ERIC HODGENS. Where Do We Find the Authentic Catholic Voice?

Cardinal Pell got his voice heard from prison. Furthermore, surrogate Pell voices are heard from bishops he has promoted in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. But, on three current issues polls show that most Catholics disagree with them. So, which voice is authentically Catholic?

A Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region will take place in Rome in October 2019. Its aim is to identify new paths for the evangelization of that region. The working document for the synod was issued in June this year. The main preoccupation of the synod is the Amazon and its people.

The evangelization of the people has, in turn, raised some secondary issues such as the ordination of married indigenous men and the role of women. These secondary issues rang the alarm bells of the reactionary faction of the culture wars currently bedevilling the Catholic Church and, indeed, much of the Western World.

Pell has been a prominent voice of the right-wing faction all his life – dogmatic and authoritarian. Though convicted and in jail for paedophilia, he has used a letter to his supporters to add his voice to opposition to the Amazon Synod.

Pell’s style is reaction. That style echoes in statements of his proteges the archbishops of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. Recent Australian legislation has given them material for reaction on the three hot button issues: same-sex marriage, standardising abortion legislation and assisted dying. These are the issues that really get them going – not refugees, immigration or climate change.

The episcopal voices are supported by ideological, right-wing activist groups such as Sydney-based Notre Dame University’s Institute for Ethics and Society, the JP II Institute in Melbourne, the Christopher Dawson Centre in Hobart.

These institutes are part of a world-wide collection of similar organizations pushing the right-wing, ideological agenda. Italy has the Dignitatis Humanae Institute promoted by Steve Bannon. The USA has the Napa Institute promoted by Timothy Busch and supported by Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia and an array of others including George Weigel. These movement are highly organized and well-funded.

Polls show that, while Australian Catholics have mixed opinions on the morality of these issues, a heavy majority are against criminalising them. Catholics, in the main, appear to be at home in a pluralist, secular society, and judge that it is not right to force their opinions on others. They have a different ethical standard to the bishops and a more compassionate moral compass.

The days of coercive intervention by bishops are over. This explains why Archbishop Comensoli got such heavy fire when he vetoed Sr. Joan Chittester from speaking at a national Catholic Education Conference in Melbourne. This Pell-like intervention was met with a “who does he think he is?” reaction. Being a bishop carries little weight in public debate anymore – even with Catholics.

Vatican II shifted the centre of gravity of the Church from the hierarchy to the People of God. This decentralising movement led on to a new doctrinal development – Reception Theology. For a doctrine or moral opinion to be authentic it must be received by the body of the faithful. In disputed matters, what Catholics believe is as important as what the hierarchy proclaim. Humanae Vitae was the watershed moment. The pope proclaimed that contraception was sinful; the Catholic body did not receive it.

So, where can the voice of the faithful be heard? Movements for continuing the renewal started by Vatican II have grown in number and strength. Examples include the Voice of the Faithful in the USA, the Pastor’s Initiative in Austria and Catholics for Renewal in Australia. Originally treated with disdain by bishops, these are now mainstream movements. Bishops are routinely ignored these days. Maybe some will come to realize that they need to take notice of what their people believe.

The decision of the Australian bishops to hold a Plenary Council in 2020 has brought a surprisingly large number of submissions from Catholics – surprisingly large because most Catholics under 50 have given up.

Catholics for Renewal have produced a booklet of their submissions, “Getting Back on Mission”, published by Garratt Publishing. The situation is fluid. It is a plenary council of the bishops. The laity is signalling where they stand. If the bishops ignore them, they could well see a re-play of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical and its aftermath of departures from the Church.

World-wide the lay voice is being formulated and speaking out. It is imperative that the bishops get theologically up to date and realise that the lay voice is part of the game.

Eric Hodgens is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne living in retirement.


Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

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3 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Where Do We Find the Authentic Catholic Voice?

  1. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    The Royal Commission Report claims that the biggest problem with the Catholic church is the lack of moral authority. This is a church that from 1922 to this day has used Canon law as its yardstick for moral responsibility (the Secret of the Holy Office) which protects the deviant, pedophile priests from being identified. The bishops have demonstrated that they are reactionary keepers of an ideology rather than holy men of faith who uphold truth and transparency. Their continued fear of women is a social justice scourge and the Catholic tradition of symbolic forms loses the ability to be meaningful when its rituals and symbols no longer connect with the reality of every day life. Where is the testimony to Jesus Christ and his teaching on mercy and respect for women and children?
    Bishops are quickly making themselves irrelevant to the laity who know too much to pretend any longer.

  2. Avatar Peter Griffin says:

    Isn’t there something wrong with the question ? Surely the living of the Gospel is more important than being able to quote it much less claim to own it ? When Jesus was asked : “what shall I do” least the questioner started in the right ballpark. And the answer gave no hint that mature spiritual development should morph away from taking whole hearted responsibility for living the first and second commandment . Nothing about belonging to the right sheepfold – much less relishing the Cappa Magna.

  3. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Pell’s conviction and imprisonment are particularly significant because he, a convicted paedophile with demonstrably debased moral values, has been a key figure of influence and patronage in the Church, noting particularly as Eric does, Pell’s influence on the appointment of many Australian bishops. His powerful role included notably the development of the Melbourne Response to clerical child sexual abuse; he instructed the faithful to discount the role of an informed conscience; he used his clerical position to encourage climate change scepticism; and he failed to listen to the people of God. The morality and impact of George Pell’s influence as the most senior cleric in Australia, and his influence in the universal Church over decades, are therefore of considerable concern.
    The Australian Plenary Council in 2020/21 must now have an additional and urgent focus of reviewing the Pell influence. Catholics for Renewal’s book, “Getting Back on Mission”, addresses particularly the issue of bishops needing to listen to the ‘sensus fidei fidelium’ (the sense of faith of the faithful), a practice given a wide berth by Pell and “his proteges the archbishops of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart.”
    As the Plenary Council approaches, all Church leaders should now be reviewing that influence of Pell on the Church in the context of the already established need for radical reform. And it’s not too late for all bishops to take real steps to identify the issues of concern within their individual dioceses; regrettably many have shown little interest to date in hearing the concerns of their own people. The time has come for bishops to commit to working with the People of God for a reforming plenary council, a commitment to getting back on mission.

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