Francis has outlined his vision for a church that is 'synodal' at every
level, with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other
and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel"
- Cindy Wooden,
Catholic News Service, October 2015.
Image: Karl Benjamin.
Pope Francis has brought a new language to the work of the Church, the language of Jesus and the insights of Vatican II, a more Christ-like Church. However, both locally and universally, some conflicting signs have emerged regarding commitment to Pope Francis’ leadership and correcting the Church’s dysfunctional governance.
In Australia, Catholics for Renewal is pleased to see arrangements progressing for the first Plenary Council (national synod) of the Australian Church in modern times. It is encouraging that an apparently skilled consultative committee has been appointed, albeit without transparent consultation, and a Plenary Council Facilitation Team. Ms Lana Turvey-Collins, the Plenary Council Facilitator, who will work in partnership with Fr Noel Connolly SSC and Mr Peter Gates as the Plenary Council Facilitation Team, has committed to collaborating across diverse ministries and works with all people in Catholic communities across Australia. If all dioceses arrange local consultations, the Council will herald a critical change to the governance of our Church.
Our Church’s leadership seems however to have a long way to go, as indicated in the many articles linked in the News section of our website. Pope Francis is clearly committed to renewal of the Church, but some of our leaders, even after giving positive support to the Royal Commission in February, are showing signs of regressing to an autocratic and judgemental Church, seemingly ignoring the mercy and love always stressed by Jesus and indeed by Pope Francis. Some of our leaders seem not to be in touch with the lived knowledge and experience of the people of the Church, whilst also ignoring Francis’ rejection of simplistic black-and-white approaches, e.g. his leadership on the vexed issue of ‘remarried’ divorcees having access to the Eucharist.
We had particularly hoped for a measured and thoughtful approach by our leaders in their public response to the Royal Commission and other complex issues, showing genuine Christian love and compassion.
Seal of Confession and Marriage Equality
Recently, the Royal Commission has proposed that the seal of confession not be accepted as a reason for failing to report to police in circumstances “where the confessor knows, suspects, or should have suspected that an adult associated with the institution was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child.” An archbishop has decried this proposal as offending “an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order”, apparently so sacrosanct that no action should be taken to prevent a paedophile abusing further children. This is a big call for a canonical provision which already has some exceptions. Some bishops were much more responsive in considering the possibility of some change in confessional practices in their evidence to the Royal Commission, including a possible referral to the Holy See.
In the same week, an archbishop has said that, should marriage equality be introduced, the Church “should be able to ensure its values are upheld by those who choose to work for the organisation", and inferred that LGBTIQ people working for the Church could be dismissed if they simply availed themselves of a change to the civil law giving them the civil right to marry (since clarified by the Archbishop LINK). Such a response would indicate some present acknowledgement of valued staff in same sex relationships without the commitment of a civil marriage.
Open Letter to Bishops
The recent Open Letter to our Australian bishops, signed by some 4,000 Australian Catholics, produced a disappointing response from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, although some bishops were receptive. The Open Letter identified seven grave matters needing urgent attention: governance, clericalism, participation of women, involvement of the people of God, and the continuing needs of abuse survivors and their families; the Open Letter further proposed a delegation to Pope Francis advising him of the Royal Commission’s exposure of the Church’s global dysfunctional governance, and seeking reform of the process for the selection of bishops.
Catholics for Renewal appreciated the courtesy of a response from the General Secretary of the Australian Bishops Conference, which however did not specifically address any of the issues raised by so many Catholics. The gist of the reply was contained in the final seemingly dismissive words: “the bishops determined that the preparatory consultation for the Plenary Council will provide the best opportunity for all members of the Catholic community in Australia to contribute to discerning and shaping the future of the Church here.” The bishops are apparently confident that the grave failings identified in the Open Letter and generally admitted during the Royal Commission will eventually be addressed by the Plenary Council process. However, seeking universal reform of Church governance and the adoption within Australia of principles of accountability, transparency and inclusiveness cannot wait until 2020 and do not in any way pre-empt the work of the Plenary Council.
There is some reason to fear that a number of bishops have regressed from a commitment to the Royal Commission and slipped back into a ‘business as usual’ mentality. This is reflected in recent statements from senior church officials which perpetuate the disingenuous line that the clerical child sexual abuse scandal across the world was not a governance issue but was caused by ‘a few rotten apples’, a view espoused by Cardinal Pell to the Royal Commission in evidence: “I think the faults overwhelmingly have been more personal faults, personal failures, rather than structures” (29 February 2016).
Catholics for Renewal welcomes your email feedback as informed members of the Church as collectively we endeavour to reflect the views of Catholics concerned with the unaccountable and non-inclusive directions of our Church. We will continue to ‘speak truth to power’, representing the views of many Catholics concerned with the unaccountable and non-inclusive directions of the Church.
Synodal Church or Business as Usual?
Catholics for Renewal is particularly pleased that a national plenary council has been called, an initiative we proposed that was rejected by the Bishops conference some five years ago; however, a national council will be of little value if not preceded by a full consultation of the people of God within every diocese to ensure proper representation of the sensus fidelium, the sense of faith of the faithful; that is the synodality espoused by Pope Francis. We have been informed that the Bishops conference is unable to agree to all bishops organising such diocesan consultation.
The question remains: A truly synodal Church or ‘business as usual’? The answer will determine the very survival of our institutional Church and its ability to attract and return people to the values and life that accord with its Christ-given mission, remembering the words of Bishop Dom Helder Camara post-Vatican II: “If the church does not have the courage to reform their own structures, they will never have the moral strength to criticise the structures of society.” (1972).
Belonging to the Church Still Matters
Finally, a practical opportunity for our Melbourne and Sydney supporters: Dr Richard Gaillardetz, Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and an international authority on the Church’s governance, will be addressing public meetings on “Wrestling with the Faith in Times of Scandal: Why Belonging to the Church Still Matters”. Richard has been auspiced by Catholics for Renewal and Catalyst for Renewal to present this public lecture with discussion in Melbourne on Thursday evening 7 September and in Sydney on Saturday afternoon 9 September. Further details and bookings arrangements are linked HERE.