PETER JOHNSTONE. What sort of bishops do Catholics want?

Feb 17, 2017

Concerned Catholics who responded to a recent Catholics for Renewal online survey showed widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of their local diocese and parishes. Their dissatisfaction referred to current governance arrangements, the need for a stronger pastoral focus and more effective leadership from their bishop based on his willingness to consult widely. 

This year, some ten new Australian diocesan bishops could be appointed including a new archbishop of Melbourne. All the faithful have a vital interest in these selections but very few will be consulted. Catholics, both priests and laity, have too few opportunities to have their voices heard within the Church and the selection of a new bishop, the leader of a diocese, is a matter on which the people of each diocesan community should be consulted. Catholics for Renewal developed a proposal for including the people of God in the selection process with the help of a wide range of priests and lay people.

A role in the selection of bishops was key to the commitment of earlier Christian communities, and is critical today, consistent with Vatican II stressing the role of the people of God and the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of faith of the faithful).

What do informed Catholics have to say about the current state of their local church and what qualities do they think a new leader for their diocese should have? An online survey was set up, with some focus on the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The questions were simple and open-ended to enable respondents to use their own words to express themselves freely. This required detailed analysis but has yielded valuable insights.

Overall, the concerned Catholics who responded to the survey showed widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of their local diocese and parishes. Their dissatisfaction referred to current governance arrangements, the need for a stronger pastoral focus and more effective leadership from their bishop based on his willingness to consult widely.

The survey results also suggest that concerned and informed Catholics believe that many bishops do not recognise or understand the realities of the contemporary world. Many respondents believe that bishops live and work in a separate world, without close engagement with the laity at parish or diocesan level. Some respondents from the clergy also feel a strong lack of support for the work they do. The survey results clearly show the strong desire of Catholics to have a greater role in the selection of their bishop and in the governance of their diocese and local parish.

The Response

The total number of respondents was 146, of these 77 were from parishes in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The results make more sense if they focus on a specific diocese. While respondents from all vacant and other dioceses were invited to respond to the survey, Catholics for Renewal put additional effort into publicising the survey in the Melbourne Archdiocese by writing to parish priests and pastoral associates. Melbourne is the focus of the main report. The 64 usable responses from 20 other dioceses are reported in a separate attachment, both available from the Catholics for Renewal website

Why the limited number of respondents? The lack of a tradition of open participation in the selecting new bishops meant that few parish priests seemed comfortable with the survey. The low response rate was also influenced by the time-consuming nature of the open-ended responses. Catholics who knew of the survey may have lacked knowledge of or interest in the needs of the archdiocese. The historical lack of reporting by bishops on the state of the diocese has contributed to this disempowerment.

Some interested in the topic of the survey, especially those working within the church, may have been reluctant to do the survey for fear of offending Church authorities. Evidence for this is that several respondents did not complete the questionnaire after they were asked to provide their personal details, which we had requested in order to ensure that respondents were acting in good faith. It is relevant to note that even official surveys endorsed by the Bishops themselves have produced low response rates, as shown by the questionnaires seeking to provide input to the first and second Synods on the Family.[1]

The results

Respondents wanted change. Nine out of ten responses on the needs of the Melbourne archdiocese called for a change from current custom and practice. Half of the responses called for a change of approach in general and 40 per cent referred to the need for specific changes in institutions. The remaining one-in-ten responses called for a return to simple values or to the past in some way. The full report lists the detailed responses under a number of themes.

Some 94 responses were categorised under a governance theme in relation to the most pressing need of the archdiocese. These included specific mention of ‘empowering the laity’ (20 responses), need to address clerical sexual abuse (14 responses), for church leaders to consult before making decisions (9 responses), the need to have women participating in the Church at all levels (5 responses) and the need to reduce clericalism (2 responses). The theme of need for a greater pastoral focus was mentioned in 22 responses. 14 responses referred to the need for a social justice focus, 9 responses called for parish life to be revitalised, 5 responses wanted greater efforts to engage with non-active Catholics, and 3 responses requested greater support from the Archdiocese for the clergy.

The proposed governance changes wanted by respondents called for greater involvement of the laity in the life of the Church at all levels, including in the selection of bishops. They also referred to the need to address clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up. Many more called for greater lay involvement in the Church often including greatly expanded roles for women in the Church. Specific suggestions for greater lay participation included the need to establish a diocesan pastoral council, the development of a diocesan pastoral plan, and the regular diocesan synods or assemblies. There was a call to:

bring together the priests, religious and laity to express their views on matters proposed by the bishop and important to the local church. Need to do this as soon as possible to prepare for the National Plenary Council proposed for 2020.

Other proposed changes to governance were directed at how parishes operate. One respondent placed the blame for the difficulties parishes are experiencing on the lack of interest and support from the hierarchy. One comment provides a good summary of how many respondents felt:

Relations between the church hierarchy and the parishes need to be significantly improved. Parishioners by and large regard bishops and the church hierarchy as remote figures who hand down orders to priests and people without engaging with them at any human level. There is a high degree of mistrust of the hierarchy by many Catholics, especially following the findings of Royal Commission.  

Desired qualities of the bishop

The predominant tone of the replies about the desirable qualities of a new bishop was critical of current practice. The next most important tone identified was the need to be inclusive. Only 17 per cent of responses have been categorised as traditional. The responses on the desirable qualities of a new bishop covered the following issues: the need for a more pastoral approach, the need to return to basics, the need to address governance issues, and to speak out on public issues, particularly moral and social justice issues.

A common concern was expressed for bishops to be open to consulting with others, to show a willingness to be accountable and to lead in a collaborative way, for a new leader to be inclusive of groups within and outside the church. The word ‘vision’ was also used as well as the need to ‘be open to a variety of possibilities for our ever-diminishing church’.

This summary cannot do justice to the rich detail of the responses themselves. These are reported in full in the reports available from the Catholics for Renewal website.

Peter Johnstone has been President of Catholics for Renewal since its establishment in 2011. He is principal of PJ Governance and is Chair of the Jesuit College of Spirituality within the University of Divinity. Peter has a BA (Admin) from Canberra University and a Diploma in Company Directorship, and in 2016 qualified for his MA (Theology).

Catholics for Renewal Inc

Having a say in Selecting our Bishops:
Report on results of an Online Survey conducted by Catholics For Renewal.
3 February 2017


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