Catholics want reform

Catholics are rising up and accepting responsibility for renewing their Church. Catholics across Australia and New Zealand have met via Zoom to support the growing movement for reform of the Catholic Church.

Representatives of 17 reform groups and other invitees, from all Australian states and the ACT and from New Zealand, joined the forum of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform to discuss the Plenary Council now deferred to 2021/22.  The groups included representatives of new groups from the dioceses of Wagga Wagga, Tasmania, Toowoomba and Wollongong, reflecting the growing strength of the renewal movement across Australia. The Coalition continues to grow.

The 80 participants represented many thousands of Catholics who share deep concerns about the state of the institutional Church in Australia. At the forefront of those concerns are issues of good governance and the toxic culture of clericalism in the church, particularly the need for accountability, transparency, inclusion and gender equality.

The Coalition is increasingly harnessing the energy for renewal within the Church. Australian Catholics want a leadership that lives and models the teachings of Jesus. The Zoom meeting was likely the most representative meeting of Catholic reform groups ever held in Australia.

Catholics are insisting that the Plenary Council must address the real issues of a debilitated Church and failed Church leadership. Catholics are increasingly determined to press for reform and to challenge the Church leadership to hear and respond to the spiritual and community needs of the faithful in getting back on mission.

Presentations at the Coalition meeting examined the Plenary Council process to date, including reviews of the official ‘discernment’ papers commissioned to shape the Plenary Council agenda (see Fewtrell & Phelan, Pearls and Irritations, xx June 2020 link), and the bishops’ Implementation Advisory Group’s recent governance report, The Light from the Southern Cross – Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia.

The official discernment papers were prepared by officially appointed groups, a mixture of bishops and laity, including some well-qualified people but with a process suited to minimal change. The Coalition meeting exposed the papers as failing to address adequately the matters of concern to the faithful that must be central to any genuine Plenary Council agenda. The papers could lead to a very limited agenda for the Plenary Council with little prospect for real change.

Those discernment papers did however acknowledge the need for reform of dysfunctional governance, but not to the extent of the bishops’ own commissioned paper, The Light from the Southern Cross, a report that the bishops attempted to keep from the faithful and now describe as ‘interim’. The fact that this Governance report was leaked almost immediately (see A Plenary of Broken Promises? by Gail Freyne in Pearls and Irritations, 17 June 2020) is indicative of the rising demand for an end to the Church’s dysfunctional governance of secrecy, unaccountability, and exclusion of the faithful by an exclusively male, celibate, aging hierarchy.

The Coalition forum noted that, far from being an ‘interim’ report, The Light from the Southern Cross was the final contribution of eminent national and international experts who delivered 86 recommendations, many of which could be enacted immediately to improve governance in parishes and dioceses across the country. Andrea Dean, President of Women and the Australian Church and co-Chair of the forum, said this Governance report is a progressive, wide-ranging report with implications which reach well beyond Australia. Dean commented:

The reform movement can respond to the report by seeking to have the recommendations implemented in parishes and dioceses immediately and engaging in discussion about issues not included in the report. The Plenary Council is one forum for consideration, but its recommendations have universal implications.

John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, was co-Chair of the Coalition’s forum. Warhurst commented:

We trust in the sense of faith of the faithful that has emerged from the Plenary Council submissions, but we are deeply concerned that the bishops’ discernment papers fail to marshal reform ideas into a relevant framework for a meaningful Council agenda. The most prominent theme emerging from the 17,500 submissions is greater inclusion for all, especially women and minority groups – that issue appears to have been sidelined in the discernment papers.

The attempt to keep the governance report secret is another expression of the bishops’ lack of transparency and reinforces the Royal Commission’s condemnation of the institutional governance and culture. As the culture wars rage, it is imperative that all are driven by a commitment to Christ’s mission.

The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform will draw on these national discussions to determine local and national action plans. The Catholic reform movement is harnessing the momentum for renewal by gathering the wisdom of the faithful in setting a path that truly reflects the essence of Christianity.

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Peter Johnstone consults in good governance practices and is committed to renewal of the Catholic Church.

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