GARRY EVERETT. Critical yeast in critical times.

Oct 29, 2018

The title of this piece is taken from an address by Bishop Vincent Long, to the Concerned Catholics of Canberra, on the 11th of September this year. The Bishop had been invited to outline his vision for a Catholic Church, in the post Royal Commission (into sexual abuse) era. He addressed the topic by focussing in three reflections.  

Firstly he analyses the immediate past condition of the Church in Australia, and what led to such a catastrophic failure of its ordained leadership. Secondly he addresses the need to form a new role for lay people within the Church. Finally, he outlines what he calls “a Church oriented to mutuality and partnership.”

A bold vision indeed, but not necessarily a new one. More than 50 years the Second Vatican Council had presented a similarly challenging vision. So what went wrong?

In a nutshell, the clerics (bishops and priests) charged with implementing the vision lost their nerve and their way, and the forces of resistance ultimately prevailed. The debates focussed on whether the renewal of the vision was “disruptive renewal” or “continuous renewal;”, when in reality there was little substantial renewal at all.

Bishop Long recognises the same danger for his vision of the Catholic Church for Australia. His major cry is for the lay people to be more outspoken: “a critical yeast in critical times”. Can they be?

Bishop Long closes his address with an admission that: “ it is a tough ask”, but one that we should take seriously.

With the Church universal and local, divided on the renewal agenda, there is little likelihood of any change appearing on the horizon very soon. Even Pope Francis is being criticised by fellow Bishops, and social media is revealing the depths of the division to all Catholics around the world. If those with all the power can’t change the Church for the better, how can the powerless lay people be expected to trump that situation?

Perhaps Bishop Long’s vision was emboldened by the Me Too# movement. That movement is being led by women seeking major changes in their life experiences, and Bishop Long calls for a greater role for women in the Church. That movement is also a movement” from below” and is not being driven by those in power i.e. males. Finally the MeToo# movement wants accountability and appropriate punishment for those who have abused women. Bishop Long says: ” For the Church to flourish it is crucial that we come to terms with the flaws of clericalism, and move beyond its patriarchal and monarchical matrix”.

To my mind, that would require us all to be much more transparent and accountable for our motivations and decisions, and to be deterred from bad behaviour by suitable penalties enforced by law. We have a long way to go.

Many lay Catholics in Australia are pinning their hopes for substantial change on the current processes and future outcomes of the Plenary Council. The final decisions of that Council can only be taken by Bishops and clergy. Already some clergy have asked to have women religious included. However, the model is inherently flawed . It does not reflect Bishop Long’s call for a Church “oriented towards mutuality and partnership”. Until all big decisions flow from such mutuality and partnership, no real change will occur in the Church.

I leave the final words to the Bishop: “ It seems to me that the Church cannot have a better future, if it persists in the old paradigm of triumphalism, self-reference and male supremacy”.

Garry Everett is a retired educator and facilitator of change in organisations. He has an abiding interest in contemporary issues in the Catholic Church, and in its future structures and processes.

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