When the Secretary General
of the Synod of Bishops invited submissions on the theme of the Synod of
Bishops’ 2023 XVI Ordinary Assembly For a
Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission, Catholics for Renewal
gladly responded in the manner summarised below.
Our faith calls us to accept the loftiest vision of the dignity we share with our fellows, and of the rights that this dignity confers on us to organise our common life, and of the mission to humanity to which that common life drives us. That vision however is reduced to little more than pious rhetoric – even pernicious cant – if our faith fails us, and we place our trust in the trappings of human power instead of in the power of the Spirit within us.
In the experience of the Catholic Church in Australia, nothing has brought our faith closer to pernicious cant than the phenomenon of clerical child sexual abuse. No amount of pious rhetoric or ritual hand-wringing can restore the credibility forfeited by the scandalous perpetration of these evils, and their hypocritical cover-up by Church authorities. If there is anything to celebrate about this scandal, it is not the action for justice on the part of the Church, but the action of the Spirit evident in the work of the secular Australian Royal Commission.
The inequalities identified by that Commission as underlying the grotesque crimes of priests and religious against innocent children demonstrate that the Church is anything but the communion it claims to be. To achieve this communion, the bishops, individually and then collectively must first make a full apology, including setting out its sins and crimes as an institution. To say I/we are sorry that it happened is not an apology; we are all sorry that it happened. There must be detailed truth-telling because without the truth there can be no healing and without healing there can be no communion. If its members, particularly its hierarchy, are sincere in their professed desires to be such a communion, they will no longer be able to tolerate the inequalities between hierarchy and laity, men and women, child and adult that facilitated and encouraged the abuse of children. Clericalism in all its expressions is a gross violation of sacred communion.
Rhetorically, it is easy enough to agree with the claims made so far. But genuine communion cannot be founded on rhetorical agreement. It must be founded on effective reforms to the inequalities that prevent the participation in Church life necessary to achieve it. Clericalism springs from the failure to accept the teaching of Vatican II on the relationship between the hierarchy and the laity. The collegiality of the bishops and the synodality of the entire Church has been paid little more than lip-service, and the papal-monarchical model of Church which confers absolute authority upon the hierarchy has been retained.
Consistent with the true synodal nature of the Church, where the laity can express their legitimate autonomy in the life of the Church, great fruit has been borne. The Cardijn Jocist movement is a conspicuous example of how the Church can realise experiences of communion by engaging with the needs of others. This movement, and others like it, have involved both women and men without discrimination. Moreover, its method is one which focuses on the needs of others rather on those of individual persons. It contrasts starkly with the methods of other evangelisation programs being promoted in some Australian dioceses today. Genuine communion is difficult to achieve where the focus is concentrated on the individual and their needs alone.
The institutional Church cannot take credit for the fruits of movements such as the Cardijn Jocist movement when the participatory nature of that movement's practice is excluded from the institutional Church's mode of governance. This movement and others like it flourish despite the governance practices of the institutional Church, not because of them.
Australian society is
characterised by a hunger for freedom, social justice, prosperity, and racial
and sexual equality in a world threatened by cataclysmic nuclear war and
climate change. These are signs of the times through which the Spirit calls the
Church to exemplify experiences of these features of human dignity. The
Church's mission therefore cannot be to preserve a form of hierarchical
authority that denies freedom even to its own members. In its way of life it
must model ways of expressing freedom that satisfy the yearnings of all its members.
The strong rhetoric about social justice is stripped of credibility when the
Church is miserly in its compensation of victims of clerical child sexual
abuse, and cruel in the procedures to which it subjects them in pursuing
The Church faces a massive
doctrinal challenge in engaging with the spiritualities of Australia's
Indigenous peoples. Past sins here must be repented of, and humble listening
engaged in, if its mission is to draw these peoples into Church communion.
The Church faces a similar doctrinal challenge to its teaching on homosexuality and non-heterosexual relationships. The assumption underpinning its current condemnation of homosexuality as 'objectively morally disordered' is undermined by modern biological and psychiatric consensus that homosexuality is on the normal spectrum of human sexualities.
The institutional Church is throwing dust in its own eyes if it pretends that anything less than total equality of women with men will fulfil the call of the Spirit and stem the exodus of women from Australian ecclesial assemblies.
Despite twelve years of advocacy that so far hasn’t nudged the Church towards the world in which most people live Catholics for Renewal still lives in Holy Spirit inspired hope, and with many others around the globe we continue to call for essential reform. However, our hope is severely challenged by our own static Church in Australia today and by the feebleness of its recent attempts at self-reform.
1. Catholics For Renewal Submission to the Synod of Bishops 2023 HERE
Image: Inga Selivastova, PEXELS