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

Jun 11, 2020

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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