Necessary disruption for church culture change to protect children

A ‘secret bishops report’ has called for the declericalisation of the Catholic Church in Australia. The bishops are keeping the report under wraps until the end of the year ‘to do it justice’, while critics are calling it ironic for bishops to withhold a report that urges them to be transparent and inclusive.

Last month the Nine papers revealed some of the content of a ‘secret bishops report’ that called for a ‘radical revamp’ of the Catholic Church in Australia in the direction of de-clericalisation.

They were referring to The Light From the Southern Cross, a report that was subtitled ‘Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia’ and marked ‘Strictly Confidential’.

A few days ago John Menadue posted the full text of the report as an attachment to his blog post.

He put it into the context of the finding of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that clericalism ‘resulted in dysfunctional governance and management’, and that the abuse of clerical power ‘was a key contributor to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church’.

According to the Nine papers article, reaction to the report has focused on the Bishops’ determination that it should remain ‘secret’ until at least November, when the Bishops Conference would discuss it at their plenary meeting.

Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the delay was necessary ‘to do it justice’. But the convener of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform Peter Johnstone said it was ‘supremely ironic’ that the bishops were withholding a report that called on them to be more transparent and inclusive.

Meanwhile Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous explains why some bishops might be resistant to ‘co-responsible governance’, in his recent Catholic Weekly op-ed titled ‘Plenary 2020: the creeping clericalisation of the laity’.

He argues that when a lay person takes on a role in the church, it must be ‘under the direction of the ordained ministry’ because ‘an ecclesial role for the lay person does not exist in its own right’.

Porteous is right to fear that the power and exclusivity of the male clerical state is under threat. But others maintain that the Church’s status quo in the Church is unsustainable sociologically.

Last week Belgian Jesuit sociologist Charles Delhez argued in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that for the Church to exist in society, it must maintain a ‘dialogue with modern culture’ that ‘promote(s) a less sacred concept of the priest’.

He was responding to bemusement surrounding French female theologian Anne Soupa offering herself as a candidate for the vacant position of Archbishop of Lyon. In sending her curriculum vitae to the pope, she realised her candidature was tongue in cheek. But she responded by saying: ‘In the end, I hope they say to themselves: a lay person at the head of a diocese, why not?’

I would suggest that such surprising and disruptive initiatives are necessary if the Church is going to follow calls for it to change its culture to avoid future clerical sexual abuse of minors. There is a strong argument against any delay. Disruption of the status quo and normal procedures and protocols is necessary, and indeed virtuous.

The analogy that comes to mind is that of the social distancing rules that had to be implemented earlier this year to control the spread of COVID-19. The measures disrupted economies around the world but they saved countless lives. World leaders who dragged their feet in implementing social distancing paid the price with many times more cases and deaths in their jurisdictions compared with leaders who acted swiftly.

While they keep the Light from the Southern Cross Co-Responsible Governance report under wraps, Australia’s Catholic Bishops are demonstrating that they do not understand the urgency of acting on its message that the Church must declericalise and suffer necessary disruption in order to protect children.

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Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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