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Let's talk about the Catholic bishops



The Catholic bishops are by institutional design the centrepiece of the Australian Catholic community. This means a lot is happening in the name of ordinary Catholics whether they like it or not because the perception of the wider community is that the bishops represent all Catholics.

Archbishop Julian PorteousThe future of the Australian church may have been put in the hands of the Plenary Council 2020, but any outcome of this process is half a decade away. Till then it is business as usual.

Prime among the bishops now in the news is the recently convicted Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide, who is being called by the Prime Minister, the South Australian Premier and the new Archbishop of Melbourne to resign his position. The Australian community, represented especially by child abuse survivors and media commentators, interpret his resistance as an indication of the church's failure to learn the lessons of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Most bishops are actively resisting new legislation by some state and territory governments to remove the seal of the confessional as it relates to child sexual abuse. Many have also backed calls for new legislative or constitutional protections for religious freedom. The former of these issues has emerged from the Royal Commission while the latter has followed the new same sex marriage legislation. Both take the bishops into new territory.

At the same time the two most senior bishops, Archbishops Coleridge and Fisher, President and Deputy President of the Bishops Conference, are putting considerable energy into the traditional politics of education funding by seeking urgent meetings with the Prime Minister. No issue more defines the identity of the Catholic community in its own eyes and those of fellow Australians than Catholic schools. Education funding is for bishops their core practical business, to be safeguarded above all else.

In this context, Australian Catholics need a framework to help them comprehend the dynamics of church-state relations. While knowledge of individual bishops is helpful, what is more useful is a sense of how they operate and where they stand collectively.

The constitutional position of bishops is best illustrated by the Wilson case. The relevant media releases of the hierarchy revealed their impotence. They explained their inaction by pointing out that only the Pope could force a bishop to resign and were reduced to conveying the impression of working belatedly behind the scenes to influence Wilson's decision.


"A regrettable example of the hardline position was the decision by Archbishop Porteous of Hobart to ban Fr Frank Brennan SJ from speaking in his archdiocese."


Collectively the bishops come together in the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which meets twice a year for a week in May and November. It has a permanent committee, somewhat like a cabinet, and elects a president and deputy president as well as office-bearers to head its various commissions, responsible for agencies and portfolio areas.

This may seem to centralise church decision-making power, but in practice central power is weak and individual bishops retain considerable independence. The office of president is powerful only if the archbishop occupying the position is confident that the bulk of the conference stands firmly behind him and wants him to act as a strong leader. That appears not to be the case at the present in a seriously divided conference.

Within this framework what stands out about most of the bishops is their philosophical and organisational conservatism.

Not surprisingly they generally hold socially conservative views, in line with orthodox church doctrine on traditional sexual morality issues, including same sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion. But as the same sex marriage campaign showed there are differences in strategic thinking among the bishops as to how Catholics should think about these issues.

Some emphasise church discipline and brook no argument while others see room for freedom of conscience for Catholics in the public arena. A regrettable example of the hardline position was the decision by Archbishop Porteous of Hobart to ban Fr Frank Brennan SJ from speaking in his archdiocese.

The majority also act conservatively on social issues even when their position is contrary to orthodox doctrine. For example, the recent rejection by the ACBC of ethical investment guidelines, covering a wide range of themes including fossil fuels and tobacco, seems quite at odds with Pope Francis' social and environmental agenda.

Collectively the bishops are also conservative in the more general sense of being unadventurous as far as church renewal is concerned. Even in the face of apparent crisis in the church they are mostly wedded to the clerical and hierarchical status quo. This too seems at odds with Francis' agenda for a synodal, flexible and humble church. The inflexibility of their position must be challenged by lay Catholics throughout the Plenary Council 2020 process.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic Church, clergy sexual abuse, Philip Wilson, Mark Coleridge, Frank Brennan



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Existing comments

We have an Archbishop called Mark Who wants to give the Church spark Wide is his girth And jolly his mirth But who listens when he says: "Hark"?

Tony Robertson | 18 July 2018  

Thank you for this article. Perhaps the Australian Bishops Conference is more like a patchwork quilt than a cohesive design offering us good leadership through these critical times of paradigm shifts. For me the defining nature of the Catholic Church is its sacramentality. In terms of models of leadership this sacramentality should be symbolised in models of leadership which are empowering and unifying. Instead we are often presented with models that resemble "gate- keeping" forged in a siege mentality. Let's take a risk and move forward in trust rather than being embedded in caution and fear!

Patty Andrew | 18 July 2018  

The biggest failure of Catholic Bishops is not to listen to the laity. The biggest failure of the Catholic Church is to entrench an archaic hierarchical system of governance that makes it largely irrelevant to the lives of Christian people. Clergy parading around like Roman princes, heading off on their next overseas trip and living very comfortable life-styles are all anathema to the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth. By their ordination,the clergy set themselves apart as mediators between God and the people of God. But Jesus never ordained anyone! Unless the Catholic Church treats all the people of God as equals, abolishes ordination and genuinely becomes a 'poor church for the poor', as Pope Francis said he would like, the Catholic Church will continue to dwindle. Remember the story of the little boy who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes. Some/many of the clergy might look well adorned with rich apparel and golden staffs, but while they hang onto power relentlessly they, in effect, are like the Emperor with no clothes. Saint Francis gave his rich clothes to a beggar and devoted his life to serving the poor, in imitation of Jesus. There lies the challenge!

George Allen | 18 July 2018  

John, Thank you for your excellent analysis of the situation. I was involved in Catholic Education for around three decades and witnessed at first hand the disconnect between what the official Church wanted to be done in Catholic education and the reality in the classroom. Almost none of my students attended their parish Mass, as was evident when we had a school based Mass. I came to the conclusion that Catholic Education was failing in its prime task of education of young Catholics in the faith - a view I still hold now, having retired a decade ago. I too can see the disconnect between the Australian Bishops view and that held by Pope Francis .Sadly I am not confident that the Plenary Council of 2020 will achieve much change even though I am to be as involved in the process as the "powers at be " will let me. I am very aware that I am seen as a radical by the conservative elements of my Parish . No doubt they will ensure they get the best places in the hall when the Convention finally meets. In the meantime the Laity will continue marching out of the Church Pews with their feet and money !

Gavin O'Brien | 18 July 2018  

As John Warhurst says, any outcome of the Plenary Council 2020/21 is "half a century away" and "(t)ill then it is business as usual." That is a shame as the Plenary Council might offer a long-needed opportunity for the people of the Church to be heard, particularly now in light of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse condemning the dysfunctional governance of the Catholic Church. Regrettably, it seems that many of the bishops see the Plenary Council as just a means at best of kicking the real issues down the road in the hope that demands for change will dissipate in the meantime; their lack of committed leadership is evidenced on their diocesan websites. This article's intro stated the situation well: "a lot is happening in the name of ordinary Catholics whether they like it or not because the perception of the wider community is that the bishops represent all Catholics." That must be challenged by committed Catholics now. The Plenary Council 2020/21 is not the answer to matters demanding immediate radical responses.

Peter Johnstone | 18 July 2018  

I am appalled to read of Fr Frank Brennan being banned from speaking in Archbishop Porteous' archdiocese. What is of such concern to the Archbishop that he would ban such as him? Who will be next?

Peter Evans | 18 July 2018  

If they are so impotent then they should all resign!

Lee Boldeman | 18 July 2018  

Perhaps in another generation when I am dead,these bishop issues will no longer be of concern as seminaries might be closed. I speak as a "recovering" Catholic, having been damaged but not sexually abused by elements in the Church. Patriarchy has no place in our 21st century life. The Presbyterian Church has a wonderful system whereby most of the decision making is carried out by elders who are family men and women in touch with the realities of the world. Pastors are chosen by individual congregations, from the ranks of the elders, which seems to me a veritable democratic process the like of which the Catholic Church might like to consider. High hopes! Celibacy of the clergy has a lot to answer for.

Henri | 18 July 2018  

The most obvious solution to the problem of bishops being 'little monarchs' in their own dioceses would seem to be make them subject to the authority of their bishops' conferences. However, at present the likely effect of such subjection would be to reinforce hierarchical power and its passive inertia before, and in some cases active resistance to, Vatican II's call to collegiality and Pope Francis's ambition for synodality. Unless the hierarchy's monopoly on power is broken - whether by the synod or by some other means - the institutional church in Australia and elsewhere will remain unfaithful to the call to be the church that its own tradition calls it to be.

MICHAEL LEAHY | 18 July 2018  

In the 1990s when Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee was invited to Australia, an article was published by a “conservative” magazine detailing the sexual scandals within the Milwaukee dioceses, the Archbishop’s involvement, and the jailing of some of his priests for paedophilia. Australian bishops did not criticize the visit, only the magazine which published the facts. In 2005 it was noted that of 10 US bishops whose sexual misbehaviour had gotten them into trouble with the law, 8 had been disclosed by the civil justice system; 1 disclosed by a newspaper; and 1 disclosed by his lover on Good Morning America. None had been held to account by fellow bishops. But how will choosy lay Catholics help matters? A lay Catholic religious teacher at a Christian ecumenical school, told me how he was hauled before the school principal after complaints by parents. Although a subsequent meeting resolved that everything he taught was in accordance with Catholic doctrine, the parents were adamant they did not want those truths taught to their children. The teacher resigned rather than teach half-truths. A laity only wishing to validate themselves won’t attract anyone. “It’s better to know nothing, than to know what ain’t so.”

Ross Howard | 18 July 2018  

A correction to my earlier post in which I mistyped the article as referring to any outcome of the Plenary Council 2020/21 as "half a century away" - that should of course have been "half a decade away". Still, given the pace of Church decision-making, who knows?!

Pe | 18 July 2018  

John Warhurst presents the episcopacy and its role here in a largely managerial light. I hope both the preparation for it and the Plenary Council itself will provide a corrective to this growing misperception, demonstrating the spiritual, theological and pastoral dimensions of their lives and office.

John | 18 July 2018  

John covers a broad canvass - so just a note on his reference to "the traditional politics of education funding." I came into Catholic Education when the funding requests and brinkmanship were in their infancy. What was asked for then, the mode of operation and the storefront outcomes display little resemblance to the present reality. There are good and disturbing reasons for arguing the case for withdrawing from owning and operating a system that can no longer meet critical elements of its mission statement. Coming to a decision on this matter could help parishes and bishops to delve into the essence of their shared ministry.

Bill Burke | 18 July 2018  

Your broad-brush approach to the canvas, John, blends well with Bill Burke keen eye for specificity on school-funding. The tables having well and truly turned on the ability of the Bishops to influence the PM, it is time now for a rethink on Catholic schools, which in most similar jurisdictions overseas are part of the fully-funded provision of public education, with but a handful of 'independent' fee-charging Catholic schools, generally attracting a well-to-do clientele, receiving no public funding whatever. A shift to this arrangement would once and for all end the egregiously unjust, globally exceptional and interminably distracting dog-fight between public and private schooling in this country. John would be especially aware of this anomaly as his highly competent wife, Joan, was once the highest-positioned executive officer at the National Catholic Education Commission, almost all of whose office-bearers and associated board members and diocesan representatives at all of its complex levels, and including parent representatives, are handpicked, rather than elected representatives of viewpoints that are not imposed from above, but which honour the age-old principle of election. In my own instance I was once 'rolled' as a state-based Politics Committee representative by an executive officer who objected to my election.

Michael Furtado | 19 July 2018  

"John Warhurst presents the episcopacy and its role here in a largely managerial light. I hope both the preparation for it and the Plenary Council itself will provide a corrective to this growing misperception," Whose misperception? What other criteria really? Numbers leaving? Sounds like another instance of the 'creep of faith' where church institutions are to be judged not by their job description, behaviour or morals but by criteria forged in previous ages and to be enforced in the next life. And if Catholic education is so good how come the more you pay for it the worse results you get in terms of what the Pope wants, what is a fair society, the imbalance of riches, the advancement of theology or social justice? Abbott, Hockey, Pyne, Andrews, Morris for a start.

Michael D. Breen | 19 July 2018  

Well said, John. The ineffectiveness and lack of relevance of the current governance system is now obvious for all to see. There is an alternative source of authority, the informed consciences of Christians, that must now be taken seriously. It is up to us to make it happen in our own lives.

Kevin Liston | 19 July 2018  

Bill Burke, could you please be more explicit about what you mean by describing Catholic education as " . . . a system that can no longer meet critical elements of its mission statement."? Withdrawal from schooling would radically restrict opportunities for youth engagement with the gospel, the integration of faith and learning, and essential faith practices of the Catholic tradition, especially since the decline of Eucharistic participation in most parishes.

John | 20 July 2018  

Michael Breen, "Whose misperception?" - that of those who see bishops only as clerical administrators, obstructive of needed change. When I was in Warzburg nearly 30 years ago, I was struck even then by the physical separation of the pre-Reformation bishops from their people, etched into the architecture and topography, their residence - an imposing fortress - across the river from the townspeople and towering above them, and the contrast with Australia's bishops who, especially these days, go to great lengths to engage with their people, live frugally, teach faithfully, tend the sick and the poor in their dioceses and lead lives that bear witness to faith. They are also assiduous in implementing the required procedures to ensure the protection of children, as well as encouraging active lay participation in the Church's planning and ministries.

John | 20 July 2018  

John,(20th July post) With the notable exception of Bishops Morris, the late Michael Putney and Pat Power, I am afraid that the current crop of Bishops are conservative and defensive of their positions. In my humble view they do not reflect the attitude of Pope Francis. I totally agree with the comments expressed by George Allen, however I don't think abolishing ordination is the answer. Most ordained clergy I have dealt with over the years, the humble parish priest and deacons, go about their pastoral work in a world where thanks to the horrors of sexual abuse by a minority, their credibility as servants of the faithful, is now under a cloud. Maybe abolish the hierarchy!

Gavin O'Brien | 20 July 2018  

Gavin O'Brien, I accept that our views on Australia's current bishops differ, but I can't accept the suggestion of an un-hierarchical Catholic Church. In fact, it's hard to conceive any form of society that doesn't have some or degree of hierarchical structure. So I don't think the problem is hierarchy per se, but how leadership is understood and exercised. Since Pope Paul VI, at least, the model of servant leadership has been explicitly affirmed, and is still unfolding in its application. A late well-known Australian Jesuit defined history as "the time of God's patience"- words, I think, that are worth pondering, especially in our current complex and changing circumstances.

John | 20 July 2018  

Fear not Gavin O'Brien. Fr Charles Gauci, from the Archdiocese of Adelaide is soon to be installed as the Bishop of Darwin. He is a beacon of hope. This maltese marvel is a powerhouse & will keep others on their toes. A great man of faith!!!

Bill Patterson | 20 July 2018  

First, it was the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. That the focus of Case Studies on the Church seemed only on sexual abuse might convey the impression that this the Royal Commission’s brief but it was wider than that. Second, the episcopacy has a particular task to safeguard the Traditions of the Church. This is unfortunate, given that one of those Traditions appears to be child sex abuse. Indeed, while safeguarding sexual morality in the area of marriage equality and other well-known instances, no such effort has been brought to bear upon the sexual immorality of priests who sexually abuse children. Third, it is heartening to see the so-called lay folk of the Catholic Church finding their voice. The episcopacy has failed the Church, Christ and the living God. Now let the people of God speak!

Alistair P D Bain | 20 July 2018  

To those asserting that the solution to the problem of sexual abuse and the coverup thereof is to ditch the hierarchy which our Lord gave to His Church and instead become a man-made Protestant lay-led "church". Do you not realise that these problems have been and are far greater on a per capita basis in Protestant institutions?

Peter K | 23 July 2018  

Is it that difficult, John, to 'conceive [of] any form of society that doesn't have some or degree of hierarchical structure' ? What about marriage? Real marriage. But I would agree with you that the problem in the Church is not hierarchy per se. Hierarchies can be a useful form of organisation but when they became absolute and unaccountable, then you do have a problem.

Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2018  

While being interviewed on SkyNews about Archbishop Philip Wilson earlier in the week, Laura Jayes who broke the story about my being ‘banned from Hobart’ in February asked me about any such continuing ban. I said that as far as I was aware there was no longer any ban and I expect to be in Hobart in the not too distant future meeting with CatholicCare there. Then followed this 40 second clip: https://news247worldpressuk.com/2018/07/31/frfrankbrennan-on-archbishop-porteous-there-would-be-a-number-of-catholics-who-dont-like-a-lot-of-his-views-thered-be-a-number-of-catholics-who-dont-like-my-views-the-c/

Frank Brennan SJ | 03 August 2018  

See also https://twitter.com/SkyNewsAust/status/1024162075973627905

Frank Brennan SJ | 03 August 2018  

What has been of great interest to me, in relation to the Plenary Council, is the earnest solicitation for open and honest communication. Archbishop Coleridge in particular warmly invokes it yet he closed Letters to the Editor in his episcopal role in the Canberra/Goulburn diocese - a policy retained by his successor - and this is common in many Catholic diocesan publications. I made a submission in the Plenary Council process and after looking at many diocesan publications there is a dearth of forums for lay voices seeking reform. There is also a very privileged position given in some diocese to what I would describe as right Catholic thinking such as medals, praying for rain, obscure saints, opposition to contraception, side-lining women, the primacy of canon law and defence of clericalism. I’m very aware that even raising some topics is tantamount to enormous controversy & being called disloyal. But after all that has happened in the Church in recent years one might think the shutters would be opened for the winds of change. Some Australian bishops tend to view the desire for change as dwelling churlishly on slight imperfections, something to be endured but of no great consequence.

PeterD | 14 August 2018  

As a layman and married father of 5 now in my 40's, I say what we need are bishops and priests who lead courageously and impart the Catholic Faith in it's entirety. It was not Catholic "Lite" that brought us to Christ as young people. It was the faith of those who were in love with Christ and his Church, nourished by the Sacraments, held fast to every article of teaching, and tried to keep the doctrinal wolves from the sheep-fold. Thank the Lord we have bishops like Porteous and Fisher- tender shepherds who give us bread and not stones!

Douglas | 17 December 2018  

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