ELEANOR FLYNN et al. Australian Catholic Women still listening for leadership from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

As a group of women who seek the equality of Women in the Australian Church, Women’s Wisdom in the Church (WWITCH) are appalled by the recent abolition of the stand-alone Council for Australian Catholic Women, and the closure of the Office for the Participation of Women in the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC).

The Bishops have stated that they wish to focus on evangelization. However, by disbanding and downgrading these organisations they demonstrate that they have no plan to engage actively with the women of the Church.

This is an egregious error. Women are not a special interest group in the Church; we make up more than half of all Australian Catholics and 70% of many congregations and keep most parishes running on a day to day basis.

This restructuring ignores the pleas of national and international renewal groups across the world who understand that full equality for women in the Catholic church, including ordination of women, is central to ridding our Church of crippling clericalism.

The ACBC’s move is particularly bewildering given the closures were announced just after the launch by two bishops of “Still Listening to the Spirit: Woman and Man Twenty Years On”. This slim volume of predominantly women’s voices, reflects on the twenty years since the publication of “Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus”. The latter documented the 1990s research project to assess the participation of women in the church. It reported on the significant barriers to women’s full participation and the strong sense of pain and alienation from the Church felt by Australian Catholic women.

As a direct response to these findings, the Bishops established both the Council for Australian Catholic Women and the Office for the Participation of Women in 2000. The Bishops directed the newly established entities to “find ways within the integral Church Tradition to engage the wisdom, talents and the experience of women for the enrichment of the Church and society, and for the fulfillment of their own lives.” (ACBC response to Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, 2000)

In the foreword to “Still Listening” Archbishop Christopher Prowse and Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFM Conv admit that “There is unfinished business from the action commitments made by the bishops in 2000”. The title itself, Still listening to the Spirit is unfortunate at best. Women are indeed still listening, but we doubt it is the Spirit who tells them to be subservient to male clerical voices while their own voices remain unheard.

Dr Sandie Cornish one of the editors, bears this out by saying that the issues in Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus “remain live and contentious” (Still Listening to the Spirit; Woman and Man Twenty Years Later p XXVI) and that women perceive that their participation in pastoral ministry “has actually gone backward in the last twenty years.” (Ibid p XXIX)]

The closures of these (and other offices) are due to financial difficulties, the result of many factors. The decline in active parishioners plus the need to finance just redress schemes has contributed to shrinking budgets. However, the Bishops’ failure to consult about these decisions does not inspire Australian Catholic women that their voices will be heard.

There are 5.3 million Catholics in Australia, with a conservative estimate of 2.7 million Catholic Women. In 2018 there were a mere 253 men studying for the diocesan priesthood. (Australian Catholic directory 2019). One, or possibly two, seminaries would surely suffice in the future thus freeing up funds. Obviously, a small group of men are being privileged over the majority of practising Catholics. “I can’t understand the rationale or media sense of publicly claiming that because of the criminal actions of many bad men the bishops have to cut back on women’s services.” (John Warhurst Canberra Times 16/1/20)]

This ‘restructuring’ is taking place in the year of the Plenary Council and ignores the many submissions to the Plenary Council recommending inclusive language, a new ecclesiology, the full participation of the baptized in decision-making and the review of ministerial roles. There is an enormous gap between the expectations of the baptised and the majority of the ACBC.

The Bishops’ actions clash with Pope Francis’ priorities. The pope has several times suggested that women need to be a greater presence at all levels of the Church, including at decision making levels. His recent appointment of a woman undersecretary at the Secretariat of State demonstrates concrete actions to match his words. And following the recommendations from the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon he has signaled that the admission of women to the diaconate remains an open question to be further studied.

Francis’ encouragement of women to become lectors, highlights the issue in the Australian Church of women with doctorates in scripture who cannot break open the word to their fellow parishioners, a massive underutilisation of their talents.

Since 1998 when 73.5% of those enrolled in undergraduate theology courses were women (Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, p361) the numbers have continued to increase. The continuing theological and spiritual education by the laity done in their own time contrasts with the lack of mandated continuing education for the clergy.

While we welcome the Bishops’ stated focus on evangelisation we question any strategy that continues to exclude women as equal partners in the revitalisation of the Church in Australia. The work of reforming and rebuilding trust and credibility in our Church following the horror of child sexual abuse must proceed with the full participation of all the faithful.

Women and men of faith are committed to working with our leadership to develop an inclusive practice of faith with equal representation in decision-making forums as a central tenet. We know that there can be no justice in a church that does not treat all its members as equal. We are not going away and we are determined to make our Church relevant to the world. We will continue to work for full equality for all in the Catholic Church.

Eleanor Flynn, Gail Grossman Freyne, Sue Phillips, Agnes Dodds, Claire Renkin, Marilyn Hatton.

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