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Patchwork quilt church inhibits national action

  • 05 November 2020
There is a good reason why the term Australian Catholic Church is frowned upon in official circles. It does not exist. Instead, it is a patchwork quilt of fiefdoms called dioceses. It lacks an energising central authority which, when it needs to, can generate and shape a national church response.

The kindest thing we can say about the Catholic Church in Australia in this regard is that we celebrate diocesan and other differences. The quilt shines forth in different colors and patterns. That has benefits, but it also has limitations. It can reduce the Catholic experience in Australia to a lucky dip.

During the pandemic Australians have learned a lot about federalism, including the strength of state borders and the limitations of central authority. The national cabinet has worked to respect the independence of the eight state and territory jurisdictions while maintaining some semblance of national cohesion.

Similarly, Australian Catholics are learning a lot about the territorial divisions within our church as it attempts to pull together in the lead up to our greatest contemporary challenge, the national Plenary Council (PC). If Scott Morrison finds national leadership difficult then so must Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops conference (ACBC) and Tim Costelloe, chair of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council. They wouldn’t even identify with the term national leader.

There are 28 territorial dioceses in Australia, plus five Eastern Rite dioceses. Imagine if the Australian federal system was dismantled and replaced by that many states and territories. How well would we have dealt with the pandemic and how would we have managed borders? That is the situation we are dealing with within the church.

We have national church institutions, such as the ACBC, and in this instance a Bishops Commission and a Facilitation Team for the PC, but they must direct by persuasion and education.

'Some bishops say that they are waiting till after the PC to move in this direction, effectively to see how the wind blows. Like the better Sydney to Hobart skippers they should actively seek out the wind by taking the steps at their disposal rather than sitting back.'

In the case of the PC observing progress towards the goal is a bit like watching the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. The boats are of different sizes and capabilities. Skippers vary in ability. Some seem to be becalmed while others have the wind in their sails. The diocesan fleet is