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Challenges and opportunities for the Catholic Church in the 21st century


Conference Panel, APTO Conference, University House, ANU, 29 November 2015

I thank you for the opportunity to join such an ecumenical panel and to be joined by Mr Dean Sahu Khan, a Muslim lawyer who has generously given his time to be with us who are a diverse group of Christians contemplating challenges and opportunities for the Church in the 21st century. I have five challenges to present, and each of them is an opportunity. People of faith, hope and love always view a challenge as an opportunity.

Relating liturgy to life

I have just come from a very familiar Eucharistic celebration this morning: a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Their adult children and partners are not regular churchgoers. But all the family wanted to gather to celebrate the marriage of a couple for whom faith and Eucharistic hospitality are central. At the prayers of intercessions, everyone offered an individual, heartfelt prayer for the couple in gratitude for their love and fidelity. We gathered as a circle around the altar sharing the peace and the bread of life.

I recall Pope Francis a few Sundays ago visiting the Lutheran Church in Rome. He brought a gift: a chalice. What more need be said? But when asked by a Lutheran-Catholic couple about the reception of the Eucharist, he told them that 'there are explanations and interpretations. [But] Life is greater than explanations and interpretations.' He basically told the couple to discern the situation for themselves: 'One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak to the Lord and go forward. I dare say no more.' I dare say Francis has let the genie out of the bottle. Even we Catholics have come a long way in offering Eucharistic hospitality since the days when Cardinal Basil Hume felt compelled to ask Prime Minister Tony Blair to refrain from taking communion with his family when attending Sunday Mass.

Creating church structures reflective of community expectations

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted the scandal and damage of church structures which fail to comply with community expectations of transparency and accountability. During this past week, we have heard evidence from senior clergy in my own church attesting that they could do nothing to remove a mad, nasty, gun-toting, abusing priest from a parish with a primary school because the archbishop saw no need to act, and those under him saw no purpose in trying to take any further action once the archbishop had decided not to act. The school principal with six children resigned in despair and they refused to offer him another job. The faithful won't stand for this any longer; neither will the community; and neither will the state. The clericalist culture and a hierarchy accountable only up the line and never down have to be consigned to the ecclesiastical trash bin.

Translating our message as Good News

In the increasingly secular public square, we Christians are increasingly parodied as straighteners rather than enlargers. We believe ours is good news for all people of good will. Our commitment is to justice and truth for all. The present same sex marriage debate is illustrative.

I accept that same sex marriage will end up on the statute books in Australia, just as it has in the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand. I think a plebiscite is a waste of time and risks turning very nasty, especially now that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition support same sex marriage. The plebiscite advocates were opponents of same sex marriage who thought it would give them more airplay back in the days when the prime minister was a strong opponent of same sex marriage. With Turnbull and Shorten on the same page, the opponents will get little airplay. While the debate rages, it is only appropriate that religious groups like the Catholic bishops be able to evangelise their position, especially their concern that children in future be assured a known biological mother and a known biological father. To date, the bishops have spoken cautiously and respectfully. They know their views are not in fashion. It is ridiculous to have national debate on a plebiscite stifled by assertions that church teaching on marriage is offensive to some individuals, and likely to cause offence to a reasonable person. Debate should not be put on hold while the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner decides whether it is arguable that a reasonable person might be offended. The Commissioner and the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal are not the thought police. Or at least, they shouldn't be. The Commissioner's processes should not be used to shut down debate about the desirability of profound social change. Those who take offence are those who think churches should butt out of all moral debate in the public square. On this one, we should all let a thousand flowers bloom. We should be seen to be advocates for respect for the human dignity of all persons including same sex couples, advocates for the best conditions for human flourishing for all human beings including children who will be created with assisted reproductive technologies, and advocates for freedom of speech and freedom of religion for all persons and groups including those religious groups who hold differing views about the institution of marriage than do those who advocate legal change.

Fostering real engagement with other faith communities and conducting a real critique of each other's religious practices

Moderate Muslims are as shocked and appalled as we are by recent acts of terrorism in Beirut, Paris and Mali. They are even more affronted than we are that these acts are committed in the name of religion. All of us who care for the place of religion need to concede that though these wanton acts are not authorized by religion, they result in part from individuals' exploitative appropriation of religious sentiment fired by religious utterances which find no resonance in the teachings of religious authorities nor in the religious sensibility of most practitioners. Our secularist interlocutors will sometimes opine that the world would be better off without religion. We need to do more to engage rationally and empathetically with each other across faith lines, critiquing those structures, traditions and teachings (or more likely, their lacks) which allow terrorists to invoke the name of God in recruiting and in killing the innocent.

Opening the door for women in our churches

Mine is the Church of the west which is most behind in accommodating the place for women at the Eucharistic table. When asked about women's ordination in June 2013, Pope Francis replied, 'The Church has spoken and says no ... That door is closed.' The one consolation is that he used the image of a door and not a wall. At least a door can be opened if you have the key or if you are able to prise it with force over time.

Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, 'The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.' It is even more divisive if those who reserve to themselves sacramental power determine that they alone can determine who has access to that power and legislate that the matter is not open for discussion. Given that the power to determine the teaching of the magisterium and the provisions of canon law is not a sacramental power, is there not a need to include women in the decision that the question is not open to discussion and in the contemporary quest for an answer to the question? Francis's position on this may be politic for the moment within the Vatican which has had a longtime preoccupation with shutting down the discussion, but the position is incoherent.

No one doubts the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis. But the Church will continue to suffer for as long as it does not engage in open, ongoing discussion and education about this issue. The official position is no longer comprehensible to most people of good will, and not even those at the very top of the hierarchy have a willingness or capacity to explain it.

The claim that the matter 'is not a question open to discussion' cannot be maintained unless sacramental power also includes the power to determine theology and the power to determine canon law. Ultimately the Pope's claim must be that only those possessed of sacramental power can determine the magisterium and canon law. Conceding for the moment the historic exclusion of women from the sacramental power of presidency at Eucharist, we need to determine if 'the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life' could include the power to contribute to theological discussion and the shaping of the magisterium and to canonical discussion about sanctions for participating in theological discussion on set topics such as the ordination of women. As Francis says, 'Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.'


I concluded my recent book The People's Quest for Leadership in Church and State (ATF Theology, 2015) with these words:

Our elected political leaders will be assisted in the task of national change by the input of those other conscientious community leaders who are freer to espouse ideals or perspectives which are focused on the common good of the planet and of all humanity, even though these concerns do not presently win majority support at the ballot box. Our church leaders will assist in so far as they are able to engage with the vast array of community members not in their pews and unfamiliar with their theological preconceptions. And women will need to be appropriately represented at the table, whether in Cabinet or at a papal consistory.  

These are a handful of the challenges and opportunities for the Church in the 21st century.

Frank Brennan SJ

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, same sex marriage, women priests



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Existing comments


Mary Tehan | 30 November 2015  

Thanks for this. It looks great. However it would be really lovely and heart warming to see a woman sharing on this level.... the need for the prince to awaken the woman lives... let us be truly courageous.

bernadette purcell | 01 December 2015  

re children of same sex couples, in child welfare in WA we require not knowledge of ,but regular contact with biological parents

terence flanagan | 02 December 2015  

The Church can't change its views on women priests until it truly understands what the bible said about how humans were made in the image of God . . . "man AND WOMAN He made them." God carries both equally, each aspect has a different role in creation. We say He because there is no pronoun for One Who Carries Both.

Catherine Roadknight | 16 December 2015  

Addressing a systems and policy change in response to victims and families of clergy child abuse is urgent and important for many lapse and practising Catholics. The Film, 'Spotlight' should be compulsory watching for every catholic or lapse catholic in Australia, and every PARENT. Three points from the movie. 1. It takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child. 2.The community and its institutions conveniently looked the other way as the catholic church’s response was to hide clergy child sexual abuse. 3.'Spotlight' film credits notes that the Archbishop of Boston was forced to resign following the newspapers exposure of catholic clergy child abuse but was then given a more senior position by the vatican.

Parent | 28 January 2016  

Is it time for a kind of separation of powers in the church?

Kevin Liston | 02 March 2017  

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