It is at once disturbing and affirming to realise the depth of dissatisfaction and mood for change among Catholics in Australia. Dissatisfaction may be too soft a word for the disillusion many Catholics express about the clericalism and authoritarianism that dogs the church.
While the voice of the church remains politically potent on issues like schools funding, when the issue of catholicism’s future is raised, it becomes evident how far the church and so many of its flock, particularly younger people, have drifted apart.
Cultural catholicism is fading in Australia. Young parents brought up and schooled as Catholics increasingly are avoiding church marriages and baptisms for their children. The institutional sex abuse revelations have sharpened their disillusion into rejection.
The next generation of leaders and parishioners, particularly those of Irish/European extraction is exiting Holy Mother Church.
Among older Catholics, that trend is spurring a push for credible reform in the church, to grasp the heartening messages of Pope Francis and coax a resistant hierarchy towards a more effective, gospel-driven mission involving the laity in decision-making. Christ was in his early 30s at the time of his death and resurrection yet the modern church is dominated by old men.
The affirming aspect of this phenomenon was the enthusiasm expressed by an overwhelming majority of more than 200 who attended a public meeting called by a new group, the Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn Archdiocese.
The people who jammed into the meeting on a cold Canberra evening recently were part of something infrequently seen in Australia: a laity-initiated event called without episcopal imprimatur to discuss reforming the church’s sclerotic power structure.
The Concerned Catholics invited the Archbishop, Christopher Prowse, who attended, sat among the people and did not address the meeting. There was a sprinkling of other senior clergy, who came to listen.
This was a night for the laity. And what the speakers delivered was a message that contemporary clericalism must change or the church faces a lingering malaise of decline and irrelevance.
A forest of hands rose, including that of Prowse, when the chairman of the meeting, John Warhurst, asked for a show of support for the general goals of greater accountability, inclusiveness, transparency, women’s participation in decision-making, lay leadership and collaborative working towards a reform agenda in the Archdiocese and more broadly.
It comes amid a growing movement for reform in Australia. The Catholics for Renewal organisation is circulating a national letter to bishops seeking a battery of changes to boost accountability, transparency and inclusion of women in church decision-making.
The first indicator of the hierarchy’s response or otherwise may come if the matter of church reform is discussed at this week’s Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Any disclosures about the discussions will depend on whether the bishops will drop their reticence and share their thinking with the faithful.
The council’s dismissive reaction to overtures by laity including advocates for women clergy in the past is but further evidence of the need for reform. At a time when mass attendances, priest numbers and the standing of the church in the community has fallen as low as it has ever been in Australia, the bishops will struggle to convince the flock that they alone should hold the keys to the church.
Speaking at the Canberra meeting, Francis Sullivan, who heads the Truth Justice and Healing Council, established to coordinate the church’s response to the Royal Commission, spoke of the church’s custom of running a commentary on life rather than providing advice on “how to do life”.
He called for vigorous involvement of the laity in developing an agenda for the 2020 Plenary Council being sought by many Australian bishops, and yet to be approved by the Vatican.
There would be cynicism about the prospects for the laity to have a real say if the plenary goes ahead. It was up to the laity to insist on an effective voice, Sullivan said. The bishops must be made to realise that an absence of effective lay influence would doom the plenary to a tick-the-box impotence.
The former NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, spoke about the church’s failure to address reality. She recalled being at mass where the priest made an appeal for vocations. In the congregation she observed two former, now married, priests and four women she knew to have theological degrees.
Another of the three invited speakers, Marilyn Hatton, convenor of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Renewal, addressed future directions for reform, supported others’ calls for respect to replace obedience to the church’s teachings. She urged acting at the parish level, the forming of listening groups and a continued push for equality in the church.
Speakers from the floor, suggested a litany of solutions: encourage Australia’s bishops to be true pastors and dare Rome to sack them; reform seminary education; end the self-referential church that is sinful and evil and focus on the Gospel; seek a more contemplative church. A senior solicitor said that while the church was telling people what to do with ashes of the deceased it was not discussing the fate of asylum seekers or the environment.
A striking aspect was many individuals’ expression of their faith in the face of church’s failings.
Despite the sex abuse scandals that have shaken the Canberra church as elsewhere, it is noteworthy how closed the church establishment remains. There are parish priests who hanker for change, but few express their views openly.
There were lay people in some parishes including a teacher who has expressed anxiety about attending the Canberra meeting because of fear of recrimination from the church. It is said teacher concerns about their jobs are heightened because many do not have permanent positions.
Archbishop Prowse, who came under fire over his responses to some consequences of local sex abuse issues, has undertaken a “listening tour” of the archdiocese and led a service of lamentation at St Christopher’s Cathedral.
That was a response to the past. Now the question for concerned Catholics is how he and his fellow bishops deal with the future.
Mark Metherell is a former journalist and a founding member of Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn.