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The Plenary Council must address structural inertia and church decline



Two documents from and about the church in Australia issued in December last year should be compulsory reading for all Plenary Council (PC) delegates. They offer crucial insights into the state of the church in Australia, and taken together they paint a picture of church inertia and decline.

 Empty pews (x1klima/Flickr)

The first, The Australian Catholic Mass Attendance Report 2016 issued by the National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) is a portrait of contemporary church decline despite the data being almost five years old. The second, the Response of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to The Light from the Southern Cross: Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia (LSC) report is so averse to taking a national view on the major matters of church governance that it verges on national inertia.  

The Bishops’ response addresses the 86 recommendations in the LSC report. Their responses range from agreed, agreed in principle, outside their competence (competence apparently being either with individual bishops and dioceses or the Vatican) and not agreed. Their general remarks range from being highly complimentary of the report to expressing extremely worrying assumptions about the church. In the latter category is the remark that for Catholics the hierarchical structure of the church is a given. This tendentious remark is served up without explanation.  

The bishops’ response is inconsistent and ultimately negative on the matter of one of the report’s key recommendations, mandated diocesan pastoral councils, which they discuss in various parts of their response. At one stage they advise that Canon Law allows and even encourages them, but it does not mandate them. On another occasion they suggest that authoritative church pronouncements encourage them but leave them voluntary. The ACBC refuses to bite the bullet and does not even encourage them for Australian dioceses.  

The context of this inertia is the ACBC’s understanding of its own role, which it accuses the LSC report of misunderstanding. It concludes that other than in 'very limited ways', it 'does not govern the church in Australia; nor does it have oversight over individual bishops'. It is not 'a supervisory layer above the individual Bishops and their dioceses'.  The ACBC steps back much further than is wise.  

The Bishops’ response lacks a positive statement of the collective role that the ACBC might play. It is strong on what it cannot do (no governing, supervision, oversight, or even receiving annual reports from dioceses), but fails to take the opportunity to express any contribution which the bishops collectively can make to a collaborative national vision for the church in Australia.


'The Plenary Council should articulate for the church in Australia a national vision, thus occupying the space vacated by the ACBC given its inert view of its role within the church.'


Yet the Plenary Council by its very nature is a national event tasked with producing a national vision for the church in Australia. This sets up a disconnect between the structure of the church in Australia and any aspirations that the PC may have to renew the church.  

The Bishops express optimism and conclude that demands for reform show that 'people have not given up on the Church but believe we can be a better church in the future'. Yet the Mass Attendance report (2016) confirms that the church is in crisis in Australia. The statistics are so damning that is hard to know where to begin. Among the key highlights this report identifies is the fact that over the past 20 years church attendance among Catholics born in Australia and other English speaking countries has almost halved; attendance overall is ageing and one third of those attending are between 60 and 74; Mass attendance on a typical Sunday is 11.8 per cent of Catholics (9.5 per cent of men and less than 6 per cent of those aged between 20 and 34); as always women boost the attendance statistics (more than 60 per cent of those in attendance); by contrast attendance of those born in non-English speaking countries has more than doubled over 20 years from 18 per cent to almost 37 per cent.  

In measured but strong terms the NCPR leaves no doubt that the picture for the church in Australia is sombre. It concludes that if 2011 (the year of the previous report) was a critical moment then these figures show that 2016 is a more critical and urgent moment than ever before in Australia’s history. The NCPR concludes that 'an extraordinary event or events would need to occur before we witness a reversal — or even plateau — of the declining attendance trends'.  

Given this, and if the bleak picture is confirmed once again by the May 2021 Mass count, then PC delegates should gather in October with a sense of urgency. The Plenary Council should articulate for the church in Australia a national vision, thus occupying the space vacated by the ACBC given its inert view of its role within the church.

We must hope and pray that that PC is the extraordinary event or events that the NCPR suggests is needed to reinvigorate the church. National leadership and deep cultural and structural reforms are needed.



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: Empty pews (x1klima/Flickr)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, ACBC, Plenary Council, mass attendance, church renewal



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Existing comments

Church attendance post-COVID will be even more dismal if my previously vibrant parish is any indication. Many parishioners, mostly women, have found other ways to communion with God as their Church left them to survive alone during the lockdown. This should be the time for a rethink, renaissance, but instead many of our Church leaders and some of our more conservative Catholics are clinging to a hierarchical leadership model that does meet the needs of our contemporary world and certainly does not engage with women who keep the Church going, as you mention in your article. Your insight here is not a hopeful one John.

Carol | 25 February 2021  

I was thinking: how relevant are figures and findings of 2016 today? We have an energising leadership at the Vatican that is making us think more seriously about our mission in the Kingdom of God. Today’s preoccupation is more to do with the “ value “ of the pearl, rather than the number of stones that can be traded in to getting the object of our desire. Bums on pews is not something we can control, so no point trying. More profitable it is make religion and devotion relevant. Numbers will rise as the plant overnight with the blessings of God

Roy Fanthome | 25 February 2021  

Carol 'Many parishioners, mostly women, have found other ways to communion with God..." is perceptive. I think the Church hierarchy in this country are engaged in metaphorically rearranging the deckchairs. Chaucer and Dante, both orthodox Catholics, saw the contemporary evils of the Church of their day. Some ordinary Catholics are far more perceptive than the Church leaders are. There are Catholic priests, such as Fr Mark Goring CC in Canada, calling for a return to a devout and holy life. Unless the Church hierarchy leads this, the current scenario will continue. These are dark days.

Edward Fido | 25 February 2021  

A well reasoned insight John and with the church's leaders still reeling from the findings of the RC (whose findings they snort over), finding a national vision at the PC will be like finding a needle in a haystack. However I think mass attendance post covid (is this post covid?) are rising slightly at least where I attend (if not religiously) though you are right about the age and the breakup. What worries me about the ACBC is the super glued adherence to their titles, hierarchy and their privilege. And your agonizing over the remark 'that for Catholics the hierarchical structure of the church is a given." is only true of the Bishops. I don't believe it for one instant as its the blatant adherence to clericalism and tradition that has led to the entire abuse crisis within the church. When the ACBC retreat into their hallowed bunker like Hitler and his Generals to hammer out their edicts for the disenfranchised Catholics (who pay for their lives of comfort and privilege), perhaps those very same Catholics should consider boycotting the church and its sacraments altogether. Until these very same Bishops start listening to the laity - instead of stubbornly toeing the Vatican line.

Francis Armstrong | 25 February 2021  

You nailed it John. I found the first section is simply marking out the boundaries while offering warm fuzzy comments. So disappointing. May the Holy Spirit raise up those with insight and courage to lead the way through.

Doug Brownlow | 25 February 2021  

"We must hope and pray that that PC is the extraordinary event or events that the NCPR suggests is needed to reinvigorate the church. National leadership and deep cultural and structural reforms are needed." John, I join you and many in this hope and prayer that these reforms are made. May the Holy Spirit guide the discernment of all involved in the Council so that the reforms be fruitful and leadership be provided to enable all of us to contribute our part in love to God's creation.

Bob | 25 February 2021  

I wonder what kind of ‘extraordinary event or events’ would need to occur? The physical dangers posed to everyone in the world by a pandemic? The danger to thousands of years of social progress in the West, posed by the almost total success of a malign philosophy totally opposed to the basic values of Christianity and of the Enlightenment? Aren’t these events extreme enough to shake them out of their lethargy (or despair)? Or haven’t they noticed what’s happening right here in Australia? Or perhaps the event they depend on is the Second Coming, which will relieve them of their pastoral responsibility? “Over to you, Jesus”? But He has no hands here now, but ours, as St Teresa put it.

Joan Seymour | 25 February 2021  

Speaking as a practising Anglican ( once RC now high) the wonderful gender balance is making a real difference Bumbling old boomers continue to bore (myself included) but even they reveal the hand of God occasionally. Once we have female bishops and then (easily) cardinals and popes, all that old grime befuddling our Gospel will fall away, revealing the true glory of Paul’s words about Man or woman no more, but all equal in Christ. 3Rs: Reflect, Renaissance Reform

David tuke | 25 February 2021  

I am uncertain whether physical attendance at Mass is a reliable measure of how seriously any Catholic takes the Gospel into their daily life. In the remarkable intellectual joust with the Samaritan woman, Jesus offers the opinion that the day will come when people will worship the Father neither in Jerusalem nor on Gerizim, but "in spirit and in truth". Personally I feel an intimate connection to the Mass almost as the assumption of the ephemeral into the eternal, and I am certainly not advocating laissez-faire in ritual obligation. What I suggest, however, is to draw a distinct qualitative difference between counting bums on seats (whose motivation for gracing the pews is unknown and unasked - as far as I know) and the practical fulfilment of Jesus' salvific power underpinning the contradictory ebbs and flows of every Christian life, not only on Sundays. Sometimes vestigially but still unmistakably, the Mass is embedded in the worship of almost every Christian tradition. What I am asking is the actual extent to which we Catholics in particular embed, within the communal action of the Mass, our actual "theory of human living" [Gregory Dix] worked out daily, be it imperfectly or nobly.

Fred Green | 25 February 2021  

Much emphasis - as usual - on structural reform; not a word on prayer and spiritual renewal. Justification of the hierarchical structure of the Church can be found in Vatican II 's documents on the Church - there is nothing "tendentious" about the bishops' claim.

John RD | 25 February 2021  

Sad to say, even before the Plenary Council gathers there is a sense of huge disappointment, a sense of a wonderful opportunity lost, among many Church-loving Australian Catholics. Far too many of our Bishops appear unwilling or unable to lead unless Rome tells them what to do. Since 2013 we have had a Bishop of Rome who, happy to say he doesn’t have all the answers himself, has been inviting, urging, the Churches at the peripheries of the Catholic world to make significant contributions to finding ways forward for the universal Church. It would be wonderful if, at this late stage, we had some sense that our Bishops and Council delegates were adopting an approach of “Let’s do something groundbreaking, startling. If necessary we can apologise afterwards, but let’s not seek permission beforehand.” This Council is a gathering of the local Churches of Australia; it is not a gathering of the Australian branch offices of a corporation with headquarters in Rome. Surely we can at least show we understand that piece of Vatican II’s ecclesiology.

Gerard | 25 February 2021  

That you will “reinvigorate the church” just by implementing some “deep cultural and structural reforms” sounds like a pipe dream. I recently read about a Catholic “retreat” for teenagers. It sounded like a therapy session where personal introspection is mistaken for knowledge, and where references to God, Confession, or the teachings of the Catholic Church are buried under a Newspeak designed to neutralize the soul of its supernatural aspirations. Indeed, many seem to hold a contempt for the Catholic tradition of striving for perfection. St Augustine’s bold proclamations of truths have been superseded by what Archbishop Fulton Sheen called “Christ without His Cross”, who is popular for His Sermon on the Mount, but unpopular for what he said about “divorce, judgment and hell.” Old-time preachers understood that religious guidance is most salient when it unequivocally proclaims its truths and spells out punishment for wickedness, but dissipates quickly when it turns to vague platitudes delivered by non-judgmental clergy. A generation that has imparted only a deficient knowledge about its Church and its civilization, looks unconvincing when it seeks to lay blame elsewhere for its failing Church and its enfeebled civilization.

Ross Howard | 26 February 2021  

Sorry I forgot the 'not' in my previous comment, the hierarchical structure should not be seen 'as a given' as it does NOT meet the needs of our contemporary world.

Carol | 26 February 2021  

The inertia within the institution is palpable and contagious. An energy and impetus for renewal is emerging among some Catholics, mainly lay people. that is my hope for the future.

Kevin Liston | 26 February 2021  

The new age Reformation is not only a waste of time but also tolls the death knell for devotion to the Christian God and dedication to the aspiration to personal holiness through a prayerful life and Christlike love for all of His creation without favour. Reform of the Christ-appointed hierarchical administration of His Church nearly 500 years ago by the Catholic priest, Luther, resulted in nothing other than the establishment of a new hierarchy with different power players such as self appointed spiritual directors such as QEII, Defender of the Faith, and loss of universal doctrine/practice. This same loss of validity applies to virtually all of the Protestant religions that have sprung up like mushrooms in a cow paddock in Luther's wake. Luther, in his opinion, was far more enlightened than Jesus of Nazareth and possessed of far greater insight than those delegated the task of caring for His church. The modern reformer can find what he/she clamours for in the already "reformed" Churches - according to Google they have some 41,000 or thereabouts to choose from. It remains to be seen whether Christ turns up to the man-conceived PC or whether the ghost of Luther rules the floor. Hopefully the PC will deal only with the human elements that have created clericalism with its personal and political power and leave those things that belong to God to Him alone.

john frawley | 26 February 2021  

A polite yet deeply concerning assessment, evidence-based and by a member of the organisation! In contemporary management terms in the everyday world the Board would be convened and, on these figures, hold an emergency meeting. The writer of the report would then be invited in to speak without interruption. S/he would almost certainly be thanked for going to the trouble of offering so much positive and helpful feedback, given the state of crisis that these figures reflect and which in everyday language are a cause for immense alarm. So close to decision-day I imagine that the person offering such feedback would be asked to offer suggestions, in the immediate short term to save the organisation from collapse, and in the longer run to offset and obviate terminal collapse. In the few hours since this article was published I asked members of my immediate family - repentant sinners all - to comment. On both sides they spring from many generations of committed and practicing Catholics, with several having attended (and belonging to) Catholic schools, colleges, theologates and congregations. Catholicism in its many forms courses through our veins. It is our life-blood! Without exception they said its time, dear Bishops, to respond.

Michael Furtado | 26 February 2021  

"The Bishops’ response lacks a positive statement of the collective role that the ACBC might play. It is strong on what it cannot do (no governing, supervision, oversight, or even receiving annual reports from dioceses), but fails to take the opportunity to express any contribution which the bishops collectively can make to a collaborative national vision for the church in Australia." So, how does the ACBC understand Pope Francis's bid for a more synodal church? Gearing up for the first synod in 83 years - 84 with the Covid delay - is not a move away from minority clericalism towards participation between the ordained minority and the lay majority who are the Catholic Church in Australia. When the ACBC itself cannot work together (work synodally), what reason is there for hope in significant outcomes from the (now) PC2021?

Ian Fraser | 26 February 2021  

I like your concluding paragraph - your hope and prayer. Having just made my first (skim) read of the released working document I cant see much hope there. The inertia you attribute to the ACBC seems to have invaded the entire PC 2021/22 process: ‘No more boat rocking please; we’re already sinking beneath the waves’.

Dr Francis Donovan | 26 February 2021  

John, you are well on the way to sainthood. Well, if not that then you certainly deserve the recommendation applied to saints that they are to be admired, not imitated. How you maintain your faith and optimism is certainly a miracle - only two more to go. All I can do is thank you for your perseverance in trying to change what seems unchangeable. You certainly have more faith in the Australian bishops, individually or collectively, that I can manage. Their track record is abysmal. I would like to believe that the Plenary Council will signal a new start for the Catholic and other people in Australia ...... Nevertheless, I wish you and the lay delegates well - after all, the light of faith and hope has not disappeared entirely from the planet, or from my heart.

Keith Carlon | 26 February 2021  

John, have you seen this article on a response to this decline by Cardinal Lacroix, archbishop of Quebec City? https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2021/02/25/catholic-church-quebec-reinventing-parish-life-240097 Marianne

Marianne McLean | 27 February 2021  

John RD, sorry old boy, but- "The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks". To hell with Vatican 2 and the hierarchy.

Francis Armstrong | 27 February 2021  

John, your advocacy deserves acclamation and respect. Yet, I will be happy to be wrong, but, I see five factors working against your hopes being realised when the PC is in session. It is instructive to note that as alarming as the mass attendance statistics may be, there are even more worrying church demographics yet to be examined in detail. As one USA Bishop remarked recently - “we are like generals without an army...” This bishop has noticed the absence of adherents in his See, but it is yet to see the problem of likening episcopal oversight to military authority – a problem and proclivity well entrenched among his Australian counterparts.

Bill Burke | 27 February 2021  

Marianne McLean: Fr Claude Lacaille's vision for Church renewal in the article to which you refer appropriately focusses on "youth and small communities" and is based on his experience in Haiti and Chile. In Australia, with the Church's commitment to schooling, new initiatives do not need to look far in engaging youth; and a number of religious orders are invested in encouraging small communities, including refugees. Both ministries are dependent on the Church's wider connection with its mainly middle class demographic and continue to develop direct links with each other to the benefit of both.

John RD | 27 February 2021  

John (Frawley), Your comment seems to ignore two “products” of the divinely-inspired Second Vatican Council. First is the understanding that authority in the Church is to be exercised collegially as well as hierarchically. Second is that the Catholic Church embraces ecumenism. We don’t go round belittling the expressions of Christianity professed and practised by our Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican brothers and sisters. While both of these Vatican II teachings didn’t gain much obvious traction in the nearly four decades of “defensive” pontificates of St JPII and Benedict XVI, they are very much part of the Church’s understanding of itself in the present and for the future.

Gerard | 27 February 2021  

Thanks for the link, Marianne. A very interesting article.

Ginger Meggs | 28 February 2021  

John, In Chile after the revelations of Bishop abuse cover ups of pedophile priests and brothers the entire cohort of 34 Bishops resigned May 2018. In Vic, Bishop Mulkearns knew about Ridsdale and resigned. Pell knew about him and that was 10 years earlier than he declared to the RC."David Ridsdale testified that he told Cardinal Pell in a February 1983 phone call that Gerald Ridsdale had sexually abused him, to which Cardinal Pell allegedly responded: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.” Mr Ridsdale’s account was supported by his two sisters, Patricia Ridsdale and Bernadette Lukaitis, who each told the royal commission their brother called them shortly after his conversation with Cardinal Pell and said the then bishop had tried to bribe him. SMH May 7 2020 The RC had 15,249 reports of sexual abuse, 6433 occurring in religious institutions, approximately 60 % of which were Catholic. These figures are on par with Chile and damning of the Bishops leadership in dealing with the scandal within their church under their watch. Truth be known they've not done anything positive to stop it since or removed any priest or religious from office. So when they say "for Catholics the hierarchical structure of the church is a given" that's like being slapped across the face with an authoritarian mailed glove. If an entire hierarchy can be removed in one catholic country it can happen here also. If they cant be accountable for their supervision, then they shouldn't be in charge.

Francis Armstrong | 01 March 2021  

Gerard. If indeed Vatican II was "divinely inspired" we might have expected that in its wake the church would have been reborn to the greater glory of God. That is manifestly not the case. Clearly the bad has far outweighed the good in the last 50 odd years of the Church's life. I do concede that the ecumenism that we see today is a great outcome of Vat II (perhaps even the only one) but the recognition that the genuine following of Christ is not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church does not establish validity for the man made reformations of the Catholic Church.

john frawley | 02 March 2021  

As many perceptive posters to this thread have said, unless there is a radical return to its roots, the Catholic Church in Australia will remain rudderless and keep going around in circles. Ross Howard mentioned the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose message was spot on. although his presentation now seems a bit dated. Presentation can be updated but the essential message allows of no compromise.

Edward Fido | 02 March 2021  

Tragically, John Frawley's response to Gerard, citing 'man-made reforms' as being to blame, appears not to be far removed from those of some other doom-sayers, who in these columns consistently attribute the collapse of active formal Catholic Church membership after Vatican II to the work of the devil. One is forced to alternatively ask: could such a collapse be attributed to the failure of the hierarchy to follow through with reforms consistent with Vatican II? And might the Paraclete not be fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy as follows. 'Indeed, You have made the city a heap of rubble, the fortified town a ruin. The fortress of strangers is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt.' (Isaiah: 25, 2) As indeed no fortress pretending to be the Catholic Church ever should!

Michael Furtado | 04 March 2021  

The Anglican Communion, in its more progressive Provinces, seems to be rapidly dwindling away, David Tuke. England is basically Post-Christian. In institutions such as the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge you have ordained clerics, both male and female, preaching nonsense about classic Christian beliefs, such as the Incarnation and Resurrection. Thank God my orthodox Church of England clerical ancestors are dead. They would not know the Established Church of today. It is a monstrosity. John RD, as usual, is spot on: you cannot toss out classic Christian Doctrine without becoming a heretic. A heretic is someone who puts him or herself voluntarily outside the Church. No one is going to burn them, but they are imperilling their immortal souls. That doesn't seem to worry them as they appear to have abolished Sin and Hell from their mental universes. Time and Eternity will tell.

Edward Fido | 05 March 2021  

How sad, dear Edward, that you estimate your conversion to Catholicism in such mordant terms. I know many Anglicans who have enriched my Catholicism, rather than offended against it. We are, after all and in this day and age, hardly responsible for the schisms and enmities of the past and regard each other as close followers of Christ. For most of us, our church affiliation is a matter of accident of birth. Cardinal Newman himself said that a powerful influence in his conversion was St Philip Neri and that it was his Anglican upbringing that led him to Rome. St Philip is the patron saint of Rome as well as of the Christian virtues of humor and joy.

Michael Furtado | 06 March 2021  

Good morning, Michael Furtado. I find it extremely difficult to find great "reforms" that accord with "the spirit of Vatican II", something which probably determines my persona as a doom-sayer. Doom -sayers are of course very pessimistic personalities who do not find hope easily. I would hate to lose hope, a signature of the Christian believer. I would greatly appreciate, therefore, some help from fellow commentators on ES to dampen my skewed view of the outcome of Vatican II in the form of a list of good things that have come in its wake, particularly those things which have lead to an increased adherence and practice amongst the Catholic baptised together with a great upsurge in faith and belief which was the intent of the Council. Such a revelation would be of great benefit to me and hopefully others.

john frawley | 08 March 2021  

john frawley: Some of the documents of Vatican II are, I believe, theological achievements; for instance, the Council Fathers' recognition of the vocation and ministries of the laity. Unfortunately, however, for some - not least those who wish to clericalise the laity - it has, for the time being at least, fallen on deaf ears. Hope, though, as you recognise, springs eternal . . . And "Gloom", as Newman says, "is no Christian temper."

John RD | 09 March 2021  

I am not a convert from Anglicanism, Michael: I was born Catholic, although the majority of my ancestors were Anglican. My 'mordancy' perhaps lies in your eyes. One's perspective does effect what one supposedly 'sees'.

Edward Fido | 10 March 2021  

John (Frawley) - There is certainly room for revisiting the achievements and outcomes of Vatican II - but, in lieu of a longer response, can I suggest you visit the Gospel of John, 6:67 - for well founded teachings are not always embraced by those who hear them, as Jesus' intervention indicates.

Bill Burke | 10 March 2021  

John, I waited, of course, and the silence of others spoke this to me. Both of us have children who, while they may not darken the Church doors have gone out into the world to become model citizens, prophets and leaven in the dough. Some of them have dared to have children who, my guess is, attend Catholic schools. Whether they do or not, we are asked to believe that their parental and filial love parallels that of Christ's for the World. In this mode we have just witnessed +Francis visiting Iraq. Not many Christians there, since hundreds have been decimated or have left as refugees; but those who turned up are like specs of gold. Perhaps THAT was to be expected after Vatican II, when we abandoned the model of Church Triumphant and replaced it with an Atoning Church. While that of itself won't raise pew membership, some reasons for that may be gleaned from the following minutes of the ACCCR and two of Australia senior archbishops: https://mail.yahoo.com/d/folders/1?.intl=au&.lang=enAU&.partner=none&.src=fp&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9sb2dpbi55YWhvby5jb20v&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMT4hE3dOIiVncyAvMF8tq3KVqV77kj248YDzc5waqylxBuQZYUbySbNDBEn1xZXepyV9FgUtsHz2J7jeL3nDnN5iEIRLZRwiqsc1CyuvtVPzeRm_VkO-CeVeifQhkkDdiKmIZgMcS8e_i1uzSTvKWr6Xp_AIwW4CD3BPcXWtu1W . That said, the minutes of the meeting, which is reported as having been cordial, sound a note of hope raised undoubtedly by the forthcoming ACCCR Address of Sr Joan Chittister.

Michael Furtado | 11 March 2021  

Michael Furtado might care to explain just who the "we" are, who, " after Vatican II . . . abandoned the model of the Church Triumphant and replaced it with an Atoning Church"; and where, in the Council's documents, is there justification for this alleged change? Traditionally in Catholic understanding, the "Church Triumphant" distinguishes those have attained the beatific vision and communion of saints for eternity in heaven, as distinct from the Church on her earthly pilgrimage towards her final goal. Neither state of the Church's life is expendable, and to assert a rupture between the two as an achievement of Vatican II is simply misleading. Abandonment of her eschatological goal of would deprive the Church of her final purpose as she undertakes her pilgrimage on earth with its attendant moral and social responsibilities for attaining the fullness of Christ's kingdom. (cf Matt. 25: 31-46).

John RD | 12 March 2021  

I think how you 'see' Vatican II depends on the 'spiritual telescope' you use.

Edward Fido | 12 March 2021  

Keep up the good work, John. Look at the advances made by ACRATH, a commendable example of collegial perseverance.

Rhonda Boyle | 15 March 2021  

Michael, unfortunately your link does not work as I tried it more than once to read these words of hope. Joan Chittister was to speak here in 2020 but of course AB Commensoli panicked, thinking we cant have women thinking they might have the right to equality with us (meaning the Bishops). We cant have Joan Chittister emancipating the females who look to us in awe and wonder and pay our weekly dues. Well backed up by AB Coleridge of course. As usual the Bishops believe they have a strangle hold on wisdom and truth. That they alone are the font of guidance for the faithful. What did Jesus say about this? Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them." Luke 11.46 He described them as vipers. Nothing has changed under the sun.

Francis Armstrong | 15 March 2021  

I think that Edward and Rhonda make excellent points. The mission and future of the Church isn't advanced by those who divide over the politicism of our theology but by others, like John Warhurst, who in my view and on all the available evidence of Professor Warhurst's many articles in ES, palpably engage in collegial perseverance. In this regard my puny explanation above was to help draw John Frawley back into the discussion of what is to be done to support a more inclusive and committed Australian Catholicism, rather than to see him, John RD and some others here present languish in the dying embers of broken dreams, bitter recrimination and unbending positions.

Michael Furtado | 15 March 2021  

To address JohnRD's misreading of my use of Triumphalism and Atonement as hallmarks of an ecclesiology changed by Vatican II. In Christian orthodoxy there is no remission of sin without 'the shedding of [Christ’s] blood' (Hebrews 9:26). In the Jewish tradition from which all Christianity springs, atonement is expiation for our sins in order to attain God’s forgiveness. We may achieve this in various ways, including repentance, repayment or restoration for a wrong action, good works, suffering, and prayer. Restoration and changed conduct are usually stressed as the most important aspects of atonement. The 10 'days of awe', culminating in the Day of Atonement that Jesus Himself would have commemorated, whether He was Sinless or not, are centred upon Repentance. Simply because the Gospels don't reference this is as incidental as the Gospel record has precious little to say of the first thirty years of His non-ministering Life. The use, within context by me, of the term 'Church Triumphant' clearly alludes to the trumphalism that used to be a hallmark of the pre-Vatican II Church. If John finds my use of 'atonement' unorthodox, let him replace it with Pilgrim Church. Dom Christopher Butler uses it in his 'Dei Verbum' commentary.

Michael Furtado | 15 March 2021  

Thank you John for keeping us informed about the background issues on the pathway to the Plenary Council. For me there are two concerns. First, the information gathered in each diocese more than two years ago from so few interested lay people might now need to be revised. Second, while I have no doubt that the lay representatives (delegates) chosen by my diocese are very good people, they are representing an abstract diocese rather than the diverse needs of laity. Some bishops seem to be supporting status quo by comments such as - 'don't expect change' and 'hierarchy will remain'. The chance of a successful council is not great.

John Casey | 16 March 2021  

Michael Furtado is at pains here (15/3) to justify his usage of traditional theological terms like "Church Triumphant" - which he regards as synonymous with an odious "triumphalism" - and "Atonement", which he now articulates very differently from the understanding he expresses of it on a previous ES thread, "Making Space for Conversation" (11/3) where he says: ". . . my belief is that Atonement is about the human person taking action to correct previous wrongdoing on their part . . . " when applauding Voltaire's supposed "Enlightenmentarian contributions to contemporary understandings of Atonement." This "tilt" towards the "horizontal", sundered from the "vertical" without reference to the reality of grace - a divine initiative - typifies the secular humanist presuppositions that manifest themselves in an exclusively "horizontal" ecclesiology of many reform-group submissions evident in the Plenary Council process thus far, where thinking according to the 'signs of the times' is based more on soi-disant ideological 'enlightenment' than actual Church teaching and tradition.

John RD | 16 March 2021  

My apologies fellow-contributors for returning to this thread after many days. (Is not checking “Pearls and Irritations” daily a serious sin of omission?) I had a little laugh at someone’s suggestion that Vatican II couldn’t have been divinely inspired; if it had been we would have witnessed a flourishing of the Church. Really? Is that the lived experience of God’s people? What about the sack of Jerusalem? What about Good Friday? Hardly obvious examples of triumph. I’d recommend everyone does themselves a favour and purchases Ormond Rush’s “The Vision of Vatican II” (2020).It is a magnificent work by a great Australian theologian. There is every chance it will become the most important English-language book about the Council. Ormond doesn’t say it, but many will come to see that Pope Francis pressed “Play” on the introduction of the Vatican II way of being the Church. This after two pontificates where the “Pause” button was being held down.

Gerard | 16 March 2021  

Gerard, this is Eureka Street, not Pearls and Irritations. You may well be the Catholic equivalent of 'an intoxicated Sufi' and 'drunk without wine'. This COVID Lent has been a very strange time for everyone. I think I get your point, which is a very good one. Vatican Two did not come from the Realms Infernal. Pope Francis is indeed the right pope for this bizarre age: it needs spiritual sense. I think it may be your Irish ancestry which makes you so poetic. Sadly, I am a more stolid Anglo-Saxon type up top. We all have our heritages. God bless you. You are a good man.

Edward Fido | 17 March 2021  

My tongue was (only slightly!) in cheek, Gerard; and thank you for citing Ormond Rush's new book. I have great hope for the Synod: for the Bishops, for the laypersons who liaise with them, for the Thomases of Doubt whose experiences incline them towards nay-saying, for the Good Friday that faces us around the corner and, especially, for those who read Rush. His discussion of the 'sensus fidei fidelium' should be enough to make all of us - on all sides of this conversation, including our bishops - sit up and think.

Michael Furtado | 17 March 2021  

Hello Prof. Warhurst: History has vindicated us! Let me explain: as stated, after catholic brainwashing school, I joined the 70’s exodus. Like other kindred spirits I felt there was a “sickness” at the core of the so called Church. But, we were wrong: it wasn’t just sickness was it? Bishops, priests and B.A. Santamaria went for it. We had lost the faith, we were ungrateful, led astray by the drugged out music-men of the Permissive Society. Remember the “permissive society”? That was the beginnings of the women’s movement, civil rights movement, gay rights, anti-militarism, environmentalism and lots of other said to be bad things. Not to mention a few CIA funded class wars in Latin American. Sometimes I wonder about the CIA file on Pope Francis. Maybe we can see it before they make him a saint: maybe if we did see it they will not make him one. Most importantly of all was the awakening reality that Christianity was dead. If not dead at least seriously ill, as Bonhoeffer said, or in need of radical change, as Roncalli said. Despite him being a Sicilian (I’m Venetian) I do owe Santamaria a small thank you. Late in life he wrote an article about his beloved Church. Over a few decades attendances had dropped by about 80%; with such a mass movement profound change was happening, he wrote. For me the stat was inspiring: we were the majority. I find your stats even more inspiring: the great change is still happening. Do you know the Leonard Cohen lyric “twenty years of boredom. For trying to change the system from within”? Does it resonate with you and other synod reformers? Way back then, I came across an elderly Jesuit priest who had given a workshop at a retreat for clergy. I was not a participant; my job was only to drive him home. There was nothing on his clothing identifying him as a priest. On the way home, he said he no longer saw himself as one. I asked him about Vatican 2. “We knew there had to be change: we never realised just how deep it was to be”. He chuckled as he said that. Maybe he chuckled at the limitations of our understanding. I asked him whether he would still join the Jesuits – he had been one for about fifty years - if he was young. Times were different and he could not really answer that, but if we were to go back to when his time the answer was “yes”.

Fosco | 17 March 2021  

Stay on track, Fosco. I think there was much in Irish-Australian 'shillelagh Catholicism' of the bad sort where priests, brothers and nuns mentally bashed innocent young souls in the very bad days of the late 50s up until Vatican 2. These people were preaching bulls--t, not Christ's love and compassion. Bob Santamaria was spot on. Perhaps his delivery was a bit outdated for today, but his message, both religious and social, was spot on. Archbishop Mannix was asked by his Anglican counterpart, Dr Frank Woods, how the former could manage his job in his late 80s. The simple answer was he couldn't. He should have resigned and let the estimable Justin Symonds take over while his health remained good. Being a bishop is serious, a job not to be taken lightly. I think our current crop are, in truth, somewhat mediocre and not up to the best in the rest of the Anglophone world, particularly some, not all, in the USA, which does also have its own atrocious ones. I rejoice in you, Gerard et sim.

Edward Fido | 18 March 2021  

Hello Edward: the track you talk about has come to the end of the line. My little story about the elderly Jesuit happened; it isn’t made up. I did not see his private statement of not being a priest as theological. What I saw was a reflective person who for over seventy years had participated in the awesome experience of being human (in all its contradictions), and had come to the conclusion that being a priest was an illusion he no longer needed. Doesn’t the virtual extinction of religious congregations – priests, nuns, brothers – vindicate him? Doesn’t John’s statistics, which have been known for decades and replicated in other Western societies, say that profound change is happening? With Archbishop Mannix and Sanatmaria I only make the judgement I am permitted: their period of history is over. Let me to suggest a living experience. Pick at random one of John’s tutorials, or any sports club, or any meeting place of young people, or young people who have been through catholic schools but out of the system for a few years. Read to them from the Catechism of the Catholic Church the section on the Sixth Commandment. That’s it! That’s all you need to do.

Fosco | 19 March 2021  

Bravo Fosco! I agree. The world has indeed changed. The Orthodox Church - our brothers and sisters - see clergy and laity as being equal and have married priests. We could well do with emulating them and our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters there. The days of our not-so-subtle version of 'Muscular Christianity' enforced by fawning respect for 'Father', religious brainwashing and the strap are long gone, thank God! Some of the old priests, brothers and nuns were a bit 'Wacko Jacko'. We need real respect and a seat at the table for the laity, who run most things these days. The priestly office does not make one a member of a special caste, to be made obeisance to. I do not think you made anything up. I am unsure about the Sixth Commandment reference though. I think one of the problems we have in Australia is that most of our early hierarchs came from Ireland, where the authoritarian church structure paralleled and mimicked the dominant Ascendancy model. We do not need authoritarianism here. Proper exercise of due authority fine, but no authoritarianism. I think this is at the crux of John Warhurst's argument. May God bless and guide us all.

Edward Fido | 20 March 2021  

Francis Armstrong, your ACCCR-ACBC Meeting Info: Meeting responded to ACCCR’s letter, 22/1/21 to President, ACBC re. ACCCR’s concerns for inclusive Plenary Council. AGENDA confirmed (email to bishops 3/3/21): 1. ACCCR mission & membership: Catholics committed to faith, seeking action according to it, accepting concomitant responsibilities. 2. Plenary Council support for challenge of authentically listening to God's People, with Holy Spirit's guidance on practical synodality and subsidiarity 3. Focus based on Vatican II, +Francis, and Canon Law. 4. Primary target: inclusion/accountability/transparency in Church governance, sensusfideifidelium, and their impact on teachings 5. CONCERNS: Woman Plenary Council delegate committed to Church Renewal be appointed co-chair/deputy chair, signifying commitment to women's equality in Diocesan Pastoral Councils/Diocesan Synods/Assemblies (BEFORE Plenary Council) 6. ACCCR Convocations of the Faithful in 2021: First Convocation (May 2): Keynoter, Sr Joan Chittister. COMMENTS: Meeting lasted an hour. No time to address last question above or concern about Statutes and Regulatory Norms for Plenary Council (approved by ACBC without consultation). No apparent regard for Canon 127, precluding bishops acting contrary to the consultative vote without ‘an overriding reason’. ACCCR view: 'Statutes/Regulatory Norms need explicit commitment to canonical provision of inclusion/accountability/transparency with bishops to articulate ‘overriding reasons’'. General Secretary responded: ACBC's canonical advice is that Canon 127 does not specifically apply to Plenary Council. ACCCR's advice: while canon applies to 'superior’, principle applies to ecclesial decision-making generally. Question: Why cannot canonical principle apply to Plenary Councils? (to be pursued). Meeting resulted (a) in a much-improved understanding of the Coalition’s motivations regarding importance of inclusion to Plenary Council (b) conducted in a positive and mutually respectful manner. Bishops and General Secretary expressed seemingly genuine interest in Coalition concerns. (c) Coalition concerns were understood, not just absorbed or tolerated. Should lead to some impact on the process, but further work to be done. (Great Thanks, ES, for publishing!)

Michael Furtado | 20 March 2021  

Michael thank you for the heads up that she is finally allowed to come. That will be a red letter day. As for the ACBC remark that the hierarchy is a given and that the laity should accept it, first: "While visiting Jerusalem's temple a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus seized on the opportunity to educate the multitudes. After warning the crowd (and his disciples) about the hypocrisy of Jewish leaders, he further warns them regarding religious titles vainly enjoyed by such leaders. Christ's teaching regarding religious titles is clear and to the point. He states, ". . . they (Jewish leaders) love the first place at the suppers . . . And the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.' But you are not to be called Rabbi; for one is your Master . . . Also, do not call anyone on the earth your Father; for one is your Father, Who is in heaven. Neither be called Master; for one is your Master, the Christ (Matthew 23:6 - 10). Second, to John RD, the point he makes about clericalising the laity- its no such ambition. We as Catholics should seek to de-clericalize the ACBC so that they learn to get their heads out of their fundaments. Finally Michael, its not a contest on who can make the most clever remark. Surely any fool can see that the current leadership of the Australian chapter have dismally failed to protect children from clerical abuse and when those abuses came to light, covered up their iniquity.

Francis Armstrong | 23 March 2021  

Francis Armstrong: All the talk of "power" (not the graced power of the gospels and Pauline epistles) I've heard in preliminary discussions of the Plenary Council as understood by those desiring a female priesthood to me rings the bell of "clericalism" resoundingly.

John RD | 25 March 2021  

Hello Fosco. Flux is indeed a characteristic of the historical process, but it isn't the only one: the study of history itself reveals basic continuities that define humans: our quest for truth, our desire for beauty, our appreciation of love, our inclination to the good - among the higher of them. Qua historical institution, the Church manifests change - but not such radical change as makes its existence unrecognisable from its manifestations in previous eras. Essential continuities are stabilising elements in the flux, and it is the prerogative and role of those charged with the authority in the Apostolic tradition initiated by Christ to define and teach the essentials in both faith and morals. If Church teachings pertaining to the sixth commandment (or, for that matter, any of the ten) are, as you say, lost on the current generation, I suggest that's just as much a judgment on the state of contemporary education and intellectual formation as it is on the Church. Happily, the potential and ability for constructive change, as history shows, are constants in the flux.

John RD | 27 March 2021  

I reckon Fosco is too kind to John RD. Christianity is a call to radical change and Fosco's allusion to love is to a radical injunction, but one of two, i.e. Love God & Love Your Neighbour! Thus Fosco allows John to get away with murder by imposing a brake upon the radical message of Jesus. Imposing a brake upon Christianity is to reduce the leonine roar of the Gospels to the purring of a smug eau-de-cologned fatcat. John's hierarchy is the church of the nursery and the boudoir, forever cautious, seductive and sweet-talking, with such an emphasis on saccharine and sanctimony that, were John's brakes to lock, Christianity would collapse under the weight of its own irrelevance. I reckon too that what John is really saying, when stripped down bare, is that politics takes precedence over praxis, which is what Fosco sees and which guides those jaundiced by John's version of Christianity, struggling to disengage from the yoke that shackles and who have long since given up and left, taking the strength of their energy, courage, passion, vision, spirit and dedication with them. Pope Francis agrees and shows at every turn and corner just how aimless we have become.

Michael Furtado | 31 May 2021