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.


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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15 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. First Step to a Better Church?

  1. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    Whether the models of church transition from “a baroque, seventeenth century absolutist structure” to “dynamic images of the church as a community, the people of God on pilgrimage”; or whether the models of church governance transition from traditional closed-secretive styles to more open “governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes”, the elephant in the room hovers: powerful forces resistant to change. Charles Lamb[The Tablet, Sep 20] locates these “largely in the Roman Curia and among well-funded groups in the United States and traditionalist networks across the world”

    The facts are that even in Australia, certainly in episcopal ranks, there are powerful advocates for minimal change, whether in the guise of personal holiness, evangelism, more efforts directed against abortion and euthanasia rather than ‘peripheral’ issues such as governance, defending doctrine and tradition, maintaining the status quo. Despite Paul’s enthusiasm, there is an agenda in some circles for increasing Opus Dei spirituality and pre-Vatical 11 practice such as the restoration of altar rails, priestly dress and celebrating mass with one’s back to the congregation.

    At the core is the nature of the Australian Catholic Church of the future: do we want to focus on tradition and the past, more on doctrine rather than the spirituality of Jesus in New Testament or can we embody in our Church structures “the church as a community, the people of God on pilgrimage” which directly repudiates secrecy and closed governance.

  2. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you Paul Collins for your review that informs and enables me to agree with Andrew Phelan’s comments. We need a better process to appoint Bishops that could come from Canon 364 para 4 if names are not added in Rome in addition to the names proposed by the Papal Legate in Canberra. Any Bishop interested in listening could read the article ” Self -Reform of Bishops : a plea for a different manner of listening ” by PA McGavin at page 189 of the The Australian Catholic Record April 2020 I received by post at home yesterday.

  3. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    Hi Paul,
    I spent some hour or so reading the Report on screen as it is way too long to print and anyway there are many pages not necessary to get the message. For most Catholics what was taught in R.E. at school does not include truthful Church History.It took me a Grad Dip (R.E) and a M.A. (Theology) to really get to the truth of the nature of Church governance. Around my graduation, crisis hit us with the sex abuse scandal appearing in the media , just as I was settling into my job as a Pastoral Associate. I learnt a lot about Church governance- good and not so good. Fortunately my Bishop ( deceased) was progressive in thought and action.It is time the Curriculum for Religious Studies more accurately reflects the reality of Church history and does not gloss over the terrible wrongs done by Clerics in Jesus’ name. Only then will Catholics learn that many ” traditions” are not very old at all and not necessary for their faith and practice.

  4. May I make three comments.
    First, it seems clear that the ACBC’s decision to hide this document for six months or more was because it would take that long for them to work out how to accept the recommendations yet still retain their power and privilege
    Then two. the monarchism identified by Paul, as another name for the clericalism condemned by Pope Francis, can’t be tackled head-on But if the three key ingredients of true leadership , transparency, accountability and inclusion, could be adopted then monarchism/clericalism would wither on the vine.
    And, most important of all, not one of the suggested reforms need wait for the Plenary Council nor for Vatican approval. They could be undertaken now. IF – our bishops were willing

  5. Avatar Alex Nelson says:

    A friend of mine reminds me that after the Hebrews left Egypt through their Exodus, it took them 40 years of journeying before they could unlearn the slave mind that had been imposed on them in Egypt as what was normal for inferior people. They had to overcome the systematic intimidation they had endured and learn courage in order to live as people in community, chosen as God’s Beloved.

    Even though the 50 + years since Vatican II should have been time enough for the Catholic Church, Catholics have not had a “Pope Moses” to lead this people of God to freedom from the experience of domination preferred by hierarchy and patriarchy. Quite the opposite at times. The ruling class in the Church, as elsewhere does not easily accept the invitation to be converted and live.

    I agree that Catholics need to take no backward steps on the way to being and becoming the People of God. . Since Vatican II, many women and men, baptised and ordained, have realised already that we don’t need permission from hierarchy to be what we have been called to by God. We make the road to dignity by walking to show the way.

  6. Avatar Peter Maher says:

    Thanks Paul – Vat II ecclesiology and sacramental theology yet to be tried – that’s true. But the paradox that only bishops can bring about change is asking a lot of the Holy Spirit. Even though it seems difficult to see how things can change, let’s keep trying.

  7. Avatar Mary Tehan says:

    On reading the introduction, Theological underpinnings and recommendations of the Committee’s Report (Thank you for this transparency) I found myself thinking the same as you Paul. Language such as “kingdom” (Perhaps kingdom?) helps perpetuate the monarchical framework and lens through which all else prevails and is understood. It reminds me of how much feminist thinking keeps getting absorbed into the existing patriarchal structures and systems that continue to rule and govern the world and any vision that the Holy Spirit evokes. So depressing.

  8. Avatar Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Hello Paul,
    Pearls and Irritations must be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Strange days, indeed – as Lennon said!
    A spiritual answer has been given to what the church should do – the New Rite of Baptism (see photo) where parents baptize their own children. from our parent’s love, and also their pain, as children we define our own faith: not from Vatican clowns with water pistols, and gobbledygook. Weren’t you one of those once?
    Sometimes though, it can take a long time to forgive our parents.
    I doubt that Cardinal Pell’s appointees will see this movement of the Spirit. They are Rome-focused and the vacancy with the Cardinal’s impending retirement.

  9. Avatar Graham English says:

    The need for leadership training starts with getting rid of the idea of ‘grace of state (a sow’s ear can be turned into a silk purse by wishing) and a realisation that a qualification in canon law is not leadership training. It also means that picking young men in the seminary and sending them to Rome to get ‘romanised’ is not leadership training. People have to earn the confidence of the community before they are made leaders. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime but until women are included as possible bishops we are wasting at least half the leadership in the Church.

  10. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Paul, I don’t think the exclusion of “deeper ecclesiological issues” has diminished the GRPT report’s analysis of the institutional Church’s dysfunctional governance; the exploration of those issues were explored thoroughly in the reports of the leading theological scholars Faggioli and Lennan in their consultancy advice ( to the GRPT. The review was required to be conducted ‘in light of Catholic ecclesiology (theological principles foundational to the nature of the Church)’.
    Both the Royal Commission and the GRPT refused to mystify the relevance of good governance practice and culture to all human institutions including the Catholic Church. The institutional Church can no longer claim some mystical exemption from the requirements of good leadership practices, practices which are in fact essential to the teachings of Jesus.
    Good governance is simply how people (created by God using their God-given human skills) collaborate effectively in pursuit of a mission. That means the acceptance of accountability for one’s decisions, being transparent in the nature and reasoning of decisions, and including/listening to the views and knowledge of those affected by one’s decisions.
    The institutional Church practises a system of monarchy and autocracy that exempts pastoral leaders from the most basic Christian values of accountability, transparency and inclusion. Those autocratic practices inherited from the Roman Empire are reinforced by a toxic clericalist culture. The Plenary Council will be a waste of time and opportunity if it fails to accept the need for urgent reform of the institutional Church’s governance and culture. I agree that that reform must go well beyond the valuable recommendations of the GRPT report which I suspect has been constrained somewhat by a degree of pragmatism.
    The report has condemned the Church’s failures in basic governance principles, which of themselves demand more substantial reform. Ironically and sadly, the fact that this report was leaked to the faithful serves as compelling evidence of the Church’s lack of accountability, transparency and inclusion as identified in the report.

  11. Avatar Kimball Byron Chen says:

    Thanks, Paul. I agree with the central thrust of your argument. However, as our own and the UK’s constitutional history show, monarchies are sometimes declawed by processes that move at moderate speed. Peaceful transition does take time as disempowering someone runs the risk of backlash. Closer examination of some of our bishops will reveal what duffers they really are.

    • Avatar Peter Donnan says:

      You are indeed right, Kimball, when you refer to reform occurring ‘at moderate speed’. It is also true, given the views of a number of Australian bishops and conservative ‘thought-leaders’, that this speed will be immoderate, even retarded, because the status quo is preferable.

      It always interesting to consider the arguments against change. Fr Josh Miechels [CWJune] argues: “It is the cultivation of saints – of a flood of devout families, prayerful missionary young people, joyful consecrated brothers and sisters, holy priests and courageous bishops – not bureaucracy, that will save the Church.” Governance and transparency are dismissed as ‘bureaucracy’.

      Fr Josh’s article illustrates an awareness of the basic problem: the numbers of Australian Catholics are in free-fall. But ‘The Catholic Weekly’ ecclesiology being promoted would not be out of place even before the Reformation. The focus on gospel values, on the New Testament, on the person of Jesus falls on the wayside. It costs a minimum of $250,000 to get an applicant to Sainthood in the Catholic Church and this, along with so many other practices in the Church, are at odds with gospel value – hierarchical structures, relegation of women, priestly celibacy, commerce in the temple, prioritising dogma over spirituality.

  12. Avatar (Dr) John CARMODY says:


    How can the bona fides of a group of bishops — loyal servants, all of them, of that “absolutist model” which you correctly identify as the essence of the problem — be taken at all seriously when they sought to keep that report secret and confidential?

    This is, as you know better than most people, the 150th anniversary of the declaration of “Pastor aeternus” by the first Vatican Council — that epitome of the absolutist problem, “Papal infallibility” as it is delusionally called — so how ironic it is that the Australian bishops behave in that negative and obstructionist way in that anniversary year. The further reality is that those with power rarely relinquish it willingly: it has to be forced from them.

  13. Avatar J.J. GOOLD says:

    It could have been written by Sir Humphrey and I expect its acceptance and application would meet his expectations. Calls for lots of review at the bottom of the hierarchy but nothing at the top. I expect a few lay tea ladies might become surplus to ecclesiastical requirements. Glad it was “leaked” though and I hope, probably forlornly, for a positive response from the bishops’ cabal..

  14. Avatar Andrew Phelan says:

    I read the leaked Report with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. I did not expect a revolutionary manifesto, such as would lay the foundation for a change in the Catholic Church’s governance framework from monarchic to democratic, but I did expect a report which (if implemented) would bring church governance more into line with contemporary Australian social expectations and standards. One should remember too that Australian governments have been complicit in the maintenance of monarchic norms, by entrenching religious institutions’ governance privileges in taxation, asset ownership, charity and even banking laws. The report has met my expectations; its recommendations appear purposeful, comprehensive, realistic and achievable. While bishops continue to have too much formal power canonically, I also think that the review (as its report says) should be seen as an instrument of change (albeit, as Paul says, ‘first steps’) towards a renewed church. I also think that governments should actively review the contemporary relevance of religious institutions’ privileges, but I won’t hold my breath until that happens. Governance reform is well overdue, and any further delays in implementing changes, such as recommended in this report, could be fatal to the sustainment let alone renewal of the Catholic Church.

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