PETER JOHNSTONE. Bishops in the headlights.

May 31, 2018

Catholic bishops throughout the world should regard themselves as on notice following the dramatic offer of resignations by all the bishops of Chile. There are already calls (Paul Collins) for Australian bishops to emulate the Chilean bishops in light of the damning report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, not to mention the recent conviction of an Australian archbishop on concealment charges and the imminent trial of another on sex abuse allegations. In many ways, the Catholic hierarchy is becoming increasingly isolated from the faithful.

Six months after the Royal Commission’s final report, we are still waiting for the Australian Catholic Bishops to seek the views of the faithful, let alone to respond to the Commission’s findings particularly their call for a national review of the governance of dioceses and parishes, including transparency, accountability, and participation of lay men and women. And the bishops’ Plenary Council in 2020/21 is looking more and more like a means of avoiding real immediate action on grave failings – see Chris Geraghty’s recent commentary – with a questionable local commitment from most bishops judging from diocesan websites. The bishops seem to be collectively “circling the wagons, locking the doors and huddling together”, the very response condemned by Archbishop Coleridge, the new President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) in his Pentecost message. Regrettably, many bishops appear to have little real regard for the views of the faithful.

The ACBC is perhaps frozen in the headlights of glaring attention, retreating to the unaccountability of ‘business as usual’. How else can they explain their failure to respond with strong leadership to the Royal Commission’s critical findings, let alone release the analysis of their own Truth Justice and Healing Council. At a routine level, they have not even acknowledged a request for a meeting from the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, comprising as many as ten separate groups of Catholics across Australia seeking necessary reform of their Church and restoration of confidence in their bishops. One might conclude that such paralysed behaviour is driven by incompetence or arrogance, at least a lack of humility, the very qualities of the clericalist culture at the core of the Church’s dysfunctional governance – and the antithesis of leadership, let alone Christ-like leadership. 

Francis has accused the Chilean bishops of destroying evidence of sex abuse and ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from predator priests. These are issues addressed by the Australian Royal Commission and exposed by the media throughout the world. The Chilean bishops have only been held to account because the Pope was implicated by acting on their deceptive advice.

The scandal is of course even more serious than bishops deceiving the world and the Pope and goes far beyond the institutional Church protecting paedophiles and actively exposing more children to devastating harm. The fundamental scandal is that these crimes could not have occurred if bishops had practised the teachings of Jesus which is their prime mission, indeed their only reason for existence. Beyond the apparent sin of hypocrisy, it should be unimaginable that bishops would defy the Church’s very mission, and worse that the Church has not even questioned how this could have happened. Our bishops, and indeed the Holy See, appear to be ignoring the stark fact that, in Shakespeare’s apt wording, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”: the state of the Church is precarious and the need for reform and renewal is immediate.

The Royal Commission, after calling for a national review of the governance of dioceses and parishes, recommended that the ACBC should request the Holy See to address a number of critical matters, including appropriate criteria and processes for the selection of bishops with direct participation of the faithful. The Royal Commission’s recommendations were limited by national borders; hence the Commission’s call for a national review of Church governance, although they recognised governance dysfunctionality as universal, and their call to Australian bishops to involve the Holy See on a range of universal issues. 

An Open Letter to all the Australian bishops, auspiced by Catholics for Renewal in early 2017 and signed by some 4,000 Australian Catholics, had already stressed the universal nature of the Church’s dysfunctional governance. The Open Letter had recommended that Australian bishops should:

“send an urgent delegation, including laity, to Pope Francis:

    • urging him to purge child sexual abuse from the Church: legislating civil reporting of abuse, and ensuring effective discipline, major canon law reform, and review of priestly celibacy; 
    • advising him of the Royal Commission’s exposure of the Church’s global dysfunctional governance; particularly its clericalist culture and lack of accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness, especially the exclusion of women from top decision-making positions; and
    • requesting immediate reform of bishop selection processes, fully including the faithful in identifying the needs of dioceses and local selection criteria.” 

Despite a plea in that letter, “Please Listen and Act Now”, the ACBC decided mid-2017 that the matters raised in the Open Letter “might properly be referred to the Plenary Council” in 2020/21, kicking the difficult issues down the road rather than confronting these evils head-on. A subsequent personal request to the then President of the ACBC seeking a meeting elicited this terse dismissive and autocratic refusal: “The bishops have spoken.” 

In a recent paper, David Timbs referred to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s identification of ‘a temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens (the teaching authority of the bishops) when there was a catastrophic failure of the bishops during 60 years of the Arian crisis in the 4th century: “When the bishops lost credibility, the people continued to evangelize; and when the bishops collectively lost trust, the people remained steadfastly loyal.” Timbs has recognised that the Australian bishops now find themselves in a similar situation, that 

there has been a ‘temporary suspense’ of the ecclesia docens and a veritable role reversal: where those who were formerly the ‘taught Church’ have become the ‘teaching Church’; where those who were ‘the governed’ have become the leaders; and where those who were once the pew sitters have become the evangelizers.

There appears to be no appetite amongst the Australian bishops to accept responsibility for the state of the Church, preferring delay and denial. They seem prepared to allow the institution to decay even further, a situation that can only be reversed by strong action from both Pope Francis and the faithful. After five years as Pope, the Chilean experience might be a sign that Francis has grasped just how ‘rotten’ is the state of the institutional Church, aggravated by the failures of its leadership. Our Australian bishops could assist Pope Francis by emulating the Chilean bishops and offering their resignations to facilitate rapid reform. Let us pray!

Peter Johnstone is a committed Catholic, a member of Catholics for Renewal and Convenor of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.

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