Currently the Catholic Church in Australia, and in a number of overseas countries (e.g. Chile and Ireland), is experiencing a crisis in its culture. In Australia the Royal Commission into sexual abuse of minors has described this culture as toxic. The Commission also described the culture as excessively clerical in the sense that it is based on notions of priestly power, privilege and prestige, accompanied by lack of transparency and accountability, as well as failing to engage the lay people effectively. In Rome, Pope Francis has described the culture of the Catholic Church in Chile as “one of abuse and cover-up”.
Culture is a difficult word to unpack. However, one of the simplest descriptions of culture is: “the way we do things around here”. This description indicates that there is an established mode of operation known at least to those in power. It also implies that that mode is not open to negotiation; that the powerful always win and the powerless always lose. The culture also protects itself from close examination. This is a depiction of an unhealthy culture, but nonetheless a true description.
Sometimes it is helpful, in trying to understand a culture, to look at several examples of what might be termed “manifestations of the culture at work”. The following examples are personal experiences drawn from the last few years of interacting with various levels of the clergy in Australia. While each example may appear insignificant, it is the cumulative effect of all the examples that reveals how the culture works and impacts on adherents.
Example 1. I have written to three different bishops on separate occasions concerning aspects of the Church. One bishop failed to acknowledge receipt of my three pieces of correspondence and did not reply. The other two bishops had secretaries who acknowledged receipt, but the bishops have never replied.
Example 2. I asked a parish priest about the size of the surplus in the parish accounts because it was not reported in any written information provided. The reply was: “it is prudent to have a surplus”. When pressed by a comment:”that was not the question”, the conversation was terminated.
Example 3. In 2015-16 the Vatican undertook a survey of church members on a range of issues related to the announced Synod on the Family. It took a few hours to complete the survey, and I received a letter thanking me for the care and consideration displayed in completing the survey. However, those who completed the survey never received the results. We were denied the knowledge of what other Catholics thought on the issues. Apparently the decision not to share the results with contributors was only made once the returns were processed.
The above examples are personal, but in discussions with other Catholics it is apparent that I am not alone in experiencing these and other unhealthy aspects of Church culture. Of course those who experienced sexual abuse in the Church have publicly revealed their own examples of the how the culture of the Church failed them also. The point is that one does not have to experience dramatic examples of cultural dysfunction in order to know that there are problems within the organization. It is the myriad of little slights (or “sleights”) that lead to a sense of betrayal of trust and alienation from the fold. Some perpetrators of the slights are probably unconscious of their behaviour, so ingrained has it become, and so rarely has it been subjected to analysis by them or others.
Sadly, any attempt to change the culture is usually controlled by the existing culture. Consequently, the expectation is that nothing will change, and the cynics will read that as a perfect illustration that the culture has won again. Already the recently launched Plenary Council in Australia has adversely come under scrutiny as being yet another example of poor process. It appears that the process itself was never widely consulted on among the laity before its adoption by the hierarchy.
The Church can do better, but not while it persists with old models of change processes that have failed to deliver the radical changes that the faithful feel are long overdue in this country. The unhealthy culture identified by the Royal Commission and the Pope will see to that.
Garry Everett is retired after a long career in education. Much of his work was in adult education. He has studied internationally with particular focus on theology, social justice and church renewal. Currently he consults on processes of change.