Flattening the Church


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Even with the passing of half a century, among Catholics there is still contention and ambivalence about the legacy of this momentous meeting.

Many of a conservative bent see the need for reforms to be reined in, and a return to a more traditional Catholicism. At the other end of the spectrum, progressives argue that reforms didn't go far enough, and the promise of the council was never fully realised.

They say this is particularly the case with the role and place of the laity. Council teachings flattened the hierarchy of the Church, speaking of it as 'the People of God', a community of clergy, religious and lay people all sharing in the 'priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ'.

The man featured in this interview on Eureka Street TV is firmly in the progressive camp. Robert Fitzgerald is a prominent lay leader in the Australian Catholic Church, and a distinguished public servant, who has served at the highest level in a number of government bodies.

The interview took place at a recent conference in Sydney about Catholic lay leadership where he gave the keynote address, 'The time has come — but are we willing?' He argued that as lay people now run most of the Catholic educational, health and welfare institutions, this lay leadership needs to be more formally recognised by the Church and extended further into parish and diocesan roles.

Fitzgerald has degrees in law and commerce from the University of NSW. He practiced as a commercial lawyer for over 20 years, including stints with large law firms and in his own legal practice. Following this he was Community and Disability Services Commissioner and Deputy Ombudsman in NSW, and since 2004 has been a full-time federal Productivity Commissioner.

He has been involved extensively in public policy over many years, including appointments to the National Competition Council, the Ministerial Advisory Council on Social Security and the Commonwealth Inquiry into the Definition of Charities. He also chaired the Commonwealth Taskforce on Franchising Regulation and the Franchising Code Administration Council.

For over 30 years he's had volunteer leadership roles in numerous community organisations and charities, including time as president of the Australian Council of Social Service and the NSW Branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society, as chair of the National Roundtable of Nonprofit Organisations and JOBfutures Ltd, and serving on a number of boards of community and not-for-profit organisations.

In 1994 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, and in 2001 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Australian Catholic University where he is now also an Adjunct Professor. 

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Robert Fitzgerlad, Vatican II, lay leadership



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Existing comments

Robert, Simply brilliant. So obvious and refreshing. When will we ever learn! But how overcome the entrenched power and privilege and life time of education into the Thomistic Tridentine model? We need another Mary McKillop miracle. And we need it quick if our Eucharistic communities are to survive. Even the educational/caring structures of the church is in danger. Are our schools/hospitals/welfare agencies for the poor? Or are they an fiscally efficient extension of Government Departments as agencies? Does their activity lead to Jesus or to further power and funds to the institution? Thanks Robert and Peter.

Michael Parer | 09 March 2012  

Dr Fitzgerald vocalises most eloquently in this video what Catholic community means. He sees a need, in accord with the spirir of VaticanII, to formalise lay ministry but also lay executive roles in the Church. In advocating this as an innovative change, however, Dr Fitzgerald betrays his age and his Catholic education and formation aS exclusively post VaticanII. (Oh that I too were so young). H

john frawley | 09 March 2012  

Pity there's no captions.

Suzbat | 09 March 2012  

Many of us know that much of what Mr Fitzgerald has to say has been said before and repeatedly within "progressive" circles of thought amongst the Catholic faithful, including within my very own parish, where, for many years, a pastoral council has existed for appearances sake only, resulting in the disillusionment and the permanent departure of many talented and dedicated "parishioners". Attempts to inspire and motivate the general "laity" will fail to gain any kind of traction whilst even such "prominent progressives" as Mr Firzgerald continue to actively reject, in servile deference to both competent and incompetent clerical leaders alike, a genuine democratization of the church, and to similarly continue to use such thoughtlessly outdated terms as "fraternity" when referring to the church community. Self-serving paternalism and the corrupted heirarchy of the RCC have, for centuries, inflicted damage upon the essential message of Christ. It's time these "scribes and Pharisees" were disempowered. The Australian "laity" will continue to vote with their feet, and so they should.

Michelle Goldsmith | 09 March 2012  

Further to my incomplete comment above, my Catholic education and formation was pre-Vatican II and my adult education post-VaticanII and I have a different perspective from you Dr Fitzgerald.

john frawley | 09 March 2012  

Further to my incomplete comment above,unlike you Dr Fitzgerald, my Catholic education and formation was entirely pre-VaticanII. After Vatican II, I found that basic Catholicism had changed very little but practical Catholicism suffered badly to the detriment of the Church; religious life became non-existent, Catholic schools no longer taught the fundamentals of Catholic history and belief (I had seven children educated in catholic schools), in 32 years in my present parish I have never seen the bishop, I no longer belong to the community of Catholics with which I identified before Vat II. After Vatican II the rich tapestry of Catholic liturgy was shredded (but fortunately has not been lost, being faithfully preserved by the Anglican High and Traditional Catholic Churches), practice by Catholics fell from 80% to today's 15%, adult Catholic education is confined to a few not available to everyone, and lay participation as it existed pre-VatII no longer exists (regular devotional prayer, Lenten practice, Sodalities, Prayer groups etc). I recall very high input from the Catholic laity in eduation, healthcare and the workplace in the pre-VatII era. Vatican II has done much good but this is counterbalanced by much destuctive damage.

I agree with you Dr Fitzgerald that we need to return to community, to involvement of the laity. We also need the return of our bishops as pastors of their people rather than delegates at talk festivals, the return of both school and adult Catholic education and to abandon the false misinterpretations of VatII. Like with so many "time for change" movements we did not bring the good with us from pre-VatII but threw it away with the bad and failed dismally to replace that good with anything of value it would seem if the lack of adherence to the Church is a measure. Complete restoration of the past is never likely to happen and should not be allowed to happen, but it might serve us well to restore the good from the past and abandon the failures that have followed VatII.

john frawley | 09 March 2012  

You don't reign things in, you rein them in.

Gavan | 09 March 2012  

Council of the laity. Great idea. How might we do it? Start informally with a small group? Then call a meeting at parish level? Diocesan level? We would wait a long time if we expected the hierarchy to do it for us, which is, of course, not what this idea is about.

Jan Watson | 09 March 2012  

A very thoughtful and considered address, but it should be obvious. The problem is that we Catholics have been brought up to accept the unacceptable: a Church established to live by Christ’s teachings whose very structure and practices are unChrist-like. The Church’s decision making is not properly informed by the life skills and experience of those who are not ordained, as if life in the non-secular world, one might say the real world, is of little relevance to the work of God. Robert Fitzgerald could have extended his argument by observing that not only are the non-ordained excluded from Church governance, but half the population is excluded from even the possibility of ordination. I am constantly amazed at the tolerance of Catholic women of this blatant gender discrimination. The inclusion of women in the leadership of organisations throughout the world, an issue of both justice and good governance, has improved decision making and demonstrated the shallowness of the arguments that women are intrinsically different. The Church's many problems are aggravated by an exclusive club of men wielding autocratic power inadequately informed by God’s world. We need gender balance in the leadership of the Church as a first step to informed decision making in accordance with Christ's teachings.

Peter Johnstone | 09 March 2012  


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