PETER JOHNSTONE. Archbishop rejects top woman theologian – business as usual.

Aug 5, 2019

Peter Comensoli, still only 12 months into his new job as Archbishop of Melbourne, seems to have adopted the old ways of Catholic episcopal autocracy. He has unilaterally determined that an internationally acclaimed Catholic theologian, Sister Joan Chittister, be removed from the list of speakers at a conference of Australian educators in September 2020. It seems that Archbishop Comensoli takes decisions without the need for accountability, transparency or inclusiveness, or any regard for the views of the faithful, and is happy to reinforce the dysfunctional governance that was at the heart of the clerical child sexual abuse cover-up – business as usual. This does not augur well for the Plenary Council starting October 2020.

Archbishop Comensoli does not seem at all committed to “listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of the faithful”, the approach claimed by the Australian bishops for the forthcoming Plenary Council. It is ironic that this incident provides a demonstration of all that is wrong with Church decision making at the very time the Church has been showing a desire to reform.

Who is Joan Chittister? – an American Benedictine sister, theologian, author, and speaker. She has served as Benedictine prioress and Benedictine federation president, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. Chittister has authored over 50 books and over 700 articles in numerous journals and magazines. Her books deal with the contemplative life, justice and equality especially for women in church and society, interfaith topics, peace and others. She has won 16 Catholic Press Association awards for her books and numerous other awards for her work, including 12 honorary degrees from US universities. Sister Joan’s very existence may be seen by some as a threat to the Catholic Church’s subordination of women and culture of clericalism.

There has been some fancy PR footwork by the Archdiocese of Melbourne following the disclosure of Chittister’s treatment in the New York Times. The Times reported 24 June that Sister Joan “received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.” The Times continued, “to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne has tried hard to distance the archbishop from the withdrawal of the invitation, claiming that Comensoli had “neither invited Sister Joan or revoked any invitation that may have been issued to her” – a straw man argument seeking plausible deniability, as no one has suggested that Comensoli issued the invitation, nor even that he personally revoked the invitation. But if he didn’t revoke the invitation, who did and at whose behest? The archdiocese has not explained the 1st June email advice to Chittister’s secretary from the conference’s contact person that “the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion” and “I am presently seeking explanation for his reasoning.”

We all await an explanation from the archbishop as to:

a) why he believes that such an eminent and internationally respected theologian and educationist would not provide invaluable input to a conference of Australian educators?

b) why his own view should prevail over the education leaders planning the conference without careful consultation with those leaders?

The answers to those questions are more important than any semantic and evasive claims about the archbishop’s specific actions; unaccountable, powerful people rarely need to be hands-on to get their way. That lack of accountability in Church governance is key to the issues facing the Plenary Council in 2020 and 2021.

Regrettably, the archbishop of Melbourne does not have a diocesan pastoral council to assist his accountability despite the Church’s Canon law (c.511) providing that each diocese should establish, “in so far as pastoral circumstances suggest”, a pastoral council comprising members of Christ’s faithful. The Holy See’s International Theological Commission has described the diocesan pastoral council as “the permanent structure most favourable to the implementation of synodality.” After a year in the job, the archbishop has not appointed such a council, and it shows.

Remarkedly, most Australian bishops fail in this regard and in implementing other consultative provisions in canon law, such as diocesan synods. Canon 461 provides that a diocesan synod is to be held in each particular Church for the good of the whole diocesan community, and to assist the diocesan bishop when, after consulting the council of priests, he judges that the circumstances suggest it. According to the Holy See’s Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Apostolorum Successores (n.67), a diocesan synod is the “instrument ‘par excellence’ for assisting the bishop to order his diocese.”

Consultation is critical to pastoral leadership, and diocesan synods (and assemblies) should be an integral part of preparing for the Plenary Council. The autocratic rejection of consultation in Melbourne and other dioceses must be remedied if bishops are to renounce autocratic, secretive, non-inclusive and precipitate decision making.

The Chittister rejection has served to expose the continuation of autocratic decision making by bishops and their habitual failure to consult. There is an unwillingness to renounce the autocratic decision making that has made the Plenary Council necessary.

Unaccountable episcopal decision making is at the very basis of the Church’s dysfunctional governance and must be consigned to history. It illustrates not only a lack of accountability, transparency and inclusion critical to Jesus’ mission for the Church, but also a lack of commitment to the equal role of women in the Church. The Chittister rejection does not augur well for the Plenary Council.

Postscript: Independent arrangements are well advanced to bring Joan Chittister out to Australia at the same time as the National Education Conference in September 2020, just before the Plenary Council. The visit will emphasise the real responsibility of bishops as pastoral leaders, not autocrats, and the importance of bishops listening to their people, and of course the critical importance of the equality of women.

Peter Johnstone is National Convener of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform and a member of Catholics for Renewal Inc.

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