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Catholic citizens needed within the Church

  • 23 May 2017


Catholics must stand up and become active citizens, not loyal subjects, within their own church community.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has pointed to weaknesses in culture and governance within the Catholic Church in Australia. Within the church the normal tenets of liberal democracy, including inclusiveness, transparency, equality and responsiveness do not apply.

The church hierarchy has responded in various ways to the revelations of the royal commission, including apologies, liturgies of lament, reparations and promises of new child safety regulations. But the bishops show no inclination to tackle these structural and cultural issues, so it is up to the laity to do so. This is the strong message of Francis Sullivan, the lay head of the church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Unfortunately, historically the Church is not a community in which its lay members are called on to play such a role. Instead, as Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta has pointed out on several occasions recently, the church is a pyramid in which the ordained clergy are at the pinnacle and the laity at the bottom.

Catholics have been brought up to the constant refrain that the church is not a democracy. They are dissuaded from challenging its undemocratic structures and urged to accept discipline from the top.

Catholics are made subject to their bishops and other church leaders. As subjects they can be professional and hard-working senior church employees in education, health or welfare agencies or lay Catholics in organisations like St Vincent de Paul, but they are not church decision-makers in the democratic sense. That role is left to bishops and priests.

Catholics have a proud record of exercising their democratic rights within wider Australian democracy as voters, members of political parties and lobby groups, and as elected representatives. But within their own church they have been taught to leave their democratic rights at the door. Now is the time to challenge that norm in parishes, dioceses and the wider Australian church.

In responding to the royal commission the church needs an infusion of democratic values, including more transparency and accountability. Values which have long since become accepted in the wider community, including equal participation in decision-making by women, and the development of lay leadership more generally, must become the rule rather than the exception in church circles.


"Such an agenda may seem radical within the Australian church but these suggestions for increased democratic citizenship are unremarkable within the wider