JOHN WARHURST. Mud-wrestling the Catholic elephant.

The Catholic Church is so big and complex. That is one of its defining characteristics yet the media and society at large, much less the Catholic community itself, often fail to grasp its consequences.

We live in an era of big institutions, such as big government, big business, big unions and other large organisations, including big churches. Business uses its size and complexity to reduce its tax burden and government has the power to crush dissent and diffuse calls for accountability. But the Catholic Church is particularly complex with its dioceses, agencies, orders, congregations, lay movements and international Canon Law.

The size and organisational complexity of the church has bedevilled the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Survivors of child sexual abuse have often been fobbed off when making claims against the church by the so-called Ellis defence which has used the law to pretend that no church entity can legitimately be sued in a particular case. Such a defence has rightly been condemned as legal trickery.

Now church reformers are facing the same dilemma, although in a different fashion. The problem lies with the many layers of authority and geographical organisation. This makes the church big and slippery. Getting a grip on it is much like mud-wrestling with an elephant. Its size and shape mean that there are numerous opportunities to engage with it but also equally numerous veto points and dead-ends when it comes to getting action.

Would-be reformers, like the groups which met last Friday in Canberra as the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR), are faced with the dilemma of just where to begin. Should they start from the top down, concentrating their efforts on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Vatican? That strategy involves dealing with the President and the Permanent Committee through either their local bishop or the ACBC Secretariat with an eye on the May and November meetings of the whole conference.

Or should they begin from the bottom up, concentrating their efforts on their local parish or diocese? That strategy has the advantage of greater accessibility but the limitation that parish and diocese must work within the larger framework of church rules. There is also enormous variability between parishes and dioceses. Some reformers will find themselves welcomed by a progressive bishop or priest, but others will be stymied by apathy and conservatism.

The local level also includes schools and agencies, like Catholic Care, as well as hospitals and aged care institutions. All provide avenues for staff and clients to engage with the larger institution.

“We are taking on trust the claims by church leaders that everything is on the table and it will not be business as usual. But we are worried that those assurances will not come to pass.”

This complexity is also a mixed blessing in approaching participation in the processes of the 2020 Plenary Council, which many reformers are planning to do though with a mixture of trust and scepticism. We are taking on trust the claims by church leaders that everything is on the table and it will not be business as usual.

But we are worried that those assurances will not come to pass, either because real reform is out of the hands of the Australian church or because there is no firm intention of constructing a broad agenda which includes structural and cultural issues such as the absence of women from decision-making and the barriers to lay leadership.

For that reason it is essential that the bishops engage with the ACCCR communique and release the response of their Truth, Justice and Healing Council to the royal commission to the Catholic community when they receive it in late April. Furthermore, a lay woman co-chair should be appointed to the Plenary Council leadership without further ado to provide the necessary gender and lay/clerical balance.

In general both church reformers and church officials should be much clearer — and in the case of church leaders much more transparent — about levels of responsibility within the church. That would make it plainer what precisely can be achieved within the Australian church within parishes and dioceses and collectively nation-wide. That in turn would make it more obvious what each level can reasonably be expected to do when it comes to institutional reform. A great deal of inertia and buck-passing, and ultimately dashed expectations, will be avoided if that is the case.

This article was first published on Eureka Street. 

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


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4 Responses to JOHN WARHURST. Mud-wrestling the Catholic elephant.

  1. Perhaps the many, many of us who do still care need to ask the veil-tearing, familiar, but too infrequently asked question: “What would Jesus do?” None of us can speak for him with any absolute authority (let’s set that delusion aside!). However, we can look at his example, especially the example of his own conduct and his imploring to the people around him that their own attitudes and conduct choices would reflect dignity and compassion and meaningful care. Nothing else. Then the answers become simple. We look to the margins – and into the heart of our own lives. We refuse to be intimidated, especially by institutional power that is consuming itself and exhausts us. We instead empower OURSELVES through our daily practice of conscious living, through our spiritual companionships, through Divine and constant inspiration. We attempt each in our own way to bring to life the transformative power of unconditional inclusion, unconditional care for others, unconditional trust in the goodness of God. We empower ourselves towards gratitude for this astonishing world: and protect it. We co-create with a loving, forgiving God to the very best of our ability in whatever spheres we’ve been called to. We re-read the Beatitudes! We forgive ourselves for our own idiocies. And we remember, with Thomas Merton on that day in 1958 on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, that each one of us is – if only we could know and trust it – walking around SHINING LIKE THE SUN!
    I want to add a PS: that coming together in meditation or at any service which brings genuine good will and love for humanity, God, ourselves – and it may well be at your local church, synagogue or mosque, despite “institutional power” – surely goes a very long way to re-membering, and re-encouraging. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered together, there I am (said Jesus, loving and not judging us)…” And with Paul: “It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me…” Whew! Dare we even think about this?!! Great institutions wield a mighty version of power…there are, thank heaven, so many others.

    • Trish Martin says:

      Stephanie, what a wonderful comment and so insightful. I have struggled over recent days with my faith in the Catholic Church; its Pope who says much but does little, its cardinals who question the Pope’s initiative and the bishops who just cant seem to think independently of the system.
      Your comments are very helpful in reminding us all that the only True power is the power of the Holy Spirit, which delivers special fruits such as wisdom and right judgment. St. Paul says in Romans 8:6: “if our minds are ruled by the Spirit, we will have life and peace.”

  2. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Reform? : 500 years after Martin Luther; what are the odds?

  3. Mary Tehan says:

    Thank you for this clear and thoughtful article. In an age where increasing complexity (and a maturing consciousness) is not reflected in public life or some parishes, it is important to try and navigate a system, and develop structures, that lift the bar into this emerging societal complexity & maturity. Trying to change a monarchical structure and system (Institutional Church) into a system of matrices (‘matrix’ plural) is fundamental to engaging with, and attending to, contemporary issues and needs. I’m just not sure how it can happen unless training of nuns and priests is undertaken within a matrix paradigm. It’s REALLY hard work being accountable in a matrix relationship and way of being in the world … but it is absolutely an essential skill for what is being asked in this time of a civilisation transition. This is where blended families with healthy relationships really come into their own … for ‘matrix’ systems are engaged with in everyday life in these family structures, and beyond. They have so much to teach others about living life in mature and responsible ways at this point in history. In these families, nothing is either/or … needs are attended to within a diverse and moderating way. In both my own personal and professional life, I’ve lived out this reality and have seen transformations birthed and nourished from its nexus. Unfortunately, societal and church structures and systems in place (STILL) do not support this way of being in the world; something desperately needed to transition well into the future. Co-leadership is foundational and a good place to start.

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