JOHN WARHURST. Catholic Bishops must embrace transparency and accountability

Senior Catholic bishops must exercise leadership and firmly grasp the fresh opportunities now provided to them for increased transparency and accountability within the church. They must grab the moment.

The Vatican. Credit: Nils – Unsplash

The power dynamics within the church, involving a hierarchy within the hierarchy, means that the senior bishops, including Anthony Fisher, the Archbishop of Sydney, who was recently involved in controversy with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Quentin Dempster, “Catholic Church duplicitous and unaccountable in needs-based school funding says Malcolm Turnbull”, Pearls and Irritations), must exercise responsibility. The others include Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Brisbane, who is the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Tim Costelloe, the Archbishop of Perth, who is the Chair of the Plenary Council 2020 (PC2020), and Peter Comensoli, the Archbishop of Melbourne. If Fisher, Coleridge, Costelloe and Comensoli do not exercise such leadership, these precious opportunities for reform may be lost despite whatever efforts the rest of the Catholic community make.

The May ACBC meeting began last Thursday. They had before them several documents making the undeniable case for increased transparency and accountability in church governance.

They considered the report of the Governance Review which was set up by the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia in the light of the recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to review the church’s governance and culture.

The bishops were due to consider the reports by the six Writing and Discernment groups chosen to investigate the major themes identified by the 17,500 submissions by Catholics to the PC2020 Listening process. Governance reform, including greater transparency, inclusivity, lay participation in leadership and accountability, was a major focus of these submissions, a summary of which has been published.

They had also received earlier in the week an Open Communique from the 15- member national network of church reform groups, known as the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR). This communique embraced co-responsibility in church governance and condemned autocratic and unaccountable leadership.  Among the specific matters ACCCR stressed as being of fundamental importance were:

Good governance with accountability, inclusion in decision making and appointments, equality and transparency, with synodality and subsidiarity, with the very best models of leadership, and with ongoing and open dialogue with all Christ’s faithful.

This is a great moment of opportunity for the Church in Australia to embark on internal reform and to prove that it is part of an era of change in which business as usual is not good enough. Between them these documents, and the research, conversations and discernment upon which they are based, provide the basis for serious governance reform. They provide the church leadership, not just the bishops but also other religious leaders, with the basis for such action.

Some of the desired action needs to be collective, but much of it can be taken up independently by leaders of dioceses and other constituent units, Now is not the time for timidity. The Australian Catholic community is crying out for action. Reform of institutional practices will be needed as will a change in culture and mindset.

All of this must be driven by co-responsible leadership shared by bishops, clergy, religious and laity. But the realpolitik, in this time of transition, is that some of the existing senior episcopal leadership has to act decisively and progressively for much to happen.

The two PC 2020 meetings, now delayed by COVID-19, will be critical occasions for governance reform to be progressed. But the episcopal leadership should immediately address some reforms, including financial accountability and public communications, as a matter of urgency.

Public communication about internal church affairs should be more transparent. Almost without exception, it is unnecessarily introverted and defensive. There is a lot going on within the higher reaches of the church, including organizational restructuring and the composition of the lay component of the PC2020, which, although of great public interest, is carried on largely behind closed doors.

Wider cultural reform is a necessary ingredient. The official church media, tightly controlled by the senior bishops, is too tame and conservative. It is not committed to transparency and accountability and reluctant to allow room for a diversity of voices within the Catholic community, including those critical of its leaders, to be heard.

Greater transparency and accountability, including on financial matters, do not come easily to the Catholic church. Yet there are some positive signs that the church in Australia is edging forwards. The opportunity is beckoning and many of the ingredients are coming together. What is now needed is a strong dose of forward-thinking leadership from those men currently occupying the most powerful positions in the hierarchy.

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John Warhurst AO is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist with the Canberra Times and Eureka Street.

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