The Australian Catholic Church’s angle of vanishing stability

Sep 23, 2021
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Real leadership is needed at the Australian Catholic Church’s Plenary Council, to be held next month. Without it, the church risks sinking.

Next month’s Plenary Council resulted after scathing royal commission findings with the promise of no more “business as usual”. Yet the bishops’ obduracy in the face of calls for council debate on issues such as women priests, now means the church risks sinking further in the estimation of many Catholics and Australians at large.

Real leadership is needed urgently to avoid capsize.

Sailors are practical people. They need to know their craft, stay alert to changing conditions and understand the limits their vessel can withstand.

One measure of this is the angle of vanishing stability or the point beyond which a craft will capsize. The barque of Peter (aka the Catholic Church), sailing under the direction of Australia’s Catholic bishops is already battered by storms and rough seas. We are soon to discover if its captain and crew are competent sailors. On recent trends and forecast currents, the prospects are not auspicious.

The Australian Catholic Church is about to start the formal assembly sessions of its Plenary Council. It is the first such process in nearly 80 years and one largely prompted by the scathing findings of the royal commission into sexual abuse. A church-wide consultation and discernment process has been stumbling along during the past two years, disrupted by COVID-19, ostensibly seeking input and consultation. The first of two assembly sessions will run from October 3–10, with its almost 300 members meeting by video conferencing.

Large numbers of Australian Catholics have invested energy and hope in this process, however, now on the cusp of formal assembly sessions, they confront the reality that the agenda for the assembly is a timid document that fails to point to the real issues and is unlikely to facilitate meaningful outcomes. This is largely because those running the exercise (the bishops) have chosen to ignore the urgings of the bulk of the Catholic community that fundamental issues be addressed.

The process of consultation and discernment to date has been virtually fraudulent. It has been manipulated at each step so that the nourishing deposit of wisdom and ideas in the original submissions from Australian Catholics, have been ground into an over-processed gruel. The bishops even resorted to crudely stacking the six Discernment groups that addressed various issues.

The quality of their output was pedestrian and led nowhere. But it was instructive that leaks from several groups reported some bishops being overbearing or worse. This appeared to have succeeded in some cases with key issues, particularly relating to women, dismissed as outside the remit of the Plenary process. In other cases, the texts were tortured prose, suggesting an inability to reach consensus.

All this led many to conclude that it is the deliberate intention of the bishops to not face many of the issues raised by their people. This is a dangerous course as the initial submissions from Australian Catholics were highly critical of the leadership of the bishops and underlined the tenuous thread of trust and hope that exists between bishops and the (still) faithful. That makes the stakes very high.

But the bishops have not wanted to hear a simple message — confront the real issues and make significant changes.

The bishops seem comfortable in the fact that the Plenary Council model ensures that they always have control. Certainly, they have a vice like grip of the voting system, which provides for lay people to be involved in what are termed ‘consultative votes’, while the final decisions, or ‘deliberative votes’ are restricted just to the bishops. This seems to reinforce a view that all this consultation is simply tedious, as they and they alone, will make the decisions.

The assembly sessions will operate under rules that virtually preclude robust discussion and vigorous debate and effectively relegate lay views to being second class. This combined with a lame and discredited agenda suggest that the plenary is shaping up to be a very un-Australian event. It fails the “fair dinkum” test in terms of addressing the real issues and it seems most unlikely to result in what this country is known for, its realism and a capacity to bring practical solutions to real life problems.

This not a prosaic characterisation. A large part of the motivation for calling a Plenary Council was to provide an opportunity for the church to review and re-establish itself in the mind of Catholics and Australians generally.

It would be a perverse outcome indeed if the council were to confirm in the collective Australian mind that the church has lost cultural relevance as well as a right to religious respect. If this were to occur the Australian church would tip beyond its angle of vanishing stability — with both Australian Catholics and the wider community. This is a potentially calamitous, if not ridiculous, position for a church whose mission requires it to engage with people on the good news of the gospels.

The current plenary process in Australia is playing out against the bigger picture of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

An essential objective of the Francis papacy is to reconnect the church with the thinking and direction of the Second Vatican Council that concluded in 1965. For most of the period since and especially after the election of the Polish pope in 1978, there has been a steady and wilful drift away from the church that Vatican II sought to create. Instead, we saw clericalism entrenched in an inwardly focussed church, where decision-making and theological thinking are tethered tightly to the Curia in Rome.

It is this difference in ecclesiology, the meaning and way of being church, that lies at the heart of the struggle between the pastoral vision of Francis for a church with “the smell of the sheep” and a hierarchical church pre-occupied with rules that require obedience and compliance. It is this latter version of church that has in part facilitated much of the sexual abuse scandal, both in the depravity of its acts and the deceitful efforts to cover-up and protect the institution.

Francis has shown that he understands the nature of institutional change, realising it is not achieved by decree, but by building organically to embed it culturally.

In 2018 Francis wrote one of the more remarkable documents of papal history, his Letter to the People of God.

This differed radically from traditional papal statements to the universal church. In simple terms he bypassed the bishops, or his middle managers, and went straight to the people.

He spoke of the need for big reforms in the light of the sexual abuse scandal and the need to say “an emphatic NO” to clericalism. He asked people for their help in this task, acknowledging he could not do it alone and he called for Catholics to be “active and assertive”.

This was a radical and compelling call for action. It is instructive, however, that the Australian hierarchy gave the document the cold shoulder. Some dioceses and many senior bishops simply ignored it, a good example being Canberra Goulburn where the local Catholic Voice never reported it.

Such things don’t happen by chance. Francis was right, he knew he could not rely on his local representatives.

It is an approach that significant members of the Australian hierarchy continue to take with the Francis papacy: Let’s wait this out for a while, maybe the next pope will return to the John Paul view of the world. And indeed, this seems to align with the rear-guard action that characterises the processes of the Plenary Council to date.

Consistently documents released at various stages have downplayed important issues such a clericalism or attempted to dismiss calls for action in relation to the inclusion of women in mission and accountability in decision making.

A specific recommendation of the royal commission was that the church formally review its governance arrangements, noting that these had failed disastrously in the sexual abuse crisis. The bishops indicated their acceptance of this and initiated a comprehensive review, which last year produced the report, Light from the Southern Cross.

The report is deeply rooted in the ecclesiology of Vatican II and laid out a road map for reforms that would provide far greater transparency, accountability, and reassurance against a repeat of the sexual abuse cover-ups.

The bishops have displayed little enthusiasm for the reforms suggested in the report, instead questioning many of its assumptions. The fact that this report, despite being acclaimed internationally as a significant signpost for the church globally, has been pushed off into the grass and given no prominence in the Plenary Council agenda, speaks volumes about the bishops’ collective inability to confront issues of significance, not just to the church but to the whole Australian community.

It is a brazen disregard for a key Royal Commission finding and should concern every Australian.

Australian Catholics are increasingly “active and assertive”, but it is not a case of rocking the boat. The vessel is already under extreme stress.

At this time, we have a crew that are lost and fearful. All hands are on deck and offering to help, but seemingly their advice is not wanted. We are heading into a disgraceful, culpable chaos. Real leadership that engages fully with the people is the only way through.

TOMORROW: Cracking open the Plenary Council. Wanted: Helpers for Mark Coleridge and the Holy Spirit

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