The latest letter from Pope Francis greatly empowers
Australia’s Catholics to use their influence and puts heat on the
bishops to allow the voices and wisdom of Australian Catholics to be
Pope Francis recentIy wrote to all Catholics. The letter is remarkable
for several reasons, partly because it was written at all. Addressed
to the People of God, it was a a letter to Catholic laity throughout
the world, sent via the internet. In the past Popes have occasionally
written to the Universal Church, but such statements were prefaced by
a long list of hierarchical recipients, starting with Cardinals and
Bishops and ending with mere laypeople. This was different. It was a
case of ‘cutting out the middlemen’ and going directly to the ordinary
Francis wrote about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church,
which just keeps getting bigger and bigger. As Australia’s Royal
Commission demonstrated, it takes forensic inquiries to tear down the
secrecy and get to the truth.
It reads as if Francis has also had just about enough of the systemic
and cultural nature of the offences and the pathetic responses from
his delegated leaders – local bishops and cardinals. He calls out
clericalism as leading directly to sexual abuse and its cover up. He
is clearly in agreement with the Royal Commission’s report that
clericalism is a major cultural factor in the church’s betrayal of
trust. Francis sees it as a root cause, saying “clericalism …supports
and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning
today…to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of
By way of explanation, clericalism is the perversion of priestly
mission and humility into priestly and hierarchical power and
exclusiveness. It is a toxic mix of attitudes, dispositions,
behaviours and judgements that have come to characterise an entrenched
male, celibate priestly class, distracted by perceived status rather
than driven by real service. But it is not limited to clerics, a
sizable minority of lay Catholics share such attitudes.
Francis believes “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to
clericalism”. He insists that “to acknowledge the truth of what has
happened…is not enough”. He says that the response is a task “for all
of us as the People of God” because without support from the bottom,
“everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our
communities will not be successful in generating the necessary
dynamics for sound and realistic change”. This is not just a profound
shift in ecclesiology, it is also sound culture change management. I
doubt a Pope has ever before fused such principles.
But Francis does more than point to a significant cause and insist it
be removed. He is clearly marshalling allies and he sees the ordinary
catholic as strategically important to his cause. “It is impossible to
think of a conversion of our activity as a church that does not
include the active participation of all the members of God’s People”,
adding “every one of the baptized should feel involved in the
ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need”. Indeed, he says
that unless the (lay) people of the church engage in this effort, it
will not succeed.
The Pope’s letter is itself an act of de-clericalisation and his
comments are something of a cry for help. He correctly acknowledges
that cultural change on the scale required won’t happen simply by
decrees from the top. He also seems to be implying that he needs the
support of the people to light a fire that will put heat on all church
leaders, from priests to bishops and cardinals.
The timing of his message has special significance for Australian
Catholics. Australia’s bishops have called a Plenary Council for 2020
to address the state of the church in this country, post the Royal
Commission. Lay Catholics are currently arguing vigorously for proper
representation at this forum, the powers, processes and composition of
which are still undefined. There is justifiable scepticism that it
will be a sanitised affair with few real outcomes. Certainly; the
official process of ‘listening’, which purports to be collecting the
views of the Catholic community only adds to people’s justifiable
But the letter from Francis greatly empowers Australia’s Catholics to
use their influence and puts heat on the bishops to allow the voices
and wisdom of Australian Catholics to be heard seriously. According to
Francis this must occur to achieve the “the necessary dynamics for
sound and realistic change”. The questions left hanging therefore are:
Do the Australian bishops want real change? and Are the bishops on
board with the Francis agenda?
Several groups around the country are advocating for serious change.
Canberra’s Concerned Catholics is part of this movement. But after
reading Francis’ letter that title seems a little timid. Francis wants
active and assertive Catholics.
Those Australian Catholics involved in such a cause have a powerful
two-fold motivation, one as Catholics another as Australians. They
seek reform of the church in an updated spirit of Vatican II, and they
carry an obligation as Australians to ensure that sex abuse never
recurs to damage Australian society and its people. The
recommendations of the Royal Commission are effectively a statement of
requirements on behalf of the Australian community, insisting that
real change occur in the church. The active Catholic groups pursuing
reform, therefore, are effectively agents for all Australians to
achieve those outcomes.
Francis is calling for a church more in line with the theology and
ecclesial direction of Vatican II. He wants significant change. In his
words he wants ‘a church with the smell of the sheep’. He is seeking
allies in “solidarity” with ordinary Catholics in Australia and
elsewhere. All Australians have a vested interest in this cause.
Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn is holding an open workshop
meeting to seek input for a submission to the Plenary Council, at
7.30pm on Thursday 29 November, at the Australian Centre for
Christianity and Culture in Barton.
Terry Fewtrell is a Canberra author advocating Catholic church reform
who will join the workshop panel at the Concerned Catholics meeting.