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Painful times for Church reformers


Two recent events frame the many discussions within the church reform movement, while many of its constituent groups continue to engage with the international Synod on Synodality. Pope Francis suddenly announced in a major interview with an American television network that ordaining women deacons, a long-held aspiration of the movement for women’s equality in the church, would never happen. For many reformers this was the final straw, dashing any remaining hopes for concrete action on what was still supposed to be a ‘live issue’, though sidelined to a Synod study group. Remarkably though, some like the irrepressible campaigner Phyllis Zagano, are still optimistic that long-term reform, years beyond the current Synod, might still be possible.

About the same time the official Australian Catholic Mass Attendance Report 2021 reflected once again the local church’s abysmal state. Its decline, one factor in generating calls for reform, has continued unabated. Frequently reported under the headline ‘the church is now online and multicultural’, this report showed that regular church attendance, admittedly in the COVID era, had plunged again since 2016, from a dismal 11.8 per cent to just 8.2 per cent of Catholics (itself now only 20 per cent of the Australian population). The attendance figure, a good measure of identification and belonging, for male Catholics is now below 8 per cent, while women are higher. In one diocese, Maitland-Newcastle, the overall figure is less than 4 per cent. The attendance figures also highlight the increasing diversity of the Catholic community, with 13 per cent of Catholics attending Mass in a language other than English. The attendance figures for Eastern Rite Catholics are sky-high and, in some cases, rising.

My reflections follow involvement in a local meeting in late April and an international meeting of Catholic Church Reform International (CCRI) in early May, which discussed its draft submission to the Synod.

In both cases the resilience of church reformers continues to amaze me. The Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform maintains its long-running series of excellent Zoom speakers. But inevitably the level of trust and optimism is slowly fading away. Even the official report on the Australian submissions to the second assembly of the Synod in October was open about the consultation fatigue within the church.

This is in marked contrast to the situation that existed in 2017. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had just concluded its enquiries as had the church’s own Truth Justice and Healing Commission. Many Catholics, sensing the crisis, were keen to hold the church authorities to account.

Later that year the Plenary Council began to take shape and extensive community consultations followed. There was widespread engagement through several hundred thousand participants and 17,500 submissions. A significant minority of Catholics possessed enthusiasm for reform and, more importantly, still trusted that their voices would be listened to by bishops.

That is no longer the case seven years later. We Australian Catholic reformers are tired and, in some cases battered and bruised, from engagement with the church. We are also older. Most of us have lost hope that reform will occur in our lifetime.


'The reality is that the official Church treats reform groups with disdain. It doesn’t even recognise their positive contribution to public church debate by empowering Catholics.'


We are now witnessing a changed dynamic within the movement. The balance within its component parts has changed towards a more pessimistic view of officialdom. A minority is still hopeful; a few even remain optimistic, but most are struggling.

The majority view now is that reform groups have been too reactive to the official church. This view, always one strand, is that engagement has proved to be a dead end. We instead need to model what being church should look like and stop trying to reform the institutional church because that goal is no longer achievable.

There is a widespread agreement now that the Plenary Council didn’t deliver. This is a bitter pill for reformers to swallow given the enormous effort which went into community engagement.

The Australian church missed ‘catching the wave’ of some popular enthusiasm during 2017-2022. Worse than that it has given reformers no credit and instead ground their voices down by obfuscation and delay.

The majority view among reformers now is that the Synod won’t deliver the necessary reforms either. It has been made clear that ‘embedding cultural change’ is the Pope’s objective. That is, building ‘a synodal church’.

The Synod has steered away from confrontation and hot button issues. Women’s equality, a regular priority in continental submissions, ironically is one of them and, despite kind though patronising words, the Pope has now made clear that won’t happen.

What the church needs now is not faithful engagement but disruption. It certainly needs disruption on the ‘woman’s equality’ issue. What that might mean in practice is not clear, but something must be done even if fragmentation follows.

Most reformers now believe that the western Church is dying, or at least the Vatican 2 Church is dying. The Mass Attendance figures for 2021 confirm this. Whatever survives in Australia won’t be the Anglo-Celtic Vatican 2 church, but something quite different.

By participating in strictly circumscribed diocesan events, many think we are colluding with officialdom. That is a sad conclusion. Behind the relatively benign idea of consultation ‘fatigue’ lies the darker notion of consultation ‘resentment’. The ‘Emperor Church’ has no Clothes. The scales have fallen from the eyes of many reformers.

The reality is that the official Church treats reform groups with disdain. It doesn’t even recognise their positive contribution to public church debate by empowering Catholics (see the latest document reporting on the limited implementation of the Plenary, which does at least give credit to Garratt Publishing and Yarra Theological Union).

Similar themes are evident internationally. There is still some remarkable willingness to engage, but the balance has moved from relative optimism to prevailing pessimism.

For international groups like CCRI the central issue must be equality for women. Some are still optimistic that Francis remains on track; that perhaps the 2024 session of the Synod may not be the last; that the Study Groups will evolve into something productive. But this is a minority position. Nevertheless, the majority persists with the 2024 Synodal process in Rome, still hoping that our voices will be ‘heard’ by the institutional church.

Where to from here? Reformers may still throw a light on the Synod as distinct from trying to influence it through participation. But that distinction must be clear.

Group and individual effort and advocacy still play a positive role. Shining lights among Australian reform groups include Women and the Australian Church (WATAC), Sense of the Faithful (SF) in Melbourne and Concerned Catholics Tasmania (CCT). WATAC models an alternative church through Australian Women Preach, SF does valuable evidence-based tracking of Plenary Council implementation, CCT engages with the Tasmanian church community and pressures the official church as best it can despite the conservative environment in that state.

These are painful times for the church reform movement. The distinction between hope and optimism has been explored by writers like Vaclav Havel and Seamus Heaney. Like them I don’t expect ‘things to turn out well’ though I remain convinced that there is ‘good worth working for’ within the church.




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Man sitting in church. (Stefan Kunze/Unsplash)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Church, Reform



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Existing comments

It is interesting and must mean something when the attendance at [adherence to] the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches is 'sky high'. Perhaps that is because these churches, albeit in union with the Roman Catholic church under the authority of the Papacy, did not rush off and destroy their Church by putting their own desires and interpretations on the proclamations of the Vatican II council, which, in fact, did not alter one major tenet of teaching along the lines that the so-called, self-appointed reformers have been seeking - in "the spirit of Vatican II". It is surprising that these reformers seem to be losing faith in their goals for reform. After all, much of what they seek has already been in place for nearly 500 years in the Protestant Churches born with the sixteenth century Reformation of Luther and the murderous adulterer, Henry VIII. Perhaps the best way to cope with their despair and disappointments in the failure of the Church to change its teachings to suit them, they could be deliriously happy tomorrow if they all simply waddled off and joined the Protestant Churches that already accommodate their personal desires.

John Frawley | 29 May 2024  

Have you read Lucia’s poem on the twentieth century death of Catholicism, John? I do not know if Lucia, Jacinta ad Francisco received the message from a sad young Lady, or like Nietzsche, pondered the collective Europa under-conscious. Does it really matter? They all saw the same hell, anyhow!

That the procession led by the “bishop in white” was massacred by the military came as no surprise for me. It was delayed justice. That Vatican crowd has been doing dirty deals with every megalomaniac mass murderer since 312.

I am not saying that the reforms you advocate are unimportant. Rather, the changes we have been living through for at least fifty years are deeper than who gets to lead the procession.

When Vatican II ended I was about the same age as the young Lady of Lucia’s vision, yet I have never thought the Council was all that important. But, Pope John was right to call it. Angelo was a true son of the Italian peasantry – not unlike myself – who had lived through the twentieth century slaughters. In their aftermath something of the soul had to change.

With Lucia’s poem it was the last sentence which caught me a bit off guard. The angels gathered the blood of the martyrs and sprinkled “the souls that were making their way to God”. I don’t know if Friedrich was ever that optimistic.

Fosco | 29 May 2024  
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'That the procession led by the "bishop in white" was massacred by the military . . . was delayed justice.' You don't think you might be going the early crow, here, Fosco? After all, the papacy persists, there are still over a billion Catholics in the world, and Africa's numbers, to the dismay of latter day Malthusians and other doomsday prophets, are on the increase.

John RD | 03 June 2024  

My comments are in the context of our much beloved Europa, a culture in to which I was born and have lived for more than the biblical three score and ten.

There are plenty of people in the Vatican talking about the apostasy sweeping Western societies. But, I prefer to call it a “Death”, and seek guidance in Apparitions and Seers rather than Head Office careerists.

A son of the European peasantry is allowed to seek truth among the superstitious.

If people in Africa, and any other place, find their understanding of the teachings of Jesus and St Paul helpful in this moment of history; all I can say is good luck to them!

Are you saying I am making an early crow on the Death of the Church, or an early crow on people making their way to God guided by the sacrifices of noble people who went that way before them?

Fosco | 05 June 2024  

Can we cut to the chase? All this talk about processes obscures the fact that there are, ultimately, only a few outcomes being sought by 'reformers':

Opening the priesthood to women (which will also lead to opening the episcopacy and papacy to women, and, with unravelling logic, opening the priesthood, episcopacy and papacy to single and coupled self-identifying homosexuals and transgenders) 

Syncretistic mixing of Catholic thought with understandings from other secular and religious cultures with admixed thought eventually translating into admixed practice. 

The distracting of the Church from its mission towards various political and social fads (reparations, etc.)

Why don't we talk specifically about those outcomes?

roy chen yee | 30 May 2024  
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The issues you identify are important ones, Roy - they all bear on the nature of the Church and its mission today.

John RD | 06 June 2024  

This article is jampacked with material, some of it quite loosely related, on the subject of reform. I am unsurprised the attendance figures in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle are so abysmal. That was one of the worst places for paedophilia and the disgraceful attempt at its coverup. Australians are not sheep and ecclesiastical shillelagh wielding no longer works. Tasmania is a different case and the Church and its Archbishop have been under great pressure since he attempted to make quite clear what the Church's teaching on marriage was. I think attempting to disrupt the Church there would be both disloyal and a disaster. I do not preach a mindless and unthinking loyalty, but, if you are a member of an institution, you do owe it some loyalty, unless it goes completely off the rails. I suggest the Church hasn't gone off the rails. There is no reason for complacency and I think the Church here needs to be less hierarchical and come down more to the people. I thought Phyllis Zagano was quite sound on women deacons, but the Pope disagrees. Perhaps he sees it as a possible stepping stone to the ordination of women. This is a red hot issue. The Church's position is that it goes against the Magisterium. I concur. The Eastern Rite Churches mainly have married priests. They also have a strong feeling of belonging. With the breakdown of Irish-Australian tribalism the Australian Church has lost that. I think it needs to regain that. How? A very good question and one which needs pondering.

Edward Fido | 30 May 2024  
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A sense of belonging, necessary for identity and unity, is fostered by shared beliefs and practices.
In the Catholic Church's life and liturgy, the unity desired by Christ is neither served nor conveyed by individualistic interpretations of Scripture and morality, nor by replacing of traditional Nicene and Apostles Creeds with personally invented ones, effectively distorting and denying the received content of the faith and promoting division in the celebration of the Eucharist.

John RD | 05 June 2024  

Thanks for your sensitive analysis, John, which is always appreciated. I continue to call myself Catholic and to attend Church for Mass and other celebrations. However, I have no involvement with Church community, connection to priests or any religious. That aspect of Church is dead to me now and probably for my life. I have no respect for Church hierarchy but still enjoy the sacramental life of Church just minus the human aspect sadly.

Carol | 30 May 2024  

Synodal events are a good thing. It's not healthy for either entity or member for a member of an entity to have no formal participation in it, whether it be a parent's involvement in their child's school, a shareholder's involvement in the company in which they have an investment, a ratepayer in the proceedings of their municipal council, and so on.

All congregants should, at least occasionally, attend parish meetings, consider standing for parish councils or take an interest in who the candidates are, and do the same for higher level lay bodies.

Interest and/or participation in synodal events by congregants who support measured consideration of what continual revelation means are a moat and bulwark for and of great assistance to the apostolic leaders of the Church.

roy chen yee | 31 May 2024  

Fosco. I can't find Lucia's poem to which you refer o my computer. Would you be kind enough to give me a reference to it in reply to this post.

John Frawley | 31 May 2024  
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I was referring to the vision part of the third secret of Fatima which was made public on June 2000. You can find it on the following Vatican Archive under title Message of Fatima. If you scroll down to the Third Part there are four hand written sheets by Lucia, followed by the English translation.


You may also be interested in the follow-up controversy that only the vision part was made public and not its interpretation give to Lucia. You can read about that in the following.


I think they make a plausible case.

Fosco | 05 June 2024  

Thank you, Fosco.

John Frawley | 07 June 2024  

John is sadly ‘on the money’ here in conveying the deep sadness the church reform movements feel at this point along the journey. The Plenary Council train seems to have gone into a siding and now we could be convinced the Synodality train is not going to stop at all stations as we were led to believe! Taken together however with the hope (if not with optimism sadly) that Thomas Reese conveys in his NCR 30/5 article “Pope Francis disappoints…” we still can know that not us but ‘the Holy Spirit is the protagonist’(Fr Orobator SJ) and keep banging on the Church’s door! Thanks John as always.

Peter Cowan | 31 May 2024  

Are figures for attendance at church all-important? This all started with a ragtag gang of twelve. Across town, there were much larger crowds in the institution with the infrastructure in place (such as money lenders with tables).
And Matthew 25:31-46 has a rather graphic description of the Last Judgement which does not once mention being assessed on one's attendance at church, but rather aligns with Fratelli Tutti.

Joseph Fernandez | 31 May 2024  

The underlying signature issue is actually the equality of women, both in reality and in recognition. Standing against clericalism, male entitlement and authority, these women are brave and leading the Church forward

The ongoing nasty stains attributed to said clerics will not be cleansed until they are removed from the scene, and new voices emerge to rebuild the Church from basic principles, essentially blindsiding the reactionaries, now dying off.

Good article there, but the restructuring of the Church will be ongoing, regardless of efforts to bring in reactionary forces from the former missions etc

David Tuke | 31 May 2024  

Well perhaps John Frawley, but your hypothesis would be difficult to prove. Instead, perhaps, it's because the Eastern Rite Catholic churches in Australia are tribal churches among small but close-knit diasporas where they serve as cultural, customs, social, language, and mutual support hubs as well as religious centres. A bit like the way Lutherans who settled in SA and QLD, Presbyterians who settled in the Hunter Valley and Victoria's Western District, and Catholics who settled in the Riverina were close-knit communities who retained their own cultural and religious beliefs. (Isn't that what John O'Brien's 'Around the Boree Log' is about?). I'm no more able than you to back that my suggestion with hard evidence, but my gut feel is that my hypothesis is more likely to have legs than yours. What do you think?

Ginger Meggs | 31 May 2024  

Telling and true, John. For my part sharing in the process of reform is nothing less that responding to the invitation of Vatican II and its ongoing development. But we are now few as you say, and there is no organisational willingness to engage in dialogue. It is a rare leader who respects us as people who care deeply for the life of the Church.
I work in a catholic organisation. I am expected to speak, to proffer ideas for renewal and to receive feedback. There is a circle of communication, in which the primary value is respect/human dignity. Leaders in that organisation, often young, with competing family priorities, work tirelessly and hold members to account on together realising organisational gospel-centred values.
Would that those who believe themselves called as 'clerical' shepherds were as attentive and open to the hearts and hopes of their people, so that the organisation called 'church', supposedly a dynamic and relational Body, might flourish!

vivien | 01 June 2024  

Crisis is the natural state of a Christian anywhere in the world. Shuffle around the deck chairs or join the band. The endgame is holiness, not inclusion.

Anthony Palmer | 02 June 2024  

As one woman who has “ consultation fatigue” dating back to the 80s in Melbourne Archdiocese I don’t believe diaconate for women does anything for equality in the church. We need to go back to the early church where the presider at Eucharist was a respected member of the community (male or female) chosen by the community. 

Angela Dupuche | 03 June 2024  

Why should the only Christian Church which has existed from the time of its founding by Jesus of Nazareth two millennia ago, destroy its authenticity by running off and adopting the practices of all the self-professed Churches whose origins date back some half a millennium and less and were founded by disgruntled men and based not on Christ but on personal desires and/or deluded belief in their chosen place in the world?

John Frawley | 04 June 2024  
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John – you may wish to temper your view on the origins of the reformed churches. Luther had more than a bit to say about two issues: the sale of indulgences and the issue of Justification by faith. Post Trent, the Catholic Church ceased selling indulgences and four hundred years later the Catholic Lutheran agreement on Justification by Faith found Luther's position to be compatible with Catholic teaching. This latter agreement took place under the watchful eye of St John Paul II, and, of local interest, was signed on behalf of the Catholic Church by that quiet achieving Aussie Cardinal, Edward Cassidy.

Bill Burke | 05 June 2024  

Notwithstanding Angelo being Portuguese and not Italian, the Fatima apparitions have never attained the status of those at Lourdes, occurring as they did a century and a half ago and speaking to a form of eschatological Catholic piety that has long lost its meaning in a much better educated Catholic world. The faithful, better informed as they are, will not be intimidated by forecasts of doom and gloom when Catholic theology has caught up with the despoliation visited by us on the world. 

And instead of an unwavering attachment to a fixed magisterium, recall all pronouncements of Pope Francis to hold pastoral theology in equal tension with the cannon.

Michael Furtado | 04 June 2024  
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Are we talking about the same person? Pope John was born Angelo Roncalli, on 25 November 1881 in the rural village of Sotto il Monte, in the province of Bergamo in the region of Lombardy, in the then Kingdom of Italy.

Fosco | 07 June 2024  

Anthropologist Kirsopp Lake (1925) predicted that Christianity would slowly become dominated by the fundamentalists.

Lake’s thinking was that while Christian “experimentalists” wanted the church to address justice issues in society, Christian “institutionalists” were most interested in protecting the Church and its traditions.

Institutionalist concerns are to accommodate the disruptive fundamentalists and their dogmatic agenda. The institutionalists want peace at all costs, but this alienates experimentalists, forcing them to leave.

Lake pictures fundamentalism slowly but progressively dominating the church. Eventually, institutionalists leave the Church and the dominant face of Christianity becomes fundamentalist.

Institutionalists persist in protecting the building and the tradition, but most Catholics today are not looking for a building but for a 'spirituality'. Meantime, the core of Catholicism remains largely fundamentalist and retentionist.

Young people rarely set foot in Church. The very word 'Catholic', for educated young people, is associated with extremism, creationism, sexual hypocrisy and assorted 'other-worldly' beliefs.

Against this, Goldberg (NYT, 2021) reports on the decline of fundamentalism, accompanied by anger forcing the rest of us into culture wars, misinformation, violence, xenophobic and homophobic behaviours.

Movements tend to prioritise self-preservation over mission. When mission loses its nerve, extremists take over and anger displaces, and then defines mission.

Michael Furtado | 05 June 2024  

Dear John (Warhurst)

You offer a sombre and realistic 'reading', recognisable by many 'disconsolati', through the everyday discourse of the well-disciplined, commanding respect, two-way engagement and a fearless commitment to truth-telling.

Such journalistic values, well-versed in you, triumph if the light of ethical reporting and analysis is shone on faraway proceedings in cultures that owe their practice to a past historically resistant to change. I know, being of Indian background, which historian William Dalrymple shows ('The Age of Kali', Flamingo, 1999) is replete with tensions and contradictions as India struggles towards modernisation.

As a political scientist, you would understand the dilemma the Anglosphere has with Rousseau, whose post-Enlightenment postulations about the 'General Will', deliberately left bereft of structural supports, led to the French and Russian Revolutions.

In such context leadership, while consultative, drives change, even while promoting 'flat-management' structure/'consent-from-below'/notionally 'representative' mechanisms for discerning the General Will. Hence, with bishops being little more than line-functionaries in a feudal pyramid, the best we can hope for is synodal change by diktat.

I imagine that's what the influence of the Paraclete, shorthand in 'Catholic-speak' for the 'General Will', means when St Paul refers to us groaning inwardly as we 'give birth' (Romans, 8:22).

Michael Furtado | 07 June 2024  
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Just whose 'Catholic-speak' identifies the Holy Spirit with a 'General Will'?
Where in the Gospels does Christ depend on a general consensus for the formulation and acceptance of his teachings, which on his own testimony proceed from his unique relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit?

John RD | 08 June 2024  

Great Question, John! And the answer lies within the great panoply of history which, for Christians, began to unfold with the foundation of the Church, experiencing many major hiccups of the kind that the papacy was intended to deal with after Jesus died and left us to the 'discernment' needed to hear the Holy Spirit's Voice.

You may also have noticed that the Church, tossed on treacherously tumultuous seas, has also had to pursue Her Mission in the midst of competing philosophies, almost all of which, in the derisory terms in which you describe them, are unmistakably 'secular'.

Given then, that the Church, as it were, is thrust, often forcibly, upon stormy and treacherous seas, we Catholics, who constitute part of the Church, must somehow compete with other solutions, most borrowed from management-speak and stretching from the liberal end of the lexicon to the conservative and, God forbid in this day and age, even the absolutist, it makes sense that we employ the only means available to us through which to communicate in a human way, which is through the use of language & culture, to find an as yet unstructured path.

Michael Furtado | 12 June 2024  

' . . . to find as yet an unstructured path.' ?
Highly influential in the discernment of the Church's mission in those early "tumultous" centuries were the theologians we know now as the Fathers of the Church, many of whom, experiencing an incompleteness in the wisdom and teachings of even the greatest philosophers who preceded them, found the illumination they sought in the distinctive revelation of the Christian faith - of its nature, recognised as more than simply a human construct.
Unlike Tertullian, the first classical Protestant, they accepted the relationship between reason and faith as mutually beneficial in the pursuit of truth and its articulation - recognising that final authority for official Church teaching resided in Christ's mandate to Peter and his successors.
Contemporary ideas and terminologies deemed suitable were accepted and employed in the service of the Gospel and its universal message - never, though, as a substitute for the tradition that originated in Christ and the Apostles; a phenomenon that presents perennial challenge for the Church 's mission, and one that, with increasing urgency today, requires, I believe, both discernment and the exercise of apologetics in its
traditional sense of "an account of the faith that is in you."
(1 Peter 3:15).

John RD | 16 June 2024  

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