Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Walking in two worlds

  • 28 May 2024
  A few years ago, our team had a chat with visiting US journalist Tom Roberts who was writing a piece on the Catholic Church in Australia. We were talking about a phenomenon which, in global terms, is still somewhat rare: the increasing number of Catholic ministries being led by lay people. I noted that the last 20 – 30 years had seen something of a ‘quiet revolution’ in the Australian Church – with schools, hospitals, social ministries and other organisations that once would have been led by clergy and religious now being led by lay professionals.

This revolution has brought many benefits to organisations, with professionals bringing expertise gained in other sectors to help drive improvements in areas such as governance and accountability. But there are also many tensions, particularly when it comes to how ministries maintain their religious character with leaders of varying levels of religious understanding and practice.

I’ve been thinking about this tension in light of the controversy around an Australian speaking tour. The US-based Catholic Jason Evert was due to speak to Catholic schools across NSW about chastity as a way of being faithful to oneself and God, but there was a backlash to the visit sparked by online activists. A number of schools cancelled in-person arrangements, offering ‘opt-in’ online talks for students instead. Other speaking engagements in Sydney went ahead despite the protests.  

One of the challenges with being a lay person in charge of a Catholic ministry (or, in our case, publication) is building a bridge between communities steeped in secular values and ideas, and a Church tradition that might seem to stand in direct opposition to those values. Sometimes that’s about finding ways to encourage people to be more compassionate towards those on the margins of our community. Other times, it’s about challenging ideas and practices that undermine human dignity.

The controversies around Evert’s visit highlights just how difficult it is becoming to walk that line between the values and demands of the Church we represent, and the society in which we live and have grown up in as individuals. Generally, someone in the community will push back when their beliefs and attitudes are challenged. Navigating this push-back respectfully, but courageously, is an important skill for any community leader. It’s made more difficult when you have an outside world that’s openly hostile to your efforts, and not all that interested in engaging with any generosity.

Activists have been calling out