The Catholic Church in Australia faces continuing decay unless bishops listen to grassroots Catholics. Some 50 representatives, women and men, of nine Catholic groups throughout Australia advocating for systemic reform of the Church, gathered in Canberra a few days ago. The key focus of this Gathering of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform was to assert the importance of all Catholics not only being heard but also accepting their own responsibilities of leadership. Catholics are losing trust in their leaders.
The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform is an organisation whose very existence reflects Catholics’ frustration with their Church’s failed leadership. Each of the constituent groups has its own focus and history, each established out of concern for the decline of the Church and all united in the call for renewal in the Church.
The ACCCR Gathering will seek a meeting with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with a view to establishing effective communication with the bishops who have long seemed reluctant to engage with the people of the Church. The Coalition is particularly concerned at the lack of urgent action by their bishops on the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse regarding the Church’s dysfunctional governance.
The Gathering considered the grave dysfunctions in the Church’s governance identified by the Royal Commission. Incredibly, Church leaders covered up and protected paedophiles with a sole focus on the Church’s reputation, thus causing the further abuse of innocent children. How could that be so? What happened to the standards and values of Christianity?
The catastrophe of the institutional Church actually spreading the horror of child sexual abuse demands effective and urgent reform. Yet the response of the bishops so far in their preparation for the 2020/21 Plenary Council indicates a failure to face a fundamental lesson of that catastrophe:
Changes must happen now; the horror of child sexual abuse, terrible as that is, is but one example of the lack of accountability in the leadership of the church.
The Plenary Council for 2020/21 cannot be successful unless the bishops immediately address the need for decisive reforms to their governance structure and leadership practices, which are unaccountable, secretive and exclusive (particularly of women). To date, there has been little indication that the bishops appreciate the gravity of the Royal Commission’s findings, findings that are no surprise to those who have become disillusioned and alienated from the Church.
The Australian bishops have sought an analysis from the Truth Justice and Healing Council on the Royal Commission findings. It is indicative of the Church’s unaccountability that the bishops seem reluctant to release that report to the faithful. This attitude is in stark contrast to the Australian and State governments’ release of the voluminous Royal Commission report on the day it was submitted, presumably in recognition of the public’s right to know. The Coalition Gathering called on the bishops to release the TJHC analysis immediately.
The Gathering identified the appropriate place of women in the Church as a particularly urgent matter of both justice and good governance, a matter long recognised by modern societies. The full inclusion of women at the highest level of Church decision making in the direction of the Church would bring the Church into line with the best, and the most Christian, practices being followed in other organisations throughout the world. This is a critical issue requiring action in Australia, and universally by the Holy See, not only as a matter of justice but of necessity, so that the wisdom and talents of women can fully contribute to the Church. ACCCR also calls on the bishops to accept the nomination of a woman to co-chair the 2020/21 Plenary Council with Archbishop Costelloe. There are many women in the Australian Church who could thus ensure a gender-balanced approach to the Council’s proceedings.
The Gathering reflected the views of Catholics that were expressed in the recent postal survey on marriage equality, a survey that illustrated a more informed and fairer society that appreciates the hurt and damage done to LGBTQI people by exclusion from so many aspects of Church life. The Gathering was particularly concerned that Catholics of different sexuality are excluded by the Church in so many ways, and are made to experience the very antithesis of Christian love and acceptance. This is a matter of justice which needs careful attention by the Church; the Church’s discriminatory practices will undoubtedly receive critical attention at the Plenary Council if Church leaders fail to learn from the postal survey on marriage equality.
There must be greater and continuing attention to equality in the Church. Discrimination against women must be removed. The Church must attend fully to the survivors of sexual abuse as well as other marginalised people such as Australia’s first nations people, refugees, and LGBTI people.
The 2020/21 Plenary Council is a long-overdue move to listen formally to the people of the Church and is of course very welcome. The Council is potentially the beginning of a more Christ-like Church. Such a positive initiative must not be used as a delaying tactic to avoid facing and resolving the critical immediate issues, issues that continue to deny justice and to threaten the Church’s survival. And the Council will be of little value if individual bishops do not first listen to the people of their dioceses. The Coalition wants every bishop throughout Australia to provide true leadership for his people by listening to them in thorough consultations and involving them fully in preparations for the Plenary Council.
Church leaders have spoken much about the importance of prayer in preparation for the Council; they should be listening to the Spirit and observing the will of God surely indicated in the well-evidenced findings of the Royal Commission.
The ACCCR Gathering has proposed a summit for all Catholics before the Plenary Council to cultivate open discussion and thus ensure a mature and frank engagement with the issues confronting the church today. That summit will provide the bishops with the unfiltered views of the people of God. The program development for the Plenary Council so far indicates that the bishops have not grasped the frustrations of the faithful regarding the clericalist control of the Church with its lack of transparency, inclusiveness and accountability.
There will be no successful governance structure without the grassroots people of the Church, particularly women, in leadership and decision-making roles. Without reformed governance, in addition to the strong influence and input of the people of God, the Plenary Council will be like a departing cruise ship, leaving the rest of the Church behind at the dockside.
The Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform will be seeking an early meeting with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with a sincere desire to share in the task of Church renewal.
Peter Johnstone is a committed Catholic, a member of Catholics for Renewal and Convenor of the Australian Coalition for Catholic Church Reform.