of local churches, perhaps in a Vatican III?

  4. Avatar Brian Coyne says:

    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 the clericalist and triumphalist culture of the institution. The best and brightest minds were not promoted, or actively kicked out, and many of the rest have correctly read the writing on the wall and either gotten out, or excluded themselves from offers of promotion.

    What’s happening in the Church reflects the massive decline in the leadership in the political realms of our culture. Those “left in the game” to be promoted tend to be narcissistic and self-interested rather than seeing their role primarily as one of service to their people. All institutions have seemingly lost a culture of noblesse oblige — taking a position of leadership and honour in society out of some sense of “giving back” for how society or providence had rewarded them, their families or their class.

    I’m pessimistic about any significant change in the institution. Pope Francis celebrated his 81st birthday on Sunday. He’s not going to be around for too much longer. You’d have to be blind to not be aware that the temple police have been feverish in trying to ensure that the next conclave does not deliver another Jorge Bergoglio into the highest governing office of the Church.

    But there is also cause for great hope in our world. While occupying too much space at the moment is the evidence of the work of the fundamentalists, reactionaries and narcissists-who-think-they-alone-have-all-the-answers who are intent on taking us back to all the violence and divisions of past history — witness to this the latest moves by Donald Trump to return our world to confrontation and the culture of the Cold War — there is another sizeable minority in our world having a quiet discussion that is opposed to all of that — witness to that the vote in the United Nations Security Council overnight (that was vetoed by the U.S.).

    I agree with Paul that we Australians are fortunate to have Paul Gallagher positioned where he is in the Vatican at the moment. He will be providing the best understanding of what this all means. I still believe the Executive Summary and Recommendations of the Royal Commission needed to be translated into Latin, Italian and Spanish and copies sent to Paul Gallagher as fast as possible for circulation more widely in the Holy City.

    We live at a fascinating moment in human history — a huge turning point. I think history will look back on this Royal Commission as a significant turning point where our entire world re-thought this entire spiritual and religious dimension to Life.

  5. Avatar Kieran Tapsell says:

    “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 accordance with the civil law of the time. It also accepted that this policy was turned on its head in the 19th century and culminated in the imposition of the strictest secrecy over information about clergy child sexual abuse. The Commission was doing no more than requesting the Church to return to its tradition that arguably goes back to the 4th century. The excuse that the Holy See legislates for the universal Church doesn’t wash because handing over to the civil authorities was canon law for the universal Church, applying everywhere. But even if there should now be exceptions to this for particular countries with repressive regimes, canon law, like every other legal system, can provide for exceptions wherever the general rule is inappropriate. The 1983 Code of Canon Law does this at least 1300 times. Pope Gregory XVI did this in 1842 when the Holy Office decreed that the universal law of requiring the denunciation of priests for soliciting sex in the confessional no longer applied in the lands of “schismatics, heretics and Mohammedans”. Further, canon 455 allows the Vatican to tailor make canon law on reporting to suit every country where there is a Bishops Conference, as it did for reporting in the United States in 2002. However, you are probably right. There will be push back and if the pontifical secret still applies in countries where there were inadequate reporting laws, the cover up will continue with the same disastrous consequences, not just for the victims, but for the Church itself.

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