DAVID TIMBS. The Catholic Church in Australia. Who has the Moral Authority?

May 17, 2018

For many of Australia’s Catholic bishops ‘business as usual’ meant denial that the culture, structures and processes of the Church were part of the problem. They had cut themselves off from the lived experience of ordinary Catholics and what they wanted their Church to be. If the planned Plenary (national) Council in 2020/2021 is to make any headway towards a ‘new business’ model, the bishops will need to undertake a very serious campaign of listening, post-haste.

At a recent meeting of Catholics for Renewal, a group of committed Australian Catholics who want their Church to more closely reflect Christ’s teachings and values in its governance and leadership, one member lamented the seriously degraded relationship of trust between Australian Catholics and their bishops. He observed that, during the recent plebiscite on marriage equality, many Catholics had decided that the ‘moral thing’ to do was not to vote according to the wishes of the bishops, but according to his conscience. The plebiscite result supports that conclusion, and no wonder.

During the ‘wrap-up’ session of the Royal Commission in February 2017, Catholics witnessed some concerning confusion, even disagreement, among the bishops on several significant issues of Catholic doctrine and policy. Such confusion certainly did not bolster their moral authority and credibility; rather the contrary.

Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the bishops’  Truth Justice and Healing Council put it well in a February 2018 interview with La Croix International: “The  truth is that Catholic Church leaders for decades sought to deny the history [of child sexual abuse], and to somehow contextualise it as a thing of the past. They never fully acknowledged that the culture, structure, and processes of the Church were part of the problem. Therefore the trust and credibility in these leaders has continued to decline, and accelerated in that decline over this whole period, such that people are questioning whether the church leaders have assimilated what’s gone on. There’s still the question, Do they get it? You can only ever tell if individuals get things by what they do rather than what they say. And I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Sullivan also attributed the bishops’ collective failures of governance to their reluctance to listen to the laity and to take them seriously: “What others would see as bureaucratic bungling, the clericalist model just says these things get done in good time. It’s a way of keeping people at a distance, a way of keeping lay people and others in their place.” (https://international.la-croix.com/news/francis-sullivan-reform-and-renewal-after-royal-commission/6859 )

In all this unholy mess, it would also appear that the bishops engaged the same PR consultants who are currently writing the spin to defend the errant CEOs and board members of Australia’s major banks and financial institutions. A cross-check of the narrative, language and excuses in both cases shows they are strikingly similar. First up there are the denials that any problems exist, then it is just a “few bad apples’, then comes the defense that the media is ‘out to get them’, then the mantra of ‘“the problems have been fixed and “the loopholes closed’, closely followed by the good news that better safe-guards have been installed, professional standards  lifted,   more police checks are on order, tighter appraisals and licensing requirements are in place, and better processes all round. To wrap it up, there are heartfelt apologies, and promises that they will sin no more.

None of the leaders or top echelons go to jail, and apart from some cosmetic adjustments and  shuffling at the top table, no fundamental culture change nor reform of a dysfunctional form of governance takes place, and before long it is back to ‘business as usual’,

Both royal commissions have revealed that the leadership of all these institutions are reluctant to admit that they effectively presided over, protected and perpetuated an organisational culture that led to the criminal violation of people’s human rights and dignity and, in some cases, the destruction of lives and livelihood.  While fixing protocols and procedures is laudable, appropriate and necessary, it is merely process. It does not come to grips with the core problem, namely, a fundamentally flawed culture which underpins the serious ’governanceissues of accountability and transparency.

Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen of Parramatta, in a 2016 homily, said: “Our  [bishops] reputation, our moral credibility, our trust capital, are effectively destroyed; destroyed in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, which in itself is a vestige of the old tribalist, clericalist, insular, self sufficient, self-contained, fortress Church.”


After the bishops announced that a Plenary (national) Council was to be held in 2020/21, they  made several positive preparatory decisions: appointing  advisory and facilitation teams, setting out a planning schedule, and recommending the establishment of ‘diocesan working groups’. All were sound and laudable decisions; but it would have been much better if the way those decisions were made had been more open and with broader consultation.  Decision making by church leaders that is not transparent, not inclusive of the laity, and narrowly based,  smacks of the culture of  ‘clericalism’, a ‘disease’ and ‘evil’ that Pope Francis says must be  purged from the Church. To their credit, the Australian bishops did pledge to do that at the Royal Commission, but as Sullivan has said: “You can only ever tell if individuals ‘get things’ by what they do rather than what they say.”

When the eminent Vatican II theologian, Yves Congar OP, wrote: “A great deal still remains to be done to de-clericalize our conceptions of the Church (without jeopardizing her hierarchical structures), and to put the clergy back where they belong, in the place of member-servants” (Poverty and Power. The Renewal and Understanding of Service, 1963), he was simply echoing the teaching of Jesus: that true greatness must be measured by altruistic service of others, not by self-aggrandisement.

Collectively, the Australian bishops must now discern, with great care and attention, what the Spirit, through the lived faith of the broader Catholic community in Australia, is saying to them. And they can only do this through listening. They would do well to re-acquaint themselves with Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s landmark tract, On the Necessity of Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine, where he speaks of ‘a temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens (the teaching authority of the bishops) when there was a catastrophic failure of the bishops during the Arian crisis. For 60 years during the 4th century, bishops collectively broke faith; but the people kept it. When the bishops lost credibility, the people continued to evangelize; and when the bishops collectively lost trust, the people remained steadfastly loyal.

A strong case could be argued that, collectively, the Australian bishops now find themselves in a similar situation, where, effectively, there has been a ‘temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens and a veritable role reversal: where those who were formerly the ‘taught Church’ have become the ‘teaching Church’; where those who were ‘the governed’ have become the leaders; and where those who were once the pew sitters have become the evangelizers.

If the 2020/21 Plenary Council is not to be just a ‘bishops’ event’ where only they have the ‘deliberative vote’ on what goes on the agenda and which proposals for reform are accepted or rejected, we will have returned to ‘business as usual’. To ensure that that does not happen, the bishops have no alternative but to begin post-haste a serious campaign of ‘listening’  to the ‘ordinary’ faithful of their dioceses. They have to come down from their episcopal pedestals, become truly humble like Jesus, empty themselves of all clerical arrogance and hubris, and listen attentively to what their people have to tell them. Unless they do that, they will not be able to become partners and co-sharers in what Newman calls the consensus fidelium (the ‘common faith sense’ of all the members of the Church).

It was also no coincidence that the Royal Commission recommended that there should be an honest and open conversation about the selection of bishops. For the first twelve hundred years of the Church’s existence, it was the custom for the laity and their local priests, together, to exercise an essential role in the selection of their bishops. Pope Leo the Great (440-461 CE) rightly stated: “He who has to preside over all must be elected by all.” Two centuries earlier, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (200–258 CE), referred to the involvement of local priests and people in the selection of their bishops as “a practice which is based on divine teaching and apostolic observance, a practice which is indeed faithfully followed among us and in practically every province.” He called it a suffragium (a ‘vote’).

The laity surely have a Christian citizen’s right to participate in this process, not solely for the 2020/2021 Plenary but now and always. It is not a concession or a favour.  The relatively recent practice of bishops being appointed by the Pope with little or no reference to the local clergy and people has run its course. Australian Catholics, now more than ever, want to reclaim the right to have a voice in the selection of their bishops,  And more: they want bishops who  will dialogue with them, listen to what they have to say, and be more in tune with their sense of the lived faith.

David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal. This is a condensed  version of an article entitled Who’s accompanying whom? published on the Catholics for Renewal website.


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