MARILYN HATTON. Will the Australian Catholic Church face “the elephant in the room”?

May 24, 2019


Australia could lead the way on reform of Church governance. The scrutiny of the Royal Commission and work arising from the 2020 Plenary Council has equipped the Australian Catholic Church like no other in the world at this time.  

At a time when Australia has witnessed dishonest and shamefully toxic election tactics, the Catholic Church is undergoing a review of governance at the behest of the National Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse of Children.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) said that “the review of (Catholic Church Governance) will examine how church structures, some of which were devised centuries ago, can be improved”. Many theologians, bishops and priests echo Archbishop Coleridge’s comment. Reform groups and Catholics across the country welcome the appointment of the panel of respected experts by the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA).

It is heartening to hear the Archbishop’s acknowledgement and his recognition of outdated structures. The laity, and women in particular, are anxious that the panel are thorough in addressing the current gender discrimination in decision-making and ministry at the grass roots level.  It is the elephant in the room, it is a divisive issue within our Church and a key governance issue that impacts on the clerical culture.

One of our revered Catholic bishops, suggests the continuing influence of the underlying outdated Catholic anthropology must also be questioned.  It has many in the Church unconvinced that women and men are equal.  Church people must realize that if they ignore a basic tenet of justice, like equal recognition of men and women, they will have no credibility because their notion of governance is built on false premises. This type of discrimination, must be jettisoned to make way for a new imagining of a more authentic and accessible governance structure and practice of faith that many in their hearts know will better serve the challenges of our world, particularly peace and poverty.

The reform group Catholics for Renewal in their submission to the 2020 National Plenary Council note “Governance encompasses the leadership, authority, accountability, culture and control of an organisation enabling the achievement of the organisation’s mission. Good governance requires high levels of accountability, transparency and inclusion. It never discriminates on the basis of gender or other diversity, always respecting civil law, due process and natural justice.” This definition of governance is consistent with the spirit of the Vatican Council II and Pope Francis’s exhortation Evangelii Gaudium which could serve to guide the panel.   

Jack de Groot, (one of the panel members) quoted in the National Catholic Reporter last week, says that the review will consider more collegial models of governance that “would see significant participation of lay people and leveraging of their expertise, aiming to bring gender parity to the running of the Church”.  He emphasizes a focus on “accountability and transparency in decision-making processes, and importantly, who will participate in decision-making.” De Groot said that the panel would approach their work “through the prism of theology”.

Our Catholic theology of equality will be crucial to inform and ground the work of the panel. It will break the clerical culture that Pope Francis calls “a cancer in our midst “ and ensure full equality for all.  Saint Paul told the Galations “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(3.28).

De Groote is right we need new models of governance, many go further and say we need new models of Church. Many people of faith believe the exclusive priesthood of the 17th century divides and blocks more creative ways of effectively bringing Christ’s message of love and justice to the world. Committed and thoughtful Catholics are questioning what new models might look like.

The Vatican II documents Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, identifying the Church as the whole people of God, are rich texts and have much to offer and benefit leadership, governance and citizenship in our Catholic Church.

The Review of Catholic Church Governance is running parallel to preparations for the Church’s  2020 National Plenary Council, the first such council in Australia since 1937. The preparations have included consultations in all dioceses across Australia. The call for submissions has attracted some twenty thousand submissions, many making detailed suggestions about governance, particularly around the issue of men and women’s participation and leadership and their lack of ability to vote in decision-making on Church teaching and practice as prescribed in Canon Law. Currently all deliberative decision-making on teaching and practice is made by bishops alone, with the laity only having an advisory role.

Themes arising from the submissions will be announced by the implementation team in the next few weeks and working groups will be formed. Pope Francis exhortations support a synodal form of governance, but unless bishops are prepared to include a gender balance of laity in all decision-making this will not work.

In La Croix (9 May,2019) Michael Seewald, Professor of Dogmatics  at Germany’s Munster University says that “a successful synod will depend on how bishops will share their power, foster participation and implement a system of checks and balances. This will require an act of courage on the part of the bishops. This synodal approach will only succeed if the bishops renounce all taboos and put the [Roman] Curia, which has gone wild, in its place. “

Australia could lead the way on Church governance. Archbishop Mark Coleridge is a fine scripture scholar and well regarded in Rome and Pope Francis would support him. The scrutiny of the Royal Commission and work arising from the 2020 Plenary Council has equipped the Australian Catholic Church like no other in the world at this time.

The panel is due to give an interim report by the end of October 2019, with a final report to CRA and ACBC in the first half of 2020. I urge all those concerned with renewal to encourage the panel in their very important work and to monitor their progress.

Marilyn Hatton is an advocate for equality for women in the Catholic Church.

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