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What is to be done?

  • 24 March 2022
  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