The Light From the Southern Cross. A Report on Catholic Church Governance

The Church culture of the past is still the culture we have today. And that is fundamentally what the Implementation Advisory Group (IAG) had to confront. How to navigate the realpolitik of the Catholic Church. No mean task for a group set up without any institutional clout or effective prominence.

Try writing a report with both hands tied behind your back. That was the task before the Implementation Advisory Group as they set off to deliver a review of the diocesan governance structures called for by the Royal Commission.

Firstly, any review was inevitably going to be hamstrung by the Canon law that prescribes the discerning and determining in the Church procedures and administration.

It also entrenches the hierarchical division between clerics and the rest. Some things are regarded as ‘laity free zones’!

Then came the funding cuts.

And to top it off into the mix was the less than subtle passive aggression that comes from some hyper sensitive conservative prelates through their always eager emissaries.

Away from the public scrutiny of the Royal Commission the IAG toiled to be taken seriously by segments within the Bishops Conference more animated to ‘move on’ from the scandal than to actually getting down to address the Commission’s findings.

The bishops did set up a committee to assist with the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. But in reality it was born at a time where the Conference itself was divided in reaction to the Commission and its resolve to respond actively to the recommendations was half hearted at best. For the game plan had changed.

Now all the strategic and resource efforts were being directed to the Plenary Council, with its promise of repositioning the Church in everyday Australia. Harking back to the scandal was not only ‘old news’ it was also ‘too depressing’ for recently installed bishops and senior officials desperate for some ‘clean air’ in order for the Church to present a new agenda of ‘abuse free’ evangelisation. So the strategy was obvious – leave the sins of the past in the past.

There is only one problem with this tactic. The Church culture of the past is still the culture we have today. And that is fundamentally what the IAG had to confront. How to navigate the realpolitik of the Catholic Church. No mean task for a group set up without any institutional clout or effective prominence.

I admire the IAG’s determination. Better said, their dedication to our Church. As concerned Catholics they put their shoulders to the wheel to recommend structural and procedural changes that could lead to greater transparency, accountability and participation within the daily operations of the Church at the national, diocesan and parish levels.

And good on them for laying out a plan. Sure it could be more adventurous, even radical, but my sense is that they wanted it to be achievable and in turn a realistic template others could use to assess whether change has happened at all.

We all know that if you pitch high no one gets to hit the ball. The IAG chose to ‘dance with the one you brung’, to encourage change from the realm of the possible so that any ‘we can’t do that’ chorus was bereft of its bugles and cymbals!

The upshot is a pragmatic array of very ‘doable’ proposals that any diocese anywhere in Australia could implement tomorrow. Bishops don’t need to scurry to Rome for permission. They don’t need to protest that Church teaching is under threat. They don’t even need to question the theological orthodoxy of the report. Frankly they should be relieved. They have before them a way out of the logjam that finds competent lay women and men locked out of serious decision making and governance of the institution.

The Report doesn’t threaten the ultimate veto power of the bishop, nor does it insist on a revamp of canon law. Rather it zigzags through the entrenched scaffolds of clerical dominance to find avenues where models of shared decision making can be enacted. Put plainly, the Report seeks to achieve in the short term what purists dream about forever.

Critics will say that the Report falls too short. Conservatives will wring their hands at the implied loss of episcopal power. In the end, so what! If we are not careful we may well forget that beneath the debate about structures, administrative and procedural arrangements lies a culture of unspoken but well known behaviours, norms and understandings. In other words, an ingrained ‘ the way things go around here’ code. This culture emphatically places clerics above the rest, privileges entitlement over competency and resists equal participation of women as if warding off the devil! A culture where the understanding of sexuality is still struggling to keep pace with contemporary insights into the nature of the human person. The upshot is alienation and despair for too many baptised Catholics who nevertheless seek a sense of belonging and meaning making in their Church.

If this report is to morph into the now postponed Plenary Council process, what hope can ordinary Catholics hold? My fear is that the heart of being church is lost in the tussle over administering the church.

If nothing else the Royal Commission laid bare the hypocrisy of clerics and vowed religious as they systematically denied and then covered up the sexual abuse of children. Whether they realised it or not their very actions corroded the meaning of being a church and the essence of religious life for many everyday Catholics. Sadly the drop off in Church attendance in all age groups over the course of the Royal Commission speaks volumes.

So what is at heart here is literally the heart of the Church. Affiliation to the institution, even to the conventional practices of Catholicism have lost their appeal. Yes, more democratic and representational structures and procedures will help. But a more relevant and nourishing spiritual experience is imperative. And the two do go together.

Faith communities should reflect the make up and aspirations of their members as they seek to transcend that which weighs them down and be more attentive to what lightens the course of their daily lives. The less barriers there are to lay participation in the life and determinations of those communities the better they will reflect the unfolding understanding of God in their lives. In real terms that means the participation of lay people in the development and communication of Church teachings and social policies. There is no other way for the Church to be relevant for the existential circumstances of contemporary people.

These days call us, as Karl Rahner SJ said, to be a mystical church, less focussed on the institution and more attuned to the movements of the Spirit. My humble hope is that this Report can set us on a path where we can meet the Spirit anew, forge a pathway together and claim a lifestyle that gives credit to the Gospel that so eagerly stirs our imaginations and desires for love, goodness and truth.

Francis Sullivan AO is Chair of the Mater Group and the former CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council. He lives in Canberra and writes on Catholic Church affairs and contemporary spirituality.

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12 Responses to The Light From the Southern Cross. A Report on Catholic Church Governance

  1. Avatar Irena says:

    Theyve certainly had laity free zones. World wide because of the pandemic.

    Why are they frightened of women. Even as deacons and why not women. Eventually the old will die out and will they ever have enough young men to take their płace so why not look at married priests. Male and female.
    Oh and bring back 3rd rite of reconciliation. The churches were standing room only for these services. If the priest had to have individual,reconciliation it would take him all week to go through say 300 people

  2. Eric Hodgens Eric Hodgens says:

    Francis Sullivan is an outstanding Catholic leader. He thoroughly understands the Australian Catholic Church, its bishops and its services. So, he understands the dilemma of the Governance Review Project Team facing a review “in the light of Catholic Ecclesiology” – signalling don’t touch priesthood.
    Governance by a consecrated person who controls all legislative, executive and judicial power is an anachronism which was abandoned by the free world in the 18th century. Add nepotistic appointments and secrecy – the result is incompetence, bad decision making and inevitable corruption.
    The team’s report does well with diversifying ministries and including laity. But it is not allowed to deal with the real elephant in the room.

  3. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    Francis,
    A sober assessment of today’s Catholic Church, still mired in the past. I share your hope but I fear that most Catholics, particularly the well educated youth ,having lost hope for meaningful change , will simply desert the sinking ship. Many of today’s church goers in my parish are elderly or migrants from the Philippines, India or Sri Lanka. However we see few of the younger members of these communities following their parents; a warning, worrying trend for the institutional church.

  4. Avatar Ed Cory says:

    The Australian church has adopted the classic bureaucratic responses to a crisis. Kick the problem down the road. Set up a committee, set the agenda, control the membership, go through the motions, write the report. Job done.

    From day one it has been about damage control, papering over cracks. The latest demonstration of where their thinking is, keeping confidential a report on a more open and accountable administration, is so hilariously ironic that I wonder if they are not rehearsing for a segment on a forthcoming Chaser show.

    I have been hopeful of change, but never optimistic – the leopard and his spots. The more I learnt about the PC, its membership and processes, the more that hope has faded.

    Thank you Francis for your writings, they help me keep the flame alive.

  5. Avatar Graham English says:

    The things that are regarded as ‘laity free zones’ by 85% of Catholics are the churches. Those going to regular Mass are mostly older Catholics or relatively recent migrants. Soon there will be hardly any laity there. If that’s what the bishops want then they can go right ahead but it is hardly life giving or hopeful for the vast majority.

    Thanks Francis for your clear writing and down to earth comments.

  6. Avatar John CARMODY says:

    Francis Sullivan, reflective (and tolerant) as always, quotes what he (and many others) believes is a fair synopsis of the Australian bishop’s tactic: “Leave the sins of the past in the past”. Such an approach is destined to fail; it is as futile as hoping that the pathological consequences of unhealthy living can be left in the past. Neither nature nor society is unforgiving; it is contradiction of what one might provocatively call the “natural law”.
    It might have been otherwise in the past, but in our contemporary world, the reality (the reality that those bishops find impossible to understand or to accept) that there are better and more authentically moral people — not to mention more intelligent and better educated people — outside the episcopacy than sit within it. And those people are decreasingly willing to be pushed around and punished by their demonstrable inferiors. So — given that the only plausible definition of “sin” is “the abuse of power — what is urgently required from those bishops (who, as a group, made such a culpably poor impression during their appearances before the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse) is the humility to accept those realities and, showing humility, top cede their powers to the laity and to try as best as they’re able to act as moral examples.
    In St John’s Gospel, Christ told Peter to, “Feed my lambs”; He didn’t say to pen them up and tyrannise them. In St Mark’s Gospel, He is quoted as telling them. “proclaim the Good News to all creation”; He didn’t say to create a mass of “Canon Law” to shackle and sadden them.
    Those senior clerics seem to have comprehensively forgotten their roles and responsibilities. Christ sought to establish a “Kingdom” that of free of fear; not a rule-bound and authoritarian “Institution”.

  7. Avatar Nicholas Agocs says:

    A clearly defined cased for an open and transparent actions that need to be taken allowing reform mind clergy and laity an input into all aspects of the Plenary Council Debate

  8. Avatar Steve Jordan says:

    Thank you, Francis, another sensible commentary.
    Let us hope that change happens; there is not much of an alternative.

  9. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    “What is at heart here is literally the heart of the Church.”

    In using the term ‘realpolitik’ you draw attention, Francis, to the politics of manipulation, control and force that is occurring around this Report and the Plenary Council.

    It is generally accepted that 70% of Plenary Council delegates have some position in the Church.

    Using published information, one can see realpolitik at work by focussing on a single case study.

    The publicised list of the delegates from the Wagga Wagga diocese on the Plenary Council website consists of two lay people and three senior clergy. The process used by the Archbishop to select these five delegates has not been revealed to my knowledge. Why, even among the three senior clergy, there was not room for a younger, reformist voice such as the Wagga priest who chairs the National Council of Priests, raises questions of balance.

    The report for the Wagga diocese includes these aspirations for PC outcomes:

    * altar rails be present
    * the tabernacle be the focal point.
    *Daily Mass be readily available.
    * there be frequent and regular Confession, Adoration, Benediction and Holy Rosary.
    * modest dress and respectful behaviour be encouraged in all churches.
    * have priests who are well trained, give sound, solid homilies, wear priestly garments, remain completely dedicated to God through celibacy, and no female priests.

    If this delegate pattern is replicated in all Australian dioceses, coupled with episcopal dominance in voting, the Plenary Council will certainly resist substantial reform and prioritise a top-down, hierarchical model of church, based on secrecy or ‘laity-free zones’ with a yearning for a conservative pre-Vatican 11 ethos and a spectrum of Opus Dei spirituality.

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