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.