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Church reform is systemic not personal



Listening to various interventions and discussions within the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council reminded me that there are deep fault lines between reformers and those wedded to the status quo. When those, like myself, seeking reform speak of systemic change to church structures those opposed to change see disrespect towards those holding positions like bishop and priest within the established order. When reformers seek the equality of women in governance and ministry those opposed to change see disrespect towards lay men and male religious as well as to other women. 

Many, perhaps most, occupants of these positions do not see it that way just as many men do not see the advancement of women as devaluing their position or role within the church. That was clear at the Assembly where warm friendships and relationships were the norm. But it is an enduring point of view which must be addressed because it lay behind many passionate viewpoints expressed during the Assembly. Reformers are bemused by these defences of the status quo which seem to be deeply held and impenetrable because they are embedded in our culture. 

This approach to defending the status quo is not restricted to the Church. The monarchy-republic debate is an example. Republicans are often criticised for being disrespectful of the Queen. Closer to home I was once taken to task by one of the children of a Governor-General for being critical of him for defending the status quo. We came to amicable agreement that rather than being personal I was just arguing for systemic change and the Governor-General was a representative of the monarchical structure I was seeking to change.  

The now controversial Part 4 of the Motions and Amendments for the Second Assembly on “Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men” is a case in point. Some members clearly misunderstood or misinterpreted the title of this section. It was not about men at all. The bulk of the text and all the motions were about advancing the role of women in the church. Yet some members saw the thrust of this section as disrespectful to men. This led to pleading from the floor to expand references to men in the document. We even heard one suggestion from a man that the Assembly should create a separate section on the dignity of men.  These interventions were not taken up thankfully. 


'The point should be repeated. Reformers are not ‘playing the man’, but are seeking systemic and structural change within the church.' 


More powerfully the Assembly heard from some women that the document was disrespectful to those women who did not seek or hold positions in ministry or governance within the church. This explains the references in the text to those women who are “joyful, happy and thriving in their service to Christ and the Church” and to the many references to ‘the domestic church’. This view also explains the failure of the Assembly to pass, on the first run through on the Tuesday afternoon, Motion 4.6: 

That each Australian diocese and eparchy foster new opportunities for women to participate in ministries and roles that are stable, publicly recognised, resourced with appropriate formation including theological education and commissioned by the bishop. These ministries and roles should engage with the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life and have a real impact on those communities. 

This motion was seen by some opponents as preferencing one group of women over another. 

It later re-emerged in the revised version (Motion 4.3): 

That each Australian diocese and eparchy commits to supporting, with appropriate formation and recognition, new opportunities for women to participate in ministries that engage with the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life. 

The deep division between those reformers who concentrate on the systemic aspects of the church and those who take proposals to change the church as a personal affront also permeated discussion of clericalism at the Assembly. Such clericalism, preference for the ordained over the non-ordained People of God, underpins the inequalities that stem from hierarchy within the Church.  

References to what Pope Francis has frequently called “the evils of clericalism” were a lightning rod to some defenders of the status quo within the Assembly. There was little enough discussion of clericalism anyway, but what made it into the text offended some members. We heard some impassioned statements about holding in great esteem the priests and bishops in the room as if the calls for reform were disrespectful of them as a group. That is just not true, even if a minority are offended. 

We also heard some strong statements from the floor against the language of anti-clericalism, despite Pope Francis’ condemnation. They generally passed without rebuttal as they did not seem germane to the motions under discussion and, ultimately, they were not persuasive. But they do reflect deep sensitivities towards what is seen as a personal attack among those opposed to reform. 

The point should be repeated. Reformers are not ‘playing the man’, but are seeking systemic and structural change within the church. 




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a Plenary Council Member.

Main image: Home church community, worship together at home, streaming online church service, Mission of gospel, social distancing concept. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Church, Reform, Plenary Council, PC, Equality



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Existing comments

Reform is a serious business, not for the frivolous or faint-hearted. And reform of a large, diverse institution like the Catholic Church is even more so. It’s important to be aware of each other in framing an agenda for change. Many people are deeply invested in their roles within the Church and change can be threatening. Having said that, people outside the Church are watching and many who have ‘lost faith’ with the institutional church are looking also for impetus to rejoin.

Pam | 19 July 2022  

The vagueness of the revised version (Motion 4.3), especially in its formulation regarding women participating "in ministries that engage with the most important aspects of parish life", raises questions of just what these "most important aspects" might be and the criteria by which they are adjudged to be so.
Questionable, too, is an emphasis on "systemic and structural change within the church" that fails to address the call and commitment to discipleship that enables the very coming into being of the faith community and by means of which it is sustained in witnessing to Christ and his gospel - the precondition of authentic renewal emphasised by all popes of our era.

John RD | 20 July 2022  

It’s kind of surprising to read John’s perspective that his vision of ‘systematic reform’ shouldn’t be taken ‘personally’ by the people he aims to ‘systematically’ reform. You see I am the church he wants to reform. Me and the men, women and children who call ourselves Catholics. John and his merry men (and I say that deliberately) of reformers talk about the church like it is an inanimate object; like he is re-engineering a machine. Yes people take it personally when who we are, how we worship, how we gather, how we relate to one another is on John et al chopping board. “This won’t hurt a bit” he says. “Don’t take this personally. We are here to make you much happier” he says with the warmth of an old style dentist about to pull a tooth. John is a political scientist and obviously very gifted but he’s no shepherd. His narrative is not that of a pastor but more of a consultant brought into audit the business.

Sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest. Reforming a system can’t ignore the people in the system. Yes people take personally the so-called reform movement’s actions to reconstruct the church and rebuild one according to their priorities.

I’m not against growth and conversion - of me or the Church - after all that is at the core of our discipleship call as followers of Jesus Christ. There a place for the gifts that John brings but the pastoral gifts of our bishops are also sorely needed at this time. 1 Corinthians 13 - the famous verse on love tells us that our efforts are as nothing if we don’t have love - reformers need to understand that nothing they achieve will last if it is not imbued with love.

Cathy Ransom | 20 July 2022  
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“Reforming a system can’t ignore the people in the system.”
Structural reform is about accommodating all of the people in the system rather than privileging those with a vested interest in the status quo. Consider a parallel situation in which you (probably) have no vested interest: the electoral apparatus of national elections in the USA. American democracy is on the verge of imploding because of the way that Republicans in state legislatures are passing laws to disenfranchise people and make it harder to vote for those who still can. Structural reform such as a national electoral commission, preferential voting, polling booths conveniently placed for all voters and voting on Saturday instead of Tuesday would benefit the whole population. Voters who wanted to would still be able to vote Republican. All people who wanted to vote Democrat would also be able to do so. Structural reform is the opposite of ignoring the people in the system whether it takes place in a democracy or a patriarchy. People are entitled to prefer the status quo but should make valid arguments in support of it instead of resorting to emotive misrepresentations of their opponents’ position. There is no chopping board, and promoting one’s preferred priorities is not peculiar to reformers. Pastors are not the only voices that need to be heard, and consultants already play a very important role in church affairs. Criticise reformers, by all means, but please be honest.

Paul Smith | 22 July 2022  

Excellent analysis Paul. The Catholic Church cannot have a better future if it persists in the old paradigm of clericalism and male dominance.
While Bishops continue to exclude women from the Church’s governance structures, decision-making processes, and institutional functions and use its voting at United Nations to undermine the human rights of women and gender diversity, the global and Australian Catholic church deprives itself of more than of 51% its followers' voices.

P Boylan | 26 July 2022  

Best analysis of this ‘reform’ movement I’ve read. Thanks for the clarity

Matt | 22 July 2022  

Here is a thought:
Maybe if we did not consistently and persistently misinterpret the scriptures and God's will, there would be no need for reform and the consistent and persistent misinterpretation of that as well.

Jan Wright | 20 July 2022  

It seems strange that there is any disagreement at Plenary when all participants seem to believe that they are listening to the Holy Spirit and reacting to what He is telling them. Perhaps some participants don't understand the language and perhaps since Vat II changed the universal language of Catholicism the Spirit didn't fall into line. Maybe the Spirit is telling different delegates different things to confuse the situation and make it difficult to find consensus? What if the Spirit is being deliberately confusing in order to maintain His Church as He commissioned it in His personage as Jesus Christ, part of the one triune God? Maybe the confusion in some delegates is pathological and might be resolved by listening to advice delivered on the counselling couch.

john frawley | 20 July 2022  

Power is an institutional reality about how people make choices and decisions together. Any conversation about a community’s values, structures and policy will expose how power is shared and perceived. Interesting to see how those holding or invested in status quo can deny that there is a problem. They easily portray themselves as victims and any opposition as persecution. Its easy to perpetuate conflict because it distracts everyone from noticing the power imbalance and to prevent the system from moving towards resolution. It’s encouraging to see reformers stay focussed and creative, setting aside the distractions and using the power available to you.

Wayne Brighton | 21 July 2022  

John is right to maintain a focus on reform issues and avoid letting the discussion dissolve into a clash of personalised viewpoints. However, he would do well to reflect deeply on Andrew Hamilton's 'In praise of Complexity' if he and his reformist colleagues hope to do more than tilt at windmills. Additionally, this reflection would profit from taking seriously the vantage points of several of the responses, above.
Cathy T is far from alone. Her thoughts echo a clear majority of Catholics who continue to gather at Sunday Eucharists and contribute energy and effort in sustaining parish outreach activities - a constituency rich in multi cultural diversity. Yet, the reformist movement has consistently overlooked why these community members are so attached to an expression of church life which recoils from the language and objectives of reformers.
In addition to sharing Cathy's ecclesiology, John F and John RD witness to the intellectual principles which underpin today's conservative Catholics: these principles have been well honed and espoused by a highly resourced and intellectually gifted network of scholars and clergy.
Unless and until Catholics, who wish to advance a reformist agenda, demonstrate a capacity to speak a language of engagement which takes seriously the deepest concerns of genuinely conservative Catholics and, at the same time, are able to show the fittingness of proposed reforms within the patrimony of the Church, then stalemates will win out.

Bill Burke | 22 July 2022  
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A Daniel come to judgment, Bill Burke.

John RD | 26 July 2022  

The worldwide Catholic church must embark on a worldwide process of truth-telling.
The Holy See is both the administration centre for the Catholic church and the world's only country for 'celibate' males.
Women cannot vote or be a leader at the Holy See.
Holy See's statehood allows 1) the Catholic church worldwide to shield clergy sex abusers and concealers from crimes as it has no extradition treaties with any country.
2) Holy See's 183 Diplomats use their influences to engage with Latin American countries and vote with Saudi Arabia and Libya against the human rights of women at the United Nations.

Catholics all want a Church that is safe for everyone: free from sexual, physical, spiritual, emotional, institutional and reputational abuse.

Does it seem wrong that the persons who covered up sex crimes or abuse are still in ministry and still influencing church actions in Australia and elsewhere?

Australian Catholics want honest and fit-for-purpose procedures to support women, prevent clergy sex abuse and deal with it whenever and wherever it occurs.

There seems to be a huge distance between what Australian Catholics say, want and what male Bishops and Archbishops are prepared to make happen.

As the pews empty and as 51% oF Australian women taxpayers understand they no longer want to fund religions which undermine the rights of women and children, Catholic male clergy may be forced to come to their senses.

A reminder that Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse lifted the ACNC Act secrecy clause on government funding to religions to reveal in 2014, taxpayers funded religions $31 Billion and religions in the same year caused $4.3 Billion in harm (child sex abuse).

Patricia Boylan | 23 July 2022  
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One has to wonder about those who deal with the vulnerable street kids....including male prostitutes.
An academic paper a couple of years ago was an interesting read.


Lynne Newington | 25 July 2022  

It's a good perspective John. The outside social change analyst weighing up the options.
We need to remember Christ challenged the Judaic hierarchical status quo. Which is why the Pharisees had him killed. He threatened their authority.

He never relegated women to an inferior status to men. He never condemned the woman caught in adultery. The ones he condemned were the moral lepers who abused their power with children and the money changers in the temple.
The current church hierarchy cant see the wood from the trees.
Perhaps you can inform me if any of the current church hierarchy do these things:

Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 - "the first of the signs"
Healing the royal official's son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45 ?

The plenary still seems to me to be a cloak for preservation of the status quo.

Francis Armstrong | 23 July 2022  
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As former Irish PM, Dr Mary McLeese stated 'structurally the architecture of the Catholic Church is designed to create and maintain the invisibility and powerlessness of women.'
Dr McAleese noted that often statements about the role of women are 'codology dressed up as theology'.
'The sex abuse crisis shows that when you have men alone in a position of decision making and authority, it creates a clerical culture where the reputation of priests gets prioritised over the needs of people and children.'

Patricia Boylan | 25 July 2022  

Since mothers have played and play a decisive part in the life of the Church, why denigrate them as being "invisible and powerless"?

John RD | 26 July 2022  

“… the Assembly heard from some women that the document was disrespectful to those women who did not seek or hold positions in ministry or governance within the church.”
That’s like saying that, back in the day, a pamphlet by a Suffragette was disrespectful of those few women who would never want to vote.

“… The deep division between those reformers who concentrate on the systemic aspects of the church and those who take proposals to change the church as a personal affront …”
Quotas for women in winnable seats is legitimately regarded as a personal affront to ...[insert the relevant person or position] ...

Those purportedly disrespected and affronted in both quotes might agree that they have an extraordinary sense of entitlement, but they would deny that it is unwarranted and assert that it is God-given. That’s the God whose inerrant word tells them that two penguins walked from Antarctica to the Middle East to board the ark.

Paul Smith | 26 July 2022  

This article and the comments so far on it show the difficulty for many Catholics in discerning how the Holy Spirit actually works. Perhaps a perusal of or listening to St John Henry Newman's poem, which became a hymn, The Pillar of the Cloud, aka Lead Kindly Light, might give some guidance here. Newman's life story might also help to enlighten those befogged by various doubts, as so many are. He was a great theologian and writer and a harbinger of all that became best practice in Modern Catholicism. We certainly seem surrounded by much 'encircling gloom' here.

Edward Fido | 26 July 2022  

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