Consumatum est: is the Australian Catholic church finished?

Aug 23, 2020

Can we save Jesus from the Church?

Consumatum est was reportedly, the last expression of Christ on the Cross— “it is finished”. The same expression could be applied today to the Catholic Church in Australia as we know it.

This is a hard truth to accept, and an even greater challenge ”to practise resurrection”. How do we imagine a new Church in Australia for our times? Has the Church become incapable of sensing its own reality?

Many books and articles have been written about a future Church. Journalists, scholars, and arm-chair critics have contributed. Much of these contributions has been helpful. However, I suspect that too little attention has been paid to the words of a former teacher of mine: “90% of solving a problem is to be found in properly understanding the problem“.

I am not a sociologist, nor an anthropologist, but I wish I were. Even being a novelist would help. At present I am reading a novel in which Faith, in the guise of the Abbess of the convent, is challenged by science, in the guise of a medical examiner. They see the problem, two suspicious deaths , differently. The reader is forced to wonder whether they can understand each other and work together to solve the problem.

In one sense, the problems of today’s Church in Australia cannot be solved just by looking inwards. A heart surgeon is as much concerned about the state of the artery, as he or she is concerned about the obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise, of the patient. The artery and those other aspects of the body have to function together for the heart to be effective.

Years ago, the World Council of Churches used to proclaim: “The world sets the agenda for the Church”.  In essence, the reason for a church to exist, is to be on mission to its world. If you don’t understand your world, then you definitely will not be able to shape your mission effectively. This is good sociology as well as wise theology.

Understanding why the Catholic Church in Australia has suffered such a dramatic loss in its membership (as measured by Mass attendance surveys); loss in terms of social influence; and loss of trust from those within and outside the Church, is not possible by  self analysis. The Church needs help from outside: from the secular scientists; from independent Royal Commissions of Inquiry; and other expert analysts. There are significant cultural and leadership issues; mission interpretations and resourcing problems; theological and scriptural contradictions; and relevance and effectiveness matters, that all need resolution.

In addition, in the Australian Church matters are complicated by denials and cover-ups of the truth by the leaders, which confound the attempts to understand the problems correctly.

One commentator observed recently: “The Plenary Council is the only show in town”. Assumedly he meant that all the eggs were in the one basket. Our hopes of saving the Church are all contained in the Council. However, already members of the Church are raising serious questions about some aspects of the Council. All is not well in “Council-cornucopia”!

Can we save the Church from itself? Can we save Jesus from the Church?

These two questions go to the heart of the problem, but are probably not on the Council’s agenda.  The Council has reached its current stage by following a lengthy discernment process. Thousands of Catholics offered ideas on all kinds of topics. Six major themes were identified and six thematic papers were written to help shape the agenda.

The Council’s agenda it seems is being prepared by a bishop.  Gone is the collaboration among laity and clerics; gone is the openness regarding content and process; and gone is the trust that was slowly being built-up during the last few years. Clerical secrecy asserts itself again.

The process for setting the agenda may be proscribed by Canon Law, and if so, one suspects that the law is behind the times. Often Canon Law allows for more than we think. If something is not expressly forbidden, then perhaps a new approach could be tried. Good law facilitates the workings of the Spirit. It does not constrain options in order to maintain privilege.

In this milieu of uncertainty and contestation, the Church’s fall from grace has not be properly discerned nor understood. Developing agendas in secret decision-making by clerics only; these belong to the old culture. Silence as an answer belongs there too. What happened to the new wineskins for the new wine? Where is the trust, the participation, and the focus on the common good? Indeed, where is the analysis of life in Australia as an essential ingredient in understanding why the Church seems to have lost its way?  Our indigenous sisters and brothers knew they belonged to the land. Only the new arrivals thought the land belonged to them. We are slow learners as a Church.

What can we do?  Here are three suggestions.

  1. In the twelve months before the Council’s first meeting we should commission a study into the causes and effects of the decline of participation in the Church in Australia. A decline from a rate of 55% to a rate of 10% in 70 years is life-threatening.
  2. Establish a panel of eminent scholars in anthropology, sociology, ecclesiology and history, to propose ways of transforming a toxic culture into a healthy culture for the Church. The current leaders have not been able to effect such a transformation.
  3. Invite all Church members to examine the outcomes of (1) and (2) above, and to contribute to the needed reform processes.

It was Covid-19 that revealed the flaws in each nation’s values, culture and way of life. Could we find a less dramatic way of looking at our own Church in order to understand our own flaws ?

We won’t have another chance. If we don’t place the Gospel credibly in front of the world as an avenue of hope, then we will all utter a  “consumatum est” – with a different meaning.

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