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Church reform must increase transparency



The Catholic Church can produce excellent public communication, such as its current election statement, 'Politics in Service of Peace', but it does so too rarely. That statement was, of course, commentary and advice for others rather than reflections about the inner workings of the church itself. That is where the blockage lies.

St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney (Apexphotos / Getty)The church's Implementation Advisory Group (IAG), for instance, has been hard at work for many months now since its creation was announced in May 2018 by Archbishop Denis Hart and Sister Ruth Durick OSU, but you wouldn't know it for all the publicity it has been accorded by its masters, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia.

The specific reasons for this lack of communication are unclear though they are deeply embedded in church culture. It may be a fearful official reaction to the earlier public role played by the Truth Justice and Healing Council in relation to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, though its splendid work was acknowledged when the IAG was set up. It may include tensions within ACBC about the priorities of the tasks set for the IAG. Or it may just be the lassitude and inertia that too often characterises church communications.

At the time of the IAG's creation its chairman Jack de Groot outlined the admirable intent of the group to 'offer advice on the development of the leadership and culture that is now required within the church and expected by the wider Australian society ... We need to build on the very good practices that church agencies have already put in place, and in doing so we will be assisted by the royal commission's recommendations on governance, transparency, accountability, consultation, and participation of lay man and women.'

One aspect of the IAG is its Governance Review Project Team, which met for the first time early in 2019. The project team's progress will be communicated shortly to the wider Catholic community, largely on the grounds of the principles laid out by de Groot, but in part because interaction with interested parties will improve the quality and usefulness of its recommendations. And there are many interested parties as shown by the 18,000 submissions to Plenary Council 2020 (PC 2020).

Why leave Catholics in the dark if progress is being made? Even if the ACBC and CRA wish to consider any reports which emerge from the IAG before releasing them to the general public, that is no reason for not communicating general progress reports and issues papers. If the IAG is to feed into the Plenary Council agenda-formation and the deliberations themselves in October 2020, then its work must be promptly released for wider consideration.

Transparency must be a central principle of church governance reform. Such openness must also apply to any governance reforms currently undertaken by individual dioceses. Details are sparse, but it is in the spirit of PC2020 that dioceses showcase any reforms underway so that its discussion will not just be about ideas and theories but actual models of improving practice.


"The church is notably reticent about sharing its financial situation at the parish and diocesan level with its own community, though individual bishops have the authority to do so."


New diocesan models can be added to those governance models which many church agencies in health, education, social services and aged care already exhibit. As Robert Fitzgerald, one of the royal commissioners, pointed out in 'Governing Out of Hope Not Fear', the diocesan church is not being asked to learn from the secular world, not that there is anything wrong with that, but from its other half in the form of church agencies.

One aspect of governance reform should be financial governance reform. The church is notably reticent about sharing its financial situation at the parish and diocesan level with its own community, though individual bishops have the authority to do so.

Dr Paul Nicoll of Canberra shows in his new paper 'Increasing Archdiocesan Accountability to Laity through Published Financial Statements and Annual Reports' that there are models to learn from both in other Christian denominations and in other parts of the Catholic world. He points to the Archdiocese of Washington, USA, which provides comprehensive information to its parishioners through audited financial information available on the archdiocesan website.

This is one good example of what should not wait for the Plenary Council. The PC2020 facilitation team currently provides a great deal of information through its Plenary Forum posts, though there is too much that remains unclear about how the council itself will operate. Those holding church authority should show the Catholic community that they have learnt the lessons offered by the royal commission by undertaking reforms as soon as possible and by telling us all about them in a spirit of transparency.


The governance review project plan can be found here.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney (Apexphotos / Getty)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic Church, royal commission



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Since 2002, Voice of the Faithful has worked across USA diocese to education laity to increase transparency and accountability of Church finances at the parish and the diocesan levels. VOTF has a range of resources to encourage dioceses to implement public scrutiny of church finances. VOTF notes that the 'lack of diocesan financial transparency, especially, allowed the crimes of clerical sexual abuse to fester unnoticed for decades.' http://www.votf.org/Financial_Acct-Trans/VOTF-Financial-Transparency.pdf

Patricia Boylan | 03 May 2019  

Thanks John for a clear and informative article that's especially relevant. My instinct is that these material issues wont be satisfactorily resolved until the national leaders of the Church and their superiors in Rome deal with the SPIRITUAL decay in the Church. Shipwrights can achieve wonders in superstructuring and equipping a vessel; but, unless the rot and rust and encrustations of the hull are fixed, it'll all be in vain. To fix the hull, there needs to be a 'sensus fidei' among the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and heads of religious orders, since these are 'the sacred teaching authority' of the Church, who are supposed to guide The People of God in the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church #93: 'The people unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it in daily life.' So, what is this 'faith, once for all delivered to the saints'? That's a rhetorical question. Our catechism is founded on over 3,500 references to The New Testament. Reticence in believing, teaching, and obeying clear Apostolic instructions is what has rotted the hull. Wise builders will always fix first things first.

Dr Marty Rice | 03 May 2019  

“Transparency must be a central principle of church governance reform”… Yes absolutely, but this can only come about by a change of culture within the Church, as only a humble Church can be transparent. Our Lord Himself has given the Church the means to do this at this moment in time. ..“Paint a picture according to the vision” …We need to view the request made by our Lord to Sr .Faustina as being on the spiritual plane to understand the fullness of this revelation. We can assume that her attempt to paint the picture would be very childlike, in effect a distorted/broken reflection of the vision she saw. This reflection is a self-reflection of herself but also a reflection of all of us before God, that is one of been flawed and sinful…So the true image, if viewed ‘honestly’ confronts the ego, impelling one to proclaim in humility “Jesus I trust in thee” Trust in God is not just about words, rather it is a movement of the heart, that induces a shared relationship with Him and underpinning this relationship, is our humility before Him…God’s Word (Will) is inviolate it cannot contradict Itself if it does it cannot be from God. A 'direct' request was made to the then Sr Faustina to “ paint a picture according to the vision you see” only she can see and paint the picture, to say otherwise, would be to say that God did not know what he was doing… —?Catechism of the Catholic Church 2147- Promises made to others (In this case the faithful)…Continue

Kevin Walters | 04 May 2019  

2 of 2... in God's name engage the divine honor, fidelity, truthfulness, and authority. They must be respected in justice. To be unfaithful to them is to misuse God's name and in some way to make God out to be a liar. (1 John 10)…Actual words attributed to God by the Church that contain a request which the Church has endorsed and acted upon, must not be misused, distorted or twisted in ways that impugn the character of God, and then be used by man for his own ends, to do so, would be to say that God was made for man, not man for God, and would be a sin against the Second Commandment…“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"…The faithful need to make it known that the elite within Church need to make a Public Act of Contrition, for this infringement of the Second Commandment and replace the blasphemous images with the 'One' and only true image, requested by God, which is an Image of Broken Man. From this base one of humility the church can proceed to transform herself ‘transparently’ before all those she is called to serve. kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 04 May 2019  

If the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings are the blueprint for the Church, then the Church can only grow into relevance in the modern world through REVELATION that comes from the authoritative application of the scriptures and tradition to the present day and age and not through REVOLUTION that comes from the non-authoritative application of man-made personal desires and opinion. If the hierarchy were realise that it is not the ultimate authority, then the controversies surrounding authority, response to sexual abuse scandals, ordination to priesthood, financial transparency etc would be sorted out.

john frawley | 05 May 2019  

The way Catholic Church leadership is becoming complicated with the multiplication of interest groups, panels and advisory bodies such as the recently announced Church governance review puts at risk the very transparency and acountability called for here by John Warhurst. For instance, the agenda of groups such as "Concerned Catholics Goulburn Canberra", of which Professor Warhurst is the Chair, includes a rejection of the distinction, affirmed in Vatican II, between the priesthood of all the baptized and the ordained priesthood, as well as calling for the "breaking open" of the priesthood to include women priests - despite Pope Francis's upholding of his papal predecessors' and the Catholic Church's teaching and traditional practice on this matter. I think it relevant, too, in the interests of transparency, that ES note Professor Warhurst in his "Concerned Catholics Goulburn Canberra" capacity is also a member of the panel created to review Church governance issues raised by the Royal Commission' investigation. Transparency extends beyond the "financial information" highlighted in the article.

John RD | 05 May 2019  

Thanks for that information John RD. The editors of Eureka Street really do need to step up in providing relevant bios of their authors.

Dr Marty Rice | 06 May 2019  

John Frawley raises the critical issue of authority in the Catholic Church, quite rightly recognising that the hierarchy's authority is derivative. However, I find it difficult to share John's optimism that were the hierarchy to " . . . realise that it is not the ultimate authority . . . the controversies surrounding authority would be sorted out." When recent popes have themselves publicly acknowledged the dependence of their authority on Christ in pronouncing on Church teaching and practice - women's ordination, for instance - the response of those who do not accept such rulings has, it seems, served to exacerbate controversy rather than resolve it. The related word, "obedience", in relation to the Church's magisterium is another that antagonises those who dissociate freedom from the Church's truth-claims in the name of Christ and his authority, preferring the enlightenment of a private conscience or a consensus of those like-minded in dissent: stances hardly conducive to the shared sense of faith and practice desired by Christ in his Last Supper discourse and empassioned prayer for unity among his followers as related in The Fourth Gospel.

John RD | 07 May 2019  

Come now Marty, John Warhurst is hardly a stranger to ES readers nor have his interests and activities been hidden under a bushel. He writes regularly for ES and makes a lot of sense to me, at least.

Ginger Meggs | 08 May 2019  

John RD, when anyone, popes included, 'publicly acknowledges the dependence of their authority on Christ', all that they are really doing is claiming that their authority is derived from Christ. And by what independent authority do they make that claim? None. They simply claim that Christ conferred that authority.

Ginger Meggs | 08 May 2019  

Give us a break, John RD: so John Warhurst is a member of a group with a change agenda? He simply joins the queue of many, including those many working to stifle change in the institution! And Dr Marty: do you really think Eureka street has to set out every capacity or biographical detail of every contributor? If so, what is surely good for the goose would be good for the gander. Granted, there are contexts for presentations of ideas but.....they apply to everyone. John Warhurst is brave enough to author an article under his own name with a researchable context. That should be enough. I rather think that for the purposes of inviting comments, what is posted is what is most important and most relevant otherwise we play the person not the idea.

Stephen K | 08 May 2019  

Nice analysis John RD. Makes us puzzle over possible causes of this quandary faced by the church and her leaders. Are we, personally and communally no longer impressed by the perfect majesty, beauty, authority, and attractiveness of God? Are we no longer horrified by the idea of deliberately disobeying God? Aren't we repeatedly taught 'twould be better to lose all things, even our lives, than disobey God (e.g. John 12:25). Are we careless of the unimaginable price Jesus Christ paid to gain us our freedom? Is the supreme prize that Christ' suffering won for us valued so little? Do we trivialise the possibility of having to endure an eternity without God? If so, we really are 'out of the game'. If not, then it will be seen in our readiness to put aside our own 'preferences', so as to single-heartedly love our Bridegroom in the way He instructed us: "If you love Me, obey My commands." Both Moses and Jesus gave us ethical choices that any child could comprehend: life OR death; a small OR wide door; a narrow OR broad way. The unanimity you write about, John RD, is available to children who together chose to lovingly obey God.

Dr Marty Rice | 08 May 2019  

You do well to remind us that the underlying issue in the Church's contemporary crisis is one of faith based on sacred scripture and tradition, Dr Marty. Thank you.

John RD | 09 May 2019  

It seems that there is an assumption that the 'public' cannot be trusted with the workings of bodies such as ACBC, committees, etc. and are only given the conclusions of such bodies. This is also the case in civic governance, where often a report is even withheld until the government is ready to release it. As a community based on the Gospel, each one of us carries a responsibility to contribute to direction-setting and decision-making processes, and for that we need to have at least some access to relevant data and opportunity to contribute. Many are ready to do so, judging by the response to phase 1 of the Plenary.

Corrie van den Bosch | 09 May 2019  

Like other commentators here, I have serious concerns about the way in which the teaching office of the Church is carried out. It sometimes appears that even some Bishops don't remember the 'conditions for sin' they were taught in third grade, for example. Frequently the answer to a question beginning with "Why" seems to be equivalent to " Because We say so, which means God says so". This doesn't work for adults, guys. So - yes, we need better, clearer, stronger teaching. But why should that precede better, clearer, stronger Church structures (particularly communication structures)? What is the fear that is holding back the move towards transparency and accountability? If our ordained leaders had more faith, specifically in the power of the Holy Spirit operating in the whole Church, maybe they'd be prepared to get out of the boat and have a go at walking on water! Thank you, John Warhurst - like many other ES readers I was delighted to see you named on the Governance Review Project Team when it was announced. A perfectly open and transparent announcement, by the way - didn't need ES to throw back any cover of darkness!

Joan Seymour | 09 May 2019  

Joan Seymour, who's heard a bishop in recent times answer a serious question with: "Because We say so, which means because God says so"? And what "better, clearer, stronger teaching" than that provided with admirable assiduity by two of the finest minds and theological communicators of this postmodern era - John Paul II and Benedict XVI? The teachings are there - it's more a question, I suggest, of the the disposition and attentiveness of Catholic believers towards them.

John RD | 09 May 2019  

Stephen K and Ginger, it's not a "change agenda" that is objectionable: it is the nature of the some of the changes demanded that is problematic, and the secular rationales (insofar as reasons are advanced at all) for them that dismiss the Catholic Church's criteria for discerning what is of the faith and what is not. And no, Stephen - I don't expect ES to provide more biographical detail on Professor Warhurst, though I do think it would enhance transparency if the contentious points of the "Concerned Catholics" agenda were acknowledged directly in ES.

John RD | 09 May 2019  

Ginger. You indicate that the authority of popes is not supported by an independent authority and that it is thus a baseless claim that their authority is derived from Christ despite the affirmations of sacred scripture. Surely the very same must apply to the reformers? Where is the independent authority or indeed any scriptural or traditional evidence that supports the view that the various reform groups are authorised by Christ? The reformers have yet to tell anyone the origin of the authority on which their proposed reforms are based. Many will say the authority is Vatican II, inspired by the Spirit who is one with Christ in the Trinity. Therefore, they must claim that their authority comes from Christ, something hard to derive from the scriptures and unlike the authority of the papacy. Does that authority supplant the authority of the papacy bestowed by Christ according to sacred scripture and tradition. I doubt it. The history of the Church instituted by Christ and revealed through scripture has shown us over and over again in the various reform movements of the past that those writings are open game for individual interpretations and rarely if ever to the greater good of the universal church Christ envisaged.

john frawley | 10 May 2019  

Thanks for your searching questions John Frawley which I will try to answer as best I can. Most (all?) religions have their ‘sacred scriptures’ which they invoke as bases for authority and truth but those ‘scriptures’ were carefully selected - some possible candidates were accepted, others rejected. Now here’s the problem as I see it: the selection has been done by the leaders of those religions, so that any appeal to authority is really a circular process. They are, in a sense, appealing to an ‘authority’ that they themselves have created. In saying that, I don’t seek to deny the value of ancient (or modern) texts/teachings/insights in our search for meaning or direction in how we should live. What I am resisting is the notion that any text/philosopher/writer/conception of the deity has possession of ’the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ and that any one version of ’The Truth’ can justify or validate a sole way of structuring society, social relationships, and social morality. And I would apply that to the ‘reformers’ as much as the ‘orthodox’ - it’s a game (or perhaps arrogant) man or woman who who would claim to know the ‘mind of God’, claims of incarnation not withstanding. When John RD speaks I hear a simple solution - faith in an unchanging and unchangeable system of belief, organisational structure, and distribution of power. When Marty speaks I hear the patter of a street corner evangelist - ‘here is your problem, here is the answer, the Bible says so, just believe’. You’re obviously correct when you refer to the mixed blessings of the various reform movements of the past, but the same observation would apply to the orthodox reactions. I’m reminded of Arthur Miller’s words in ‘The Crucible’ “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. “

Ginger Meggs | 11 May 2019  

Ginger - that is a cracker of a reply! What you say about the scriptures is indeed true. They were selectively put together by men, no doubt with the intent to best reflect their belief and pass that on to those who followed. That is the sticking point. The scriptures demand faith if one is to believe. There can be no belief without faith. I suppose that is why faith is categorised as a gift of God - how else can it be defined? As a psychological delusion perhaps? Does what I write here mean that I am an atheist? Or does it mean that I accept the scriptures as the word of God without thinking or being analytical? I suspect many would answer "Yes " to both questions. However, my belief comes first and I accept the scriptures because of that belief. Where does my belief come from? From the magnificence of all I see in the creation around me, inanimate and animate alike, all that is beyond human and scientific imagining or understanding. The big question that I find unanswerable is "Why is the human being, the most extraordinary creation of all capable of so much that is good, beautiful, selfless, courageous etc, at the same time capable of the most abominable? Doesn't make sense - or , God forbid, the creation process had a hiccup somewhere!

john frawley | 13 May 2019  

Wow John, how do I respond let alone try to answer. Firstly, which comes first; faith or belief? If I were looking for a surgeon to treat some malady, I might order the process as follows: experience/evidence > trust (conditional) > knowledge/belief > faith/confidence/action. Secondly, I share with you (and the psalmist) an awe of the natural world and all that pervades it including mankind, although for me it does not imply a creator, or at least not one that we could in any way imagine. Thirdly, we are not the first to ask your big question, nor is the human condition that you describe a particularly 21st century phenomenon. Consider this Greek poet, Theognis, from the 6th century BCE: “Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind/the others have left and gone to Olympus/ Trust, a mighty god has gone / Restraint has gone from men/and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth/Men's judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods/ the race of pious men has perished and/men no longer recognise the rules of conduct or acts of piety.” Sound familiar?

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2019  

You've nailed it, Ginger. I have never heard of Theognis but liked his poem. I suppose hope is the signpost to faith and belief. Re choosing a surgeon, Ginger, bear in mind that the good ones are not TV celebrities, usually work mainly in public hospitals as well as in their private practices, have a low profile in the main because they are too busy to gad about in the public eye and don't charge like wounded bulls. (Some 80% or so don't charge the big gaps - they are the good ones).

john frawley | 14 May 2019  

Such a hauntingly sorry picture of his times and, as you, note, the human condition itself Theognis paints, Ginger. The lines you present could almost be an extended metaphor for the flaw Christians recognize as original sin, which Wordsworth identified as "our tainted nature", an idea alien to Panglossian utopians. Save for his noble affirmation of hope, Theognis seems but a step removed from the angst-driven nihilism of Nietzsche, who admired his work; and I daresay his social disillusion is echoed by Cicero's: "O tempora, O mores . . ." Thank God for the resurrection of Christ and the promise it offers!

John RD | 14 May 2019  

I must confess, Ginger, I did not know Theognis. Sadly, my Classical Education ceased after secondary school. Might I profer instead these lines from T S Eliot's 'East Coker' where all the metaphors about surgeons and healing are flowing so freely? ' The wounded surgeon plies the steel/That questions the distempered part;/Beneath the bleeding hands we feel/The sharp compassion of the healer's art/Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.'

Edward Fido | 16 May 2019  

"What if?": In the scripture readings of that day, and also current affairs regarding topics such as freedom of religion. Church Homilies could 'also' include the consideration of the reversal of events. For example: Had the first reading been: "Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?". And the man answered, "The woman whom You gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it"… The homily could include something along these lines: What if? Adam had simply said, "Yes, I totally messed up. And I am now willing to take full responsibility for my actions". If Church homilies included a "What If?". Communicating the new norms of total transparency the Church promises now to promote, would be more credible. The laity would listen attentively to the homily, and read it on their church's website. As each church community would have a copy of the previous week's homily online, it would be a record of the present conversation. It would be a 'weekly open letter homily', inviting the laity to engage in the Q and A renewal of the Church via sincere and respectful conversation between the clergy and the laity.

AO | 23 May 2019  

A New Implementation: On considering the scripture readings of that day, and by asking possible questions regarding current affairs, and topics, such as: Freedom of religion. The refusal of civil settlement of all refugees in Australia. The reason ( for example) anger is shown by pro-abortion supporters at their rallies. Church Homilies could 'also' include the possible consideration of the reversal of events. For example: Had the first reading been: "Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?". And the man answered, "The woman whom You gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it"… The homily could include something along these lines: What if? Adam had simply said,'' Yes, I totally messed up. And I am now willing to take full responsibility for my actions''. If Church homilies included new modes of the deeper understanding of scripture and current affairs, a more direct 'sincere' approach while communicating the new norms of total transparency the Church promises now to promote, would be more credible. The laity would listen attentively to the homily and also be free to re-read it on the church's website. It would be a 'weekly open letter homily'. A real ongoing invitation to the laity to engage in the Q&A Renewal of the Church via sincere and respectful conversation between the clergy and the laity. And as each church community would have a copy of the previous week's homily online, it would be a record of the present conversation being implemented.

AO | 24 May 2019  

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