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Mud-wrestling the Catholic elephant



The Catholic Church is so big and complex. That is one of its defining characteristics yet the media and society at large, much less the Catholic community itself, often fail to grasp its consequences.

Chris Johnston cartoonWe live in an era of big institutions, such as big government, big business, big unions and other large organisations, including big churches. Business uses its size and complexity to reduce its tax burden and government has the power to crush dissent and diffuse calls for accountability. But the Catholic Church is particularly complex with its dioceses, agencies, orders, congregations, lay movements and international Canon Law.

The size and organisational complexity of the church has bedevilled the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Survivors of child sexual abuse have often been fobbed off when making claims against the church by the so-called Ellis defence which has used the law to pretend that no church entity can legitimately be sued in a particular case. Such a defence has rightly been condemned as legal trickery.

Now church reformers are facing the same dilemma, although in a different fashion. The problem lies with the many layers of authority and geographical organisation. This makes the church big and slippery. Getting a grip on it is much like mud-wrestling with an elephant. Its size and shape mean that there are numerous opportunities to engage with it but also equally numerous veto points and dead-ends when it comes to getting action.

Would-be reformers, like the groups which met last Friday in Canberra as the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR), are faced with the dilemma of just where to begin. Should they start from the top down, concentrating their efforts on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Vatican? That strategy involves dealing with the President and the Permanent Committee through either their local bishop or the ACBC Secretariat with an eye on the May and November meetings of the whole conference.

Or should they begin from the bottom up, concentrating their efforts on their local parish or diocese? That strategy has the advantage of greater accessibility but the limitation that parish and diocese must work within the larger framework of church rules. There is also enormous variability between parishes and dioceses. Some reformers will find themselves welcomed by a progressive bishop or priest, but others will be stymied by apathy and conservatism.

The local level also includes schools and agencies, like Catholic Care, as well as hospitals and aged care institutions. All provide avenues for staff and clients to engage with the larger institution.


"We are taking on trust the claims by church leaders that everything is on the table and it will not be business as usual. But we are worried that those assurances will not come to pass."


This complexity is also a mixed blessing in approaching participation in the processes of the 2020 Plenary Council, which many reformers are planning to do though with a mixture of trust and scepticism. We are taking on trust the claims by church leaders that everything is on the table and it will not be business as usual.

But we are worried that those assurances will not come to pass, either because real reform is out of the hands of the Australian church or because there is no firm intention of constructing a broad agenda which includes structural and cultural issues such as the absence of women from decision-making and the barriers to lay leadership.

For that reason it is essential that the bishops engage with the ACCCR communique and release the response of their Truth, Justice and Healing Council to the royal commission to the Catholic community when they receive it in late April. Furthermore, a lay woman co-chair should be appointed to the Plenary Council leadership without further ado to provide the necessary gender and lay/clerical balance.

In general both church reformers and church officials should be much clearer — and in the case of church leaders much more transparent — about levels of responsibility within the church. That would make it plainer what precisely can be achieved within the Australian church within parishes and dioceses and collectively nation-wide. That in turn would make it more obvious what each level can reasonably be expected to do when it comes to institutional reform. A great deal of inertia and buck-passing, and ultimately dashed expectations, will be avoided if that is the case.




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, royal commission, plenary council



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Existing comments

' Some reformers will find themselves welcomed by a progressive bishop or priest, but others will be stymied by apathy and conservatism'. True. And at the parish level some would-be reformers will be stymied by their perception that the parish priest is exhausted and depressed and overwhelmed by his current burden. We'll assume that without the priest's active support, there's nothing we can do except whinge. Maybe we're right, too..!

Joan Seymour | 01 April 2018  

There are big questions about legal, ethical and moral responsibility in the Catholic Church in Australia, also. For example, organisations purporting to be Catholic own pokie gambling machines in NSW especially. In fact, these organisations own 1000's of machines and make some donations to charitable causes. including Catholic Church causes. Sometimes 'ownership' is an obscure concept in situations like this. There may be trusts with Church authorities connected who do what the Church wants without taking any responsibility. This is especially interesting given the harm that pokie gambling machines are known to cause.

Kate Sommerville | 01 April 2018  

How Catholic media is organised, censored and narrowly focused on ‘happy’ news rather than the 'good news’ arose at the Canberra meeting John Warhurst mentions. The local diocesan publication, 'Catholic Voice' has no letters to the editor in Canberra; similarly, with the Wagga diocesan publication, 'Together', despite its ironical title. Reformist perspectives are rarely sought. In contrast, are the published views of a Catholic priest in Sydney: ‘those who are divorced and remarried civilly are living in an objective situation of grave sin and if they engage in acts of intimacy they are committing adultery’; they should live as brother and sister, abstaining from acts of sexual intimacy’. On proof of the existence of purgatory he postulates “near the Vatican in Rome there are exhibits of ten artifacts related to appearances of souls in purgatory, all of them involving burn marks.” How would Catholics rate the bishops’ performance in the media in Australia during the period of the RC? How would Francis Sullivan be regarded? In 2014, MIchael Kelly SJ spoke forthrightly at a Thomas Moore forum in Canberra about his long experience with Catholic media. 'Eureka Street' and 'Australian Catholics' provide discussion forums. What are the obvious conclusions?

PeterD | 01 April 2018  

John, Sadly I was unable to make the last meeting of ACCCR as my wife was attending a singing practice for our Parish Choir for the Holy Week Ceremonies just concluded. From my experiences as a Catholic School teacher, a past member of Parish Council, a past Parish Pastoral Associate and a member of the laity for the past 69 years , meaning I remember the pre Vatican 11 Church in my school days , I don't hold much hope that we will see any real reform of the Church structure in my life time, as much as I wish for change. I am embarrassed by the machinations of the various parts of the Church administration towards the findings of the Royal Commission . While no doubt various leaders of various organizations within the Church will go through the ritual of apology and promise of reform when the findings are realised, I am realistic enough to realise nothing will change unless revolt from the laity forces change. Change has happened in the past with horrific consequences and no doubt will happen again in the future . When will we ever learn?

Gavin | 01 April 2018  

Fear of loss of control, as in loss of authority by the leadership, appears to be the underlying problem and it is a justified fear, under the present hierarchical structure. So how can an institutionalized clergy relinquish some of the reins of control? Our Lord Himself has given the Church the means to create a cultural fundamental shift (See my post in the link below), as in a change of direction, to a more inclusive church, one of manifest humility, the true basis for equality (Inclusion) in service. …”May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me”…..This pray for unity can only be accomplished in humility and the type of humility we need to see, is in all of us coming out from our hiding places, from within the bushes, so to say, to a place where we are prepared together, to openly embrace humility/honesty. I believe that the Shepherd leader for a new invigorated church will be a humble one, with the capacity to discern and direct the potential in others… 1 of 2

Kevin Walters | 02 April 2018  

Continued 2 of 2 ….leading them also to become Shepherds, who together hold each other responsible for their combined actions, underpinned by ‘total honesty’… The serving of the Truth in all situations would be the binding mortar holding these new emerging structures together… The essence of Love is Truth, we all fall short in the actions of Love, but no man or woman can excuse dishonest before their brothers and sisters, who would serve the Truth, for to do so would be an attempt to destroy the mortar (Humility) of that unity. But for me, today is not the time to discuss potential scenarios of development, because without a fundamental shift of direction by the leadership of the church, the Church will continue to dissipate, because its proclamation of Love of God and love of neighbour, without the serving of the Truth, is to blind oneself to the on-going reality of the present situation within the church. Please continue via the link a way forward in humility. http://www.catholicethos.net/errors-amoris-laetitia/#comment-167

Kevin Walters | 02 April 2018  

Thanks John. I agree with your statement, "But we are worried that those assurances will not come to pass, either because real reform is out of the hands of the Australian church or because there is no firm intention of constructing a broad agenda which includes structural and cultural issues such as the absence of women from decision-making and the barriers to lay leadership. For that reason it is essential that the bishops engage with the ACCCR communique and release the response of their Truth, Justice and Healing Council to the royal commission to the Catholic community when they receive it in late April. Furthermore, a lay woman co-chair should be appointed to the Plenary Council leadership without further ado to provide the necessary gender and lay/clerical balance." Unless lay Catholics speak up strongly now, I think little will change in the Australian Church.

Grant Allen | 02 April 2018  

The "dilemma of just where to begin" for the self-appointed reformers of Christ's Church, entrusted to the papacy in whatever it looses or binds on Earth until the end of time, might be to first establish the authority through which they act. I know that they would claim that their authority is the Spirit. Does that mean that the Spirit has abandoned the established Church and papacy in favour of the reformers? Perhaps they should begin with the divine vision in accord with God's word rather than with the human desire for empowerment.

john frawley | 02 April 2018  

It is my understanding that the Truth Justice and Healing Council has provided the bishops with their report and indeed that the protest in Canberra was a demand that the report be made public. Again the victims are left to wait until after the next bishops' meeting in May. Further delay just adds to the abuse as victims are again ignored. No matter what the recommendations from the Royal Commission are, you can only lead a horse/elephant to water. However, we already have laws that may finally "encourage" a long awaited Christian response should such laws be enforced to end the Church's charitable status. It would be a harness to ensure the justice and responsibility that has been missing will finally be assured into the future. It takes a strong harness to control an elephant!

Patricia Hamilton | 02 April 2018  

What a mammoth task before the reformers. The aim of the reformers should always to be finally neglected. It may take some time but worth the effort.

Pam | 03 April 2018  

Reforms in this article encompass justice for victims of sexual abuse, an increased role for women in the Church, improved governance and leadership procedures. What about reforms around other non-scriptural Church practices and teachings? What about the following changes: making celibacy for clergy voluntary; ending church annulments; cease teaching on indulgences; letting theological constructs such as Purgatory lapse; completely changing how divorcees are teated in the Church; aligning teaching on birth control with practice etc. Any of these issues ignites controversy in Rome and with conservative Catholics and are seen only as the proper domain of ordained clergy? More radical reform needs to explore what is common and obvious to many western Catholics: some Church teachings inhibit living a full life in Christ and following the gospel values. There are strong reform arguments to support the idea that Christian spirituality, the call to holiness and living a life of love/service to our neighbour are not enhanced by some traditional doctrine and teaching of the Church. Is it anathema to even consider reform?

PeterD | 03 April 2018  

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, following reformers like her namesake of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola had some advice on where to begin with reform in the Church - "ourselves". Structural change, even if legitimate, would be a hollow and, I daresay, self-destructive exercise without personal examination of motive and metanoia.

John | 03 April 2018  

Great fervorino, John, with some blisteringly precise suggestions to take the matter further. There's not a moment to lose. I nominate Joan as Co-Chair. Will you accept, please Joan? I shall forward your nomination to both Francis Sullivan and the ACBC as soon as I see your assent published in these columns. And that goes for all other competent and willing women who may wish to put their hands up here. Thanks.

Michael Furtado | 04 April 2018  

When I think of the possibility of change I pray."Lord I believe.Help Thou my unbelief". So far, even in this season of hope from hopelessness, the unbelief is still winning. But in my heart I do believe that God is weeping too. Don Maclean had it right. "They did not listen.They're not listening still. Perhaps they never will..." Having said that there ARE bishops who listen.There are priests who listen. And one person and God is always a majority.

Margaret | 04 April 2018  

Thanks for your carefully considered article John. It saddened me as I read it and as I continue to progress my own case within the Catholic Church. I'm lucky enough to have found an affirming Jesuit parish but I feel so alienated from the Church hierarchy as it continues to be insensitive and obstructionist. So much has to change and I'm pessimistic that it can. There are many senior in the church who don't want to include women at all, some of them actually view women as corrupting and unclean. Its a dismal outlook only improved when you find your own small Church community.

Carol | 04 April 2018  

Endeavours to reform the Church have been ongoing for the past nearly sixty years. Not one item on the liberal agenda has been accommodated by the bishops(eg contraception, married priests, ordination of women, acceptance of homosexual persons, etc, etc., etc). Meantime, progressives, who have replaced reform-seeking with adapted Christian practice, know that their liberal cousins' recent efforts are likely to be quashed, and for many reasons. Least of all, because the bishops have themselves not done the work needed for navigating change.

Jane Anderson | 04 April 2018  

as usual john makes a collection of relevant points in relation to the reform of the church in Australia but what i find so hard to comprehend is why the hierarchy and rest of the clerics cannot or refuse to see the obvious - five million indicate that they have some affiliation with the church but only half a million are active participants if Sunday mass is to be the gauge while four and a half million have already indicated where they stand.

nick agocs | 04 April 2018  

Carol: The real problem is 'sin', not females as in feminism, and we have to confront its reality in the present moment. The church needs to teach love of God and of neighbour, now today, in our brokenness, to both male and female….“And God said to the woman “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over you “… Power (Rule over) without Love/Truth corrupts and womankind has suffered under the jackboot of man since the ‘Fall’. We see this misogyny in…..Woman is a temple built over a sewer.–Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)…..Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God. –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)….As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence. –Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 13th century…. The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)…..These cruel and misogyny remarks/attitudes go on and on throughout the ages and are unchristian, as headship was, in fact, used to justify domestic violence and tyrannical dominance. To articulate, loud, clear, in concise Truth against these ingrained attitudes, of many males within the church, now and throughout the ages, is to be in harmony with these words Gal 3:28 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus'..Please consider continuing in the link http://www.catholicethos.net/original-feminism-catholic-church-pro-woman-organization-world/#comment-203

Kevin Walters | 04 April 2018  

Every person is (also) an Ecclesia (a church). Macarius of Egypt.

AO | 06 April 2018  

I made some comments above about Catholic Media and focussed on one specific area: the lack of a letters-to-the-editor column. Since making those comments I have gone a little further, reading five print back copies of the Wagga diocesan paper, 'Together" as well as copies of the Canberra/Goulburn archdiocesan paper 'Voice'. What strikes me in both cases is the professionalism and journalistic expertise of the editors who do an enormous amount of work getting these publications to print and online. I still stand by my view, however, that it is abysmal that there no letters columns in these publications. The absence of these columns is in no way connected to the editors' preferences but are more closely related, in my view, to policies adopted by the clergy who have overall responsibility.

PeterD | 07 April 2018  

Australians must be encouraged to read Anson Shupe's books, 'In The Name Of All That's Holy: A Theory Of Clergy Malfeasance' (1995) and 'Spoils Of The Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct And Religious Community' (with an introduction by A.W.Richard Sipe). The two books are crucial to understanding the dynamics of clergy misconduct and institutional complicity. Both discuss unaccountable, secret, exclusive, governance practices, deliberate institutional inertia, deficiencies of a homosocial clerical system, leadership and clergy malpractice. Shupe boldly faces and questions, 'Why do men and women of faith and integrity rally behind leaders and clergy who prove to be unquestionably guilty of misconduct or even crime? Why does the mass of a faith community remain silent even when it has awareness and sometimes incontrovertible evidence of clergy misdeeds? Why do some communities ostracize the whistleblower? How do faith communities conspire to conceal malfeasance? Why do some faith communities fragment and others do not when the misdeeds of the religious leaders come to light?' The book discusses, 'The responsibility for the Catholic Bishop to preserve his flock from violation is clear. The Catholic Church's general knowledge of sexual abuse of minors by clergy is well established and documented. Multiple regulations were written and promulgated by the Vatican in 1662, 1741, 1890, 1922, 1962 and 2002. Awareness of the problem of priests' and bishops' sexual activity is not a recent phenomenon. Sexual abuse of minors has deep systemic roots. Understanding the sociology of clergy malfeasance is of critical importance for dealing with and solving this incessant religious juggernaut.' (Sipe) A.W.Richard Sipe notes in his introduction, 'Rightly it can be taken for granted that communities of faith seek integrity. At the same time we have to admit that the history of religions is peppered with misconduct, malfeasance, crime, and corruption of its elite-its clergy and leaders.

P Boylan | 08 April 2018  

Perhaps, P Boylan, the believers in the "faith community" do not react to malfeasance because, like Christ, they choose to forgive rather than "caste stones" and, like Pope Francis, believe its not their place to judge

john frawley | 09 April 2018  

A response to John Frawley. These questions were posed by A.W. Richard Sipe, a certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor who spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest. He was trained specifically to deal with the mental health problems of Roman Catholic Priests. In the process of training and therapy, he conducted a 25-year ethnographic study of the celibate/sexual behaviour of that population. Sipe poses bold questions to the Catholic congregation. He states that 'critical questions are often resisted and rejected, even when the stakes for restoring integrity to the faith community are monumental.' Sipe notes, 'The challenge is for the community to understand why and how such (criminal) behaviours are able to occur in religious organisations.' He states, 'Clerical elites, not only in the Catholic Church, consistently try to reduce problems to the "psychological motives of greedy, weak, or sick personalities." But clergy malfeasance "occurs in a systemic, or structured, context and is not merely the result of a 'few bad apples in the barrel,' however discomforting that thought is to any religious apologist or believers." Here is the link: http://www.awrsipe.com

PBoylan | 11 April 2018  

Hullo PBoylan There are at least two perspectives one can adopt to ‘malfeasance’. One is a response in charity and the other adopts a social justice perspective. The word ‘malfeasance’, of course, is a soft covering for a betrayal of core gospel values. Instead of ‘let the little children come unto me…” it has been perverted by many christians to ‘let the little children come unto me and suffer”. John Frawley’s response is one of charity: forgive the sinner; do not judge; do not cast stones; or as Hamlet says: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive. Against [them] aught. Leave [them] to heaven.” The social justice perspective tends to explore the subtext, the underlying root causes and seeks to address relevant issues. Why have so many clergy in different countries sexually abused children? Is there something in Catholic Church structures that allowed this to occur? Is celibacy an issue? Is the psychological assessment of young seminarians an issues? Is the top-down, hierarchical processes of the Church a factor? Or as you note in the quote, systemic, structured context within the Church? The two responses are not incompatible; more complementary in my view. But the first, without the second, is negligence and puts future victims at risk.

PeterD | 12 April 2018  

After 5 year of investigation and research, the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse’ Final Report, Religious Institutions Volume 16, Book 1, (pg 34-51) lists contributing factors in the Catholic Church as Individual Factors, Clericalism, Organisational Structure and Governance, Leadership, Canon law, Celibacy, Selection, screening and initial formation, Oversight, support and ongoing training of people in ministry, Sacrament of reconciliation (confession).

pboylan | 12 April 2018  

John, 'everything is on the table'? Is there a source for this statement? I ask because Christopher Prowse' editorial in the current Catholic Voice seems to say otherwise - it suggests that the status quo will remain untouched. The composition of the Plenary seems to back this up (see the FAQs on the Plenary website http://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/faq/ ): church hierarchy will comprise at least twice as many as clergy and retired bishops, plus laity. So if the hierarchy take (say) 200 seats at the Plenary, that leaves up to 100 for the clergy, the retired bishops, and the laity. But not all votes are equal. Some (unspecified, but we can guess who they are) have a deliberative vote and these will decide the decisions made at the Plenary. The others have a 'consultative vote', whatever that is. The result should any governance or accountability proposals get that far seems pre-ordained: church bureaucracy, protecting its position against any challenges. A friend once wept on my shoulder saying 'I am a Catholic in spite of, not because of, the Church'. I could only try to empathise at the time, now I too feel the tears coming. I fear the fix is in.

Ed Cory | 14 April 2018  

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