Paul Collins’ recent commentary, “The Real Crisis of Australian Catholicism”, raises some contradictory challenges for the future of the Catholic Church in Australia.
It is a massive contradiction that in so many ways the Catholic Church is in such a strong position – for example with the largest, most highly paid workforce it has ever had; with its physical infrastructure larger and possibly better maintained than it has ever been; financially it is probably in the best position it has been in its entire history in this nation – yet, at the parish participation level and regarding vocations, it is in a crisis situation. How do we explain and understand all this?
My sense is that the positive things are the legacy of a range of fortuitous decisions made back in the 1960s and 70s that led to the eventual huge injection of taxpayer funds into the education system, and the health and social welfare systems. But there has been an accompanying crisis of leadership with the best leaders being either forced out or “seeing the writing on the wall” and leaving voluntarily. Even though the institution today has this massive workforce, they are also effectively gagged from providing effective leadership.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have to shoulder a massive amount of the responsibility for this as they tried to impose a certain style on the institution with the sort of leaders they were selecting and promoting. It was just a futile dream that the vision and culture of Polish and Bavarian spirituality forged in the furnace of the totalitarian experiments of Communism and Nazism could be the “saviour” of Catholicism in the rest of the world.
We have this deep culture in the Church that past popes cannot be criticised because that undermines the entire concept of the institution’s “infallibility” in the eyes of those Cardinal Ratzinger labelled the “little people” and “simple people” who need to be “protected from intellectuals” and thinking. Ninety percent of the adult population in this country who do not think of themselves as either “little” or “simple” have simply disappeared out the door. Getting them back to listening, and participating, is a task that will take centuries if it is possible at all. As the statistics for the exit from participation of young people show, even the brilliant and well-funded Catholic Education system we have in this country today is doing nothing to reverse the decline.
I’ve argued in the past that, given all the positive things in the institution’s favour, it should be a relatively, or comparatively (to other countries), easy task to turn the situation around. What Francis principally needs is to find is a few leaders with vision who can again “inspire” their people – starting with this massive, and now largely lay, workforce. The massive challenge he faces though, given the crisis in vocations, is where in the dickens does he start to find such leaders with vision, and the necessary charisma, who can “inspire the masses”?
Brian Coyne is editor and publisher of the website catholica.com.au