BRIAN COYNE. A response to Paul Collins’ “The real crisis of Australian Catholicism”.

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


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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11 Responses to BRIAN COYNE. A response to Paul Collins’ “The real crisis of Australian Catholicism”.

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    In response to the question how do we change the Catholic Church in Australia may I suggest we change canon law. The Roman Pontiff has personal legislative power to do so. We, the people of God in Australia, have to ask hime to do so. In 1901 we asked and received a national constitution from the the Sovereign of the United Kingdom after we drafted the legislation. The 1983 Code of Canon Law was decreed by John Paul II and Pope Francis can issue a new code that applies to Australia in 2021. He could do it in Adelaide. He does not have to seek approval from any official in Rome or elsewhere. A new code for our Australian Bishops could make them responsible in new ways that would include losing their jobs if so decided by the Episcopal Conference. The model we have based on the Roman Empire is not working. The Canon Law Society of Australia & NZ could be working for our Bishops to design a new model now. Constitutional change is a legal and political process that needs urgent attention.

  2. Peter Keightley says:

    The decline of the “Institutional” Catholic Church seems related to its lack of humility in refusing to recognise the continuing Revelation of the Creator granted to us through new knowledge & science.

    We now know that there was never a time when man was created in a perfect state and then “Fell”. Hence the continued teaching of the Fall/Redemption theology based on Augustine’s 4th century non-biblical and distorted ideas of original sin as its foundational theology is no longer sustainable.

    There is a general belief that the church accepts the theory of evolution, but reference to the official catechism # 400 & #389 demonstrates clearly that the literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story is still official church teaching, as is its liturgy, which is based entirely on this theology.

    Garry Everett’s comment, (even though he was referencing another issue) – is indeed relevant to this issue — “Most Catholics I suspect have no idea how this flawed theology has brought us to the parlous state you describe. Those in power do not want to know about it!”

    In the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong – “Adherence to literal interpretations of old testament scriptures is pre Darwinian mythology and post Darwinian nonsense”

    Pope Francis has said – “We are not in an era of change – we are in change of era” but that reality seems beyond the grasp of both the local hierarchy and those in the Vatican.

    The principal task for the Institution must surely be to reassess its teachings in light of current knowledge and science and bring them into line with the teachings and lived life of Jesus.

    It took some 500 years before the church acknowledged that its teachings on cosmology were overtaken by new knowledge and science (Galileo) so it is perhaps unlikely we will see such an admission in relation to the Fall/Redemption teaching any time soon.

    We are therefore, at least in the first world, perhaps entering a time of “post institutional religion”. How we continue the exploration of the Divine as a community, as distinct from the personal search, which is always ongoing is certainly unknown. It seems highly unlikely to be within the institutional church in its present state.

    • carey burke says:

      Peter, your call for efforts to express key catholic beliefs in terms which engage sensitively with contemporary knowledge is uncontested. However, I would suggest you reconsider your assertion that Catholic doctrines continue to rely on a literal reading of scripture, especially the early chapters of Genesis.

      A careful reading of the section of the Catechism you quote contains frequent alerts to the fact the biblical texts are NOT being read literally. But perhaps the most economical demonstration of this fact is provided by non other than Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, as he was before his tenure as Pope.

      In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and on this occasion chairman of the International Theological Commission issued a document “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons created in the Image of God.” Here the scientific findings which make polygenism more probable than mongenism are explored and accepted as an alternate horizon for expounding Catholic beliefs about Creation, Humanity and relationships with God. A literalist reading of Genesis is wedded to monogenism!

    • Brian Coyne says:

      Thanks for all the comments. Peter and Garry, I agree with you about the problem with the theology. On my site I have regularly argued that the Church needs to go back to the raw canvas about a lot of its beliefs and theology. The 90% of the baptised who have left are simply no long convinced of those beliefs anymore. I suspect Hell might freeze over before it happens – or perhaps the hierarchs might wake up when 95% or 98% of the baptised have given up participating and all they have left to preach to is that small cohort who deeply and sincerely believe they are the “chosen ones” with exclusive insight into the Mind and Laws of the Almighty One. In response to Carey: I think Catholic teachers do a brilliant job of turning out great citizens. Teachers are not dumb and stupid though, I think most of them like the 90% who have left no longer believe much of the official teachings. What do you think might be done about that: force them to believe them; or try and find a cohort of teachers who continue to believe in stuff that most people no longer believe?

  3. Bill McMahon says:

    Our faith is based on our human experience. Recently we have had revelations about Roger Rogerson and his merry band of corrupt police. At the same time we see our church leaders tumbling through human weaknesses.
    We accept that their are honest police and the rule of law can continue.
    With our church leaders their is a similar phenomena occurring and we accept that they are an aberration and our faith life continues!
    The serenity prayer is needed! This sounds a bit glib but what is another approach?

  4. Joan Seymour says:

    ‘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”?’ Maybe among the masses? Or are we so addicted to the power of the ordained that we can’t even imagine an alternative?

  5. John Edwards says:

    Not only are Australian Catholics bereft of leaders with a vision of a modern church or a capacity or desire to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council which provided one, but they are also totally bereft of any means to be rid of inept leaders. Unlike unpopular Australian governments which voters can be rid of at the next election, there is no mechanism for Australian Catholics to change the ‘leadership’ at the top. Bishops, once appointed, serve until they are seventy-five years of age and many beyond that until a replacement is appointed, a process generally taking several years. While nominally they can forward a suggested replacement to the Papal Nuncio in Canberra, the ultimate choice is made in Rome with little or no transparency. The Melbourne philosopher Max Charlesworth suggested the changes that needed to be made in his 2008 monograph, A Democratic Church – Reforming the Values and Institutions of the Catholic Church. But again, there is no mechanism within the Catholic church whereby such changes can be made by popular demand, unlike those afforded Australians generally by the Australian Constitution. Catholic membership might be strong at 22.6% of the population at the 2016 Census, but the only vote that counts is in Rome!!

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    I think if young people were offered real support, the leaders would probably emerge quickly and easily.

  7. Garry Everett says:

    Brian. Leadership is not the only or major problem facing the Church. Much of the problems go to the theology which underpins beliefs. The priest (bishop and Pope) are regarded as ontologically different from the rest of us (which the sex abuse Commission showed was false!)
    Then there is the “divinely ordained” idea of hierarchy; the lower status of women; the greater importance of virginity over the married state …….and so on. Most Catholics I suspect have no idea how this flawed theology has brought us to the parlous state you describe. Those in power do not want to know about it!

  8. Graham English says:

    The wrong models

    From the early 1960s much of the official Catholic education emphasis was on at last obtaining government funding. It was a political operation. Beginning with Commonwealth funding of science laboratories in Catholic schools in the ACT then spreading to all states Catholic schools with government funding remained viable as the number of Sisters and Brothers declined and the numbers of children attending the schools increased. Many of the officials in Catholic education were in fact political operators who were able to take advantage of all political parties’ desire for the votes of Catholics. Some were very good at the politics.

    The Church here was already split after the DLP/National Civic Council fracas in the 1950s. Bishops, clergy and some sisters and brothers sided with the NCC/DLP. Some did not. The NCC newspaper News Weekly was sent gratis to every monastery and convent in the country carrying its reactionary Catholicism, reactionary social agenda and its reactionary attitude to Vatican II. Catholics like B. A. Santamaria with no theological or educational expertise spoke with authority on theology, ecclesiology and religious education and were intent on resisting Vatican II and keeping the Catholic Church in Australia exactly as it had been in their childhoods. For too many Catholic education officials the main questions were political when they needed to be theological and ecclesiological.

    Instead of adapting the Church and Catholic education, religious education particularly, to Vatican II the reactionaries tried to resist all change while too many of those who felt the need for change were engaged in finding new methods to teach religion but did not realise that new methods were not enough. What was needed was a change of spirit, an aggiornamento, a new Church to bring Good News to the times and place it was in.

    Too many Australian Catholic leaders did not know where to go. The only models they had were the religious life based culture that the schools had used for a hundred years where criticism and comment were not allowed, the institution had to be maintained, and the Romanised clerical culture the Church had used for longer where the laity had no voice and many things were micro managed from Rome.
    All of this happened when Australian culture was changing, the Vietnam War was raging, Pope Paul got it all wrong about contraception, young Catholics were routinely going to universities, and the first signs of the women’s movement were happening in Australia.

    That Catholic education, Catholic health care and Catholic social services are flourishing is no surprise. We are good at these things. Religion does have a lot to offer when the care of individuals is central. That only 10% of Catholics and possibly a smaller percentage of younger Catholics do not attend Mass regularly is not surprising either. The official Church has so little to offer the people. Too many in the official Church still fight culture wars, they cling to outdated models, they have still not ‘got it’ about sex abuse and the great silence that let it flourish, they cannot really take women seriously, still want to be told what to do by Rome, are still in reaction to Vatican II instead of having used the freedom they were offered to build an Australian Catholic Church instead of a Romanised one.

    As the Church has survived the Borgia popes, the conciliar movement, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, the 20th century with all its horrors and all those other things I presume it will survive all this and perhaps flourish. At present I cannot see how.

  9. carey burke says:

    Paul Collins and Brian Coyne note the size of the workforce employed by the Catholic Church and its several agencies. They further note the heavy reliance on Government funding to sustain these activities. Could it be that a swag of negative non intended consequences have accompanied this unusual liaison?

    Apart from matters of sexual morality and religious freedom, when was the last time the Australian Bishops’ Conference or its bishop delegate addressed a major social concern that included criticism of Government policy? Alas, it has fallen to the St Vincent de Paul society and its leadership to stand at the brink of social conscience concerns – and you would recall that the VdeP organisation is overwhelming sourced in voluntary commitment.

    And what of this enormous flotilla of paid employees? Decent citizens and competent in their various specialities, no doubt, but, with the exception of School Principals and Religious Education Co-ordinators, their catholicity is not explored at any depth. So, it is at least premature to suggest that the Church has this enormous pool of talent that it could mobilise with further responsibilities.

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