Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, reportedly said recently: “What Synodal Fathers (Bishops) are wary of, I think, is the way synods might be manipulated today, swept up by the fashions of the age.” He is further reported as being of the view that at the recent Synod on Young People, the young people in attendance “hunted in a pack” and that they “played to a very particular script”.
In the context of the Catholic Church in Australia engaging in a Plenary Council – a protracted consultative process, leading to decision making by the bishops— these statements of the Archbishop are quite surprising. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Archbishop is attempting to manipulate the very process he is involved in leading.
He does not approve of hunting in a pack, though many lay people may think that that is exactly how the Bishops act when they meet to decide major issues. He appears to think that the process of the synod is somehow easily manipulated, not by the bishops, but supposedly by the lay people who are infected with the dreaded “fashions of the age” ( whatever that might mean). His comments do not augur well for the decision making process, which already has its share of problems.
As the Catholic Church in Australia attempts to rectify its deteriorating image, one would have expected that all attention would have been focussed on accentuating the positives, particularly through spoken communications.
Phrases such as “hunting in a pack”; “playing to a particular script”; and ” manipulated… by fashions of the age,” all have a pejorative tone about them. More seriously, such language reinforces the sense of mistrust and distrust, which lies at the heart of the Church’s loss of influence as a religious and moral force in today’s society. Of course, the same analysis can be applied to Cricket Australia, the Banks and some financial institutions; the superannuation industry: and one suspects, to the Aged Care providers once the proposed Royal Commission has its say.
Trust has been eroded and is not restored by changing a few procedures and imposing some light penalties on those who presided over the abuse of people’s trust.
Trust is an abstract notion which deserves a thorough analysis and explanation by those who are interested in restoring right relationships. One place to start might be to re-visit the work of developmental psychologist Erik Ericcson. In his work on identity formation, Ericcson postulates that the first developmental task is to build trust. As babies, we learn to trust our parents, siblings, teachers, elders and others. Most of us can recall those early experiences. Those deprived of sufficient nurturing of trust develop a dis-trust of others and organisations. In the early 1990’s a study by some European universities, concluded that Europeans generally had lost trust in all their major institutions: judicial; medical; education; churches; law-enforcement; financial….. The two dominant values were individualism and autonomy. Such is the slippery slope of eroding sacred trust .
We are faced with the same problem here, and the words of Bishop Fisher do not indicate that we have carefully thought through how to re-build trust. The paradigm conspiracy advances the notion that the prevailing structures and processes are all focussed on preserving the paradigm i.e. in defending power and privilege at all costs. Simply punishing a few people, while appropriate, will not change the paradigm. The Bishop might be well advised to seek the guidance of experts in cultural analysis and development. Otherwise, in speech and behaviour, he will fail to model proper ways of restoring trust as the first and foundational step in “acting justly; loving tenderly; and walking humbly.”
Of course, the development of trust is closely allied with notions of vulnerability, forgiveness, mutuality, and acceptance.
Not only do our Church leaders and followers have a long way to go in rebuilding trust, they also have a great distance to travel in agreeing upon the most fundamental and indispensable aspects of that re-building.
So far in the progress of the Plenary Council in Australia, the silence on this aspect has been deafening.
Garry Everett is a member of the Catholic Church and is interested in the processes of organizational changes.