Now or never: Remarks by John Warhurst at Book Launch of Wrestling with the Church Hierarchy 

Jun 2, 2021

It is now or never for the Catholic Church’s Vatican Two generation. They must continue to wrestle with the church hierarchy if the forthcoming Plenary Council is to have any chance of achieving its potential.

First, I owe thanks to my wife Joan for her love and her forbearance since March 2017 when I agreed to chair the first forum of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. We had no idea how this venture would turn out and how much it would engulf us.

I also owe thanks to a multitude of other people, including the entire Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn committee team. What a journey, described in the book, it has been. It too has been a journey reinforced by growing love and friendship.

Thank you, Genevieve Jacobs, for your wisdom and encouraging words. You evoked the past, told the truth about it and issued a challenge for the future of the church. You have been a friend for many years. As an ABC host in Canberra you were always ready to allow Concerned Catholics to put its point of view to a wider audience. You asked hard questions about the future of the church and almost always your audience was quizzical about why reforming Catholics would even bother.

Wrestling with the Church Hierarchy: Engaging with the Plenary Council and Beyond (Garratt Publishing) includes many thanks, and I would like to repeat them: to the publishers of my original articles (Eureka Street, Pearls & Irritations, The Canberra Times and The Swag) and especially to Garratt Publishing, the publisher of this book. David Hughan, Karen Tayleur and my editor, Greg Hill, have been absolutely terrific to work with. I would also like to thank other outlets, like La Croix International and Australian Catholics, which reproduced some of these articles. Finding as wide an audience as possible is crucial to church renewal if we are to spread our message. Church diocesan media is rarely interested because it is controlled by the bishops and mainstream media must be convinced that church stories are of wider interest. They are generally reluctant to publish despite the fact that Catholics of one sort or another make up 20% of the Australian community.

I am delighted that Bishop Pat Power could be here today as a special guest. He is an inspiration to many of us in the reform movement. He knows how hard it is to speak out and to lean in. Not long after Concerned Catholics CG began he told me something like: “Well done, but look after yourself and watch out you don’t get hurt.” I took that to mean he was speaking from his own experience within the church.

Monsignor John Woods, our host tonight, encouraged me to put my name forward for the PC selection process. I thank him for that and for many other things. I am also grateful that Sarah Gowty, my colleague on the former Caritas Australia National Council, is here this evening to support me.

I have shared many battles with Terry Fewtrell, our master of ceremonies, whom I first got to know in the Australian Republican Movement leadership group. There are interesting parallels between the two movements for constitutional reform and church reform. Neither is easy and the status quo is always hard to shift.

Wrestling with the Hierarchy 

It has been a wrestle and the church authorities are unapologetically hierarchical. The bishops are commonly referred to as the hierarchy. That explains the book’s title.

 I first used this image in 2018 in an article, which is included in the book, called “Mud Wrestling the Catholic Elephant”. It was a mixed metaphor. I had in mind various parables about the mouse and the elephant to describe the unequal tussle between lay Catholics and the church hierarchy. I also had in mind the difficulty of coming to grips with the hierarchy, given its complex power structures and built-in defence mechanisms. Getting a grip (another wrestling metaphor) is very difficult because the subject matter is slippery.

It was Doug Hynd, a Baptist friend who is here tonight, who reminded me that ‘wrestling’ has a biblical dimension. In the Book of Genesis Jacob wrestled with an Angel and came away with a blessing, a new name and a limp. Doug hopes that I get a blessing out of the book, even if it does not come from the bishops. Luckily I don’t yet have a limp.

Wrestling has many dimensions and the renewal movement has explored them all: face to face, correspondence, submissions, forums and media.

It is also tiring because it just goes on and on. The church hierarchy moves slowly if at all in response to the voices of lay Catholics. One example is our call for a Diocesan Pstoral Council in Canberra-Goulburn.

Reflections. 

It is now or never for the generation of Vatican Two. Age brings confidence but also urgency. I am 73 now and older than most of the bishops. I am no longer willing to be “seen but not heard”.

In speaking out I believe I am fair-minded and balanced. That is what my Canberra Times readers frequently say when they have given me feedback over the past 23 years. There can be no greater compliment.

Engagement with the Plenary Council 

The first Plenary Council Assembly is in early October to be followed by a second in July 2022. We still do not really know how it will operate, though its general dimensions have been outlined. The Training Sessions for the 280 Members may make some things clearer as will the PC Agenda, which has been agreed by the bishops and should be released early in June.

The job is in front of us. The church is an almost immovable object. The PC process is controlled by the church hierarchy and is tipped against lay people, who are in a clear minority.

Even among lay people there are some who fervently support the status quo and, frequently as church employees, are very close to the bishops.

Many bishops have an idea of the PC far removed from our own. They look askance at anything that resembles a voice for Catholic people and play the spiritual card to dampen aspirations where necessary.

What we may have going for us is that if the PC is an absolute disaster the image of the church and the hierarchy will suffer even more. They will have to manufacture an outcome which looks like progress. Our challenge and opportunity is to cut through the spin and to demand real substance to the outcomes.

One Opportunity for Reform but not the Only One 

My advice to reformers is to take every opportunity and certainly do not wait for PC outcomes. Our goals of equality for women, co-responsibility for lay Catholics and accountability and transparency in all church affairs, including finance and communications, can be argued for at parish and diocesan level without waiting for national, much less international action. The bishops have said exactly that in their official response to The Light from the Southern Cross and we should hold them to it.

Lay reformers must also help create an atmosphere within the church in which religious and clergy are given a licence and freedom to be themselves free of hierarchical pressures. Within that healthy atmosphere alliances can be built across the church and progress made. We will all be better off.

Professor John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a Member of the Plenary Council 

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