PETER DONNAN. Is church reform supported by Australian Catholic media?

Despite rhetoric around listening and discernment, Australian Catholic media are not generally forums where diverse perspectives are to be found. Many diocesan Catholic publications do not include Letters to the Editor and ‘discussions’ are outsourced to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. An exception in Australia is the Jesuit online site, Eureka Street and one gets a sense of its ethos from the remarks of contributing editor, Andrew Hamilton, SJ, who writes of a “commitment to a public conversation that is open and courteous. Its editors hope that readers will engage with what is written, explore the arguments deeply, and be open to modify their own views”.

The Plenary Council 2020 website is promoting ‘listening and dialogue’, ‘thematic dialogue’ and messages of ’your voice is needed’. Archbishop Coleridge’s webcast on the site seeks to involve the whole Church in Australia where ‘decisions are made together.’ The facts are, however, that under Canon Law bishops will have a ‘deliberative’ vote at the Plenary Council and very few lay members can even hope for a ‘consultative’ vote (Can. 443, §1)

Moderating public discussion forums in polemical environments is challenging. The New York Times, for instance, employs fifty staff to moderate online discussions arising from their newspaper columns. Despite its flaws, the ABC’s Q&A illustrates it is possible to discuss contentious issues of national importance in a public environment where conflict is often endemic.

Despite conceding the value of public discussion, why is it so challenging, particularly for Australian Catholic media? The issues around staffing and resourcing are starting points but a more serious problem the Editor of National Catholic Reporter identifies is: “We see comments as part of our mission of enabling conversations in the Catholic community” … [the problem is to] “screen out the nasty things people will say to one another. There is no validation system that will keep out the trolls and people with ill-intent who are determined to get it.”

The Australian Catholic Church has strong conservative, deeply embedded, even tribal cultural practices illustrated by such issues as the way divorcees are treated, how contraception is regarded, pilgrimages, the Latin mass, Angelus/Church bells, novenas, priestly celibacy, the role of women in the Church, the Legion of Mary, medals of saints, self-serving beatification processes as in the case of Pope John XX111/Pope Paul 6, pious practices around special saints such as St Monica, the patron saint of wives and alcoholics, and devotional prayers such as the Rosary.

Devotional practices, church teaching and beliefs are critical for many older Catholics. Some traditions have richly served earlier generations of Catholics and they continue to do so today. Looking to the future of the Church, and a younger generations of Catholics, one might hypothesise that new forms of spirituality and different ways of engagement with the gospel message of Jesus are likely to evolve. C.Lamb (The Tablet, Jan, 2019) notes that Pope Francis has effectively ruled “that traditionalists can freely celebrate the old rite liturgies, but they cannot reject Vatican II.” Vatican 11 occurred in the sixties but it still remains a bastion or perhaps a bridge too far for more ultra-conservative Catholics.

After viewing a cross-section of Catholic diocesan publications, my view is that progressive, reformist agendas cause discomfort to those who are editors, publishers or clergy who have overall responsibility for such publications. Conservative Catholic agendas are given higher priority and The Catholic Weekly’s boast, for example, is that ‘it is proudly Catholic, proudly counter-cultural’. My views of more than twenty such publications indicates that at times there are anti-intellectual elements evident in Catholic media and that to question or critique issues is almost anti-Christian.

Jack Jenkins (2019) notes that whenever Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wants to get the attention of the pope or his fellow bishops, he works through the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic publication, owned by the Eternal Word Television Network which has spent the better part of four decades quietly building a Catholic media empire that spans the globe.

In writing about the Plenary Council, Shane Dwyer, Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation states: ‘Instead of focusing on what each of us believes God is asking of us, the question much more quickly becomes what do I think is wrong with the Church? Or, what are my personal opinions about what ‘the Church’ should be doing?’ In his view, the listening phase is hindered by ‘dominant figures’ and a ‘more adversarial approach’. One of the implications of this position is that conflict and contesting different perspectives might even be spiritually harmful. There is of course a long history of dealing with conflict in the Catholic Church: Peter and Paul’s clash over circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem is an early example.

Was Christ’s gospel message exposed to conflict, challenge and questioning? I can think of many examples and there is an interesting clip from ‘The Tablet’ [2018] which reports that “The two synod gatherings on the family in 2014 and 2015 saw fiery exchanges, and even a protest letter from a group of cardinals. To its defenders, the more open synods of the Francis papacy are exposing the divisions that were already under the surface. Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, one of the most prominent synod fathers, stated: “It’s giving people a growing sense that we are moving into an adult Church, not an infantile Church. This is the way adults deal with differences, they don’t look to Daddy to solve all their problems, or hide them because they are afraid of conflict.”

While this preference for conservative agendas is maintained in Australian Catholic media, momentum for reform is thwarted. The types of issues that Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn are promoting have restricted publication outlets. Ironically, there is the secular media, the ABC, Eureka Street, academic journals, blog sites, book publishing etc. but in general the diocesan media forums within the Catholic spectrum remain indifferent, even antagonistic, and so reform is muffled.

Peter Donnan is a retiree: he taught in Public and Catholic high schools and worked in two Australian universities.

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Now retired, Peter spent forty-three years in education, teaching in NSW State and Catholic high schools for seventeen years. He then worked in academic staff development at two Australian universities – Charles Sturt University [Wagga Wagga] and The University of Canberra. He attends meetings of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and is particularly interested in how Catholic media can support reform agendas.

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