PAUL COLLINS. First Step to a Better Church?

I must admit up-front that I’m not a fan of committee reports. They’re usually pedestrian and repetitious, even at the best of times. So, to be honest, I didn’t approach the 200-page Governance Review Project Team (GRPT) report The Light from the Southern Cross with much enthusiasm.

The origin of the report is the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse where the commissioners called for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) to ‘conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.’

This task eventually landed in the lap of the GRPT with seven members and four international advisors. All are distinguished and generous Catholics, mainly laypeople, and they had to work within a tight time frame and very limited terms of reference which focused on governance. My criticisms are not of them, but of the ACBC’s failure to allow them to explore deeper ecclesiological issues.

The report gets off to a good start with a quirky quotation from Henry Lawson and an introduction that is based on sound theology, particularly on John Henry Newman’s comment that ‘Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ They also quote Pope Francis’ commentary: ‘[Newman] is not speaking here about changing for change’s sake, or following every new fashion, but rather about the conviction that development and growth are a normal part of human life.’ Francis says that change involves interior conversion, yet ‘often we approach change as if it were a matter of simply putting on new clothes,’ that is window-dressing without interior change.

While the report says that it ‘is not seeking to remake the Church in the image of corporate or civil entities,’ but only ‘to identify existing good practice in the Catholic Church in Australia,’ there are four modern governance buzz words, originally suggested by the Royal Commission, that regularly recur: ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’.

Clearly, it would be excellent if the hierarchy and institutional church adopted these standards as embedded working norms, but the problem is that these words are derived from the processes of modern democracy, when the church is neither modern, nor democratic. It is a baroque, seventeenth century absolutist structure with the pope as universal ruler and each bishop a tinpot king in his own domain.

The report assumes that these governance principles can be grafted onto this absolutist system. I don’t think they can, because the core problem here is ecclesiological. I don’t blame the GRPT for not addressing this; it was not in their remit. But the reality is that root and branch reform will not occur until the absolutist model is jettisoned.

Fortunately, Vatican Council II has already given us an alternative model. The Council’s primary document, Lumen gentium (chapters 1-2) develops dynamic images of the church as a community, the people of God on pilgrimage, drawn together by God’s Spirit and gifted to minister in the church and as representatives of Christ in the world. The emphasis in these chapters is on the community, not the hierarchy. This model primarily envisages a church that is built-up from below with a leadership emerging from the community. In this context ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ could operate successfully. As Jesus says ‘No one puts new wine into old wineskins. New wine, fresh wineskins’ (Matthew 9:17).

The report’s theological overview doesn’t help much here. It tries to cover too much territory, and while the people of God are mentioned, when focusing on bishops it makes the surprising statement: ‘In many ways, the diocesan bishop was central to the ecclesiology of Vatican II.’ Perhaps that’s true in an absolutist ecclesiology, but certainly not in a people of God understanding of the church, which is the direction in which we should have been heading all along since Vatican II.

It’s hard to believe, but here we are, fifty-five years after the Council and we are still haven’t integrated it’s primary ecclesiology of the people of God into church structure. It shows you how effective the reactionaries have been, especially with the support of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the bishops they appointed.

The guts of the report are in the summary of recommendations (paragraph 2.7). This is where you’ll find some suggestions that might have upset more precious bishops and clerics, but which, in fact, are so anodyne that they’ll leave more hopeful Catholics disappointed.

Regarding the appointment of bishops, the report recommends that ‘the processes and procedures leading to the appointment of bishops by the pope be explained to the public’; that there be prior consultation, including analysing the needs of the diocese; that there be ‘a wider consultation process leading to the creation of a terna (list of three potential bishops’ names), which should embrace genuine discernment that includes clergy and a larger number of lay people than is currently the case.’ This is little different from what already happens. Everything, including transparency, depends on the decision of the pope and the papal nuncio. And why does the pope have a pivotal role? After all, bishops have only been appointed by Rome since the mid-nineteenth century. Before that they were appointed or elected locally.

There are no laid-down processes in the report that ensure that the people of God have agency and genuine input, let alone participating in some form of electing or appointing the bishop, and no specific processes to ensure that the nuncio and bishops involved engage in genuine consultation and dialogue.

The report sets out detailed recommendations for the establishment of diocesan pastoral councils, diocesan finance councils and for holding diocesan synods. It emphasizes the importance of lay review of diocesan expenditure and budgets. But there is no suggestion that members of these councils be freely elected by the faithful. They are appointed by the bishop.

It also asks the ACBC to ask Rome to legislate that ‘the diocesan bishop will consult with the diocesan pastoral council and the council of priests before he makes particular law.’ Here we are still asking the bishop to consult. We are still working from the absolutist model.

There are also calls for the inclusion of laity, particularly women, to appointments on diocesan decision-making bodies and agencies. One area where this is applied is in the selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood. Here, the report says, laity, particularly women, should play a decisive role in the selection, formation and training of candidates and deciding their suitability for ordination. This is a particularly good move and would at least minimise the number of quite unsuitable candidates presently being ordained.

There is a recognition of the need for leadership training and a recommendation that the church set-up a national centre for Catholic leadership and governance. One would hope that those selected for the episcopate would have to undergo such leadership training before episcopal ordination. There is also a call for ‘the operations of the ACBC be made more accountable, inclusive and transparent through an expansion of its advisory membership, staffing and public communication of non-confidential agendas, internal reports and major decisions.’

The report admits that clericalism is still widespread in the church. Pope Francis has described clericalism as ‘a really awful thing’ and a ‘perversion of the church’. The report admits that a ‘culture of clericalism is inimical to a more collaborative, transparent and accountable system of governance’ and that ‘ways to combat the personalisation of decision-making power in a bishop and the dismantling of clericalism are primary focuses of this report and that many of the recommendations’ attempt to address this.

There is much more in the report. There is rich material in the sixty pages of appendices, especially in the statistical and descriptive summary of dioceses, parishes, church authorities and pastoral ministries.

But truth be told, I found the report disappointing. Perhaps that’s because my expectations were unrealistic, and I can’t blame the GRPT for not doing something they were not asked to do. But they have still taken a first step towards a renewed church.

However, until all of us Catholics face up to the reality that nothing substantial will change in the church until we place the new wine of the people of God on pilgrimage into the new wineskins of a church built up from the community of baptised faithful, we’ll just be applying band-aids.

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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