2018 will be a fateful year for the Catholic Church in Australia as Melbourne gets a new archbishop. This appointment, if successful, offers some hope for the Church; if a failure, it will hasten the Church’s decline into insignificance. Here’s why.
The national episcopal conference is of central importance because changes affecting the whole country require its approval. Pope Francis is encouraging national conference to be more proactive – in contrast to the policy of the last two popes who restricted conference authority.
The Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops (ACCB) is in poor shape having been hit by a triple whammy of Roman constriction under the last two popes, the back room influence of Cardinal Pell and the public devastation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The two popes exercised their control by carefully selecting compliant bishops and then closely supervising them. Over 35 years this led to a paralysis of local initiative and a policy of doing nothing without Rome’s approval.
George Pell was the right man at the right time from Rome’s point of view. He was a Restorationist like John Paul II. He became a dominant pubic figure following his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, then Sydney in 2001. His move to Rome in 2014 gave him daily access to the Byzantine halls of power of the Vatican. Although out of tune with most of the bishops, it was Pell’s views that got publicity. Now that he is on leave from church duties, he is silent. But no episcopal voice has taken his place.
The Royal Commission has deauthorised bishops by showing how widespread was their failure to act decisively against clerical sexual abuse. They are seen as having protected criminal abusers and prioritised protection of diocesan assets over care for their people. They have lost the confidence of many of their people. When they do speak out, the public, Catholics included, have a there they go again reaction.
The two recent public debates about same sex marriage and assisted dying have highlighted this. They argued that their opinions were the teaching of the Church. The vote of the Catholic people showed they are not the belief of the Catholic Church.
Australia’s bishops urgently need a visionary, charismatic leader to reclaim public credibility for the Church. A golden opportunity is opening up with the impending appointment of a new Archbishop of Melbourne. Melbourne is Australia’s largest Catholic diocese. The right man in this job could become the leading Catholic voice not only in Melbourne but in Australia.
What should the Roman Congregation of Bishops be looking for in the next bishop? Under present rules it will have to be a currently ordained priest. What else is required?
- He should be an already credible public figure and leader. This limits the field and eliminates most current bishops.
- He must be across current social and political issues – not interested only in church matters. This demands experience of political, social and economic currents in contemporary Australia.
- He must have a vision of the mission of the Church as instanced by Pope Francis. This means prioritising care for people. Human rights must be a top priority in contrast to the more totalitarian mindset that puts the institution first. Australia has serious human rights challenges with few strong public voices drawing attention to them.
- He needs to know Church laws, customs and procedures, but not be hidebound by them.
- He must be open to urgent intervention on the problem of ministry. Clericalism and its shield of celibacy must be broken. This entails diversifying ministry, admitting women to ministry and married men to priesthood.
- He must be able to bring the episcopal conference with him. Hence, he needs diplomacy skills.
- He must be a good listener and a skilled delegator. Nobody can run a diocese as large as Melbourne without defining different areas of responsibility, setting up administrative structures and picking the right people to lead and organise them.
- He must have a plan for the Melbourne and Australian Church.
- He must be a good communicator, preacher and public speaker.
Reliable sources say that, as of January 2018, the selection process is on. The Nuncio has circulated a terna to the bishops and others he chooses to consult. The terna is the short list of three possible candidates he is considering for recommendation. The nuncio sends his finalised list to the Congregation of Bishops – a department of the Roman bureaucracy. Further processing by the bureaucrats of that Congregation results in a final, prioritised terna which, once approved by the full Congregation, is sent to the pope. The pope has the final say and is known to occasionally parachute in his own choice. A major difference this time is that Pell, the kingmaker or many recent appointments, will not have an official say.
It is worth noting that this process is an object lesson in clericalism. The pope, the Royal Commission and even our own bishops have decried clericalism in the Church. But it is alive and well. It will determine this appointment – possibly the most important one in fifty years.
Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne priest who is now retired.