The future of the Catholic Church: Creating unity through diversity

Sep 3, 2023
An interior building with a colourful stained glass window in the shape of a crucifix with a spotlight rays penetrating through it reflecting the image on the floor.

Official surveys all show that the Catholic Church in Australia is in serious trouble. Any refusal by the church to be fully inclusive of women and diverse sexualities will almost certainly lead to a much smaller church than has historically been the case in Australia. If the church cannot accommodate greater inclusion and equal human rights, then the continuation of the church as we know it is unsustainable in the long-term.


The title refers to the thrust of the forthcoming Synod on Synodality assembly in Rome and to the recently completed 5th Plenary Council of the Church in Australia. Both events were/are about discerning the future of the Catholic Church.

The ‘creating unity through diversity’ context draws on Pope Francis’ commitment to an open church in which Catholics “Walk Together”, using the vehicle of synodality. When he launched World Youth Day in Lisbon recently, for instance, Francis emphasised once again his great theme of openness, repeating the Spanish term “todos”, meaning “everyone” and urging his audience to do so too. He said:

There is room for everyone in the church, and whenever there is not, then, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle.

The Lord does not point a finger, but opens wide his arms.

Just what this means in practice, though, is central to any discussion. Opinions within a disunited and polarised church vary enormously. The Pope himself referred in his address to the framework of church laws within which openness must operate. Christopher White, writing in the National Catholic Reporter on August 6 2023, interpreted the Pope’s meaning to be:

a message of welcome to historically marginalised groups in the church, including women, the divorced and remarried, and LGBTQ Catholics.

I hope that is the case.

Questions remain though to be discussed at the Synod. How much diversity is the church willing to accommodate? How much divergence from traditional status differentials, governance structures and established church teaching is possible?

There are different types of diversity, and all are important. What I call ‘soft’ diversity, meaning ethnic diversity, co-existence of various Rites and even some decentralisation and regional diversity, can be accommodated. It may even be welcomed enthusiastically.

However, what I call ‘hard’ diversity, meaning evolution in church teaching, inclusion of women, divorced and remarried, and LGBTQIA+ Catholics (Christopher White’s ‘marginalised groups’), is much more challenging and less likely in the immediate term. Yet it should be our aspiration as a Church.

Hopes and fears for the Synod

The Synod on Synodality is a true advance and a chance to move forward.

There is a lot to like about the direction the Synod has taken. Many elements of it, including the Working Document, make me cautiously optimistic. I like the language of the document. I welcome its engaging approach and I appreciate its apparent openness to reform on contested issues.

I don’t have any major worries about the Document, therefore, though it is just a preliminary document for the first of two assemblies, and it is not strong enough on equal rights for women.

My worries are not really about the composition of the voting members either, which Pope Francis has made more diverse than ever before; though it is still hierarchical rather than representative. The Australian participants, for instance, don’t include a truly alternative voice. That is a missed opportunity by our church to be fully synodal. However it is heart-warming to see more than 50 women voting members and other lay members as well as clerical members chosen by the Pope.

My worries lie rather broadly with what I know about the Church’s record and what I hear some powerful figures saying about the Synod.

First, what we know of opinion within the universal church must make any reasonable reformer concerned. I especially fear the malign influence of conservative Americans, both bishops and the broader conservative American church community. They make no secret that they don’t like either Francis or the Synod and, well-funded and vocal, they will do all they can to impede any progress.

Secondly, I fear the obvious unwillingness of some/many bishops (not sure how many, but my guess is a significant minority) around the world to embrace synodality and Pope Francis’ vision. Official Australian responses to the late Cardinal Pell’s parting tirade late last year against both the Pope and the Synod was some local evidence of this. Not one Australian Church leader strongly supported Francis by distancing themselves from Pell’s denunciations, though a couple hedged their bets.

This reluctance may have come about for various reasons such as not speaking ill of the dead, but one reason clearly was that some bishops at least agreed with him. Evidence for this conclusion came later in the Oceania Bishops’ Pastoral Reflection following the preparation of the Oceania Response to the Continental phase document. Ominously it noted that:

Not every bishop found every part of the document wholly convincing or complete, and some had doubts and concerns about where this might be leading us.

This typically vague language was a sort of ‘minority report’, which, along with warnings from bishops about unrealistic expectations and how long the journey would be, served only to deflate the aspirations of their own communities.

Thirdly, the dilatory take up by bishops of the outcomes of the local Plenary Council is another warning to the faithful not to expect too much. In the official document issued at Pentecost 2023 called “Carrying Forward the Plenary Council” no attempt was made by the ACBC to give an update on diocesan implementation. What a missed opportunity. The Australian Catholic community has been left in the dark. Without leadership the community flounders.

But what we do know, based on the research efforts of the editorial committee of the “Sense of the Faithful” group in Melbourne is that the take up has been disappointing. Only less than one-third of Australian dioceses, and few archdioceses, have exhibited any real enthusiasm. The Sense of the Faithful committee conclude, on the basis of studying key actions in relation to three important issues, Indigenous recognition, diocesan pastoral councils and Laudato Si action plans, that there is a “large gap between higher level intention and action on the ground”.

Can we expect the same foot-dragging and push back whatever the outcomes in 2024 of the Synod on Synodality? So much in the church depends on the attitudes of diocesan bishops. This means that the future of the church often looks like a patchwork quilt. In other words, it is sure to be patchy.

Three critical aspects of Synodality in Australia

Synodality will only be skin deep unless there are permanent diocesan structures in which the future of the church can be discussed widely. Little is served by irregular ‘walking together’ opportunities or by discernment being conducted by a trusted inner few chosen by the diocesan bishop. Yet, despite the clear wish of the Plenary Council, diocesan pastoral councils still remain rare and resisted by most of our archbishops.

Secondly, synodality must also recognise the fact that the church is increasingly a church dominated by its own employees. More than 300,000 Catholics are employed by the Church in Australia and employer-employee relations complicates becoming a synodal church. Such Catholics often carry either a conflict of interest if based in chancelries or a fear of compromising their position by speaking out boldly if they are more junior. Our record as a church in Australia also shows that rather than officialdom welcoming diversity of views, those who speak out often suffer for it. Many public examples can be given to illustrate this point. I know of other examples from individuals who have confided in me. Our church can be vindictive when it wants to be.

Thirdly, church schools must be part of this discussion too. They are central to the future of the church. Often they are flourishing while the diocesan/parish church is in serious decline. I have had recent experience of speaking at a dozen Catholic secondary schools in Victoria. Staff and students in church schools are often taking a quite different path on matters of inclusion to the diocesan/parish church. By the standards of the latter the schools are increasingly outside the church, while remaining committed to their Catholic identity.

My long-term expectations

Official surveys all show that the church in Australia is in serious trouble. Furthermore, it is highly likely, almost certain, that, whether in decline or not, the church will be transformed by ongoing demographic changes driven by immigration and ongoing philosophical changes relating to the unacceptability of some church teaching to many within the Catholic community.

Any refusal of the Church to be fully inclusive will almost certainly lead to a much smaller church than we are historically used to in Australia. It will still probably be viable, and decline will occur over many decades, but that eventual outcome is inevitable.

Inclusion and equal human rights are not passing fads. If the Church cannot accommodate them in its teaching and pastoral practice, then the continuation of the church as we know it is unsustainable. That, in itself, is a powerful argument for change, but a more important argument is that making the church fully inclusive, starting with women and diverse sexualities, is the right thing to do.


This is a talk given to Catalyst for Renewal in Sydney on 27 August 2023.

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