The archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP is the nominal head of the Australian Catholic Church – despite the fact that Melbourne is the largest and arguably the most intellectually lively diocese in the country. Fisher is seen by many as an authoritative spokesperson for his brother bishops, priests and religious. So, his 2018 Christmas message offered him a golden opportunity to reach out inclusively, positively and generously to his fellow Catholics and to all people of good will across the wide brown land. In the event, he managed to disappoint, even anger, just about everybody except for the small reactionary clique gathered around him and around like-minded cronies in the hierarchy.
If ever the Australian Catholic community needed a hopeful Christmas message in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, it was in the immediate run-up to Christmas 2018. Everyone knows that morale in the Church is at a devastatingly low ebb. Many among the Catholic laity are shell-shocked, demoralised, deeply hurt, even alienated. For a large majority of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Church leaders have been found seriously wanting. Whatever moral authority the Church had in the past is now fast withering on the vine. The Catholic lay faithful (a dwindling lot) are struggling through very dark times.
Is it not therefore the prime responsibility of ordained leaders in the Church to exercise the most sensitive pastoral care to those struggling, against huge odds, to remain true to their faith? In addition to being treated with respect and compassionate pastoral care by the hierarchy, lay Catholics today deserve immense humility from their bishops, priests and religious.
If we judge him by his 2018 Christmas homily, Anthony Fisher appears either blindly unaware, or arrogantly dismissive of the laity’s anguish and increasing alienation from purblind clerics who persist in ignoring the crisis facing the contemporary Church.
No doubt Fisher is reeling from the double whammy that hit him and his ilk over this past year.
First there was the excoriating experience of the Royal Commission and its recommendations. Fisher used his homily to rail against the recommendation that the seal of the confessional should be unlawful when the protection of children is a matter of concern. Admittedly this is a difficult issue, but why be so confronting about it when what is needed is cautious thought and sensitive diplomacy? The old adage about speaking softly to hear soft echoes appears lost on Archbishop Fisher.
Second was the fact that a very substantial majority of Australians – many of them Catholics, including priests and religious – voted Yes in the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Fisher was one of the theological cheer leaders for the alt-right in the Australian parliament who imposed the plebiscite on the Australian people, despite the fact that it was a devious attempt to pervert the will of the people. It certainly blew up in the faces of those surly reactionaries!
How should a wise leader respond to this double whammy? This is the question Fisher could have asked himself before composing his homily. As it turned out, his homily was one long whinge. He started out by complaining about “hard-edged secularism.” By secularism he probably means a society in which the Church is not ipso facto the moral arbiter on most if not all things. He needs to face up to the fact that this has been the case for many years now.
Today, the Church is only one voice among many. It is not a privileged voice for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Many of the bad reasons can be found in the unnecessary war Church authorities have waged for at least 200 years against the encroachments of modern secular society. Their mistake was to go to war rather than to find an accommodation that could benefit both sides.
The blinkered view of the anti-secularists is that the Church’s rightful authority has been undermined by secular values (in particular, democracy) and secular knowledge (in particular, science). The Church’s sustained fight against modernising its own systems of governance, its own understandings of the gospel, and its Canute-like defence of its undeserved privileges means that modern thought across a vast range of ethical, philosophical and cultural matters long ago surpassed the sclerotic orthodoxies of the Church.
Fisher proceeded in his homily to defend “religious freedom” which he claims (against substantial evidence) is under threat in contemporary Australia. By this he is apparently saying that Catholic schools and other institutions should have legal protection to discriminate against gay teachers and students – presumably by excluding them. If this was the purpose of his homily, it is unduly defensive. It is also the very antithesis of the “love and service” that he claims for the “Christian message of hope and healing.”
What would a good homily look like in these circumstances?
First, a much humbler approach is needed. Fisher should have acknowledged (as he must do for the rest of his preaching days) the appalling moral mess the Church is now floundering in because of the failed leadership of bishops and others not unlike him. He should have begun by asking the St Mary’s congregation for their forgiveness. No more clericalist arrogance, please! More humility, please!
Second, he could have lifted the self-regarding demand for special treatment for the Church out of a self-serving and narrow defence of religious freedom by outlining a theologically-informed argument for a charter of human rights and freedoms for Australia, to be legislated by the federal parliament.
Of course, this would be anathema to Catholic politicians such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews. But it is precisely for this reason that the Catholic Church has to be a Church that it is not in ghoulish league with a reactionary political rump (as it was in the bad old days of the DLP). The hierarchy needs urgently to be in vibrant communion with the faithful laity who today are like the man on the road to Jericho who fell victim to thieves, with the bishops being the pious lot passing by on the other side. Is there a good Samaritan who will come to the aid of the faithful laity? If Fisher’s homily contains the answer, then clearly it is No.
Australian Catholics don’t deserve to have bishops imposed on them with narrow-minded and ill-considered views on issues like religious freedom. If only the laity could advise the Pope meaningfully about the bishops they need. That would help to overcome the yawning disconnect between the laity and their leaders – arguably the greatest peril confronting the Church today.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.