ERIC HODGENS. What Makes Australia’s Catholic Bishops Tick?

Oct 25, 2017

The Catholic Church is a clerical institution. Bishops are the top rung of the clergy. Where do they come from? What are they like? What is their future?

Bishops are:

  • A very small proportion worldwide (5,000 out of 1.2 billion Catholics);
  • All powerful in their own diocese;
  • Yet, very constrained by law and custom.

Christianity started as a charismatic movement of Jews who were captivated by the preaching and healing of Jesus of Nazareth and looked forward to what Jesus called the kingdom of God. They came to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead and foreshadowed life for all who believed in him. Faith, therefore, was a personal commitment to Jesus who was, in their view, the promised messiah of Jewish tradition.

The movement spread beyond Jewish confines and caught on in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt – and even Rome. As it spread, it developed its own organisation much along the lines of a Jewish synagogue. The leaders who emerged were called bishops – literally overseers.

Then the emperor Constantine took the movement under his wing, canonised its scriptures and supervised its development from being a charismatic movement to being a religion with doctrines and rules. A fairly simple movement became a state-endorsed, highly organised clerical institution. This made bishops very powerful.

What had started as a matter of the heart became one of the head and has stayed that way – up till now.

Vatican II began to change the faith balance more in favour of personal encounter than acceptance of teachings; more heart than head; more existentialist than essentialist. After centuries of head over heart, this change of balance has alarmed some Catholics who are more at home with the certainty of propositions than the flux of encounter – especially if they are by nature doctrinaire or ideological.

Pope Francis sees himself primarily as pastor. Faith is an encounter with a Christ who is embodied in people. Doctrine is OK as far as it goes, but for him the reality is more important than the idea. I suspect that most bishops sense he is on the right track. But it goes against their default position which has been forged by their original training, their selection as bishop and the group defensiveness of the conference of bishops that they join once they are consecrated.

Selecting bishops is a secret process. The local Papal Nuncio collects suggestions mainly from existing bishops and other Catholics of influence, sorts them out and sends them off to the Congregation of Bishops (a department of the Roman Bureaucracy). The department does its own research and, when there is a vacancy, sends a list of three suggestions to the plenary meeting of the Congregation of Bishops. The Congregation juggle the issue and send their resulting list to the pope who has the final say.

Back home people and priests wonder who they might get as bishop but have no say in the choice. Prediction is difficult because it is a secret, political process. Unless you know who is kingmaker in a particular case and what faction he belongs to you are in the dark. If you have a seat on the Congregation you can exercise big influence. If you belong to a dominant faction, or have other leverage of a personal nature you increase your candidate’s chances. Even the backroom boys of the department can exercise subtle influence. At this level the priority is not so much the good of the diocese under consideration as extending the influence of the party you favour in the episcopal conference. The process is anything but transparent.

The stringent pre-requisites of the last two popes focussed on the clericalism of the candidate and his support for the current papal line. Does he wear clerical dress? Does he oppose general absolution, women’s ordination, communion for divorcees, homosexuality, IVF therapy, contraception? Anybody not known for opposition to such matters was blackballed. Opus Dei, Communione e Liberazione and Neo-catechumenal Way candidates were promoted, sometimes deliberately appointed to succeed bishops who had been more open to Vatican II. With these criteria in place for 35 years, national conferences of bishops became entrenched in opposition to the freer outreach that Vatican II had spawned over the 23 years till John Paul II became pope.

Pope Francis has made it clear that he wants bishops who are primarily pastors rather than doctrinal watchdogs. Some change is happening but progress is necessarily slow when a largely unreformed Roman bureaucracy drags its feet and the current national conferences are so heavily populated by men chosen for their conservatism and submissiveness.

On paper the bishop is monarch of his own diocese. The reality is not so simple. He is in the clerical system where he knows his place and seniority. He was probably promoted by a senior mentor who expects his support. His membership of a faction is probably already determined. The conference will usually have one or more heavies who are louder in calling the shots. Formality keeps people in their place. Breaking ranks leads to ostracism. See Geoff Robinson, John Heaps or Bede Heather. Bishop Bill Morris fell under Rome’s disapproval and got no support from the conference.

Bishops have also lost their moral authority due to the disastrous handling of the clerical paedophilia crisis. Their first instinct was to protect the institution. They came only grudgingly to compassion for the abused.

Australia’s bishops find themselves in an unenviable situation. What follows are general comments. There are some exceptions. Problems:

  • They are very clerical. They wear clerical garb ranging from the black suit and Roman collar to full cassock, purple sash, purple skull cap, episcopal ring (sometimes bejewelled) and pectoral cross (sometimes bejewelled). They have titles of rank and coats of arms – a real irony. Mitres and croziers are anachronistic.
  • As a group they have been weakened by decades of selection of clerical conformists. This has resulted in a lack of initiative and leadership.
  • Society has become more secular and pluralist with a resulting loss of status.
  • Dropping church affiliation and income is weakening the Catholic community and the bishop’s ability to service it.
  • Candidates for priesthood are down to a trickle and, despite Pope Francis’s condemnation of clericalism, are still being trained in the hothouse environment of an all-male, live-in seminary – effectively academies of clericalism.
  • Consequently the priestly drought turns the pool of potential bishops to a puddle.
  • Sources say that many are knocking back episcopal offers.

Frank Sheed once said “when things look most hopeless that is when I am most hopeful”. Australia’s church needs a new Frank Sheed – with a brand new plan.

Eric Hodgens is a Catholic priest now a retired Pastor Emeritus.

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