Factions and ginger groups within the church



Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in the middle of his troubles within the Liberal Party, told the NSW State conference of his party that there were no factions among the Liberals.

Main image: St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Parramatta (Credit: Leelakajonkij / Getty)

Knowing full well of the conservative-moderate split within the party and of the fractious relationship within the party between Turnbull and Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party delegates fell about laughing. The laughter was derisory. Facts can’t be papered over by sweet talk.  

The same is true of the church in Australia today. This fact of life must be spoken about openly in the lead up to the Plenary Council assemblies. What is happening at the moment is that certain bishops are condemning members of the church renewal movement as pressure groups pushing an agenda, while ignoring the well-known fact that groups with other agendas are widespread within the church. Condemnation of the renewal movement is a clear attempt to shut down legitimate engagement and debate from some quarters while allowing jockeying, factional politics and agenda-pushing by other conservative groups, including certain bishops, certain Catholic media and other groups embedded in the hierarchical structure of the church.  

My impression is that bishops prefer to deal with individuals. Catholics who organise themselves independently of official church structures to advance church renewal are frequently treated with suspicion by the hierarchy.  

Trying to shut down the renewal movement is not the work of the Holy Spirit. If it continues it will make for a very lop-sided Plenary Council. No amount of prayer and discernment will overcome a stacked assembly.  

The renewal movement is large and growing numerically and in regional diversity. It has engaged with the Plenary Council through submissions and public discussions from the very beginning. It has also tried, collectively and individually, to engage with bishops and other church leaders.


'Catholics at an individual level must strive to voice disagreement while treating each other respectfully and with an equal right to be heard, whatever their official status.'


Sometimes that engagement has been reciprocated. For instance, in September 2018, after the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR) sought a meeting with the Permanent Committee of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) it was granted one by the President of the ACBC, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, accompanied by Lana Turvey-Collins of the PC2020 Facilitation Team. Of the four member ACCCR delegation the three interstate members flew to Melbourne at their own expense for what turned out to be a prayerful and serious interchange. ACCCR did not get what it wanted, including a woman co-chair of the Plenary Council, but it did get a lengthy hearing.  

Presently elements of the renewal movement are attempting, without much success, to engage with the President of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe. This difficulty reflects the experience that renewal groups often have in attempting to engage with diocesan bishops, including several of the metropolitan archbishops. The correspondence is often fobbed off, sometimes courteously and professionally but sometimes brusquely, as if the groups had no right to exist, much less see their archbishop.  

Such rejection is not universal and my own group, Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, in the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn has always been granted regular access to its archbishop, vicar-general and other senior church officials. But the record in many other dioceses is different. The implicit or even explicit message is to conform or be frozen out.  

The church in Australia is fragmented in various ways, often reflecting international fragmentation. The same is true of its leadership. Networking and pressure group tactics are rife.  The range of views within the church is as broad as that within the political system and Australian society at large.  

This means that views range from the church equivalent of News Corporation to the church equivalent of The Guardian, but with more of the former than the latter.  

Whenever a randomly selected group of Catholics gathers there will be diversity of experience and belief so great that the gulf between individuals is massive.  

When the selection is not random but selective, as in the case of the PC2020, then, while the gulf will remain, the imbalance towards conservatism will be embedded and the sensus fidelium as revealed in the submissions to the PC will not be adequately represented.  

What is to be done? For a start we must be honest about the problem. Factions, ginger groups, networking and lobbying are commonplace in the church among bishops, clergy and religious leaders and are certainly not restricted to the laity, including the renewal movement. There is a battle for control of the agenda under way and no amount of papering over can conceal it.  

Catholics at an individual level must strive to voice disagreement while treating each other respectfully and with an equal right to be heard, whatever their official status. Collectively events like the Plenary Council assemblies must be structured to make this more likely by eliminating hierarchy and encouraging diversity.



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

Main image: St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Parramatta (Credit: Leelakajonkij / Getty)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic, church, renewal movement, Plenary Council, PC



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Existing comments

These discussions need more airing. Why not a female co-chair for instance? It’s difficult for the laity to know what is being discussed, particularly in locked down Melbourne. From the outside looking in, it seems that many Bishops do not understand the concept of renewal; listening and responding to all parishioners not just those compliant ones. A church that can’t evolve, dies and the Catholic Church is showing clear signs of decay.
Carol | 10 September 2020

Facilitating a Plenary Council that eliminates hierarchy and encourages diversity, brings to mind the strategies I heard used by another Church meeting elsewhere (I can’t remember what it was). All clergy and bishops agreed to wear ‘ordinary’ clothes; and each participant was seated in alphabetical order. Two very simple but symbolic ways to facilitate equality and conversation across participants.
Margaret | 10 September 2020

From my experience people who profess to be Catholic and wish to have a voice in the church are, if not a dying breed, then certainly an endangered one. I can't believe the PC isn't stridently reaching out and endeavouring to accommodate each and every one irrespective of their view
cara Elizabeth minns | 10 September 2020

John, I agree with your message. I do not belong to any group; I am singular, however, the last meeting held at our church did not allow any discussion- it was a top-down style of 'meeting', with a leader from the Archdiocese holding the floor. And I do know from previous experience at another parish that the conservatives in the Church hold great sway with the religious. It is very similar to the effect of conservatives in political parties and the community at large. The remedy, of course, is to provide alternatives or by a gradualist method, to change the attitudes, or win by attrition through a voting in the res public of the church.
john willis | 10 September 2020

Thanks, John. My hypothesis is that the Church needs to take the same journey as that outlined in L Frank Baum's, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Bishops among us are like the Scarecrow, who wishes he had brains; the Tin Woodman, who longs for a heart; and the Cowardly Lion, who seeks courage. The difficulty for them is that even if they did have a Dorothy and a Toto self-righteousness blinds them to the obvious.
Kim Chen | 10 September 2020

Naming reality is always step number one to working towards desired outcomes. So thanks John for this article. Guess then we have to keep hoping for an honest and open dialogue. There are many people of goodwill who want this. We have to persist and set up as many opportunities as we can and engage as much as possible. We hope.
Brigid Arthur | 10 September 2020

John, the problem is, at least in Brisbane, your chances of getting anything heard are equivalent to Buckleys and none. Commensoli and Coleridge are a law unto themselves and have a condescending contempt for any opinions of the "laity". No one man, one vote in this church. What we have are finger pointing decrees based on some quaint notion of hierarchical status that is not even backed up by common sense. When you have Archbishops unilaterally appointed by Rome based on toadying up and cosy relationships inside the Vatican, the relevance of the flock the Bishops vowed to serve, is bulldozed aside by an addiction to secrecy, tradition, ancient doctrine, impenetrable garments, incense and wait for it, "the reputation of the church". So the buggers in their cassocks can hide behind their lofty condescending hierarchy and the recommendations to criminalize abuse knowledge gained in the Confessional is politely declined by a Church which threatens to excommunicate same buggers if they whisper a word. So sorry, the PC 2020 as far as the "laity" is concerned, will be a meaningless talk fest.
Francis Armstrong | 10 September 2020

One of the difficulties renewal-minded Catholics have to face is the sheer variety of firmly held beliefs in what purports to be a monolithic church. In days when we all went to mass we recited the creed and stumbled over "consubstantial with", wondering momentarily what that meant as we dutifully recited the ensuing formulas. And then we crossed our fingers behind our backs when we got to the bit in the coda about "the resurrection of the body". Or some of us did, but it needs to be conceded that others in the pews thought they were describing factual situations that could be empirically tested. These formulations, we are told, were hammered out at 4th century councils, and decided by majority vote. Presumably the minority were heretics. Centuries later they still constitute a checklist to determine orthodoxy. The probable result of the Plenary Council will be that nothing can be changed: it's all been around too long. But there will be a lot of respectful listening.
OldG | 10 September 2020

Thank you.Jesus is weeping over the Jerusalem to which i once belonged.And I am weeping with him.
margaret | 10 September 2020

Sister Brigid- hoping, yes, and praying! The signs are not good at all thus far, and I endorse John's article. I also hope that the ACBC after the Plenary Council does not, in the name of "listening to the diversity of opinion", opt for the lowest common denominator and recommend merely peripheral changes, let alone grasp the nettle and opt for what is really needed.
Dennis | 10 September 2020

Thanks John, I support your stance. I embraced the concept of the Plenary Council with great joy, took an active role in discussion and applied to join a Group. Now disillusioned, I have given up on it achieving anything!
Gavin O'Brien | 10 September 2020

As is customary in his ES contributions on PC 2020, John Warhurst produces predominantly political analysis and metaphor of a process which is of its nature ecclesial. What doctrinal justification do he and his reformist colleagues offer for their advocacy of " . . . eliminating hierarchy and encouraging diversity?" Are not unity of faith and practice constituitive elements of the Catholic Church's identity and mission?
John RD | 10 September 2020

John RD as someone coming from a professional background in church history I suggest that " unity of faith and practice" are most definitely not "constituitive elements of the Catholic Church's identity and mission" from an historical perspective. Whatever happened to "semper reformanda"?
margaret | 10 September 2020

Development applications, in the interests of transparency as to consequences, have to be accompanied by an environmental impact statement. For the PC, propose whatever you like. Just append a statement of impact on Scripture and Tradition to your position papers in the interests of transparency as to consequences.
roy chen yee | 10 September 2020

I sense your increasing exasperation in trying to engage the hierarchy on reform John. Why would they willingly choose to share power and control? The PC already seems like a token exercise that will result in an increasingly conservative church far from being “catholic”.
Frank S | 11 September 2020

It would be useful and productive if the reformers could prepare a list of those things that they believe should be reformed together with a comprehensive plan of how to achieve those reforms within Catholicism as constituted by Christ [as opposed to Man]. Some reference to the scriptural and traditional authority on which such reforms are based would also be helpful. I doubt that Christ established his Church in response to popular or majority vote derived as an expression of what people wanted in THEIR CHURCH. His Church was what He wanted and shared with the people He created.
john frawley | 11 September 2020

It seems to me that, with some obvious exceptions, the Catholic hierarchy in this country have usually been administrators with theological qualifications. Administrators like order and no shaking the boat. Many older Catholics and I suspect many posters on this topic are mature age, have become sick of being taken for granted over the years so I think they are looking to PC2020 to change things. As far as anything connected with the Magisterium goes they can whistle into the wind, because the local hierarchy simply do not possess the authority to effect this. This includes the very contentious topic of women priests to which the Vatican has already given a decided 'No'. Real change in the way the Church is administered will come from Rome. Pope Francis has already done and said things not to do with the Magisterium which have made many hyper conservative Catholics sit up. Jesus did not set up 'rule by committee': he had inherent authority because of who he was. I am astonished one poster seemed to have doubts on the Resurrection. I think what most 'silent Catholics' want is to be treated with dignity and respect. Many obviously feel they are not. If I were a current Catholic hierarch this would worry me deeply.
Edward Fido | 11 September 2020

"Semper reformanda" in Catholic understanding affirms the Church in history is "at once holy and always in need of purification", and "follows constantly the path of penance and renewal." (Lumen Gentium, I, 8). Ecclesial reform presupposes the unity in faith and practice conferred in baptism, when the baptised person is initiated into the life of the Triune God and God's sacramental expression in the doctrinally coherent and recognisable community of the faithful, defined and professed in Patristic writing in the Nicene Creed as: "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Unity in faith and the need for reform are complementary rather than mutually exclusive: unity is the ontological and teleological ground and goal of ecclesial reform - reform whose authenticity, as Roy Chen Yee notes, is underwritten in the Catholic Church by scripture and tradition.
John RD | 11 September 2020

John RD asks “What doctrinal justification do he and his reformist colleagues offer for their advocacy of " . . . eliminating hierarchy and encouraging diversity?" Try any of the four Gospels, John: all full of diversity and acceptance by Jesus Himself. From his recruitment of apostles, to the spread of His love, forgiveness and embracement of human life with all its diversity what do we see? Christ’s own acceptance of diversity. And His prescription for effective hierarchy? ‘Go wash the feet of the people you serve’
Francis Donovan | 12 September 2020

Thanks John for this insightful article that will hopefully be considered carefully by all Australian bishops. As you know, the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR) continues to seek the appointment of a woman committed to Church renewal as a co-Chair for the Plenary Council. It's worth noting that the views expressed by Catholics seeking renewal are in fact consistent with the prevailing views, the sense of faith of the faithful, expressed in the official diocesan reports of submissions to the Plenary Council. Will the bishops listen?
Peter Johnstone | 12 September 2020

John Frawley you are a doctor and you must know the effect of sexual abuse on children later in life. Christ was quite adamant on what should happen to the perpetrators and he would not have sanctioned the status quo. Catholics want real change to eradicate these sick practices and expect the Bishops to do their job. They should not leave the responsibility to the civil authorities. Three states have passed laws abolishing the right of priests to invoke the inviolability of the confessional seal. That is in response to the recommendations of the RC. As for the right of women to be priests, that debate needs to be re opened and if Pope Francis is too lily livered to address the issue, then he needs to be replaced. You don't question the right of a woman to be a doctor, run a state, run a country, yet a woman in this church has to take a back seat, keep her opinions to herself and be content to be a second class citizen. What you cant seem to grasp is that the hierarchy in this church want pomp, power, prestige, control, comfortable lifestyles and nice properties to retire to. Eg AB Hart in Melbourne. The hierarchy pay lip service to religion, and unfortunately it's really about status and that's why the "church" needs a shakeup.
Francis Armstrong | 12 September 2020

Australia's Bishops are males who don't have children. The 30+ Bishops seem to be out of touch with the urgent need to safeguard and protect the future church clientelle - children. It is time Bishops listened to people who raise and care about children - laity. Worldwide Bishops seem to show more concern for 'unborn' children than 'born' children abused by clergy. 'Unborn' children seem to be an easier message to talk about from the pews. VOTF requires church finances to be transparent. VOTF states that a lack of financial transparency allows clerical sexual abuse to fester for decades. Its time for urgent change. Bishops must start with implementing diocesean pastoral councils that are 'elected' not 'selected' or 'advisory' and not made up of employees.
PBoylan | 12 September 2020

There is now question that Christ ministered to people with diverse needs from varied backgrounds, but "diversity" is not the primary charism, value or principle that underpins and motivates Jesus' mission and call to repentance and communion in a content-contoured faith effected by the Holy Spirit as evident in the Acts of the Apostles and emphasised by Paul when he carried the Gospel to the gentiles, forming local faith communities along the way. The growing Church respected and upheld as her touchstone the essential teachings and practices of Christ received from the Apostles: identifiable teachings and practices - a "deposit of faith" (CCC, 84, 97) that distinguished "the followers of the Way" (Acts 9: 22; 22:4; 24:14) from existing mystery cults and caused potential converts, pagans and orthodox Jews to recognise their difference. This "deposit of faith" informed the "sensus fidei fidelium", and included acceptance of authoritative teaching, as it does still. Further, since Christ clearly bestowed leadership roles among his followers, there is no intrinsic incompatibility between hierarchy and service as groups urging radical reform in PC2020 submissions assert there is.
John RD | 13 September 2020

P Boylan. You plead that it is time for Bishops "to listen to people who raise and care about children". Might not be a very good idea when the figures indicate that over 80% of child abuse, sexual and otherwise, occurs in the child's own home at the hands of those who are integral to raising and caring about them - most commonly at the hands of men in an environment where women seem incapable of doing anything about it including reporting it to the police or other authority. Maybe also need a little caution in attributing all manner of benefit to having women in positions of power. History does not accord great confidence in the benefits attending women in power eg Indira Gandhi, Mrs Bandaranayke, Margaret Thatcher and the numerous sisterhood disasters in this country from state premiers, government ministers, MPs and corporate CEOs. When it comes to poor or corrupt practice the women match the men on equal or better terms.
john frawley | 18 September 2020


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