Australian bishops have a transparency problem

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Australia's bishops have yet to demonstrate the new openness to the Catholic community necessary for a successful Plenary Council 2020. Their inclination to secrecy remains an impediment. They just don't get transparency as a virtue and they have twice demonstrated their adherence to old ways of doing things in recent months. Whether they realise it or not secrecy runs deep in episcopal culture.

Illustration of a bishop (Credit: Ojimorena / Getty)The first example came in the conduct of the restructuring of the central apparatus of the Australian church, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), which was decided last November at the biennial ACBC meeting.

This restructuring involved an overall cut of 50 per cent to funding of the national church administration based in Canberra and some capital cities. Grants to national agencies have been cut, including total removal of the long-standing central funding of Catholic Social Services Australia, and jobs have been lost in a shake-up of the general secretariat. One of the most notable casualties has been the stand-alone Council for Australia Catholic Women with the consequent loss of the Office for the Participation of Women and its executive officer, Andrea Dean.

There is much more, including the disappearance of many jobs in executive support, research and journalism and funding cuts across many offices and commissions. The whole package is so substantial that both its general contours and its administrative detail deserves wider debate beyond the ACBC. The bishops should take the wider Catholic community into their confidence and share the financial difficulties which have led them to take what ACBC President, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, has described as 'a difficult but unavoidable path'.

National church administration is funded by diocesan levies and many dioceses are clearly feeling the pinch. Revenue is falling because of well-known problems such as falling attendance and an ageing church membership. Expenditure is rising, including the significant contributions to the National Redress Scheme and Catholic Professional Services Ltd, the church body set up to implement the new child protection regimes. All Catholics need to own these problems, but to do that we need to know about them.

The second example is in the process currently underway for selection of diocesan delegates to the PC2020. This procedure, by which lay, clerical and religious delegates are being selected by each diocesan bishop, cries out for more transparency than is currently being allowed.

Small numbers of delegates, four to eight from each diocese according to its size and status, are being chosen from each diocese, formally by the diocesan bishop but presumably on advice from his administrators. Expressions of interest have been called for by late January/early February, through Catholic media advertisements and parish newsletters. Those interested have been asked to submit a short explanation of their interests and credentials as well as the usual personal information.

 

"The bishops must look beyond their impregnable position in Canon Law and take on a much more open mindset. The Catholic community is crying out for it."

 

This is always a difficult time of the year to take critical decisions, much less the tumultuous end to 2019, and the church must make its choice of delegates open and transparent if community trust in PC2020 is to be established. But information about the selection process itself is scanty at best. Representation of lay Catholics, especially women, must be a high priority.

The possibility of a change of mindset about transparency lies mostly with the bishops themselves, individually and collectively. Instruments of accountability are largely lacking. The diocesan Catholic media, impotent or uninterested, is useless in this regard. The bishops must look beyond their impregnable position in Canon Law and take on a much more open mindset. The Catholic community is crying out for it.

There are easy remedies available in both the above examples and the solutions would not be difficult to implement.

In the case of the ACBC restructure it is not too late for the bishops to issue a full explanation, in clear language, of exactly what they have done and why they have done it. This would involve a detailed explanation of ACBC income and expenditure, preferably couched in a full analysis of the income and expenditure of the whole Australian church, and a complete explanation of the organisational changes, cuts and restructuring, made to the central secretariat, commissions and councils.

In the case of the selection of PC2020 delegates, when the announcements are made during February of the appointed delegates from each diocese they should be accompanied by a note explaining how many expressions of interest there were, how and why the particular choices were made and, if there was a selection panel to advise the bishop, who was on it.

Transparency should be essential in church affairs. The bishops should begin 2020 by turning over a new leaf.

 

 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He has submitted an expression of interest in being a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image credit: Ojimorena / Getty

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Plenary Council 2020, Catholic Church

 

 

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Existing comments

John, these secrecy issues are really about tradition, and the retention by the Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals of their power. PC 2020 is doomed to failure. Consider the arbitrary sacking of Bishop Morris by Pope Benedict in May 2011. "Because Bishop Morris was "unable to agree to what this communion requires," the bishops said, Pope Benedict XVI "acted as the Successor of Peter, who has the task of deciding what constitutes unity and communion in the Church." The Australian bishops said their recent meetings with Vatican officials had given them a more adequate understanding of the actions taken to try and resolve "the difficulties with Morris". "not only matters of Church discipline but also of Church doctrine definitively taught, such as on the ministerial priesthood." In a 2006 pastoral letter, Bishop Morris proposed considering the ordination of women and married men. He also proposed allowing Anglicans, Lutherans and other religions to preside at Mass. Over the next five years, he declined Vatican requests for immediate discussions and then repeatedly refused to resign even when personally asked to do so by Pope Benedict." Messrs Coleridge, Pell, Benedict said Morris was not a team player. Look where the status quo has got us.
francis Armstrong | 28 January 2020


Oops! It looks like we are Back to the Past - a past that has vanished like the Dodo - when ++ Mannix sat on his throne, 'priests were priests' (whatever that means) and Catholics, except for some brave souls like the late, saintly Professor Max Charlesworth, were scared and kept their heads down. If the good ship Catholicism Australia has not, as yet, broken up on the rocks, that is due to the Grace of Almighty God and to Him alone and not the episcopate. This is a time to exhibit bravery and forge ahead, not to desert the field of battle. How shameful! Pope Francis is emphatically not like this.
Edward Fido | 28 January 2020


“Australia's bishops have yet to demonstrate the new openness….Their inclination to secrecy remains an impediment. They just don't get transparency as a virtue….” The bishops aren’t stupid. One or two might, statistically, be a naif or even venal but there are just over thirty of them, most of whom, if they were not bishops, would have the mental wherewithal at least to be a tenured professor somewhere publishing commentaries of their own. Besides reading the comics, they must also read critiques such as this in the legacy and online media. It’s more likely than not, in the circumstances of today’s Church, that they get transparency as a vice. Jesus, after all, wasn’t transparent with everybody even as he ‘preached openly in the synagogues’ because he knew ‘what was in the hearts of men’. The hearts of modern culture are hostile in the manner of snarled lips to the Church because the war is actually between principalities, not people. Lying on its back exposing its puppy stomach to the world, the flesh and the devil is going to get it stabbed, not scratched.
roy chen yee | 29 January 2020


More transparency is commendable, provided it doesn't result in a top-heavy bureaucracy and a concomitant narrowing of pastoral imagination and initiative. Further, most Catholics I know have enough on their plate dealing with their everyday financial affairs; none have expressed a "need to own" diocesan ones. It will be interesting to see if this issue has featured prominently in PC2020 preliminary sessions. I might add it seems a curious sort of "episcopal secrecy" instances of which find expression in ES - the bishops will have to brush up on their clandestine inclinations!
John RD | 29 January 2020


On the basis of the selection process for delegates, it would appear that PC2020 will have about as much legitimacy as The Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea.
Peter Downie | 29 January 2020


Gosh John, I admire you hanging in there, but as the saying goes " In your dreams." A Reformation, akin to that in C16 is urgently needed- a breakaway movement that gives lay people the power to structure THEIR Church as they want. The Presbyterians seem to have the right idea. However, whilst ever we have old men in funny hats running the show, here and in Rome, that restructure is not going to happen methinks. Maybe in a generation or two... Perhaps if the bishops confined themselves to the spiritual side of their calling and let the laity get on with the governance, there might be a chance of change. But whatever the change, politics will always be there and so will people hungry for power.
Henri | 29 January 2020


Thank you once again John for a timely and insightful article. There are many upset, disappointed and yes, angry women in Australia at the loss of the OPW.
Patricia Banister | 29 January 2020


Thank you, John, for a clear article on this issue. Ever since Christianity became the official state religion of Western Europe, the Church culturally cannot discern the difference between secrecy and confidentiality. In today's world, a keen sense of the difference is essential if we are to move forward. Without transparency, we are in the 'secrecy' camp!
Michael Tan | 29 January 2020


Congratulations John on this excellent article. It has become very obvious to most Catholic Communities that best practice eludes the hierarchy of the church. There is a line in The Devil wears Prada where the character Miranda says” By all means move at a glacial pace” Does this strike a chord with many parishioners?
Sue Swift | 29 January 2020


John, As usual, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. Each week, we loyal, unquestioning, aging, declining Catholics have a not inconsiderable sum of money taken from our Bank Accounts. My family has done so for quite a few years. It is easy and you don't need to have cash on Sunday for the plate! It is quite a few years since our Parish published financial accounts in our Bulletin, so we don't know what our funds are spent on. I was a Pastoral Associate some years ago so, I have an inkling of what seems usual practice, and it's not good. Secrecy starts at Parish Level as (almost all) Bishops start their careers as parish priests. Sadly the Catholic laity still behave like sheep-they don't ask; just pray, pay and obey. That must change! I applied to be a member of the discerning groups and missed out. I have subsequently put my name forward as a Diocesan Rep. I am yet to hear back about my application. I had to consider family and other responsibilities when submitting my expressions of Interest, although, as I am retired, employment is not a concern. I am not confident that I will be selected as my concerns over Church governance issues over many years have caused me to be labelled a 'radical' in the eyes of the conservative forces that control my Parish and our Archdiocese. I wonder just how serious the decline in the Australian Catholic Church has to become before the Hierarchy get the message? The Church does not need external forces to destroy it . (Did not Jesus promise to safeguard it?) It is slowly imploding by its own inaction.
Gavin O'Brien | 29 January 2020


The basis of authority in the Church is well understood and transparent. Pity so many reformists have yet to establish and proclaim the basis of the authority under which they act - is it lack of transparency perhaps?
john frawley | 29 January 2020


Melbourne's archbishop called for nomination suggestions a few days before Christmas with nomination closure soon after. Enough said.
Eric Hodgens | 29 January 2020


Perhaps , John, when there are no clergy left - and they do seem to be declining, either in years or in the number of seminarians- the people can form a church that meets their needs and has the transparency so desperately wanting now.
Henri | 29 January 2020


John I must challenge this. While more transparency might be good, it’s far from essential to the mission of the church, and to say what the bishops “must” do hints of arrogance. What IS essential is that the church continues the work of Christ: preaching the Good News of salvation, worshiping, healing and sanctifying the world. We all know there is lots wrong with the church and there has been since St Paul wrote about “earthen vessels.” What a timely reminder were his words last Sunday not to follow individuals, even great apostles such as him or Cephas, but that the WHOLE project is about nothing other than Christ crucified and risen. As a member of an outer suburban parish in a small country diocese, I don’t have much truck for the machinations of church politics, but I’m very happy with my bishop and I’m very pleased that Plenary Council is calling us to be a Christ-centred church. Finally, the history of the church tells us that reform is always necessary (because we are sinful) and lasting reform is always brought about by those with heroic virtue, who knowing their sinfulness thrust themselves on the mercy of God.
Rob McCahill | 29 January 2020


Totally agree John. How come there has been no communication from the Plenary organizers for 6 months, and no one was told how delegates were to be chosen? The Listening and Discernment Phase has been difficult at the parish level, with people very cynical and disinterested, unlike the Listening and Dialogue, which was enthusiastically greeted. The Six Themes are also problematic, effectively marginalizing any serious consideration of how a Church in crisis responds to a world in crisis. I don't see how 4 people from Adelaide Archdiocese (2 priests, 2 lay) can adequately represent the diversity of views in the Catholic community. A reconsideration is needed, and an explanation of how the Plenary will conduct its business.
Peter Laffan | 29 January 2020


John Frawley writes: “The basis of authority in the Church is well understood and transparent” yet reformists, he argues, have no clear authority credentials. Many Catholics, through their baptism, follow Jesus as priest, prophet and king but presumably this is insufficient justification. John Frawley [ES, 16Dec2019] states: ‘There is far more renewal necessary in some members of hierarchy’ and one might ask on what authoritarian basis he offers such comments, while denying legitimacy to others. Retired Melbourne priest, Eric Hodgens [The Swag, V27, No4, 2019] writes: “The days of coercive intervention by bishops are over….. Being a bishop carries little weight in public debate anymore - even with Catholics.” David [NY Times, Nov 10, 2019 ] believes “arguments about conservative vs. progressive trends in the Catholic Church seem like Nero fiddling while Rome burns. These are really trivial issues compared to the Church’s existential issues of constant, widespread and clearly systemic pedophilia, massive and gross financial corruption, and membership numbers that are in free-fall.“ Archbishop Coleridge has invited listening and discernment for the Plenary Council. So, on issues of transparency, governance, manipulation, misuse of authority I would listen to John Warhurst but on surgical dilemmas his advice would be questionable.
PeterD | 29 January 2020


I read this and I nod at every sentence. But are the bishops reading this?
Susan | 29 January 2020


Definitely, "secrecy runs deep in episcopal culture" and that secrecy, with an associated lack of accountability to the communion of the Church, now gravely prejudice hopes for the Plenary Council. Very few diocesan bishops have established means of engagement with their people on the issues that should be important to the Council. In addition to your example of the botched selection of lay delegates to the Council, the People of God have not even been allowed to see the submissions they have made to the Council; how can there be productive consultation if we are unable to listen to each other? Is that secrecy because so many of the faithful are demanding the Church reject its isolation of women? And then we have the precipitate abolition of the bishops' Office for the Participation of Women by male bishops, clearly unaware that men and women are equal, and gender balance and inclusion are critical to good decision making. The major issue for the Plenary Council is the impact on the Church's mission of the exclusion of women. It would seem that too many of our bishops (not all) simply don't get it! Transparency is key to accountability. Without a sense of accountability, the Plenary Council will be business as usual, a meeting of the Church élite determined to maintain their comfortable control by minimising the input of the faithful.
Peter Johnstone | 29 January 2020


It does seem as though the Australian Bishops are able to make the difficult decisions necessary for good financial management. Now, what other management skills do they have? Human resource management? Ethical management of change? Good understanding of relationships with key stakeholders? Succession planning? Oversight and supervision of workers lower in the hierarchy? Commitment to the Mission Statement? Theory and practice of just employment within the Church? Not seeing it, gentlemen. A few sessions with a skilled systems analyst would help you, as would a sincere and painful examination of your communal conscience - but youse don’t have the humility for either, eh?
Joan Seymour | 29 January 2020


Once upon a time, in the island of Fair Go, the government decided to provide some resources for the healthy living of its citizens who were advised to apply for sports awards by stating their needs. When the awards were announced, it turned out that the process used for awarding was not transparent, with the results clearly biased towards some citizens who were mates of the government. Not really a Fair Go. And many people were angry and lost faith in their leaders. In the same island, at the same time, there was a plan by Bishops in charge of the Catholic Church to ask the people what they thought God expected from them so that the church's life would be a genuine expression of God's love for all the people of Fair Go. People were excited and met to make well-considered responses to the Bishops. The Bishops' group refused to disclose what the whole group of people had said and proceeded to carry out its own plans for the future of the people. The people were disappointed and then angry at what had happened. They felt that the Bishops were not being transparent. Where will this go next?
Alex Nelson | 29 January 2020


Thank you John for an excellent article. I live in a small country parish in the Melbourne Archdiocese. We have heard nothing about the Plenary Council let alone nominations. It seems that the Archbishop believes in keeping the laity in ignorance. This is surely clerical arrogance and pomposity. However, I was heartened when I visited a parish in the Ballarat Diocese late last year. Every parishioner, in that Diocese, would be well aware of the forthcoming Council. There were formation meetings advertised and the parish bulletin and the Diocesan news letter actively encouraged participation in the pre Council events. What a stark contrast to the Melbourne Archdiocese!
Grant Stinear | 29 January 2020


John, even the theological views of Thomas Aquinas were condemned by his contemporaries. If it wasn't for transparency both on his part as well as on the side of his adversaries (such as the Bishop of Paris), the teachings of Aquinas would never have been elevated to the level of mainstream Catholic doctrine. (Aquinas also believed that recalcitrant heretics could be justly put to death).
AURELIUS | 29 January 2020


it is best for the church to be honest about these things but somehow i think that is asking too much
maryellen flynn | 30 January 2020


Henri, the "breakaway movement that gives lay people the power to structure THEIR own church as they want" that you advocate already exists in any one of a number of post-Reformation communities.
John RD | 30 January 2020


Peter D, does the baptismal character of "priest, prophet and king" conferred on all the faithful negate the variety of gifts conferred on the whole Church ( 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27) ) and the Apostolic tradition with its Petrine and episcopal responsibility for teaching (Newman' s "ecclesia docens")? I also question the assumptions of those posters here that the episcopacy and priesthood alone are responsible for the current crisis and that they are incapable of renewal.
John RD | 30 January 2020


Peter D. Thank you for your thought provoking comment. My position reflects a belief that Papal authority exceeds local episcopal authority which in turn exceeds lay authority when it comes to major matters of faith/teaching and morals. I believe, however, that with advancing knowledge of God's creation there are some prescribed teachings and moral matters determined at a time of scientific ignorance that need modification eg contraception. (As with Galileo's heliocentric theory). The fact of Baptism and living a moral life as prescribed by Christ and his Church as you suggest does not in my view bestow any authority which permits the laity to enforce any changes in matters of faith/teaching and morals. I have no issue with the laity exercising secular administrative roles in the Church and in fact support such roles when it is clear that some of the hierarchy who currently have primacy in such roles are clearly uninformed and sometimes ignorant and in dire need of renewal (my comment ES, 16 Dec 2019 which you quote). I have yet to hear any of the dedicated reformers state the basis of their authority and would dearly like to hear it. Perhaps I am nothing but an anti- Heliocentricist and in need of enlightenment.
john frawley | 30 January 2020


The future of the Church is the importace of our bishops simply listrn8ng to their people and initiating change. I realise that this needed change will not happen overnight but small changes must be implemented immediately. The first change is bishops reflevting the will of the laity.
John Elliott | 30 January 2020


John: Catholics recognise that faith and reason are both sources of authority upon which beliefs can rest but you view the entry of non-ordained people into areas of doctrine as akin to do-it-yourself ‘wandering monks who submit to no authority but their own and call holy whatever pleases them [ES, M. Coleridge]. You are comfortable with the role of laity in exercising secular administrative roles yet you are dismissive of John Warhurst’s column because of ‘lack of transparency’. Reformist groups such as Concerned Catholics of Canberra/Goulburn advocate for a church that is transparent, accountable, non-clericalist, properly inclusive and truly humble as their public Plenary Council Submission indicates. These views certainly support the theology and ecclesiology of Pope Francis. I’d concluded from your posting that you, too, would endorse them. From the First Council of Jerusalem, debate flourished in the Catholic Church, with Peter and Paul holding different views around circumcision. Not circumspect, I believe all Catholics, as people of God and members of a pilgrim Church, have a right to transition beyond secular/admin roles and I have done this in other forums [ https://johnmenadue.com/peter-donnan-the-plenary-council-searching-for-australian-catholics/]
PeterD | 30 January 2020


It might seem to some to be a cynical comment, but I believe that the laity in the Australian church has already made its judgment about the inability of the hierarchy to be truly open honest and inclusive. I considered applying to be a delegate but dismissed the thought because of a number of reasons. The main one was that I do not wish to be viewed as one who is merely propping up the status quo however it is camouflaged. Other reasons were my gender since I believe women’s voices need to be heard; and age since I have now had my 75th birthday. Younger people need to have greater influence in the future of the church. As for the bishops: the ability to really listen and discern must be characterised by their refusal to filter everything to reach some motherhood statements about changes needed. The big issues must be addressed. A shortage of priests given the ageing population of those we have means serious consideration needs to be given to extending marriage to the diocesan priesthood. Younger adults will continue to walk away from parish engagement until their perception is that “the same old, Mass and homily” that they heard as kids has been replaced with something that elicits from them a response to hear the word and respond to it in a new way.
Ernest Azzopar | 30 January 2020


PD: Two points in response to your post today and the item to which you refer readers. Firstly, for some time lay Catholic scholars have contributed to the formulation of Catholic teaching: Gilson, Maritain, and, more recently, Grisez are some who come readily to mind - all from arguably the most rigorous Catholic intellectual tradition of all that upholds the synthesis of faith and reason you value. Secondly, how does the fact that disagreements and conflicts have played a part in the process of determining Church teaching have any substantive bearing on the issue of who is authorised to promulgate it?
John RD | 31 January 2020


Jesus taught with authority, but more significantly, he emphasised truth, the ‘way, the truth and the life’. In hierarchical institutions people often deny their inner voice to be in accord with the voices of the institution. Contemporary whistleblowers raising critical issues, are often muffled by an authoritarian culture, sexist elites, ’commercial in-confidence’, PR spin, security violations etc. The film ‘Spotlight’ indicated how the Boston Diocese implemented such strategies and some argue this obfuscation extended to the papacy. A preoccupation with authority may stunt one’s regard for truth because certain views are delegitimised. On JohnW’s article: it focuses on secular, resourcing & administrative issues around the upcoming PlenaryCouncil; it supports the theology and ecclesiology of Pope Francis yet you critique it on the ‘basis of the authority’ rather than on the truth of specific governance issues that it raises? You pose the issue: “I have yet to hear any of the dedicated reformers state the basis of their authority and would dearly like to hear it.” My answer : reformers’ basis of authority is faithfulness to the Gospel; furthermore, rather than become too preoccupied with authority, ask the question: is this proposal consistent with ‘the way, the truth’ that Jesus proclaimed?
PeterD | 31 January 2020


Peter D. Many of the proponents for renewal and reform claim that they are inspired and guided by the spirit of Vatican II. Many would say that spirit fills Pope Francis. Here is a man who shuns opulence, walks amongst the people as Christ did, teaching, sharing their sorrows and joys, sharing a meal with the poor, washing the grime from the faces of the hopeless, bringing comfort to those whom comfort has long abandoned and espousing forgiveness and justice rather than judgement of human weaknesses. Here is a man, Christ's appointed earthly representative in traditional teaching, who brings joy and hope. Here is the walking embodiment of the most important of the Vatican II documents, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). In him the spirit of Jesus the Nazarene is renewed and restored. The cause for renewal and reform should be no more, particularly in those matters which seek the ordination of women to priesthood and the abolition of celibacy both of which this Pope, Christ's representative, does not embrace. However, like all human beings he does have a few unbecoming South American warts which tarnish the otherwise unblemished image - but the Christ noticed the whiteness of the dead dog's teeth rather than the decay!
john frawley | 31 January 2020


As I understand it, the authority of Catholic teaching on faith and morals derives from the truth, at once knowable by and transcendent of reason alone, revealed in Christ; and handed on and developed organically in history through the successors of Peter and the other Apostles. It is their voice -the "Apostolic College" or "Magisterium" - speaking in the name of Christ on behalf of his Church, that discerns and adjudicates on the competing views of all reformers who claim their proposed teaching and practices are based on "faithfulness to the Gospel."
John RD | 31 January 2020


JohnRD & JohnF: Significant issues raised in this JohnW article include: * 50% funding cut in national church administration * Lack of transparency in the selection of diocesan delegates * Diocesan Catholic media are impotent or disinterested So what has our discussion focused on? - esoteric and to most people, irrelevant [I believe] issues such as who is authorised to promulgate reforms? Kathy Lollock[NY Times, 10Nov19] wrote: “I will start at so-called infallibility. That occurred as Garibaldi was unifying Italy, no more popes will be governing. Enter the Holy Spirit "descending" upon Pius IX informing him that he must not give up his control and power over his flock. So as a consequence, it is a sin to practice birth control. A battered woman is excommunicated if she divorces her abusive husband and chooses to marry again. And the clergy marrying? Of course, they should. And maybe, just maybe, our young boys and girls will no longer be raped by parish priests and bishops.“ I strongly agree with the third dot point above - see https://johnmenadue.com/peter-donnan-is-church-reform-supported-by-australian-catholic-media/ The financial issues follow from the RC and decades of abuse; the delegate issues, a refusal to be open to the winds of change.
PeterD | 31 January 2020


Peter D: My first response here (29/1) addresses JW's treatment of the "transparency" issue; my subsequent ones address the far from "esoteric" point raised by John Frawley (29/1) about the transparency - or lack thereof - of the reformers represented by JW in relation to Catholic ecclesial authority and your own responses to it. Moreover, I suggest the authority issue is inevitable given some of the recommendations that contradict Catholic teaching and practice evident in PC2020 sessions so far.
John RD | 31 January 2020


Great Thanks, John Warhurst, for maintaining a brief on the Synod and reporting on what's going on. Commendable too that ES has published your account! Desperately sad that some here have sought to justify what the Bishops have recently done and to hold them back from implementing your carefully thoughtful recommendations. Of particularly wounding impact is John RD's suggestion that the only way forward is for the critics to leave the Church. Assuming this may happen (though I hope and pray that it doesn't) one way forward would be to wait and see what the Bishops do in response to these revelations. If transparency doesn't eventuate, it would be possible to organise an alternative Synod, perchance called a Transparency Synod, at one of the larger and quite easily and freely-available order-owned schools. Anyone who wished to attend could then do so, with the only costs incurred relating to transport and accommodation and met from personal and/or parochial donation. The decisions made there should be restricted to reforming the Church's hierarchy, which, in presumed absence of acting on this discussion, will have shown itself to be unworthy of leading, nurturing and serving the Australian Catholic Church. Only good things would eventuate!
Michael Furtado | 01 February 2020


John Frawley, the church doesnt need heroes. It doesnt need rituals, impenetrable garments and opinions from status seekers that the laity have no right to voice their reformist traditions. For all your admiration of Pope Francis he has failed to act swiftly on the Nicola Carrida scandals in Verona and Argentina where deaf orphans have been sexually abused for 5 decades. He did act to remove McCarrick, again after 5 decades of abuse and only after Vigano made such an outcry in the press that he was forced to act. The problem with entrenched power and centuries of secrecy within the church hierarchy, is that clerical ambition outweighs the rights of victims. Nothing is swift. PC 2020 is akin to a RC. It will weigh, deliberate, recommend and the only ones who will get a say are the pompous fools who turned a blind eye to the abuses in the first place. I wonder if AB Commensoli will invite me to his fine new summer house to debate these issues?
francis Armstrong | 01 February 2020


It is of interest that out of about 21 respondents to this article at this time, only 4 are women. I wonder why this is the case? How far have we come in ensuring women's voices are heard? How far have we come in creating spaces where women feel welcomed and safe and that their issues or opinions will be valued? Maybe this topic is of limited interest to many women? I don't really know. Yesterday I re-listened to an interview between Geraldine Doogue and Robert Fitzgerald from early 2019. Robert claimed that the bishops have great difficulty in understanding transparency and its value. Their tendency seems to be still to keep things secret and expect people to trust them. That time has long past, I think. Trust has been crushed and must be rebuilt with ongoing and committed actions, not only words. As Robert said, leadership is about being with us, not treating us like people who can only cope with limited information, or kept in the dark altogether.
Beth Gibson | 01 February 2020


Well written John, I have been shocked by the way these men are acting so neglectfully. Especially with the closing of the Office of Women - a role established as a microscopic response to wide recommendations made after a long and broad discernment process regarding the role of women in our Church! Sadly I believe their distorted modus operandi will dominate for a long time. It is shameful. The role they committed to was supposed to be one of leadership and service, yet they are happily doing the opposite!
Therese MacLeod | 01 February 2020


Excellent summation. I was enthusiastic about PC2020 but my enthusiasm is fading.
M Salmon | 01 February 2020


Great to read Prof Warhurst's article. It was equally great to read the Comments (37 at my time of reading). I wished that such ideas had been so clearly and spiritedly expressed, and even more widely promulgated during 2019. Looking at the documentation that came out of the PC 2020 preliminary sessions I got the impression that the participants threw a confetti of ideas into the air. Many didn't answer the question asked: "What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?" Many of the expressed responses appeared not to have any reference to God's Will at all. Many were expressions of personal pet peeves and dislikes. It was left to the preparatory committee to to try to bring some sort of coherence to the diffuse piles that landed on their desk. They did a creditable job in squeezing them into six national themes for discernment. What I thought God was asking me as a practising Australian catholic was to get back to Basic Christianity: to face the state of the Church (good & bad points) honestly with an open mind and for me to be prepared to change and encourage others to change too.
Uncle Pat | 02 February 2020


It seems to me that this conversation is going round and round in circles without actually making it clear what the issue of importance actually is. There's lots of talk about admin issues and how the plenary council is being conducted, but can someone please explain to this simple country bumpkin what the plenary council is aiming to achieve? Perhaps the church/council would benefit from a contemplation on the theme of Ecclesiastes at this stage in its history - go back to grassroots and admit that wisdom and knowledge will only get us so far. We will never It's the journeys that matters and the way we treat each other in times of trial and hardship. We can regress back to Reformation debate about faith and reason to distract us if we like - but we will never have full knowledge and wisdom - and like most Catholics we will continue plodding along guided by our informed consciences and a desire to grow in compassion and mercy towards others (which is the nature of God revealed by Jesus)
AURELIUS | 02 February 2020


The competence and credibility of the bishops continues to be programmatically challenged by reformists here, yet the issue of ecclesial authority is deemed "esoteric" and irrelevant, Peter D? This would seem to indicate a serious lack of the due theological attention characteristic of thorough reform.
John RD | 03 February 2020


You ask, Aurelius, what the Plenary Council is aiming to achieve. It seems that it is designed to discover what the Spirit is saying to the Church in Australia. To achieve an understanding of what the Spirit wants for the Church in Australia, the opinions of all those who choose to make submissions will be collated in various categories of Church/Christian activities by appointed writing groups comprised of a mix of clergy, religious and lay members, men and women both, totalling a dozen or thereabouts persons in each group. Presumably these groups will identify the majority view amongst the submissions pertinent to their designated group and this majority view will represent the intention of the Spirit for the future Church communicated to the majority by their mutual dialogue and listening (respectful discussions). Once the intentions of the Spirit are determined beyond doubt by this process, changes will be made to the current, seriously flawed Church which has either managed to evade the Spirit or has in recent times been abandoned by the Spirit for some unknown reason. Hope that helps clear it up for you.
john frawley | 03 February 2020


John RD: You write ‘authority is deemed "esoteric" and irrelevant, Peter D?’ In meetings around PC2020 I attended in 2019 involving more than 700 people, I can’t recall a single raising issues of papal authority. Catholics who remain in the Church seeking reform tend to think in terms of fidelity to the gospel and addressing existential questions arising from sexual abuse, dramatic declines in church membership, poor church governance, financial mismanagement etc The specific issues that John Warhurst raises in this article are accepted as ‘challenging’ and then ignored - all too difficult to deal with! Pope Francis advocates change but a major problem for him is the proliferation of well-funded, ideological, right-wing activist groups around the world that Eric Hodgens has written about. A perusal of the Plenary Council Facebook website, for instance, reveals pockets of bizarre resistance to change. How does one make sense of this? Haruki Murakami believes changing thinking is a painful process, equivalent to convincing people to change their tribe and lose their community. I once heard a CEO say: ‘I used to spend most of my time [Paretto] dealing with change-resistors. Now I just ignore them and focus on innovation and change.’
PeterD | 03 February 2020


Peter D: Authority in the Catholic Church is transmitted and exercised through the Church's hierarchical structure that derives from Christ's calling, appointment and commissioning of Peter and the other Apostles (cf, "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" and Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church"). Reformist groups and their supporters, via ES, have - confusing, I think, episcopal office itself with the abuses of it by some incumbents - routinely denied the validity or sought the abolition of the Church's hierarchy itself. By all means criticize "well-funded, ideological, right wing activist groups", your broad and secular description of whom makes them sound more like political cadres than people motivated primarily by Catholic faith.
John RD | 03 February 2020


John RD You place great emphasis on hierarchy, the Catechism, dogma and church structure. I agree with Paul Collins that we need to retreat from hierarchy to a more community-based church; indeed, hierarchy is often the antithesis of gospel values and the beatitudes. Jesus, I believe, would fall over backwards, if he was approached in terms of status by cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests etc in their ceremonial robes, mitres and medieval garb; he would inquire, perhaps, about the whereabouts of Samaritans or poor widows. Collins argues that hierarchism “is a stranded asset, unsellable anywhere, least of all to anyone trying to follow Jesus. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is about power and how bishops are initiated into it through papal appointment and ordination. In the process, baptism is forgotten and equality in the Christian community is lost.” I understand that hierarchy - a familiar term to me from the 50s when I served as an altar-boy at St Marys Cathedral in Sydney - is genuinely important to you. I posted previously that reform proposals emanating from CCs - C/G are consistent with the theology and ecclesiology of Pope Francis; and that the Church’s future, not its past, is of the essence. Painful!
PeterD | 03 February 2020


‘There can be no justice without truth and both are essential for healing’ and change.. To bring about change, a fundamental shift of culture will have to take place, before any real renewal can come about. The devil (evil) and those who serve him, fear truth, as The Truth will not permit evil to hide itself. We are ALL sinners, but been honest with ourselves and others permits us to walk in humility on the spiritual plane in friendship with the Holy Spirit (where no deception or lie is tolerated within ourselves or between each other). If our Bishops want to lead us on the spiritual plane, they must walk with the Holy Spirit, they must server the Truth (which is the essence of love.) The precursor to understanding Jesus’s mission, is to know, that a humble (Truthful) heart is the one and only state from where the ongoing transforming action of The Holy Spirit can take place, as it marks/creates a necessary separation of the Church/Faithful from ‘The World’… The essence of Love is Truth, we all fall short in the actions of Love, but no man or woman can excuse dishonest before their brothers and sisters who would serve the Truth, for to do so would be an attempt to destroy the mortar (Humility) of that unity… So, in our present shameful situation, is God preparing the birth of a Church that will be truthful with herself. A Church that proceeds and leads in humility, openly acknowledging her failings before God and all of her children and in doing so, permit her children to do the same, and walk dressed in the Wedding (Bonding) Garment of humility also. Please consider continuing via the link kevin your brother In Christ. https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/10/15-october-28th-sunday-in-ot/#comment-91945
Kevin Walters | 03 February 2020


Peter D: While I appreciate your recognizing the value I place on the items you list, I wish to emphasize, too, that I don't believe they are necessarily incompatible with the pastoral and social concern identified with the papacy of Francis. Moreover, as I expressed in response to an ES article by Paul Collins last year, I see no inherent dichotomy in Vatican II's understanding of the Church as "the people of God" and as a hierarchically structured institution. My emphasis in ES on these aspects of the Church is, I confess, in no small way attributable to the sorry ignorance or outright dismissal of them by critics, many of whom fail to distinguish between things good in themselves and the abuse of them. I acknowledge that we as individuals and members of God's people are in need of reform - a reform and spiritual renewal consistent with what Benedict XVI called our traditionally "contoured faith." However, I can't say I find convincing or helpful the melodramatic caricaturing of John Paul II and Benedict as villains of the piece intent on obstructing and rolling back the intentions of Vatican II: an unfortunate trope repeated ad nauseam by a number in renewal discussions I've been part of.
John RD | 04 February 2020


Agree with you, John. In particular am concerned about the loss of the stand-alone Council for Australia Catholic Women with the consequent loss of the Office for the Participation of Women and its executive officer, Andrea Dean. Too bad!
Kathryn | 04 February 2020


Like two trains hurtling towards their destination in the dark, there are two narratives here. The first John is a political scientist, the second a theologian. Neither of them is unversed in the skills of the other, so the possibility of dialogue and solution-finding is high. The first understands and appreciates the importance of accountability, probity, transparency and reason. Moreover, he has a spouse who occupied and acquitted with flair the senior-most responsibility in Catholic educational administration in this country. The second loves his Church, almost as no other, with the kind of knowledge and defensive flair rarely encountered in moderated and published public debate in this country. Both their expression and their contributions preoccupy a major component of the discussion surrounding PC2020. Let us hope that this exchange doesn't get so derailed as to occasion a head-on collision, for both sides have right on their side but address two very different aspects of the same issue. The first John is probably the best positioned Catholic political scientist in this country in terms of his critique of structure and culture in healing our wounded Church. The second would lay down his life for the Church. Why can't they both agree!
Michael Furtado | 04 February 2020


John RD: You write [4Feb20] that the two perspectives we have been discussing are not incompatible; and that, as members of God’s people, we are in need of reform. Such thinking, injected into the PC2020 mix, can contribute to positive change. Caricaturing John Paul II and Benedict as villains is clearly pointless. The Church has been in ‘dark woods where the straight way was lost’ but many people hold powerful, evocative images of Church, perhaps from their childhood, or another era, & they oppose any reform. To yearn for a church that is transparent, accountable, non-clericalist, properly inclusive and truly humble is hardly controversial; to hope for a Church that countenances reform, and a Diocesan Catholic media that is potent and interested in winds of change, is unremarkable. Conflict, however, is intensified when some PC2020 reformers move into the realm of faith/teaching and morals. Consider the ‘hypothetical’ of Catholic Seminaries where reformers’ propose to implement ideas about celibacy and female priests in the curriculum. A bridge too far, beyond the PC remit for most, but Aurelius’ question - ‘what the plenary council is aiming to achieve’- looms large, the intersections complex, the boundaries challenging, and high expectations from so many!
PeterD | 04 February 2020


I think Uncle Pat and John Frawley are spot on when they mention the real purpose of this Plenary Council is to attempt to discern what the Holy Spirit requires of the contemporary Church. Discernment is by Grace. It is achieved by listening for the prompting of the Spirit, rather than by throwing up supposedly 'brilliant' ideas as a self-powered spiritual juggler. Church Tradition, as against traditions, which very much includes the Magisterium, cannot be altered to gratify individual whim. That does not mean the manner and spirit of church administration in Australia cannot be more loving, open and responsive. The Australian Church and its administrators seem to me to be moribund and out of synch with what is happening currently in the Vatican under the current Pope, who is perfectly orthodox but charitable in the sense St Paul talks of Charity to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13).
Edward Fido | 05 February 2020


As I write, John's article has provoked fifty-three responses. Consequently, even our Bishops must realise what hopes and expectations centre around the next stage of the Plenary Council. The Archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne seem determined to remind us that, despite the Royal Commission's blistering final summary, the straight jacket that Canon Law provides will continue to stifle anything remotely looking like transparency and open discussion. if this council produces a "business as usual" church, seemingly ignorant of the enormity of its present peril, its last state will be significantly worse than it was and it will have perpetrated a scandal not far short of the one that made its summoning so necessary.
Grebo | 06 February 2020


John, I appreciate your candid articles - I believe the PC is just another exercise in futility. The participants will be selected according to their loyalty to the hierarchy. The laypeople selected will have no chance of achieving any real change, the entire process is being controlled and whilst it will look good, it will be an absolute waste of time and money.
Robert O'Toole | 08 February 2020


There was no lack of "transparency", in either content or process, in the address delivered by Adelaide's diocesan administrator, Bishop Greg O'Kelly SJ to a gathering of over 3,000 people on the steps of Adelaide's Parliament House on Saturday. In the coming weeks, SA parliament will be debating a bill that would permit the termination of the unborn up until birth - a proposal opposed by Bishop O'Kelly on clear scientific, moral and religious grounds. Perhaps reformists' concerns for "transparency" could be expressed to the media - television and print - whose narratives concern themselves more with the sorry plight of fauna affected by bushfires. And ES might consider publishing the Bishop's outstanding speech, and/or some of the speeches presented by women who oppose the bill and those of the leaders of other religious congregations. The centrality of respect for the right to life and inclusivity of society's most vulnerable in matters social justice was a theme common to all speakers; a theme recently emphasised by Pope Francis.
John RD | 10 February 2020


The institutional Catholic Church is the infrastructure to enable a something called the ‘Church Militant’ which is, by scriptural command, to be in this world but not of it. The question to anyone with a Plenary 2020 hobby horse is how will the horse as they contemplate it lead to that destination, it being, I suspect, the only and perennial destination of the leading Spirit.
roy chen yee | 10 February 2020


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