Australian Catholic media censorship, Pravda style.

May 31, 2021

There’s a Plenary Council coming up in October 2021 and it is slated to be an opportunity for renewal for the Catholic Church in this country.But is there room for dialogue when evan an Archbishop is gagged?

At such a critical time in the history of the Church, however, it is disheartening that some of its media remain inwardly focused and, in a recent case, brazenly censored. This ensured that reformist views of a long serving bishop were gagged.

Six months ago (June 2020) the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn’s official publication The Catholic Voice published online a feature article on Archbishop Francis Carroll, who is retired and lives in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Within a day, however, his thoughts on issues around church renewal were selectively taken down, and parts removed altogether. The journalist, also The Catholic Voice’s Editor at the time, was not informed of the deletion of these key components of her article.

The initial (pre-censored) version of her interview, headlined ‘Strong views from bishop with farm-boy charm’, was a warm and encouraging account of 90 years’ of wisdom, the outlook from an esteemed pastoral elder. The long-serving Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn (1983-2006) shared in this interview of the rich joys he had experienced and promulgated as a result of Vatican II.
The report of his ‘strong views’ included many matters, dear to the hearts of Catholics across Australia, indeed across the world. Yet these views were expunged, and the new headline became ‘A bishop with farm-boy charm’. No more ‘strong views’.

The reporting journalist’s commitment, integrity and professional objectivity inherent in the initial report were given a back seat. Evidently, a censor had decided that Fr Francis’ thoughtfully expressed wisdom on church reform should be kept under wraps.

Some will recall that Francis Carroll openly reflected on reform when he was President of Australian Catholic Bishops Conference some 20 years ago. Hence, unremarkably, the thrust of his current (censored) views on reform is echoed in a huge proportion of the 17,457 Plenary Council submissions from other Australian Catholics.

Censorship doesn’t do much for our church’s credibility. It demonstrates that the hierarchy does not like to be critiqued even from within its own ranks. It begs more profound questions too: can this be within a church guided by the Spirit and founded on the rock of Christ?

Will such an opaque mindset permeate the workings of the Plenary Council process? Has it already done so? If we laity remain mute, we only perpetuate this unhelpful, non-transparent and wily practice.

The purging of Fr Francis’ ideas on church renewal issues, including consideration of women’s ordination, married clergy, optional celibacy, and his perception of the power of conservative elements within the church, demonstrates a wanton disregard for openness.

It is censorship, and it clearly misrepresents his position. It sends a message that the hierarchy don’t much value his views, don’t want Catholics to know of them, and certainly don’t trust Catholics to discern them and decide for themselves.

Fr Francis’ uncensored ‘strong views’ included ‘hopes for a Plenary Council that fosters genuine discussion and openness to change’. However, in his usual humble and self-effacing manner, he chuckled ‘not that anyone would take notice of me’.

He went on to observe ‘that, in my view, conservatives hold the power and the numbers’. He also mentioned that his diocese is divided like others, ‘with conservative Catholics dominating and people seeking change viewed as troublemakers’.

This hush-up smacks of systemic secrecy. Selective cutting of the article is the chosen tactic, and sorry to say it has worked. Such an approach is reminiscent of adverse findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

We have still not yet got things quite right. It mocks the Plenary Council’s promises that our bishops would genuinely listen to the People of God.

Had this censorship remained undetected, the contemporary views of a much-loved bishop would never have been known to Australian Catholics, either now or in posterity. As a friend commented: ‘it is a perverse world when the views of Australia’s longest serving bishop are censored. It can only lead one to conclude that some people are very fearful of open discussion’.
The time for window dressing is over. Ideas such as those raised by Francis Carroll should be welcome and open. But our Catholic media that’s controlled and opaque doesn’t want to go there because the institution still fears daylight. Its press is either not willing or not allowed to stop punching below its weight. Commentary that challenges the status quo or does not follow the party line goes missing. If previously we hadn’t been aware of this hallmark of church, Francis Carroll has now enlightened us. We thank him!

Adult Catholics in 2021 realise that their Church is not the inert and immovable apparatus of an exclusively male hierarchy. It is a living Spirit-led community. It’s the catholic and Catholic you and me, including about 90 percent who are no longer churchgoing.

A censor has excised the substance of an otherwise challenging article – the views of Australia’s longest serving bishop, Francis Carroll. In so depriving us of his views, Fr Francis has been misrepresented. But this unadorned censorship has had its cover blown.

Is it any wonder that laity, with a keen interest in the goings-on of a much loved institution, ask if and how the hierarchy is standing up for them? And with some urgency it asks the explicit question: is this the benchmark of what’s going on in the lead up to the Plenary Council?

Put simply, I have skin in the game… I’m a Catholic and I’m concerned. I am at a point when I need to stand up and ask questions of my Church, even if this does rock the ideological boat. Why didn’t I do so three decades ago when I was in my 40’s, when I had more energy and was a bit feisty? Mine is merely another call for transparency.

Secrecy does not cut it any longer. It’s dishonest. If you’re reading this, you’re perhaps coming from the same place as me. If we comply with this modus operandi, built solely within an ecclesial pecking order and being male, it means we continue to contribute to just another counter-productive and distasteful form of clericalism.

This is a pivotal moment for leadership in church media. Catholic news and information can become a lighthouse for the people of the Church, or it can remain an exclusive, clerically controlled clubhouse.

Matthew’s gospel (10:26) has an encouraging takeaway when it comes to Catholic media and propensity for censorship: ‘So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known’. Thomas Merton’s words also sustain us: ‘courage comes and goes, hold on for the next supply’.

Which leaves the question: if an Archbishop is so blatantly censored, what opportunity is there for honest dialogue with the laity anytime, especially now in the lead up to the Plenary Council?

This is an update to the author’s recently published article in ‘The Swag’ – quarterly magazine of National Council of Priests of Australia – Autumn 2021.

 

 

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