Michael Kelly SJ. It can’t get any worse.

Jun 8, 2015

Current Affairs.

There’s a special irony in the Australian Catholic bishops’ recent statement “Don’t Mess with Marriage” which is a defence of the institution against proposals to recognise gay marriage.

What are they defending? It’s not just the Catholic sacrament of marriage that is their focus of attention. They are worried about marriage as proposed under Commonwealth law. Over forty years ago when the Whitlam Government introduced the Family Law Act with no fault divorce that could be applied for twelve months after separation, it was denigrated as the end of marriage as we knew it and the ruthless destruction of the foundational institution of our society.

Today the bishops see the Marriage Act as the pillar whose extension to arrangements affecting gays will undermine a foundational institution of our society.

Am I missing something? Or is this one of the least prepared responses to a basic social change that affects people well beyond those that bishops are responsible for – those seeking a Catholic sacramental marriage? Even without any amendment to the Commonwealth definition of ‘marriage’, most marriages in Australia are not sacramental marriages.

As one who grew up in a Catholic family where the divorce of my parents was adjudicated under the burdensome processes of the previous law, the change introduced by the Whitlam Government was a welcome relief. When a relationship is over, it’s over and to string it out over five years meant the experience of blaming and abuse was daily fare.

Why do the bishops undermine their own credibility in this delicate matter when they can make no claim to speak for all Catholics, let alone all Australians, and their remit extends only to a particular form of marriage?

Within days of the release of this statement on marriage, the Archbishops (minus the one from Adelaide who is facing charges related to claims he did not report a sex offender priest) leapt to the defense of Cardinal Pell who is under pressure for his part in the debacle in Ballarat where Pell was a priest. What he knew and what did he do about what he knew are questions the Royal Commission is asking.

Long before any hearing, evidence, questions or testimony, the dogs were barking. But just to confirm the whole absurdity and before anyone has heard anything, the archbishops declare their support for Pell and tell everyone to stop picking on their mate.

I wonder how many of the archbishops thought about how such an intervention simply confirms the perception that the bishops constitute an old men’s club, out of touch with the community and its concerns?

There is also a deeper problem. How do people with so little sense of themselves outside ecclesiastical definitions, so oblivious to the world they are part of, get to leadership positions in the institution? The notoriously opaque process of episcopal appointments simply produces people to do jobs they can’t perform effectively or productively.

Behind that problem is the self-sustaining clerical culture, described by the present Pope as the “cancer killing the Church”, propped up by the Vatican court which he described as the “leprosy on the Papacy”. Whatever the declared purposes of the Church, the delivery of its message about Jesus and service to people, the reality of the operation is severely at odds with these declared purposes.

This system, in its present form, has been incubated over the last 450 years – since the Council of Trent in the mid 16th Century. Convened to correct the abuses of the medieval Church, it is now the carrier of all that is counterproductive in the Church’s conduct – the way still so many in the Church’s leadership still presume the survival of Christendom, the way bishops are appointed and operate, the way priests are trained and acculturated, the way parishes operate.

What can one man – the present Pope – do in the relatively short time left to him? Not a lot. His current focus is on the most alienating feature of Catholic life today – the engagement with people whose relationships have gone sour. He hasn’t even reached the matter he describes as a “cancer” – clericalism – and how it is to be addressed by completely and operationally revising how ministry in the Church happens.

Facing such challenges, I take comfort in the observation of Archbishop Daniel Mannix in the recently released and best of nine biographies of this commanding figure: “When it’s all boiled down, being a Catholic comes down to a few very basic questions”.

But such a minimalist approach doesn’t distract me from the conviction that getting things right – or at least better than they are now – will take a lot of work over a long time. And it requires imagination and courageous leadership.


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