JOHN WARHURST. Major Catholic church consultation ambitious – but will it succeed? (Canberra Times 5/7/2018)

Jul 12, 2018

The huge Australian Catholic community, the largest, the most clerical and the most hierarchical of our Christian churches, has just embarked on a potentially defining internal consultation process, the Plenary Council 2020, to discuss the future of its church. While its leaders, like Cardinal George Pell and the recently sentenced Archbishop Philip Wilson, attract media attention for all the wrong reasons, this major consultation gives lay Catholics a rare opportunity to express their views with some hope of having an impact.  

It has been sold to the Catholic community by its leadership as a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to overturn business as usual and to start afresh. It comes, of course, after, and in part a response to, the revelations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of the church’s criminality in that regard. The Royal Commission recommended that the church review its governance, structures and culture, in addition to making specific child-safety recommendations. This council is too broad to be such a review, but it does offer the chance for some action on governance and related issues.

The Australia-wide consultation began two weeks ago in Canberra with four well-attended, open listening and dialogue sessions held off church property in a gesture towards disenfranchised Catholics. It involves a three-stage process of dialogue, discernment and legislation, which will culminate in March 2021 when Australia’s bishops, sitting in splendid isolation, will distil the proposals which have emanated from a larger October 2020 Plenary Council meeting in Adelaide in which lay Catholics will fill up to one-third of the places, following a yet to be determined selection process.

Australians in general are used to consultation processes from the local to the national level. They include previous Catholic efforts in the 1990s, including an inquiry into wealth distribution with an external focus and an inquiry into the place of women within the church. Each led to public reports with uncertain impact which are worth revisiting now.

There is a consultation industry. Governments, bureaucracies and private companies frequently engage in large-scale consultations, including local-level community consultations about land-use, transportation and building developments. Parliamentary committees also often utilise public inquiries, and surveys and focus groups are another form of consultation. The 1998 Constitutional Convention was another take on consultation with its 50:50 mix of elected and government-appointed delegates.

This Catholic-style consultation, inspired by Pope Francis’ encouragement of a synodal or listening church, contains echoes of these other types of civic consultations but ultimately has a distinctive ecclesiastical approach. Furthermore, the Australian Catholic Church is not an independent entity and any proposals which infringe upon international church rules must be sent to Rome for approval.

Enthusiasts for this church consultation should note too that while consultation has its advocates as a central part of any decision-making process, it also commonly leads to dashed expectations and ultimately cynicism about the motivation of those driving it.

Often those who are consulted eventually conclude that the process has been flawed, a fig-leaf which covers up the exercise of status quo power, and that ultimately the voice of the grass-roots is disregarded.

There are many disillusioned and angry Catholics still hanging in there, some represented locally by the new ginger group, Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn, who are planning to participate seriously in the process in the hope that something constructive will emerge. If they are disappointed, and it does turn out to be business as usual, then that will be worse than if the church leadership had never even embarked on this initiative.

Concerned Catholics C-G was one of the first to make a submission, stressing governance, cultural and structural issues, including women’s equal participation, and has actively participated in the early listening and dialogue stages. But lingering doubts remain.

The process itself is ambitious in size and scope and is being conducted on a shoe-string, which makes it less likely to succeed. The small, central facilitation team based in Sydney, though professional and IT savvy, relies on largely amateur, though well-meaning, assistance Australia-wide throughout this incredibly complex church organisational structure. Not only will individuals, parishes and dioceses be seeking input but so will hundreds of religious congregations and orders, lay groups, and Catholic schools, hospitals, welfare organisations and other workplaces.

If size is a massive problem so is scope. Unlike most consultations, including the previous church ones on wealth distribution and women’s participation, it lacks a clear focus. An ‘everything on the table’ approach sounds nice and open, but it is difficult to grapple with and will necessitate difficult sorting through of priority issues eventually if the necessary urgency and focus is to result.

The Australian Catholic Bishops haven’t helped at all by failing to respond publicly to the Royal Commission’s recommendations on the church and by not releasing the strategic advice it has received from its own Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Lay Catholics can’t dialogue productively with a blank canvas and they have been let down yet again by their leaders. This is a major failing of process, much less of responsiveness and responsibility. The usefulness of this first stage of listening and dialogue has been severely limited because the bishops, who hold all the cards, have failed to put their own position on the table.

The wider Australian community, not just Catholics, should take an interest in this consultation process by not letting it proceed undisturbed behind closed doors. The community’s costly investment in the lengthy Royal Commission demands it. More broadly the health and transparency of the churches is as important to the nation as that of its other major components like banks, trade unions, ethnic and farming communities.

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

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