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Cultural questions for getting back on mission



Catholics for Renewal, Getting Back on Mission: Reforming our Church Together, Garratt Publishing, ISBN9781925009651

The core of Getting Back on Mission is a submission made to the Australian Plenary Council which will meet in 2020 and 2021. It was composed by Catholics for Renewal, a group of lay Catholics who have for many years pressed the need for reform within the Catholic Church. It is a valuable resource, comprehensive in its discussion of challenges affecting the Catholic Church and detailed in its proposals for meeting them. It also includes statistical information about the current situation of the Australian Church and the scope of plenary councils.

Catholics for Renewal, Getting Back on Mission: Reforming our Church TogetherFor Catholics who are interested in the Australian Church, its future and the council, it is essential reading. Whether or not they accept the shape of its argument, it offers a comprehensive list of issues and a view of their underlying causes that need to be grappled with. Given its focus on governance, it may also be of interest to a wider audience. Many of the strains and signs of dysfunction it finds in Church governance are similar to those identified in public life in Australia and internationally.

At the heart of Getting Back on Mission is the claim that the Catholic Church has gone off-mission. The strongest evidence for this claim, and a major source of the passion infusing the book, is the extent of child sexual abuse by priests and religious over many years, the appalling suffering of its victims, its cover-up by Catholic Church leaders and the consequent loss of credibility of the Catholic Church.

The book claims that the root of this dysfunction lies in seeing the church as God's mission rather than as an instrument of God's will for the world. When the church is made the main show, its structures are sacralised in law and in institutional relationships, hierarchical boundaries are reinforced, and the good name of the church becomes sacrosanct. This culture breeds a silence in which crime and cover-up can flourish.

The source of healing conversely will be to enshrine in church practices and governance the shared mission of all Catholics to embody the Kingdom of God within the changing conditions of their own times. In that process the consensus of the faithful, lay as well as clerical, will guide the Catholic Church in discerning how to read and respond to the signs of our times. The submission supports this understanding by reference to the Second Vatican Council.

The first section of the book considers God's mission and the Australian context in which that mission must be embodied. In the following sections, each of which is followed by detailed recommendations, it reflects on the proper relationships between laity and clergy, on church governance, on pastoral leadership and parish ministry, and on the process and procedures of the Plenary Council. The recommendations identify areas where change is needed and outline transparent procedures and structures in which laity and clergy have an active part.

The value of the recommendations lies in the thought that underlies them and the concreteness of the proposals made. They call for a response. Delegates to the council and other interested Catholics should read them carefully, reflect on the seriousness of the issues they address, and if they judge these recommendations not fit for purpose, ask themselves what will better address the needs. It is a fine contribution to the council in expressing in its concrete suggestions the depth of the reforms demanded by Catholics.


"These themes both stress and relativise the importance of institutional reform and the recovery of reputation. The faith that underlies them cuts much deeper,"


The questions posed by Getting Back on Mission arise out of its virtues. Its focus on the process of needed change means that the treatment of the spirit that must animate it is sketchy. Regular meetings, detailed ground rules, local councils, in-service training and other procedures will be effective only if people are inspired by their faith to buy into them and if they are adequately resourced. In the numerically diminishing, ageing and financially straitened Catholic Church likely in the intermediate term the extent of the changes proposed in the book might be experienced as a burden, not a blessing.

The spirit animating the book is that of Vatican II, with particular emphasis on the consensus of the Church — laity and clergy — and on the Kingdom of God. Each of these themes is deployed to argue against making the inner life of the Catholic Church and its hierarchical distinctions decisive in visualising the future of the Church. They are levelling and culture affirming.

Historically, however, the energy of the appeal to the sensus fidelium and the Kingdom of God lay in seriousness about the received tradition and its challenge to prevailing cultural norms. The Arian debate in the fourth century saw the eventual recognition that a culturally more attractive understanding of God and Jesus was inconsistent with Catholic Tradition. This understanding had been accepted my many councils of bishops and the imperial authorities. But it was resisted by a few strong bishops and their congregations. They ultimately prevailed. The consensus of the Church was inherently conservative in its scope.

The Kingdom of God represents God's vision for the world and so goes beyond the boundaries of the Church. That the Son of God shared our human life in our world is culture affirming. But at the centre of the Kingdom of God lies the torture and death of Christ and his rejection by the ruling and cultural institutions of his day. Through rejection came reconciliation in Jesus' rising from the dead. This is always culturally challenging.

These themes both stress and relativise the importance of institutional reform and the recovery of reputation. The faith that underlies them cuts much deeper and expects to follow Jesus in humiliation and exclusion as well as in harmony, in fractured as well as in well-functioning institutions.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Catholics for Renewal, Getting Back on Mission, plenary council 2020



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Existing comments

Great article. I, personally, have a love/hate relationship with the church and have, for a long time, had the opinion that the Church/clergy, have treated the laity like "dumb" sheep who are to be confined to a pen where they can sleep, graze, and stay out of trouble. All in the comforting knowledge that the shepherds are keeping the wolves away and guarding the traditions. Why is the Church surprised that we, the laity, are in such a deep sleep that we can't wake up. From what I can see the Church's solution to the problems seems to be to simply surrender some administrative functions to some specially selected, "sheep". This, however, would still leave the rest of us asleep in the pen. What will be achieved if we stay asleep and never wake up? One day the shepherds, what shepherds there are left, will realize there are no sheep left to control. When I read scripture I see Jesus moving through the community, talking to the common people, asking them to wake up and love their neighbor for the love of God. They were the people of God, The Church, as are we, the people of today. The leaders of that time controlled the people with hundreds of rules and regulations. They kept them caged and, being unable to surrender control, they rejected his message. Are the leaders of our time doing exactly the same thing?

Brian Leeming | 11 October 2019  

Andrew, I find this review well balanced in recognising the need for spiritual renewal to underpin apostolically permissible structural and pastoral reform in the Church. I think, though, that the distinction "Catholics for Renewal" draws between the Church as God's mission and as the instrument of God 's will for the world is forced, especially in view of Paul VI's words in Evangelii Nuntiandi that evangelisation " . . . constitutes the essential mission of the Church . . . Evangelising is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity." (I, 14). This mission presupposes an acceptance that all those called to it in virtue of their baptism have " . . . a constant need of being evangelised" if they "wish to retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel." (I, 15). This exhortation, written in 1975, bears striking relevance to today's time of crisis and the opportunity it presents for renewal, and is far-reaching in its understanding of the Church's identity and purpose in the world as willed by Christ. I think too, that the principles articulated in the same document provide valuable guidelines for discerning the controversial German and Amazon synodal processes currently in operation.

John RD | 13 October 2019  

I am struggling to make sense of the six themes that have emerged from the Plenary Council 2020 process so far. This question precedes them: "How is God asking us to be a church that is....? The theme I have settled on is: a church that is "open to conversion, renewal and reform." I am guided in my understanding of "church" by Vat 2 Document Lumen Gentium which was approved by a vote of 2151 to 5 on 21.11.1964. Nearly 55 years later my estimate is that that five person minority has grown into a noisy disruptive bigger irritation. But I cannot do anything about their growing recalcitrance. The Church is the People of God, ie people converted to Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Their persistence down through the centuries is a mystery. This conversion can be affirmed on a daily basis by a simple prayer. My Lord & My God, I need You. Just as I as a Christian can be open to conversion so too can the People of God. By a daily examination of conscience I am aware of my need for renewal and reform. So let it be with the People of God,

Uncle Pat | 16 October 2019  

I have not read this book but am inclined to. An irritant to me in talking about the Church's future is the direction suggested by the word 'back'. I prefer to think and believe that the direction for creativity and making things new in the Catholic Church is 'forward'.

Alex Nelson | 17 October 2019  

Alex Nelson, while we can't and shouldn't live in the past (one of the reasons Newman opposed the Ultramontaists of his day), how is it possible to conceive of the Catholic Church, sustained historically as it is by scripture, tradition and the Holy Spirit which influences them, without due reference to the past in discerning the present and its future direction?

John RD | 17 October 2019  

In my younger days the most prominent call to mission was encased in the language of justice. To do justice, it argued, was to reject maintenance and proclaim the new missiology, animated by Scripture & Vatican II and, especially, the social encyclicals. In my listening on evangelisation so far, I have not heard any mention of justice. It is likely that in the thirty year period since the termination of the National Missionary Council's Mission & Justice Program that many - both lay and clerical - would have reverted to an understanding of evangelisation that is reduced to a simple matter of personal, charismatically-ordained conversion. Such an essentially 'Protestant' view -attractive for its success in gaining converts - lacks the spiritual and formative depth that the Mission and Justice Program offered. There being much work to be done before next year's Council, its time perhaps that we listened to Newman: "Out of the shadows and symbols unto truth" and even 'Lead Kindly Light amidst the encircling gloom." My sense is that the 'will-o'-the-wisp' we call the Spirit will hardly respond unless we bring back a process of action and reflection approximating what we had with the Mission & Justice Program.

Michael Furtado | 17 October 2019  

I am currently reading the book and I find it challenging, but at the same time refreshing. Any study of Church history (as I am also doing at present, reading about the Medieval Church) shows the influence of the human element present in its history, at times with terrible results for the laypeople . The ruling elite have had undue influence, corrupting the Gospel message and leading to scandal and schisms. Today's crisis in the Church is yet another example of these influences. Clericalism is often blamed, but we, the laity, must take our share of responsibility. As Brian writes, we have behaved like dumb sheep. While most of the laity would never need to study Theology , when as a a teacher of Religious Studies, I decided as soon as I took on the role that it was my duty to ensure that I was well versed in my knowledge of the Church and our Faith before venturing into the classroom. Finally I believe it is absolutely necessary that the discernment of the Faith of our laypeople be respected in the deliberations of the Plenary Council. Failure to do so will cause further damage to the credibility of the Church in Australia

Gavin O'Brien | 17 October 2019  

Gavin O’Brien (18/10). Thank you for your post and I am in agreement with most of what you have said. The one point that I would respectfully disagree with you on is when you say: ‘While most of the laity would never need to study Theology…’. In my view as a theologian, I would argue that this is precisely part of the problem today. Most Catholics, and Christians for that matter, are not well versed in the theology of the faith, linked as it is to Greek Philosophy, including questions of God. The faith is seeming more like ‘fairy tales’ to many contemporary generations. I suggest it is because whatever faith instruction they have received if at all, it has been some warm fuzzy basic tenets of birth, death and resurrection of Christ, with a little on redemption and Gospel social justice thrown in as a given. What then are people supposed to do with this, without the underlying philosophy and theology? Some will ask; why is this important for me in everyday life etc.? Would not graded studies in theology and philosophy, beginning in late primary right through secondary, in our Catholic schools and somehow in our parishes, be a valuable tool in terms of catechises? I am not an educator, and as you are, I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

Thomas Amory | 06 November 2019  

Thomas Amory, intellectual formation in faith is characteristic of Catholic education, as you recognise. There is a serious problem, though, when educators seek to disconnect faith from reason, implementing programs that seek to "de-Hellenise" Christianity, abandoning philosophy which has been a vehicle for the Church's communication of divine revelation in the quest of a "faith that seeks understanding": a deconstructionist project more akin to radical Protestantism than Catholic theology. A further disservice is done to students when political and social action based only on secular ideologies rather than Church teaching integrated with the gospel and sacramental experience are substituted for a holistic formation. The results of such impoverishment are seen in the facile expression "You don't have to go to Mass to be a good Christian" and the conspicuous absence of young Catholics in Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The situation is not helped by an exaggerated emphasis on Maths and Science, and the widespread 'dumbing down' of curriculum in much secondary schooling - happily, an anomaly that can can no longer be concealed.

John RD | 10 November 2019  

John RD, thanks for your response to my post, and I agree. One would hope that with the upcoming 2020 Plenary, that such issues will be on top of the list.

Thomas Amory | 14 November 2019  

Michael McVeigh's editorial in the Parish Edition of "Australian Catholics", Summer 2019/20, contains the following: "Schools are now the sites where faith communities are built and nourished, but they need support in this. Declining Church attendance means fewer staff and students are bringing a lived of Catholicism to the classroom. In remote areas, it's often only one or two staff members who carry the faith formation in a school community, while even in urban areas it might be just a handful of staff." Identifying and owning the problem is a good start, as are the initiatives of "Australian Catholics" to support schools with relevant resources, encouraging " . . . ways to engage in conversation that respects the teachings of the Catholic Church." We can be under no illusions about the challenge the current situation presents, but with an appreciation of the opportunities schools present for reaching both students and families in making Christ known and loved, and developing a sense of calling, purpose and community service in many fields, schools can be a real leaven in our society. Thomas Amory is correct in recognising the priority of this challenge and its place on the Pastoral Council 2020 agenda.

John RD | 15 November 2019  

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