PHIL O’DONNELL. A Tale of Two Churches

Aug 24, 2017

Threats by Catholic bishops to dismiss employees who marry same sex-partners reveal not only a lack of compassion, but also a deep gulf between the authoritarian and conservative concerns of the church hierarchy and the pastoral and justice concerns of many of its priests, religious and parishioners.

The recent veiled threats to Church employees by a couple of bishops heightens the rift between the hierarchy and the Catholic community and risks further alienating not only Catholics but our society of “men and women of good will”.

Here we go, again, on the hierarchy’s obsessive morality/authority focus on anything connected to sex.  And the sad thing is this “marriage equality” issue is not about sex, but justice.

I often liken the Catholic Church to “A Tale of Two Cities” – the compassionate pastors in one camp and the authoritarian clerics in the other. In the 60’s and 70’s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the compassionate pastors were more dominant, and since John Paul 2 the authoritarian clerics have regained control.

It is my experience that the pastors are inclined more to service and the clerics to power, the pastors to inclusion and the clerics to exclusion, the pastors to acceptance and the clerics to authority, the pastors to social justice and the clerics to Canon Law.

There is so much hope in our Pope who is clearly a pastor who has identified “clericalism” as a major problem of our Church.  But what can this man do when his next level management team, that he has inherited, are predominantly clerics?

It’s not much different to the factions in political parties – and we are currently experiencing the same dynamic in the Liberal Party. The reactionary Right are relatively small in numbers but big in influence. I suspect the reactionary Right of the Liberal Party (and probably the ALP as well) and the Catholic Church have a common membership and a common agenda.

There’s little doubt that this hierarchical flexing of clerical muscles is tactically linked to the “No” mob who are trying to distract, confuse and defeat the marriage equality opinion poll.

You’d think after the public flogging of the hierarchy in the recent Royal Commission, that they’d lie low for a while and their PR advisers would be creating strategies for rebuilding relationships and confidence in our shocked and disillusioned church and society.

Are they aware of how toxic they are? Have they any awareness of the community anger and resentment to their abject collective failure to protect children from rapist priests?

How easy to level the continuing charge of hierarchical hypocrisy to these men who will feel duty bound to sack Catholic employees such as teachers, nurses, social workers who have the temerity to legally marry the partner they love.

If they are going to be consistent they should start sacking ordained gay clergy who are “employed” in the Church. Again, this would be disastrous as gay priests are often the best pastors. That having being said, there is also no shortage of gay authoritarian clerics.

If the hierarchy insist that only heterosexuals may marry, then they should ensure that they only ordain heterosexual men (and women).

At the Royal Commission there was an episcopal defiance on changing Church management and structures that were challenged by the evidence of witnesses and expressed by the Commissioners as potential contributing factors to the sexual abuse of children.

Despite what the Royal Commission might recommend, the Catholic hierarchy is entitled to think and do whatever it likes – even if it is out of step with contemporary social values. But if this is their moral decision, they can go back to the “old days” and do what they like – and fund all Church activities from Church funds.

If the Church expects to receive community financial support, it is fair that the community can expect acceptable standards in Church management.

If the bishops enact a policy of sacking Catholic Church employees who choose to legally marry as a consequence of the inevitable change in the Marriage Act, how long will it be before the community demands religious organisations forfeit current rights to discriminate?

How long after that until the Union Movement brings the issue of unfair dismissal to Fair Work Australia?

How long before Churches lose their current tax exemptions?

How long before even those Catholics still “hanging in” decide to walk?

Now, more than ever, we need bishops to be prophetic pastors, not authoritarian clerics “pissing into the wind”.


Phil O’Donnell is a former Melbourne Catholic priest and was a witness in the Royal Commission Case 35 on “The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne”.

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