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Towards credibility and a clean conclave



Instead of engaging with the pain of profound change, the institutional Catholic church is still mired in a program of damage control. We are witnessing a double deflection. Globally, the topic of choice is Archbishop Vigano, Cardinal McCarrick and Pope Francis, the biggest bomb shell to explode into the Catholic news media since the death of John Paul I.

Pope Francis speaks to cardinals and bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Italy in Vatican City on 21 May 2018 (CNA)Locally, we retreat to a commitment around the seal of confession, the one definitive response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission made by the church. Both events evidence a willingness to talk about political cliques and red-herrings rather than what really matters: the re-establishment of the Catholic Church as an inclusive and trustworthy leader in the modern world.

Admittedly a hard topic to address, because it will require nothing less than a return to the Christian scriptures to undo centuries of bad theology which produced the sinful social structures defined by clericalism. As one small step towards this great ambition the fascinating question is, how can we find a cardinal to elect as pope who has not been involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse?

The structure of the Church is crumbling from the top down. Cardinal Bernard Law (RIP) of Boston and Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh failed to protect children. Cardinal Keith O'Brien (RIP) was forced to resign in Scotland. Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin is on trial in France for cover-up and Cardinal Pell (who, while Episcopal Vicar for Education, failed to report a Christian Brother, Edward Dowlan, who would later be convicted of abusing at least 20 boys at six schools) is facing charges of abuse.

There are repeated calls for the resignation of Cardinal Wuerl in Washington, and questions about Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras covering up the criminal behaviour of his assistant, Bishop Fasquille. Two Chilean Cardinals, Francisco Errazuriz and Ricardo Ezzati, are the subjects of credible, criminal accusations of cover-up. Africa and Asia are yet to have their accounting.

The numbers show this is not a witch hunt, merely the tip of a conclave. What we need to recognise is that any man who becomes a seminarian, who becomes a deacon, who becomes a priest, who becomes a bishop, who becomes a cardinal, will almost certainly have bumped into, bounced off or blindfolded himself to the endemic, pandemic problem within the Church of the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons. Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide is not alone.

Are the Chilean bishops 'a weird mob'? Americans are asking their bishops to resign en masse and Australians might follow suit. If you were first a diocesan bishop, the files of offending clerics will surely, at some point, have been laid on your desk. How then do we get a clean conclave?


"There can be no justice without truth and both are essential for healing. But it seems that our bishops are hoping to rush towards healing, by-passing the elements of truth and justice."


The apologies we have received since the Royal Commission are incomplete. The Australian bishops have told us, in the naming of their own commission, that they want Truth, Justice and Healing. If Archbishop Fisher really wants to 'speak the truth in love' then it is not enough to merely say that there were 'many failings on the part of some members and leaders of the Church'. It is not enough for Archbishop Coleridge to say 'many bishops failed to listen, failed to believe and failed to act'.

To use the passive voice, individually or collectively, to say you are sorry that 'it' happened is not enough. We are all sorry that 'it' happened. Any psychotherapist will tell you that a true apology entails each cleric who abused or covered up to step forward to tell their victims what they did, how they hurt them and why.

There can be no justice without truth and both are essential for healing. But it seems that our bishops are hoping to rush towards healing, by-passing the elements of truth and justice. Bodies like Catholic Professional Standards Ltd and the Implementation Advisory Group cannot demand transparency because they are not independent.

The Plenary Council aims to change the structures and culture of the church. This presupposes two things: any invitation to participation must come with franchise, and the full inclusion of women. A lay woman should be appointed as co-chair by Women and the Australian Church who have been considering women's participation in the church for nearly half a century. Lacking these two elements, 'humble listening' will be no more than a sleight of hand to cover clericalism in action.

What the Church really needs is a return to the theology of the Christian scriptures that call each of us to live as one of a priestly people, continuing that work of Jesus of Nazareth to mediate God's love in the world. This is the purpose of baptism. In this understanding every one of us is called to act in persona Christi.

Whatever Conclave gathers next it must not be tainted by what Pope Francis has named the sin of clericalism. At its root, clericalism is not simply marked by grades of red or purple or being titled Lord or Eminence. Fundamentally, clericalism is based on the false theology that the priest is ontologically changed by ordination, acquiring a 'special nature' enabling only him to act in persona Christi and 'confect' the Eucharist. This is the error which has produced a relationship of superiority between the priest and the rest of the community.

It is another way of saying that the ministerial priesthood is, of its essence, ordained to govern the laity in the life of the church. Certainly, we need ministers and leaders, but the essence of the eucharistic president is not changed, merely his relationship to other members of the church — as would be the case with the ordination of a woman. The Christian Eucharist can only take place in communion.

The Church is made poorer by the assertion — for it is not more than an assertion — that either sex has a special nature to the exclusion of the other sex. Being equal, one with the other, suffices to enable each one to claim their baptismal responsibility to re-vision the church.

We need to be taught again this original theology of our church to lead us away from a later, self-serving and erroneous tradition of a dominating priesthood and towards the vital structural changes that will eliminate clericalist bias. It will take this kind of theological transformation before we will ever find a clean conclave and renewed credibility in the world.



Gail Grossman FreyneGail Grossman Freyne is a family therapist, mediator and author. Her most recent book is The Curious Case of Inequality: A Journey for Justice with Dorothy L. Sayers.


Main image: Pope Francis speaks to cardinals and bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Italy in Vatican City on 21 May 2018 (CNA)

Topic tags: Gail Grossman Freyne, Catholic Chuch, Bishops, conclave, Synod 2018, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

What I've encountered since attending a Catholic church: a profound love, a people aspiring to be close to God, a priest reaching out to his flock and a tradition of piety that has made the Catholic church the leader, numerically, of Christian faith. I've witnessed children and adults of different cultures at services, people who dress up for church and people who come along wearing whatever. That's the foundation that will carry this church through the very difficult time ahead. Women already lead in the most important way. Of course, it can be hoped that there will be a female Pope at some time! I would hope for that. But I have found a home and it's too important to me not to give everything I can.

Pam | 04 October 2018  

The notion of "equality' that underlies Gail Crossman Freyne's call for a restructuring of the Catholic Church opposes the distinction between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful reaffirmed in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, II, "The People of God", 10. It's doubtful that the bishops who have convened the Plenary Council envisage its purpose as a changing of ecclesiology in a way that would contradict defined tradition.

John | 05 October 2018  

'The Christian Eucharist can only take place in communion." This is a curious, unfamiliar theology. What does it mean? Please translate.

john frawley | 05 October 2018  

The Catholic Church is in crisis. Unless the Australian 2020 Plenary Council results in radical change, and the Vatican follow suit, the Catholic Church will continue its rapid decline. Getting back to the Scriptures is the answer but I don't currently see enough evidence that the clergy are making this their top priority. How many homilies have you heard on social justice, for example, and this is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus never ordained anyone so the Church needs to consider abolishing ordination, which is at the heart of clericalism, that Pope Francis has rightly called an evil in the Church.

Grant Allen | 05 October 2018  

As a numbers game, Catholicism, here and elsewhere is in serious decline. However, the recipe for reform that Gail and fellow travelers are pursuing will only succeed in creating a head butting duel with the conservative cohort. Outcome - more sore heads and decline unchecked.

carey burke | 06 October 2018  

The best thing that could happen is for the plenary council to be cancelled, as it is shaping up as just another opportunity for hot air and excuses, more talk and no action. Our first saint, Mary McKillop's motto was “Never see a need without doing something about it.” Not talking about it ad nauseam, but DOING something about it. And when our leaders do something about it,they should do it properly, just as they expect others to do their work properly when their welfare is involved. For example, most, if not all of them have travelled by air or been in hospital at some time, and I know from long experience that the pilots, engineers and doctors and lots of other people take very seriously their responsibilities for the lives of those dependent on them. They are more caring for lives than many of our church leaders are for souls. The task that Jesus gave to our church leaders is very clear, “Go and teach all nations what I have taught you” I wish that our leaders would just DO this, and keep in mind that the best way of teaching is by example.

Joe | 07 October 2018  

Gail Grossman Freyne is a new name to me but her passion is refreshing. Something I find missing from most of the homilies I hear as I travel round Australia. The homily is meant to break open the Scriptures. Scriptures that have been carefully selected and intelligently placed throughout the three year cycle of the Roman Missal. I can imagine Gail delivering a homily on The Good Samaritan or The Woman at the Well. What great opportunities to preach on Compassion and Mercy! I hope that in whatever parish Gail is in there are women ready to join her in letting the Plenary Council 2020 know what she and they think God is asking of us Catholics in the 21st century of Christianity.

Uncle Pat | 07 October 2018  

Yes, I would also like to know. 'The Christian Eucharist can only take place in communion." This is a curious, unfamiliar theology. What does it mean? Please translate.

AO | 07 October 2018  

Thank you Gail for this well-informed and thoughtful analysis of the real issues facing the Church. You would be an excellent choice as Co-chair for the Plenary Council which must address what you accurately describe as "the re-establishment of the Catholic Church as an inclusive and trustworthy leader in the modern world."

Peter Johnstone | 07 October 2018  

"... the re-establishment of the Catholic Church as an inclusive and trustworthy leader in the modern world" is never going to happen when any old personal opinion, created neo-theology, human rather than divine, valid or invalid, serving individuals rather the Body of Christ on Earth (his "Church") is accepted as the word of God. All that this humanisation achieves is the further destruction of the Church. The Reformation has produced all of the reforms demanded by some modern day Catholic reformers and a few extra to boot. Rather than reform of the Catholic Church to embrace the modern world, the modern world and its disciples might do well to embrace the Church. The constant carping for reform has so far achieved nothing other than cause division and further destruction. Human hubris needs to be replaced by humility before God.

john frawley | 07 October 2018  

Thankyou, Gail for saying, so well, everything I believe and feel about the current Church. I find it's the over 60s, still attending, who feel particularly disillusioned with the lack of real change...they, who once experienced such hope and promise after the Vatican Council. Two ultra conservative men, stamped out all that hope and stifled a future that once appeared possible.

Marg | 07 October 2018  

My understanding of what Gail’s conception of ‘communion’ is about, is the experience of each of us being different by virtue of our uniqueness, while at the same time being equal, one body; whereas clericalism puts the priest as being somehow different, but as well above or superior in some way, From the rest of us. Perhaps others have some thoughts!

Sheila | 07 October 2018  

Excellent, insightful article.

Jennifer Herrick | 07 October 2018  

Sheila, I agree with your thoughts about communion (mostly!). In his letter to the Romans, Paul delves into subjects such as 'unity in Christ' and 'the gospel to the gentiles'. He was the minister to the gentiles, never forgetting his Jewishness. Perhaps that is the way to regard the priestly vocation in the Catholic church today.

Pam | 07 October 2018  

What a wonderful insightful article. Gail expresses my own thoughts so well. Thank you so much. I believe the clergy and the church leaders mistakenly think "this too will pass". It will not, and it should not. The leaders and clergy have failed me, and my church where I have chosen to practice my faith, and lost my respect as a result. The "church is ""us", the everyday disciples, church goers and believers in Christ who love Jesus The failures, cover ups, denials, crimes and now the stonewalling is the clergy, the religious and not the faithful disciples of Christ. Our leaders still failing us. So the time is well passed for the clergy, especially the leaders to accept their role is to serve us, not to rule, and decree,but to humbly lead as Christ would lead, with love, compassion and understanding. Their role is to faithfully and humbly serve. The damage to their victims can never be forgotten or repaired. The damage the leaders now do to my church could be, although on current evidence it is going to take a miracle.

David | 07 October 2018  

Thank you Gail for a very insightful article. I recently went to a Plenary session that was run locally to gain insights from local Catholics in the lead up to the Plenary. We broke into groups and the first question asked was, What is God asking of us today? Or something like this. Could not an answer be, the end of the Catholic Church? After all one of the key messages of the gospels is the resurrection story of death bringing new life and surely the current model of the Catholic Church need to die, not to merely change a few incidentals.

Tom Kingston | 08 October 2018  

Thanks Gail; a challenging article. I certainly agree with you that radical change is required in the Church which I love, and I believe mainly in 2 domains, although I don`t think that the fundamental essence of priesthood (sacramental, teaching and governance) needs or even can to be changed, but the "style" needs urgent reform, especially of the governance part. Which I think is what Francis is calling for in what he criticises as "clericalism". I call this "feudalism", as the structures/titles/ dress etc we see are the very last last remnants of that medieval social structure. Governance needs to move to an inclusive "synodal" model, and Bishops and priests need to "govern" as servants of the (people of the ) Church in a fully transparent and indeed accountable way...both down as well a up the structure. The second issue is even harder, namely, the necessary "feminisation" of the hierarchy (what an awful word!), which needs to become gender-blind. But that can only happen once the first fundamental cultural steps of change are taken, and I don`t believe that our Bishops are anywhere prepared yet for much of this conversation. Most don`t yet, I believe, "get it", or enough if it, and the Plenary Council could be quite a painful fiasco as a result I fear.

Eugene | 08 October 2018  

We are the Body of Christ, formed to be blessed, broken and given for others. That's the Eucharist. We cannot live and celebrate Eucharist as individuals - we can only do it in communion with each other. This isn't new theology, but it's my own understanding of Gayle's statement about being unable to celebrate Eucharist without being in communion. The Church's emphasis has become too focussed on the ritual celebration of Eucharist, and not enough on living the Eucharistic life. It thinks that all we need for Eucharist is an ordained priest. No. It takes the whole Body, and we are the Body, nourished in the Eucharistic liturgy to live the Eucharistic life. It takes all of us. It takes all of us. It takes all of us.

Joan Seymour | 08 October 2018  

Its becoming clear that preliminary criteria relevant to changes called for and possible for the Plenary Council will be necessary if the situation identified above by Carey Burke is to be avoided. From some postings so far, respect for the connection between scripture, tradition and the magisterium characteristic of the Catholic Church would seem a fitting place to start.

John | 08 October 2018  

Far from "a return to the Christian Scriptures", what the author describes would be a dramatic break with the Christian Scriptures. To take just one example, our Lord clearly appointed St peter and his successors to shepherd His flock (John 21:17), St Peter inflicted the Church's first canonical penalty (Acts 5:1-11), and excommunicated the first heretic (Acts 8:18-23). The earliest Church certainly considered he had Christ's own authority over other Christians. As for her labelling it "false theology" and an "error" the fact held as dogma since the earliest Church that the priest is ontologically changed by ordination, acquiring a 'special nature' enabling only him to act in persona Christi and 'confect' [why the scare quotes?] the Eucharist, well yes this is a statement of the classic Protestant position invented in the 16th century, but why would anyone holding it want to attend a Catholic Church meeting? But with the bizarre denial of the fact obvious to all that the two sexes are different from each other, the author has reached unprecedented depths of self delusion..

Peter K | 09 October 2018  

It is great to read this here. But is it not too late? The sins of the Churches have been laid bare world-wide, horrendous abuse so obviously institutionalised over centuries. Does an institution so fundamentally flawed deserve any more community support? And to paraphrase James Madison, one of America's founding fathers: religion does not need the church, but the church needs religion. The only decent thing for the Catholic Church to do is to put itself into administration, divest its riches to compensate its victims and allow the truly faithful to be set free from the clutches of men in frocks.

Kim Wingerei | 09 October 2018  

I admire and applaud what Gail says. As one who also deals, mainly outside the columns of this august journal, with incessant attacks from external forces that have set out to destroy the example and precepts of Jesus, I am also torn. Who are the new Pharisees, I sometimes wonder, especially in terms of those who would shut down the voice of our pastors, as flawed as some of them undoubtedly are, and however frail and contained as they themselves admit, in our incessant clamour to reform a wounded and enfeebled Church? A Trojan horse, perchance, or just a babble of dissenting voices?

Michael Furtado | 10 October 2018  

Wonderful article Gail. I read, "What we need to recognise is that any man who becomes a seminarian, who becomes a deacon, who becomes a priest, who becomes a bishop, who becomes a cardinal, will almost certainly have bumped into, bounced off or blindfolded himself to the endemic, pandemic problem within the Church of the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons" and rejoiced to hear you speaking your truth. Yes, the whole structure is corrupt, and behind it is still a request for priestly celibacy in an organization which has no expectation that it will occur; this is hardly a sound place on which people of integrity can stand. But with Pope Francis we have a man who gives the example of standing down from power and titles and walking as a shepherd among his people (or driving a small second-hand car). Whenever one priest does this, surely the Kingdom comes a little nearer. I pray for a change of policy which allows a married priesthood and women priests, and a Church in which all people, lay and clerical, begin to seriously follow their leader, a homeless man in sandals who walked the earth without pretension with his small band of followers.

Anna Summerfield | 12 October 2018  

There are changes (or more exactly, revision to older practices) that could make quite a difference to chuch governance. It's probably not well known (and the hierarchs proboly don't want it well known) that until 1917, one did not have to be an ordained priest to be a cardinal. Benedict XV changed that by papal decree (canon 232). Teodolfo Mertel (9 February 1806 – 11 July 1899) was the last non-ordained cardinal. Yes, until you could be an acolyte and become a cardinal! This also meant that, in theory, a woman could be a cardinal. What a difference that would make to church governance. Pope Leo X was not a priest when elected in 1513, but was ordained on election so he could be bishop of Rome. That is another rule, along with Benedict XV's Canon 232, that could be rescinded. The Boys' Club in the Roman Curia would be upset, but they really do need upsetting, otherwise nothing will ever change.

Bruce Stafford | 12 October 2018  

"But it seems that our bishops are hoping to rush towards healing, by-passing the elements of truth and justice." Yes, that has been my sense of it too. 'We'll just weed out these few bad apples, then we can go right back to being the (Grand Ol') Church again.' No, we can't. Our mistake is to believe that this is primarily something about _us_. No, it isn't. It is about every single broken individual whom we have, collectively, damaged. As old-fashioned as the idea is, reconciliation and forgiveness will require penance. And lots of it. By all of us who call ourselves 'Church'; whether or not we were directly responsible (and most of us were not), it happened on our watch. Forget about being able to tell God once again, soon, and with triumphalism "I thank you that I am not like other people ... I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income". (Lk18:11b,12) Rather, our mantra must be "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Lk18:13) We do not scrub ourselves clean. True penance, healing, and reconciliation takes time. And lots of it. It is uncomfortable and we will be humiliated. It may not happen within our lifetimes even. Deuteronomy kicks off with this very theme: "When the Lord heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: ‘Not one of these - not one of this evil generation - shall see the [promised] land that I swore to give to your ancestors' (Dt1:34,35), with only a couple of exceptions, neither of whom was Moses. Which seems a bit harsh, since M had put in a lot of work. No: for the good of whatever the Church will become - even if we are not there to see it - this 'evil generation' must do its penance now. For us, sackcloth and ashes. It was necessary for Judah to spend time in exile in Babylon, in order - from a place of disgrace and humiliation - to take stock of the meaning of Covenant. Only then do we even begin to consider our great plans, like David, to build a Temple to the Lord. (2Sam7 - which, incidentally, the Lord did not ask for).

Richard Jupp | 19 October 2018  

John Frawley, Protestant theology regards humans as wretches like me who need to be saved, ie, as in the famous hymn that even Catholics sing. But Catholic theology seems the human person as something inherently good and eternal, ie, having a soul. The challenge of reform therefore is to become MORE human, because humanity is inherently good.

Aurelius | 05 November 2018  

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