Catholics are growing restless with their bishops. A Plenary Council process is underway to review the state of the church in Australia. But Catholics are increasingly wary, amid fears attempts are being made to stifle calls for reform from ordinary Catholics.
This comes as Catholics realise, they have been empowered by Pope Francis to be ‘active and assertive’ in church affairs. The pontiff made this very clear in his Letter to the People of God in August 2018, in which he urged ordinary Catholics to speak up and help him reform the church. Curiously, Australian Catholics find themselves empowered by the Pope and at risk of being marginalised by their bishops.
More than 17,000 submissions were made by Catholic groups and individuals to the Plenary Council. Groups of Catholics urging significant reform have been active around the country in making submissions and advocating that only bold thinking can save the church. The submission from Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn is but one example. It calls for action to achieve a church that is transparent, accountable, non-clericalist, inclusive and humble. The Royal Commission made clear recommendations for the first three attributes, and Pope Francis is a strong advocate for the latter three.
Mysteriously all submissions to the Plenary Council have been kept secret, unless disclosed by their authors. Catholics have been assured they have all been read and, in some form, will feed into the next stage of the process, described as ‘communal discernment’. This involves the production of various position papers that are likely to shape the formal proceedings scheduled for October 2020.
Catholics were assured that the groups tasked with writing the position papers will consider “the big questions…raised by the faithful”. But it now appears that this part of the process is being stacked and certain topics are not for discussion. Applications were invited for positions on the writing-groups. Few members of the reform groups were selected. Feedback from the selection process indicated that they were seemingly rated low on the criterion of participating productively in a communal discernment process.
Those selected are largely church employees, ‘known quantities’, and sadly open to the perception that they can be leaned on and intimidated. It seems also that the intimidation is coming from the over-representation of bishops and archbishops on the writing panels. So, a process that we were assured would be open and truly collaborative, is in fact becoming controlled and emasculated by the bishops. An amazing situation when one considers that the bishops already have the numbers in the Plenary Council, by virtue of canon law.
It says much about the inability of the bishops to engage collaboratively and how they instinctively revert to operating in the only way they have learned. For an exercise that must have the removal of clericalism in its sights, this display of brutal clericalism, if not thuggery, is an inauspicious start. It is a measure of the problem, that the bishops don’t seem to realise the impact of what they are doing.
At this stage the overall balance sheet for the Plenary Council has several clear deficits. These are in transparency, fair lay representation and procedural fairness. Given what is happening with the writing groups it seems likely there will also be deficits of courage and innovation. Balancing that, however, the Plenary Council is the best chance for real reform in the Australian church.
While many still practicing Catholics will tell you that they expect little to come of the Plenary Council, those in the reform groups will continue to participate in the process. They continue to have real hope. It is a hope tempered by a faith in the Holy Spirit (how can a church that has become so self-absorbed and strayed so far from gospel values, not be open to serious change?); Pope Francis – who is urging his bishops to face realities and be brave; and the fact that Australian Catholics are awakening. They are becoming organised, active, assertive and they will be persistent
Many times, in recent years, I have said to my wife, Christine, that I wish I could just forget about the Catholic Church. But I can’t. It is a strange and bothersome thing. I have thought at times of The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson’s poem that the Christian Brothers introduced me to about 60 years ago. But in fact, it is not Thompson’s Hound of Heaven that pursues me – it is the Kelpie of Christ. I say that as it is an image with far more resonance to us, the long suffering faithful, of the Australian church. For years we have watched, not as bystanders but part of the active faithful, as our church has become lost in its trappings and its compulsive desire to create little gods on this earth, rather than give authentic expression to the power of the Incarnation in this world and in our land. We in fact have been Christ’s kelpies of the faith in this land. We have been loyal to the gospel and the teachings of Christ.
As Australian Catholics we also carry a special responsibility. The forensic report of the Royal Commission was effectively a statement of requirements for the church in its operations and participation in Australian society. It is a statement made on behalf of the Australian community. We, as Catholics and Australians, have dual responsibilities, to ensure those reforms of transparency, accountability and the removal of clericalism are achieved. We should also recognise that we have 24 million allies, our fellow Australians, who would support those objectives. If needed, we will round up that support, like good kelpies would.
To achieve a church-saving outcome from the Plenary Council will mean there must be robust debate. There will be struggle. Catholics have watched and witnessed as the church has lost virtually three generations – largely all its own work. All this means those urging reform will persist. They are determined to call out hypocrisy, manipulative behaviour, dishonesty, inertia, fudging, dissembling and delay. They will insist on accountability from leaders and a church that always manifests gospel values. They are determined to do this in the steps leading to the Adelaide 2020 sessions and both in, and parallel with, the proceedings of that forum. The issues won’t go away – neither will the advocates of reform. Their faith has sustained them thus far and they have hope in similar abundance.
It is the bishops who are likely to find themselves in a strange place – outflanked by their own flock and Pope Francis.
This is an edited version of a speech by Terry Fewtrell to a meeting of Concerned Catholics Wagga Wagga Diocese last week. Terry Fewtrell is a long-time resident of Canberra and long-term Catholic. Terry led the consultation process initiated by CCCG and was lead author of its submission to the Plenary Council. He has written various articles and opinion pieces on church reform and other topics for the Canberra Times and other journals. His book, George, Elise and a mandarin – Identity in early Australia, was shortlisted and highly commended in the 2018 ACT Literary Awards.
[religion and faith]