Michael Kelly SJ. Where to from here for the Catholic Church in Australia

Despite the unpersuasive Vatican spin on Cardinal Pell’s appearance last week before the Royal Commission into child sex abuse in institutions – that his performance was “dignified” and “edifying”, his performance, in the assessment of most observers including this one, was inept, cowardly and unconvincing.

Cardinal Pell is only one Australian Catholic and he has a small following, even among the country’s bishops. But he has single handedly brought the Catholic Church in Australia to its knees. If what occurred last week happened to any other entity in Australia – a political party, a trade union or a university, for example – a death notice in the newspaper would be expected.

In fact, of course, the type of Catholicism Pell embodies has been in its death throes for some decades. The authoritarian and clericalist style and substance that Pell is the exemplar of is not only unappealing in post-modern, pluralist and multicultural Australia. It lost its theoretical underpinning in Catholic theology at Vatican II in the 1960s.

But now it is derelict. The only question to ask is what if anything will succeed it? And if there is something that could succeed it, what resources are there to draw on to see some fresh expression of Catholicism realized?

The clericalist, authoritarian Church that Pell exemplifies has been in terminal decline for decades. Why? Because there aren’t any troops to keep fighting its fights. The declining rate of seminary recruiting and ordinations to the male celibate priesthood has been obvious to any but the wishful since the 1970s.

Pell has been one of the wishful, claiming seminaries are full year after. It’s true seminaries accepted just about anyone who wanted to get into them. But the crushing fact is that few candidates who entered the seminaries in the last 20 years ever got ordained. And among those who did, at least a third left the priesthood within a decade of ordination.

The average age of the clergy in Australia now is in the low 70s. It was a statistical given in the 1970s that if the average age of any group of religious brothers or nuns moved much beyond 60, that congregation had moved beyond its capacity to regenerate itself.

As far as priests are concerned, it is a matter of supreme puzzlement to me how a Church that declares the Eucharist to be “the sources and summit of the Church’s life” (as declared at Vatican II) has been incapable of addressing this simple fact: according to current rules, there will be a decreasing capacity to provide a service that is dependent on male celibates to deliver.

So, in reality how can the Catholic Church survive in Australia given the crippling effect of the mishandling of sex abuse, the incompetence of its leadership and the beleaguered condition of its executive force – the clergy?

The Catholic Church is rightly perceived as a domain dominated by old men. That’s what appears every time there is a major Catholic ceremony. It’s what happens every time there is a significant gathering – nationally or internationally – to consider issues and challenges the Church is facing. Little wonder that the Church is seen and often described as an old boys’ club.

In reality in Australia, the interface with the Church that most Catholics experience is not the male dominated and stiff ceremonies that establish the image of the boys club. For most Catholics participating in something Catholic in Australia, the encounters occur in Catholic schools.

Increasingly the reality of the Catholic community is a school system with a church attached which most visit occasionally. And the significant leadership is not the old priests or the occasionally appearing bishop but the leaders of the school community who are almost all lay people – like over 98% – and mostly women.

There are now literally thousands of theologically well-qualified leaders of Catholic communities who are not sacramental celebrants but educators. Women have always been the most significant and effective carriers and communicators of faith in the Australian Church – in families and local parishes, within and between generations.

Now they are the formally qualified and administratively authorized leaders of over 2,000 communities across the country – over 1200 primary schools and more than 800 secondary schools.

Cultural cycles are the slowest by far. Political cycles (of ideas and policies) might be about 20 years in the making and unmaking. Economic cycles can take twice as long to work their way through national communities that end up being vastly different to what they were. Just look at Australia in 1976 and 2016.

Cultural cycles take even longer as beliefs change from being novel suggestions to their being embedded and taken for granted in a community’s self-understanding, from having statuses and roles being unquestioned to their being discarded and replaced.

What is to become of Catholicism in Australia will not emerge from seminaries and religious congregations but from mission focused and theologically informed lay people who are mostly female.

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One Response to Michael Kelly SJ. Where to from here for the Catholic Church in Australia

  1. The strong culture of secrecy and blind spot to sexual abuse includes both women and men. says:

    The systemic culture of secrecy inside the Catholic Church is adhered to by both women and men in leadership positions in their roles as executives and school leaders. Silence and blindness to clergy abuse has no gender preference and is rewarded with promotional opportunities, more power and financial incentives (such as overseas trips, new cars, sabbatical leave and increased salaries). It would be very naive to put faith in the significant population of lay women in the church without changing the faith based instituions poor governance, arrogance to Australia’s laws culture of coverup and a world wide entrenched and systemic culture of hiding and ignoring clergy abuse.
    The recent solution to bringing priests in from overseas to fill vacancies in rural Australia is also not workable.

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