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Democracy in the Church


Bishop Bill MorrisIn recent weeks the media have given some coverage to a petition circulating among Australian Catholics. The petition was composed by a lay group called Catholics for Renewal, comprised of Catholics who have been active in parish life. They hope many Catholics will sign the petition, and that the Bishops will communicate its content to Pope Benedict when they meet him later in the year.

The petition offers a sombre picture of the state of the Catholic Church. It speaks of a Church that has lost contact with young people. Many older Catholics have also become increasingly disaffected. The Church has been unable to provide ministry to communities, especially in rural areas.

The document attributes the malaise in part to defects in governance, displayed in the handling of sexual abuse by Church representatives, in the process by which Bishop Morris was dismissed, by the attitude to women within the Church, and by the inability of Bishops to adopt pastoral strategies suitable to their own dioceses. It then offers a vision of a faithful Church, and proposes that pastoral synods be held, bringing together the resources of laity and clergy.

The petition raises two questions: about the truth of its argument, and about the place that such petitions generated by the laity have in the governance of the Catholic Church.

Although some media reports have presented the petition as radical, its assertions and requests are moderate. Its reading of the general loss of contact by the Church with young people is supported by the decline in Mass going. The alienation of young Catholic women has been remarked on for many years, and observers have also noted the more recent disillusionment of many older Catholics.

The dire lack of resources, especially in rural dioceses, and the inadequacy of presently available pastoral strategies to address them are increasingly evident. So too are the corrosive effects that the early failure to deal adequately with sexual abuse has had on trust in governance.

The lack of due process evident in the new Mass translation and in the treatment of Morris has also been widely criticised. The desire for a Church in which women are treated as equals, which is free from homophobia, and in which the state of the Church and pastoral strategies can be discussed honestly ought to be unexceptionable, even though how this desire might best be enshrined in practice is a matter of debate.

The proposal that diocesan synods be held is modest. But although they are unlikely to include those who have given up on the Church, and lack executive power, open and honest discussion of the situation of local churches and of their remedying can only be helpful. They can form the foundation of pastoral strategies that will be based on more than rhetoric.

The second question raised by the document concerns the place of petitions within the Church.

To some Catholics petitions will seem inappropriate. They believe the Pope and Bishops are given responsibility by God for guiding and leading their people, and that they are responsible only to God. Petitions by lay Catholics presume a level of ownership of the Church that they do not have, and can only muddy the waters. Australian Bishops should therefore consign them to wastepaper bin, as have many European Bishops when lay Catholics have pressed for reform of the church.

This view is unpersuasive. It supposes that the bishop's responsibility from God for his people is incompatible with his responsibility to his people, and with the responsibility for the Church that all people receive with baptism. These forms of responsibility work at different levels and are consistent with one another. Each should be expressed in the way in which bishops and people engage with one another.

In this context, occasional petitions seem as appropriate a form of engagement within the Church as they are in political life. The pressure which a petition exerts on rulers of church or state is not normally a pressure to act, but to recognise a reality which they prefer to ignore and the strength of public concern about it. That pressure is proper.

Petitions have the value once attributed to canaries in the mineshaft. Their witness could be dismissed by mine owners who wished business to continue as usual. But that dismissal did not make the mineshaft a salubrious living space. To promote the health of the enterprise and of the human beings involved there, it normally proved better to feed the canaries and to listen to their song. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, petition, catholic, church, sexual abuse, bishop bill morris, Catholics for Renewal



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Existing comments

Why are there problems with the Church - people reject its teachings, parents don't teach their children, parents and society teach anti-authoritarianism. If the laity truly cared and had real faith, the Church would be flourishing. If some laity didn't presume to be leaders in order to keep other laity out of the say in parishes, parishes would be attractive. If women truly saw that Mary is higher than Peter and, that it is the higher place at the table to listen than to serve, perhaps we wouldn't be offended.

I've never truly understood why modern people who have choice and who hate the Church so much that they want to change her essences, go through so much trouble to fix her when the Church of their choice is just down the street. Perhaps it is because the laity have forgotten about is sin - why do we want a synod - to have priests who don't care about doctrine and will give us golden calves. Finally, families make priests. If Catholic parents truly honored the priesthood and the Church, we'd have priests.

Mary | 21 July 2011  

We are all the Church. It is our . It does not belong to the Pope or Bishops. The process with Bishop Murray is disgraceful!

ROB COLQUHOUN | 21 July 2011  

I have reached the age of "80"..Deo Gratias...and it appears to me.."That the more the Church listens...the less they see and hear".
I am greatly disturbed at the loss of the children and young adults attending Mass. We must speak up.or. be condemned.

john m costigan | 21 July 2011  

Good on you Mary.

john frawley | 21 July 2011  

A good article Andrew! I believe that the Church has lost it's popularity because our society has become more secular and materialist. We have also become less egalitarian and community minded. Our society also continues to be dominated by a masculine philosophy. Australia has become a society where individual rights are paramount and women are not treated equally. The Church hierarchy seems unable to have a rational debate on issues such as artificial contraception, abortion, euthenasia and homosexuality. These are issues which are important for most Catholic people. They are social issues and not religious issues.

On the issue of homosexuality, why do catholic countries such as Spain, Portugal and Argentina have a more tolerant and charitable view than the Australian catholic hierarchy.

Mark Doyle | 21 July 2011  

What angst over a failed heirarchy!

This church, and all other Christian churches, are failing because their leaders are failed individuals and they have failed as a collective leadership group too.

Why get upset over the petition?

Because it will make no difference perhaps?

Stop trying to defend a corrupt structure Andrew and start supporting those who are calling for help.

Harold Wilson | 21 July 2011  

Congrats Andrew. This article points a way for the future to revitalise and include all members of our church. Even women will have a public voice as they certainly are not acknowledged in our new liturgy. How else can out bishops hear of the "..joys, the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this world.."

Brian F Kennedy | 21 July 2011  

The way forward has been clear for some time. For a start, the Catholic Church must democratise all structures, recognise the fundamental equality of all the members of the people of God, recognise the centrality of personal autonomy and the rights of individual conscience, welcome diversity (including indigenous Christianity), be open to exchanges with other faiths, reorganise the curial bureaucracy in line with acceptable ethical standards of governance, and recognise the role of independent theologians.

But of course Max Charlesworth has said this, and more, in his essay 'A Democratic Church: reforming the Values and Institutions of the Church'. A must read for all thinking Catholics.

Andrew Crowden | 21 July 2011  

Andrew thank you once more for providing a measured and objective summary of the Australian church at work, never less so than when ordinary Australian Catholics convey their concerns that the national institutional church is in grave danger of being totally culturally irrelevant to modern Australian Catholics both young and old alike. Australia is a wonderful agalitarian society which values transparency, due process, equality of access to all, democratic participation, accountability of its leaders to those whom they represent, an oppenness of dialogue and a willingness not only to listen but for its leaders to be active interlocutors with ordinary Australian Catholics. Few of these values are apparent within the structures of the Australian church today or among its bishops. How few prophets there are among the Australian bishops who are willing to stand up and speak out for a relevant Australian Catholic church and to speak for Australian Catholics who seek such a church.

One can only imagine the culture shock if Australian Catholic bishops were asked to take a seat in parliament during Question Time and give an account to Australian Catholics of how they have used their 'ministry' to advance the Australian church. The more one tries to envision this scene, the more one is lead to ask, "Why is it not so?" While parliamentary Question Time is often a robust occasion, both for participants as well as onlookers, it nevertheless sets a standard for transparency and accountability. And why should ordinary Australian Catholics ask for less or be given less???

John Edwards | 21 July 2011  

An interesting piece I am an oldie and not a regular mass goer these days and I find it difficult when I do go. As to the issue of consultation - I still have my father's voice in my head, he never missed Mass but often said the Church was no different to the public service to much beaurocrcy - I now agree, old margaret

margaeret o'reilly | 21 July 2011  

Mary says " if the laity really cared and had real faith the church would be flourishing" This implies 1. The church is not flourishing now ( whatever that means in Mary"s thinking ) 2. The blame for this non flourishing is entirely or mainly laid at the feet of the laity I personally know many laity who really care and live their challenging lives with real faith but who are sadly disillusioned with the institutional church and its leaders

David Walsh | 21 July 2011  

Mark Doyle, are the Ten Commandments a social document, and so not the business of the Church, or a religious document?

Gavan | 21 July 2011  

Thank you Andrew an excellent and thought provoking article

Cara Minns | 21 July 2011  

Thank you Andrew for your article,as my wife and I have signed this well balanced petition,reflecting our concern with the dysfunctional Roman Curia.Even today they are above the law of the land,many ignore canon law and make public promises they have no intention of following through.Just 2 examples;Look at the Philedelphia[usa] example,this Cardinal hid 42 peodophile priests,on the day the police laid charges,he dismissed 21 priest,again not because he was a shepherd to his flock or followed his conscience,he acted because his lies and cover ups over many years were exposed.His apology over the radio yesterday was shallow and embarishing.Archbishop Martin with over 20 years in the Vatican diplomatic service was sent back to Ireland to sort out 60 years of systemic corruption,he recommended that 2 Bishops be removed from office,as there were 70.000 pages of evidence that proved their part in this systemic criminal activity,which he handed over to the Irish Govt. enquiry. But the Pope or the Curia refused to act. How can we 'the people of God'- the living body of Christ,continue to believe in and trust them? PS Mary I feel sad with your letter.'pain that is not transformed is transmitted' Lets face the pain in our Church honestly ,it will really set us all free. In Solidarity with the Risen Christ

guido vogels | 21 July 2011  

LIKE IT? SIGN IT! It's surprising how many of the more general statements in the Petition could be endorsed by traditional Catholics equally disillusioned with the modern Church but from a diametrically opposed position. Eg: "The Church no longer adequately inspires many of our communities. It has alienated too many adults who were born of Catholic parents, attended Catholic schools, and lived a sacramental life. It has become disconnected from, and irrelevant to the lives of too many of our children", etc. Yep, I agree. That's why I'm now a member of a thriving traditional Catholic community that has lots of young people and even vocations, away from the rubbish and fairy floss with which Catholics in many mainstream parishes are afflicted. But of course those quoted sentiments are code for something else altogether in the petition document as the context makes clear. I would encourage any priest who strongly agrees with the petition to sign it. Go for it! It lets Rome know who's who re. future episcopal appointments and thereby takes a great deal of pressure of our overworked Temple Police.

HH | 21 July 2011  

You ask some pertinent questions John, but I think you also know the answers. The petition, no matter how well and politely argued or modestly presented, will not get up, the organisation of the Church will never be accountable to the laity. Why? Because the Church is built on the model of a medieval divine-right monarchy, and such monarchies are never changed by the action of the peasants or even by peasant revolution. What is needed is a palace revolution, like the barons' confrontation of King John. Only the bishops jointly have the power to change things, and they are unlikely to act unless threatened as a whole. Andrew's article make some very valid points, which ought to be taken up by the bishops, but I am afraid that realpolitik will get in the way of real virtue

Ginger Meggs | 21 July 2011  

I think Andy is right in being rather nuanced and careful in his piece. As for me, I signed the petition willingly because I do concur with its sentiments. Maybe it should have been less of an ambit call and, rather, focused on the central point, namely that the non hierarchical members of the Church are calling for their voice to be heard and acted on. The pew-sitter, about 13% of census Catholics, is no longer prepared to be pacified by episcopal serendipity or the reassuring affirmation that 'We're taking this on board!' Church order, governance and culture have been in virtual stasis for a thousand years. We are a different people now and even our beloved 'bridging' Vat II in all of its compromises back in the 60's did lay out a vision for the future which has been only partially attempted. What is dispiriting for many is that it is quite clear that during the watch of JPII and BXVI, the Papacy, the self-propagating Curia and a very large number in the Episcopate have lost their Vat II nerve, their trust in the People of God and have effectively domesticated Jesus and his Spirit.

David Timbs | 21 July 2011  

Those seeking inspiration for the promotion of greater democracy in the Church need to read Gerry O’Hanlon’s recent book: “A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A View from Ireland”, Fr O’Hanlon SJ is a member of the Jesuit Centre of Faith and Justice in Dublin and a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute. The author presents a “faith-map” of measures that need to be addressed if we are to do something about the current malaise in the Church. The book is beautifully written but sadly has received little attention to date out here. The sweep of the author’s historical and theological survey of the movements in favour of change and renewal in the Church is breathtaking. Let’s hope our own scholars take up the challenge of properly informing us of the case for a better balance of the opposing forces in the governance of the church.

Joe | 21 July 2011  

Stop Press!

How about throwing this time bomb into the mix?


Just for a start,

"Speaking in the Dáil in a debate on the Cloyne report, he said it excavated the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism” dominating the culture of the Vatican to this day."

Quite so, but wait, there's more:

“Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.”

I'm not finished yet:

“Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

Now, what was the headline yesterday?

'Newcastle Roman Catholics to pay $13m for sins'.

Sacking Bill was chicken feed compared to this stuff.

Those who make an attempt to play down the corruption snaking through our church should be seen for what they are, blind snakes and fools.

Harold Wilson | 21 July 2011  

good ideas in this article but where will it get us?

Patricia Vaughna | 21 July 2011  

I have tried to be a faithful Christian all my life, within the Catholic Church. I struggle today with the Institutional Church, and find great difficulty in respecting a church that has covered up serious crimes of clerical sexual abuse. A lack of compassion for the victims till very recent times, and the oppression of women and so little voice for the "people of God" ie: the lay people.

The voice of local Bishops lacks any authority to speak up on local issues because of the central power of the Vatican, that appears to crush any pastoral initiative,we only have to look at the treatment of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and Bishop Bill Morris to see the outcome of a Bishop speaking out on serious issues. The scandal of the billions of dollars paid out in law siuts world wide because of the lack of transparency & deceit. The further scandals coming out of Ireland in todays news does nothing for the credability of the Church. I have signed the Petition because I care about the "church". Vatican 11 seems to be shelved,thank you Father Hamilton for your insightful comments. Margaret Coffey

Margaret M.Coffey | 21 July 2011  

The petition that is the subject of this article and the comments is not worth a cracker. We need to pray that Benedict XVI is replaced with a true Catholic Pope and all the dissident and negative hierarchy and clergy be dismissed. The Church can never be a democracy and we do need true Catholic priests and bishops to lead us on our path to Salvation which under the present hierarchy is not being done or even talked about. Those who have position and power never even talk about our Salvation which they must answer to Our Lord for, and which should be of primary concern for all of us and our neighbours

Trent | 22 July 2011  

Thank you for the opportunity to add my signature to the petition. Your article was the first I have heard of it. While I'm not sanguine that it will bring even minor change in the existing state of the Church as an institution, I am glad of the opportunity to be able to express my solidarity with others who are like-minded in such a well-worded petion. In Vatican II documents, especially Gaudium et Spes the laity's priesthood was stressed, also in Scripture. Therefore I believe we do have a right and a duty to express that priesthood. This, to me, also includes expressing our disquiet with the government and operation of the Church institution. Whether or not it will be taken into account is another matter, but I believe that the hierarchy ignore such expressions at their's and the Church's peril.

Dr Judith Woodward | 22 July 2011  

On the question of the Church losing touch with young people & especially young women... Funny, I'm in touch with a lot of young Catholics and loads of them are women and they don't feel treated unequally. They love the Church and they love the dignity its teachings give women (and men). But then they also don't think equality lies in having the "power" to be a priest. Now there are definitely smaller numbers of us young un's than there used to be, but this next generation of committed Catholics is different. We've grown up in a time where being a faithful Catholic is not just highly unfashionable, but becoming almost unspeakable. And we've grown up in a time where there's a smorgasbord of lifestyle choices on offer, all of them far easier to live by than the hard truths of Catholic teaching. But we've also seen how empty those choices are; we're choosing "the better part". Only a couple of months ago in Melbourne we had over 300 young Catholics come to a talk about chastity. 300? In our sex-saturated age? Wanting to hear about chastity? An indication perhaps of the hunger that's out there, for something of substance.

Meg | 22 July 2011  

You are freakin nuts. Go and start your own church and leave the one that was started by Christ alone.

Hildebrand | 22 July 2011  

Holiness of life. Catholics are barely discernable from the general secular population. Petitions to the Bishops and the Pope will not change our Church. As long as Catholics can barely articulate why they are different; what their hope is; why Jesus Christ matters to them.... then there will be no "second springtime" of this Church. I shake my head at the 'poor me' attitude of many Catholics; constantly whinging about the Bishops and leaders. Always the victim. Always moaning about not having 'the power'. Goodness me, if anyone of us allowed God to use us fully in our life vocation, no Bishop or Pope would be an obstacle.

Time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and embrace who we are. Pray. Fast. Get with God. Discover who you are in God. There will always be problems in leadership... and there will always be problems with us! just do it! Serve God and His people with all your heart and soul and strength. Long after your dead, they'll still be grumbling about Bishops and Popes!

Cate | 23 July 2011  

As one who has signed the petition referred to, I did so to add my voice to the concerns therein. As a committed Catholic who is still involved in parish life I am beginning to question the lack of genuine leadership from our Church hierarchy on matters of living out one's faith in the real world.Where is the vision, the passion for justice and commitment to the marginalised in our society? Too many of us do not go beyond a personal faith that focuses on my salvation with little concern for the struggles and pains of others.

Kate | 24 July 2011  

Thank you Andrew for your reasoned and reflective comment. Your writing helps us hang on, if now only by the fingernails...

Helen H | 25 July 2011  

Where are your prayers for our Pope, Bishops and Priests, God has not neglected his church and never will, the leaders of the Church are guided by the Holy Spirit, and all faithfully should prayer for the Church and it's leaders.

And yes, evil has been allowed to infiltrate into the Church,(Sexual Abuse)and many hurt and disillusioned, however prayer and faith in God is the key to healing all.
I am a women and mother and the most important role I have is nurturing my family in their faith and love for God. A mother is the closest thing to God, he gave her the ability to give life and the responsibility to nurture and love her children, the children of God. Mother hood is the greatest position any woman can have, and the role of a mother the most important of all. The Church recognises this extremely central role to life, God acknowledged this role when he proclaimed Mary our mother.

Egoism and the desire for power by laity will not help the Church,and the liberal ideas by many wanting abortion, euthanasia, women priest will never change the Church as these teachings were set down by God.
Many young people do not know who God is and this is a product of our society, with it's smorgasbord of distractions like sport,TV and a variety of entertainment ,and also you have to be strong to acknowledge your faith today as ridicule and derision is felt by many faithful.

We as a society need to acknowledge God in our every day life and the Church needs to support families and direct it's faithful, the ultimate goal in our life is eternal salvation.

I would ask every one to pray for Our Church, its leaders and the people of our faith.

Christine Healey | 31 July 2011  

A petition might work! If a synod was called maybe a democracy will wake up the mid-life crisis left-wing hierarchy (with exception to 2 or 3) that run the "Australian" church that they've lost touch with the Catholics that want us to bring back some tradition in our church! Perhaps a democracy will get rid of those so-called Catholics who suck off the teat of the church, yet undermine it completely. Perhaps we can have a more faithful read of Vatican II and indeed it's so called "spirit" which doesn't equal doing whatever you like!

John Fletcher | 18 August 2011  

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