Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Church governance needs to walk the walk



Catholic church governance suffers considerable dilemmas. The clue to its problems comes from the challenging recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to review ‘the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women’. In doing so the RC noted with some approval the approaches to governance of largely lay-led Catholic health, community services and education agencies.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Mother of God in Sydney (Getty Images/kldlife)

Approaches to governance are in flux within church agencies, sectors, dioceses and at the national level, either driven by the demands of state regulations or in response to the challenging new situation the church finds itself in. There is so much change going on that it is difficult to follow.

Some big national agencies, like Caritas Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia, are rethinking their governance structures. Incorporation is now common. The governance of diocesan Catholic education across Australia is being reshaped significantly. Some dioceses have embarked upon new approaches to consultative governance, like synods and assemblies, leading into the Plenary Council 2020.

The Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons, with eleven members, has emerged as a potentially strong third peak body in the church alongside the bishops and Catholic Religious Australia.

Catholic Professional Standards Ltd, set up in 2017, has taken responsibility for oversight of new child safety systems. Simultaneously the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has undertaken an enormous restructure of its staffing, funding and governance.

Most recently a new body, Catholic Emergency Relief Agency, has emerged to play a potential ‘whole of church’ agency coordinating role in response to the bushfire emergency.


'The church must not just talk 'good governance' talk but walk the walk. That is the responsibility of individuals with leadership roles across the church. In dioceses and parishes those individuals exercising formal authority are bishops and priests.'


The acceptance in 2018 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia leadership of the RC recommendation was significant in the setting up of the Implementation Advisory Group and its subsidiary, the Governance Review Project Team (GRPT). The test will come when the GRPT report is considered by those holding church authority and later discussed by the Plenary Council 2020. Action rather than just words is required.

The lessons of secular good governance are clear and long-standing. They include the introduction and monitoring of mechanisms for accountability, transparency and inclusiveness. The GRPT report will likely reiterate the desirability of such civic standards in diocesan and parish governance. Yet these are often absent and/or resisted by some bishops and priests in charge.

Making a strong theological case for good governance principles is crucial to their acceptance. That case is based on high levels of overlap between civic and canonical governance. Perhaps the one civic principle seemingly most absent in ecclesial thinking and practice is transparency, though there are some hints in Canon Law.

The relevant ecclesial principles include subsidiarity, highlighted by Pope Francis in his address to the People of God in August 2018, and stewardship, a strong element of the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si.

Another essential principle, synodality, encourages the active participation of all members of the Church in the processes of discernment, reflection, consultation and co-operation at every level of decision-making and mission.

The church must not just talk 'good governance' talk but walk the walk. That is the responsibility of individuals with leadership roles across the church. In dioceses and parishes those individuals exercising formal authority are bishops and priests.

My own experience has taught me that church governance is complex and varied. There are diverse structures and memberships, although, with exceptions like some elected CSSA directors from member agencies, most are appointed and dismissed by bishops or religious superiors. The leadership style of board chairpersons can vary from highly consultative to autocratic.

Board members are challenged to be aware of and true to their responsibilities. The senior leadership team, led by the CEO, is crucial to good governance and must be allowed to lead. The board must balance its trust in the management of the CEO with judicious criticism. The same applies to relations with other senior leaders responsible for mission, programs, human resources, finance, audit and risk. The board must independently make it their business to know what is going on deep within the organisation in accordance with good governance principles while not interfering in daily administration.

Within the church the board must support the CEO in their dealings with church hierarchy in a way which is respectful to it without being unduly deferential. The culture of the church, in its day to day practice, is crucial to allowing such good governance to flourish by going beyond mere adherence to church and state rules and regulations.



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. John will be speaking at a workshop on 'Governance for Mission' at the National Catholic Social Services conference, 26-28 February in Melbourne.

Main image: The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Mother of God in Sydney (Getty Images/kldlife)

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



submit a comment

Existing comments

The Royal Commission shone a frequently uncomfortable spotlight on the organisational practices of the Catholic church. In confronting complex problems of governance in a church setting it may be helpful to look at the function of leadership in such a setting. In the Our Father, we ask God "And lead us not into temptation" which is a plea for the providential help of God in our daily confrontation with the temptation of sin. This is a big ask. However, the task of leadership is nothing less than that. Church agencies do benefit from the best strategies of secular organisations. But our core principles in the diocese and parish develop from other direction.

Pam | 25 February 2020  

What a gift to Australian Catholicism is John Warhurst! Equivalent, in my humble estimation, to Frank Brennan's jurisprudential gift to Catholicism. At this crucial run-up to synodal preparations such a voice can hardly afford to be ignored. Such a person has cut his wisdom teeth, not simply in the course of acquiring his undoubtedly impressive qualification profile, but also in his various roles in the School of Politics & International Relations - ANU, involving interaction with outside agencies, global scholars, interrogating their texts, supervising students, conducting research and participating in the governance of Australia's most prestigious university. As if that were not enough to demonstrate that the Paraclete listens in earnest to our prayer for guidance at this crucial time, there are very many bitter lessons from the history of our Church, both globally and Australia-wide, to show what happens when our own home-grown resources are ignored. Some years ago I co-ordinated a Human Rights in Education Project, the purpose of which was to seed funding in curriculum plans to enhance the human rights profile of Catholic schools. An offer was made to invest funds to enable all students to learn a second language. The Parish Priest turned it down!

Michael Furtado | 26 February 2020  

As John Warhurst recognises, changes in Catholic Church governance require theological justification consistent with the Apostolic tradition, which has direct bearing on issues such as the reservation of priesthood to men - a practice reaffirmed by Pope Francis' recent non-acceptance of the Amazonian Synod's recommendations on this matter.

John RD | 27 February 2020  

I consider the title of this article uninformed and unfair to Australia's Catholic bishops. Recently, for instance, the Apostolic Administrator of the Adelaide Archdiocese, now overdue in years for retirement, literally "walked the walk" in uncomfortable heat from the Adelaide Oval parklands to Parliament House in the company of three and a half thousand people to defend the unborn. Nothing lacking "transparency" in his presence or purpose. His Grace has also supported victims of clerical abuse and co-operated with extra-ecclesial measures to provide protection of the young in Catholic institutions. Regrettably the integration of both issues - abortion and child abuse - in the cause of human dignity seems rare among those whose demand for reform of Church governance seems confined to concern for democratic structure and procedure.

John RD | 28 February 2020  

Your bishops' 'walking the walk' is highly selective, John RD. I haven't noticed many speaking about about the sports' rorts or the other examples of gross dishonesty in the distribution of public funds.

Ginger Meggs | 01 March 2020  

I think what John Warhurst is talking about when he mentions the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons is that it is a peak body of Catholic organisations, such as the Trustees of the Edmund Rice Foundation, which are not part of the official ecclesiastical setup and are able to function more efficiently and transparently as such. Some of them may be ultimately responsible to a religious institute but this institute is not involved in the day to day management. They do not impinge on the ecclesiastical infrastructure in any way. Obviously, they have no say on the Magisterium nor the Pope's authority. The way the Trustees of the Edmund Rice Foundation worked so efficiently to provide a new Principal for St Kevin's College, Toorak is a perfect example of what they do. My feeling is that many of the commentators on this piece did not understand what John was saying in it.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2020  

John, the roadblock with the Catholic hierarchy is their secrecy addiction, exclusion of the laity, particularly women in any decision making. After the damning revelations of the RC one would have they would have cleaned out the offenders in their midst. Kept a close eye on the NRS and taken to task the Catholic Institutions that were the main offenders. And have they done this? No they have not. Too busy furthering their own careers. Buying summer houses. Defending Pell. Despite Australia being a signatory to the UDHR, the Australian chapter of Bishops still adheres to the rule that women cannot exercise authority over men. This is based on a heretical belief that needs to be exorcised immediately. It is "Jesus appointed only male disciples as his apostles, while St Paul instructed women to be silent in church, and told wives to submit to their husbands." Women are eversince prohibited from exercising authority over men in the church. North American Anglicans began consecrating women as bishops in 1989, followed by New Zealand in 1990. By 2012, women had been appointed as bishops in places as diverse as Cuba and Swaziland." Peter Sherlock, Dec 2012. Perhaps we need a female Pope.

Francis Armstrong | 11 March 2020  

Similar Articles

Dawkins delusion: the legacy of New Atheism

  • Tim Robertson
  • 27 February 2020

Contrary to their claims, the New Atheists do have a creation myth. It goes something like this: emerging from darkness into the light, Enlightenment thinkers cast off the shackles of religion and, in so doing, ushered in an age of reason. For the likes of Richard Dawkins, a founding member of the movement, this is an article of faith, and he’s spent recent years casting himself not just as an heir of this tradition, but also as its modern day guardian.


Embracing First Nations voices in the Church

  • John Lochowiak
  • 23 February 2020

Pope Francis’ 'Querida Amazonia' (Beloved Amazonia) has been warmly received by many members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic community. The tone of the exhortation is reflective of the position that underpins our vision for the Church in Australia — a Church that is open to the gifts of First Nations Catholics, honest to the past and embracing of a new way of thinking that utilizes the principle of subsidiarity.