JOHN WARHURST. Catholic Citizens needed within Church

May 25, 2017

Catholics must stand up and become active citizens not loyal subjects within their own church community. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has pointed to weaknesses in culture and governance within the Catholic Church in Australia. Within the church the normal tenets of liberal democracy, including inclusiveness, transparency, equality and responsiveness do not apply.  

The church hierarchy has responded in various ways to the revelations of the Royal Commission, including apologies, liturgies of lament, reparations and promises of new child safety regulations. But the bishops show no inclination to tackle these structural and cultural issues, so it is up to the Catholic laity to do so. This is the strong message of Francis Sullivan, the lay head of the church’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Council.

Unfortunately, historically the Catholic Church is not a community in which its lay members are called on to play such a role. Instead as Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta has pointed out on several occasions recently the church is a pyramid in which the ordained clergy are at the pinnacle and the laity at the bottom.

Catholics have been brought up to the constant refrain that the church is not a democracy. They are dissuaded from challenging its undemocratic structures and urged to accept church discipline from the top.

Catholics are made subject to their bishops and other church leaders. As subjects they can be professional and hard-working senior church employees in education, health or welfare agencies or lay Catholics in organisations like St Vincent de Paul, but they are not church decision-makers in the democratic sense. That role is left to bishops and priests.

Catholics have a proud record of exercising their democratic rights within wider Australian democracy as voters, members of political parties and lobby groups and as elected representatives. But within their own church they have been taught to leave their democratic rights at the door.

Now is the time to challenge that norm in parishes, dioceses and the wider Australian church. In responding to the Royal Commission the church needs an infusion of democratic values, including more transparency and accountability. Values which have long since become accepted in the wider community, including equal participation in decision-making by women, and the development of lay leadership more generally, must become the rule rather than the exception in church circles.

In short Catholics must stop being satisfied with being loyal subjects, even effective and energetic ones, and find a way to exercise their democratic citizenship rights as they do as a matter of course in the wider community. This will not be easy as church rules and regulations, including those governing the proposed 2020 Australian Synod, are biased towards clerical leadership and generally prevent lay equality in decision-making.

At a time of crisis in the Australian church, measured by plummeting Mass attendance and widespread disengagement and disillusionment with the leadership and structures which have presided over the child sexual abuse crimes revealed by the Royal Commission, it is the moment for Australian Catholics to say: “It’s Time”.

This is the conclusion which Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn, a newly-formed church reform group, has reached. It has asked Archbishop Christopher Prowse to explore several practical steps towards more democratic structures and culture within the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn, including: new models for more effective lay participation, more effective vehicles for women’s participation in key decision-making, the establishment of a laity-led diocesan pastoral council, and partnership with the laity and committed priests and religious to achieve a reform agenda. It also asked Archbishop Prowse to raise these general goals at the May plenary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Such an agenda may seem radical within the Australian church but these suggestions for increased democratic citizenship are unremarkable within the wider Australian community. They are now urgent and long overdue.

Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn will advance this agenda through regular public meetings, working parties, parish networks and listening to disengaged Catholics. It is crucial for the laity to play a central role in the preparations for the proposed 2020 Australian Synod and to have an equal role at the Synod itself. This would become more likely if diocesan-based church reform groups could be established in many other Australian dioceses.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn, which can be contacted at   


Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!