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What is to be done?


Treatises on reforming societies or organisations perceived as stale is usually peremptory and prescriptive. Even the titles are abrupt. The nineteenth century Russian radical thinker and activist Nikolai Chernyshevsky laconically entitled his influential novel ‘What to Do’. It was less a question than a declaration. Lenin took over the title in the program he proposed before coming to power in Russia. Later the poet Zinaida Gippius wrote a pamphlet under the same name to encourage Russian emigrés in France to be politically active.

Such tracts usually describe the present situation as dire, and see little worth retaining in the new society. They then outline clearly the steps to be taken to realise it. For the Russian activists the change demanded was revolutionary. For less root and branch reformers it involves elements of radical and of progressive change. The challenge for those who advocate radical change is that they may overlook little noticed aspects of the past which will late prove to have been of critical importance when they are commending and carrying through their prescriptions.

The same challenge faces those who advocate radical change when reflecting on the future shape of the Catholic Church. Three recent books illustrate the point. Paul Collins, who for many years has written lively and radical articles and books about The Catholic Church commending extensive change, has entitled his latest book:  Recovering the ‘TRUE CHURCH’: Challenges for Australian Catholicism beyond the Plenary Council. The capitalised words of the title indicate that this is a book that argues for a contested thesis. Something has been lost and must again be found. The symptoms of the loss are the failure of leadership, the sexual abuse crisis, clericalism and the inertia of Bishops.

Collins traces the loss back to the defensive Catholic response to the Reformation, in which it imagined Church as a monarchy. In the face of a secularising culture marked by a loss of depth and of meaning, the Church has little to offer beyond asserting its authority. It fails to engage in the deep religious formation of its members despite the opportunity offered by the coherence between the Gospel and the hunger for justice in secular society.

The Plenary Council is thus hamstrung by conflict between Catholics’ desire for honest conversation about the future of the church and the need of Bishops to assert their own authority and control. Collins supports Pope Francis’ more recent call to Catholics to go out to the boundaries to win people. He sees little hope, however, that a Church structured around Pope, Bishops and Priests will transform itself into small groups of committed Christians with a well structured but not uniform liturgical life. The history of the Church is in large measure a story of failure to live the Gospel of Jesus when its world is dominated by clericalism.


'Australian Catholic Church of the future will need structures fit to purpose. But it will also need a strong, diverse but shared Catholic imagination lived out in small grass roots communities. That will be nurtured by the telling of stories and a shared pride to match the shared shame.'


The stringency of Collins’ judgments is understandable in a man who was driven to resign from his priesthood partly because of his views, but also by envy of the privileged position that his connection with the ABC gave him to win an audience.  His critique of the church is not only theoretical but also reflects his personal experience. A more confident church would have kept him in the circle and not marginalised him.

Recovering the ‘TRUE CHURCH’ will be an invaluable companion to those involved in the Pastoral Council. Not because it provides the right answers but because it raises large questions that could easily be shelved. The question with which it left me to me was how it would address  the great erosion in Church energy and allegiance made evident over the time of Covid. This has accelerated a process already at work in ageing communities. How will faith survive and discipleship thrive in the Catholic tradition without structures and institutions to nourish them and without people who are committed to stable communities as part of their expression of faith?

Such questions invite us to look more broadly at our past, not with the eye of an inquisitor or a romantic, but with the readiness both to recognise the scandals and missteps of the past and to look compassionately at the partiality, passions, generosity and meanness of a community in which people were struggling to live and yet who built extraordinarily.

Not Forgotten: Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020 describes what followed from the decision to opt out of the State educational system and to establish a system of Catholic schools for Catholic children. This was perhaps the most significant and formative decision taken by the Australian Catholic Church before federation. Although we can still debate its wisdom, we must also recognise the energy it freed, the sacrifices it demanded and, the extraordinary generosity of struggling Australians in meeting the demands made upon them. It brought thousands of Religious Sisters and Brothers to Australia to open and staff the new schools, and ensured that for the majority of Catholic children their first and formal contact with faith was through women. Although the stories of faith may have been masculine, they were interpreted through a feminine lens. The structure of the church may have been clericalist, but Catholics’ experience of it was more nuanced.

Not Forgotten tells the stories of the foundation and crises of Catholic education over two centuries through brief surveys of the periods under discussion followed by thumbnail sketches of significant educators over the last century and a half. In doing so it necessarily focuses on Religious and clergy — they formed the unpaid and devoted workforce who kept the schools going in times of crisis. Of equal significance, they were those most represented in the written archives of schools, Religious Congregations and parishes.

The book is a family history, mostly told by companions in the Religious Congregations of those mentioned. It complements Ronald Fogarty’s masterly Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950 in its evocation of the courage of young women sailing to Australia to found schools at the end of railway lines in a strange nation, a strange climate and among strange children, recruiting people from the same remote places to carry on the schools. The book highlights how passionately Catholics wanted a Catholic education for their children. The rural origins of many of the contributors testify, too, to the central part that the schools played in the life of the communities they served.

The Catholic Education system remains a precious resource available to the Catholic Church today. Its solidity is a tribute to the commitment that Catholic parishes and individual Catholics made of their time and of their gifts to sustain it in testing times. It is a central building  block in any renewed Catholic Church.

Readers familiar with Edmund Campion’s genial and informed contribution to Australian literary and cultural life will also find in Then and Now: Australian Catholic Experiences the same gems of conciseness, elegance, generosity of spirit and stimulation. In his focus on Australian Catholic life, he is never narrowly Australian or Catholic. Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton and Professor Manning Clark receive attention as do the international questions of clerical celibacy and of the sexual abuse of children. The book represents the musings of a generous mind and heart without borders.

Campion’s reflections on the past will also help Catholics to ask what a faithful community of the future might look like. The key word in his title is ‘experiences’. He looks for and expects to find a diversity of experience. In describing the Australian Church of the past he has an eye for the quirky and for the unexpected depth in experiences we might be tempted to dismiss as odd and unrepresentative.

He pays attention to the richness and limitation of the small and local experiences of Catholic life. With many other older Catholics, for example, he recognises the sentimentality and narrowness of many hymns such as ‘O Mother I could weep  for mirth/ joy fills my heart so fast’, but also sees the warmth of the faith they express and the richness of the imaginative world to which they belong. While giving full weight and splendid detail to clerical tyranny he also points to the popular respect earned by bishops and priests as builders and defenders of the community. The church he describes is alive, holds together strong divisions of opinion, is marked by distinctive inherited prejudices, and nurtures a shared faith.

Seen from this perspective the Australian Catholic Church of the future will need structures fit to purpose. But it will also need a strong, diverse but shared Catholic imagination lived out in small grass roots communities. That will be nurtured by the telling of stories and a shared pride to match the shared shame.

Any program of Church reform will have soon to ask Chernyshevsky’s question, What is to be done? It is a dangerous question — he wrote his novel from jail and spent much of his life in exile or imprisonment. Discussion of Church matters is mercifully less perilous today, but the question does invite a radical repiecing of the connections and tradition and energies that constitute Catholic life. To this the Plenary Council will be just the beginning.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Church undergoing repairs at sunset. (Johner Images / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton.Church, Reform, Plenary Council



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Existing comments

I am very grateful that you are able to pen this article, Andy, because I think a secular cleric in a parish would suffer consequences if he penned it. I was unaware that Ed Campion was still alive and still firing on all cylinders. More power to him. Australian Catholicism has had many heroes who shook the tree because it needed shaking. Mary Mackillop was one of the greatest. She suffered persecution from the rigid, authoritarian, sexist hierarchy of her time and now she's a saint. My personal feeling is that it is education in the home and in primary school that forms a child. I was interested that Gillian Triggs, the former Human Rights Commissioner was Catholic and credited the nuns, presumably at primary school, for her commitment to social justice. I must confess I think the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and the late Blessed Seraphim Rose, who actually lived and worked in the West, have more to tell us than Russian authors. I think reform will come from individuals, not the institutional hierarchs. These days I regard myself as a cultural Catholic only, but am grateful for that. The moral compass still works.

Edward Fido | 24 March 2022  

We already have a grassroots community. It’s called a parish. The sub-groups within it, often subgroups themselves of and deriving their philosophical mission and vision from larger extra-parish groups such as, for example, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, are not grassroots communities in themselves but faith-through-work organs accountable to the body that is the parish, which, through the parish priest, is accountable to the bishop for acknowledging the Magisterium as an empirical reality and performing the obligations consequential to that acknowledgement.

There’s nothing to stop every third or fourth, say, parish pastoral committee meeting from being like a municipal general meeting open to all parishioners to give their say (and to give the priest some homiletical sense of how the parish is being affected or influenced by the world and its pockets of grace, flesh or devil).

Perhaps, occasionally, we might want to see the Barque of Peter as the Fleet of Peter (not unlike a carrier group) instead of as a unitary, all-inclusive Noah’s Ark, the main ship with its associated smaller craft which are there as adjuncts to but in organic relationship with the main craft, whether in the context of the universal Church represented by the main ship of the See of Rome and its flotilla of episcopacies and religious orders, or a local Church represented by the episcopacy and its territorial fleet of parishes, schools, hospitals, etc., or the small regatta that is the parish barque and its faith-through-work vessels.

roy chen yee | 24 March 2022  

Wow! As ever, astute and insightful comment, Andy. [The Church] "fails to engage in the deep religious formation of its members despite the opportunity offered by the coherence between the Gospel and the hunger for justice in secular society". I am an Anglican, and this statement reverberates with me, too. Thank you so much for expressing in words what has been my understanding for ages.

Pirrial Clift | 24 March 2022  

What is to be done?
1. Restore the sacred liturgy to what it once was.
2. Re-introduce Catholic education in erstwhile Catholic Schools.
3. Recognise that Christ and his teachings are fundamentally more important than the aspirations and lifestyle of human beings with their own agendas.
4. Implement a re-education program for the vocal would be reformers and gender equality warriors.

john frawley | 24 March 2022  
Show Responses

Spot on - make the world conform to truth, not vice versa

Bob | 07 April 2022  

Leading with a challenging title, Andrew, adroitly reveals the levels of complexity facing today's Australian Church via his reviews of Collins, Campion and Benjamin and O'Grady (Eds). He concludes with the same challenge reverberating through his final paragraph -'...What is to be done?' With the concluding session of the Plenary Council beckoning, Andrew acknowledges this event as a beginning – leaving open the hint of more needing to be done.

But is there an alternative to the Plenary Council becoming an historical footnote?

It remains open to Plenary Council members to determine if the next session is the final session or an opportunity to prorogue the Council until a date subsequent to the conclusion of the World Synod of Bishops (October, 2023). Such a move would allow Plenary Councillors to participate in an extended formation program by reflecting on and responding to Synod materials; additionally, they could up their game as dissemination agents in briefing and consulting with their local diocesan constituencies.
There are a number of secondary benefits to a prorogation, not the least being an opportunity for Councillors and interested contributors to have their horizons challenged by an activity of the universal magisterium. After all, if deep listening was seen to be integral to the Plenary Council, some deep listening to a whole church reflection on the topic at hand could only be good.

Bill Burke | 26 March 2022  

Chernyshevsky and Lenin chose badly. Communism caused 100 million deaths.
Poets Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky are buried a few feet apart in San Michele, Venice, but their lifetime choices were miles apart. Pound was obsessed with strong men of action. He embraced Mussolini. Brodsky, a Russian dissent, was concerned with individual liberty and the rule of law over arbitrary fiat.
So today, whose judgment is reliable?
Paul Collins may be seeking the “True Church.” But he also lauded Biden’s Catholic faith writing, “we can be confident that with Joseph Biden a new era is beginning in Washington.” Indeed! Biden has given us the Afghanistan debacle (he called it an “extraordinary success”); 40-year-high inflation; and weakness leading to war. (Similarly, Putin annexed Crimea under a weak Obama)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who openly admires the Chinese dictatorship, told Europeans that Putin’s actions were an attack on “all democracies.” He was rebuked by several Europeans MEP’s as a “disgrace to any democracy” for brutalizing his own striking truckers who “dare stand up to his perverted concept of democracy.”
For a generation that has overseen the collapse of its 2000-year-old church, the total lack of self-awareness amongst “progressives” is astounding.

Ross Howard | 26 March 2022  

If my aging brain does not deceive me, John Frawley, I think I remember reading a short autobiography of yours on the internet. Reading about your growing up in a decent Catholic family on the Darling Downs proved to me, once again, that holiness begins at home. These days I find much of the problem with religion is its overintellectualization by professional academics, often clerics, at such institutions as the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge. The traditional 'simple faith of a French peasant' was not a simplistic faith. It was deep. Unless we discover that deep place within ourselves, any attempt at 'reform' will go down the sink.

Edward Fido | 27 March 2022  

I suppose Edward that the "simple faith of a French peasant" is born out of humility and wonderment of the beauty of creation that come easily to a tiller of the soil or shepherd of the flock.

john frawley | 04 April 2022  

In this context, let us recall one example of religious freedom in practice.

Education in Northern Ireland is heavily segregated between Irish nationalist/republicans (mainly Roman Catholic) and unionist/loyalists (mainly Protestant), as is well-known. Not so known is that its segregated education is both a cause and effect of the “Troubles”.

Integrated schools are generally opposed by the Christian churches, despite huge public support for them.

Roman Catholic religion in Northern Irish schools appears not much interested in promoting awareness and understanding, despite being a crucial issue in a global society that professes human rights. Note the apparent focus in the religious presence not on Christianity but on power and control; the Catholic Church is especially noted for its aim to indoctrinate and thus control the young.

Similar complaints have regularly been made about the forced presence of untrained and often prosletysing religious chaplains rather than trained social workers in Australian schools, reflecting not the wishes of the school but the diktat of religious fanatics within the political class. Ensuring that children have actually had breakfast has no such political support.

R. Ambrose Raven | 16 April 2022  

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