The cross has long been a radical and confronting symbol among religious groups. In a similar way, at the crossroads of life, we are challenged by choices which will lead us to either good or ill. The Catholic Church in Australia has reached the crossroads and there is an urgency to the choices that must be made. The old ways have run their course and new ways must be found.
In Pope Francis , we have a leader who is challenging the Church with a new vision. Francis is a believer in devolution; he does not want every decision affecting the Church to be made in Rome. Recently he challenged the German Bishops to meet and to arrive at “as near a unanimous decision as possible” on a contentious matter affecting Catholics and some Lutherans in Germany. More recently he received the resignations of all the bishops in Chile, following the catastrophic impact of the cover up of sexual abuse cases in that country.
When Francis speaks of devolution of decision-making, he is also speaking of devolution of responsibility. Many bishops have found this challenge too difficult. They are happy for Rome to carry the blame for anything that goes wrong. In Australia, Archbishop Fisher in speaking about the Plenary Council (a meeting of the whole Church: priests; religious and laity) announced that the Council could not change the Church’s teachings or discipline. In the current context established by Pope Francis, that may be too sweeping and extreme a statement.
The Catholic Church can sometimes forget that it is in, and on mission to, the modern world, with all the world’s problems and successes. It is one thing to have 2000 years of almost unchanged beliefs and teachings, and another thing to engage constructively with contemporary social issues showing some understanding of the need for change. The recent decisions by many countries regarding gay marriage is often regarded as a failure of the Church to convince people to adhere to Church teachings. Yet Pope Francis has signalled a different approach to homosexuality, and this approach is up-setting many Bishops. What next?
Not long after his installation as Pope, Francis offered two pictures of the contemporary Catholic Church. The first was that of a museum, in which things were preserved for visitors’ admiration and wonder: teachings, beliefs, laws, architecture, rituals….. The second picture was that of a field hospital during war, in which medical and nursing services were being dispensed to any and all who were injured. Francis, a lover of mercy, favoured the latter picture .
In Australia, Catholics have been asked to answer the question: “What is God asking of us in Australia at this time?” The answer to that question can only be arrived at by way of personal and group discernment, which are difficult processes not always understood by a contemporary society expecting all answers to be in the 140 characters limit of social media.
The question is occurring at a time when the Australian Catholic Bishops are experiencing severe embarrassment at their inept handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Their leadership has been called into question and, like that of the Chilean Bishops, has been found wanting. However, as Archbishop Fisher indicated, the Bishops think they are still calling the shots.
Can the Plenary Council change the church in this country? I think not, for three reasons. Firstly, no decisions for major changes can occur without Rome’s assent. Rome has deep divisions on most of the main challenges facing the Church. Secondly, the Australian bishops lack the leadership know-how that is required to see change through to its culmination. Thirdly, the current Plenary Council process being used , designed to fit the laws of the Church, is not likely to reform the deep, underlying issue of church culture, which in this country is at the heart of all the problems the church faces.
As someone said: “If you always do what you always did; you always get what you always got”. Do the Catholic Bishops get this?
Now retired some 12 years, Garry spent more than 40 years in education, most of it in the Catholic sector. He has facilitated many change processes in the Church. He maintains a strong interest in the future Church.