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Who speaks for the Catholic church?



Discussion of church life in Australia is incomplete without consideration of who speaks for the church at the national level. The answer to the question 'Who presides over the Catholic church in Australia?' is more complicated than you might think, but certainly includes two national peak bodies, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), and potentially a third, the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (AMPJP). In the longer term another may emerge as a new relationship between laity and clergy develops.

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

These two big national bodies represent the major historical fault line in the Australian church since its beginning which has not been between bishops and the laity, who have played no formal decision-making role at all, but between dioceses and religious institutes (orders and congregations). One well known example of this faultline was the conflict between Mary MacKillop and certain bishops.

Those who have followed the controversy about the delayed release of the new report on church governance, The Lightfrom the Southern Cross, have witnessed the national church in action through the ACBC, led by the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge. Yet the report was commissioned jointly by the bishops and CRA, representing the leaders of religious institutes. Until now CRA, headed by the Marist Brothers’ provincial, Peter Carroll, has remained silent.

ACBC comprises bishops from 28 dioceses and five non-territorial sections of the church and is supported by a significant secretariat in Canberra, while CRA represents more than 150 congregations of sisters, brothers and priests, supported by five staff in Sydney.

Both the ACBC and CRA responded on behalf of the church to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s recommendation of a review of church governance and culture, and created the Implementation Advisory Group, the authors of the church governance report.

The third body’s potential role is hinted at in a recent ACBC announcement regarding important developments in the National Response Protocol, described as a ‘whole-of-church’ approach for handling complaints of sexual abuse and other misconduct. This followed ACBC çonversations with both CRA and Association of Ministerial Public Judicial Persons, which was formed in 2016 and now has 11 member bodies, including Calvary Ministries Ltd and Mary Aikenhead Ministries.


'The question of a separate national voice for lay men and women remains unresolved. There is no one peak lay body outside of specialised fields.'


These Minterserial PJPs are corporate entities, created to govern ministries in education, health, aged care and other fields previously governed by religious institutes.  They are largely composed of lay people, meaning that they represent a third element of the church in Australia. But they have a narrow mandate restricted to specific church ministries and cannot speak for lay Catholics as a whole.

The relationship between the two major church peak bodies is dominated by the ACBC; CRA is a very junior partner. The arrangement is lop-sided. The health of the Australian church would benefit if the voices of Catholic religious institutes were heard more frequently and more strongly.

The continued emergence of lay-led MPJPs may help to redress the imbalance among peak bodies as the AMPJP, still with limited resources, seeks greater engagement with the rest of the church.

The question of a separate national voice for lay men and women remains unresolved. There is no one peak lay body outside of specialised fields. The church renewal movement is represented by a loose network, the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR), made up of 15 individual groups.

The ACCCR’s recent Communique to the Catholic Bishops and Religious Leaders of Australia called for a national council of the laity composed of equal numbers of women and men with responsibility for the church in partnership with the ACBC. Such a national council, if it ever came to fruition, could potentially be a fourth peak church body operating alongside the bishops, the religious institutes and the AMPJP.

The immediate priority though should be to strengthen the ability of Catholic religious institute leaders to hold the diocesan church leaders to account. The whole church should take CRA more seriously as a key peak body sitting alongside the bishops.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: St Peter's Cathedral in North Adelaide. Photo by moisseyev via Getty

Topic tags: John Warhurst, ACBC, CRA, AMPJP, church, catholic



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Existing comments

I agree with that, last nights Drum demonstrated the difficult role that Geraldine Doogue has to contend with as the only credible voice in the ABC that represents the views of the laity.

Nev Hunt | 18 June 2020  

Just to note that the photo with this helpful article is of the Anglican cathedral in Adelaide. What is this suggesting about who speaks for the church. Keep up the good work

Gary Bouma | 18 June 2020  

Thanks, John, for this article and the suggestion regarding a national council of the laity. Such a council could be a major contributor to the future of the Church. But why wait for the ACBC to set it up? Baptised Catholics could and should organise themselves to give voice action to their faith and mission in the Church and the world. They do not need permission or delegation.

Kevin Liston | 18 June 2020  

Sounds like a plea for a Catholic "Uluru Statement from the Heart" to provide a "Voice in Government".

john frawley | 18 June 2020  

I'm wondering, post-COVID, whether the Church will become even more irrelevant. For the first few weeks I missed the Sunday Church observance but increasingly my life moved on to a more personal and family-based spirituality. I wonder whether other women feel the same and whether our engagement with the Church will be reduced in numbers once the threat of COVID goes away. We women have been taken for granted in the Catholic Church and perhaps we've moved on! I'm not interested in any of the acronyms you write about in your article though I applaud your enthusiasm for them which I no longer feel.

Carol | 18 June 2020  

You seem to get your point across John and you are the only lay person I'm aware of that's been invited to be an observer at the upcoming plenary council. Most "laity" may be seen but not heard. Coleridge, bless his heart of flint, has dismissed complaints about sexual abuse and turned away from coming to grips with the issues. The laity have no voice or ability to change this ironclad grip on power wielded by a few Bishops. As for women's rights, didnt Commensoli and Coleridge just abolish the OPW and turn back the clock 20 years? Didnt the former refuse Joan Chittister, an outspoken advocate of justice, peace and equality — especially for women world-wide who has been one of America’s visionary spiritual voices for more than 30 years, the right to speak recently to womens groups in the Melbourne archdiocese? Her mantra: "Protest is the cry of the heart for the coming of the will of God" must strike fear into the stony hearts of our impenetrably clad bishops. The ACBA listening to anyone other than their Roman appointors or their inner circle, is akin to believing the Chinese will vacate Tibet or that mining of the moon will cure the world's food shortage because it is made of green cheese.

Francis Armstrong | 18 June 2020  

John, I find myself wondering whether the influence of Catholic Religious Australia is presently limited by a lack of assertiveness amongst the religious leaders, reflected in the same lack of accountability, transparency and inclusion displayed by many bishops. As you note, CRA has remained silent on the delayed release of the report on church governance, 'The Light from the Southern Cross'. Perhaps the real starting point for both bishops and religious leaders is a fundamental change in the clericalist culture that lacks respect for the views of the faithful, i.e. the community that IS the Church. The ACCCR’s recent call for a national council of the laity presents an opportunity for our pastoral leaders to show their commitment to renewal.

Peter Johnstone | 18 June 2020  

I like to think of the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, as 'other'. In A D Hope's "A Bidding Grace" he writes of "Still grieving, still rebellious, still in love,/Still prodigal of treasure still unspent./Teach the blood weaving through its intricate mesh/The sigh, the solace, the silence of consent." There are many believers capable of great leadership but I am wondering about power and its use or misuse. Still, I'm grateful for those willing to take the necessary risk.

Pam | 18 June 2020  

Perhaps some relevant reading can help clear up perceived leadership complications: e.g.', Vatican II, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church"and "Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People"; and Pope John Paul II, "The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World." God spare us an expanded bureaucracy, especially one proposed by those who would re-model the structure of the Church on secular lines and assumptions.

John RD | 18 June 2020  

I fear that all attempts to capture the respect and involvement of the Australian laity is very much a case of shutting the gate long after the horse has bolted. Only by acts that resemble those loving acts of which Christ said that “whenever you did these to anyone you did them to me”will the Catholic Church regain that lost respect and attract involvement from its members. The living church of the laity has voted with their feet. Even the blind can see that.

Ern Azzopardi | 18 June 2020  

Carol I honestly want to cry with relief that someone else feels the same.My parish just 'disappeared' though I found out weeks later that masses had been livestreamed since Easter. No attempt was made to contact my family member who is a weekly special minister.There was no notice on the church door and for weeks nothing on the parish website. Fellow parishioners (with limited or no internet access) stopped me and asked if I knew anything. And now we are supposed simply to reconnect??? With a Church whose only 'interest' in its members appeared to be reassuring us that we had their permission not to attend Mass??? "Jesus wept".... Interestingly the Anglicans both here and overseas did MUCH better.So maybe we have the right Cathedral after all...?

Margaret | 18 June 2020  

Could we in 2020 live out " See how these Christians love one another" .At a family level working families discover the joys of interacting with their children at home. This lifestyle can accelerate family tensions so many will need support. We are the people of God . The laity can step up and help those within their area of contact. The official church line seems to be self preservation. Many clergymen do not see themselves as essential staff, but an endangered species who must just contact people on line . Even if the priests spent time in shopping centres greeting others ,walking a dog or visiting the housebound. . Take every opportunity to engage, at 1.5 metres of course. . This is a time for simple pastoral care. Many are spending their time perfecting online Masses. Is the Mass as important as being Christ to others? These relationships are two way. The minister gains from the interaction. Encourage family prayer and faith sharing . This could be a time of healing within the church and community Enjoy reading of the acts of the apostles. We need to return to a basic church community - a no frills church . Love God and your neighbour as yourself.

Josephine | 19 June 2020  

“Who speaks for the Catholic church”? The bishops speak for the Catholic Church because they bind and loose. Certainly no one else in the organisation here in Australia can deny Holy Communion to Joe Biden if he should choose to visit.

roy chen yee | 20 June 2020  

John, the reason there is no peak lay Catholic organisation that speaks on behalf of laity is because the thoughts and opinions of laity are not homogeneous. No single lay leader or organisation can represent each and every Catholic. The renewal group you often refer to: ACCCR does not voice the priorities of many Catholics. It's important to recognise that there are many renewal movements in the Church . Thank God for that.

Cathy R | 21 June 2020  

A timely article by a thinking Catholic. The Church in Australia is leaderless. Cardinal Pell was our last leader. He left the leadership of the Australian Church when he took up his work in the Vatican. The Child Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church has taken away it's moral authority. It has been the most shameful and damaging episode. Jesus must be heartbroken. Jesus told us how little children should be valued. He told us that; "it would be better if those that harm little children hadn't ever been born." He indicated what should happen to child abusers. Yet hear they were and probably still are in the heart of our Church. Their crimes have been covered up. They have been protected. They have been moved on. They have been permitted to offend again and again. What is left of our Church. Is it a hollow shell banging out noise that none want to listen to anymore. We know Jesus is at the core of the Church. When is He going to rip out the rottenness within? The Spirit is moving. Covid 19 is in the plan. People of good faith have to trust in Jesus and His mother Mary to renew His Church. It is coming. We have to be humble and patient. Cling to Jesus. Hold onto the good. There is much still around. It is the leadership that is lacking. We must pray for good holy men and women to lead our Church back to it's heart - the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Warwick | 22 June 2020  

I have come to John Warhurst's article four days late. The thirteen comments on ithave stimulatedmy little grey cells.. They made me ask myself an apposite question. "What does Canon Law tell me?" I am indebted to a perceptive article by Justin Glyn in E/S 8 August 2018 for my reaction. According to Fr Glyn the Code of Canon Law 1983 includes some of the language of Vat 2. No longer was the Church an institution analogous to a kingdom (Think Emperor, Princes, Barons etc) but rather a community manifesting Christs's loving relationship with the world. Fr Glyn sees three tendencies emerging from CCL as revised. 1, A legal system, first and foremost; 2, CCL must be consistent with Christian faith as interpreted by Church authorities; 3. CCL is primarily an attempt to make the Church's theology of itself practical. The first two tendencies I see reflected in the the lawyers and the Pharisees of Jesus day. The third, of course, is Jesus's teaching . "My Kingdom is not of this world." We have two thousand years of administrative experiences, some inspiring, some shameful, to draw. on. Let's learn from them.

Joseph Quigley | 22 June 2020  

I don’t wish to distract from discussion of a truly constructive and instructive article by John Warhurst, an article which I will discuss with some colleagues. But I must say, Carol and Margaret, it is folly to leap from the particular to the general. In our Queensland regional parish, the priests and parish staff have knocked themselves out keeping parishioners informed. There has been a tremendous effort to keep parishioners in a communication loop. Some of us have taken trouble to download and distribute copies of the weekly parish newsletters to parishioners who are not on the Internet. The tired old refrain that ‘women have been taken for granted in the Catholic Church’ is not a universal reality in practice. You are articulate internet connected women, otherwise you wouldn’t be taking time to read and lodge complaints about the Church on the Eureka website… sounds like your parishes could use some talented female ‘shoulder to the wheel’ assistance... Clearly, you've got much to offer.

Brian b | 22 June 2020  

Joseph Quigley, those 2,000-plus years of the Catholic Church's "administrative experiences" display some constants among the variables of the Church's culturally expansive history. One of these is the Apostolic tradition initiated by Christ himself when he chose and appointed from among his disciples Peter and the other eleven (whose total number represents the superseding of the Old Israel's twelve tribes and the creation of the New Israel) to their teaching and pastoral roles of leadership. Fr Glyn's Point 2 reference to the Code of Canon law obtains still: personal deficiencies in and abuses of office, while they impair, as Vatican II and popes since have recognised, the Church's credibility and witness, do not justify a radical re-structuring of the ecclesial community called together in and by Christ - e.g., by the abolition of hierarchy - as some whose postings calling for change routinely demand.

John RD | 23 June 2020  

John, Thanks for your invaluable analysis. The church certainly gives no voice to the laity and even less to women's equal rights, whom it regards as second class citizens. Obviously the leaders of the church in Australia and in Rome do not want to be named or shamed by what has occurred in relation to abuse and in relation to how they reward past leaders with valuable homes and comfortable lifestyles. Rank and lifestyle appear to be the overiding objective. The church in Australia must choose whether it values: 1. the right of the laity to express political and moral opinions; 2. its values, eg freedom of speech and the prosecution of corruption within its ranks (not leaving that to the civil authorities); 3. open journalism and the right to hold church leaders to account. If we as laity are to be muffled and gagged and treated of no account or with gender disdain then respectfully this church is not worth belonging to and we should scrap it and start a new one.

Francis Armstrong | 23 June 2020  

Point very much taken Brian.And the simple answer that as an over 70 I was in lockdown for 10 weeks with no practical means of doing anything obviously does not suffice. Nor does the fact that my parish was arguably already terminally ill (immortalised in an impassioned item on the Plenary Council website from a younger fellow parishioner). Part of that 'illness' involved our previous parish priest telling long time parishioners such as myself that our views and contribution were unwelcome, and the group that came into the parish overtly saying that if we did not like the new look parish we were welcome to leave. All of that I grant you is 'particular ' and I would hope uncommon. But what Carol said resonated with me, especially given that I was for several years closely associated with attempts to put "Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus" into practice. That report laid bare the disillusionment felt even 20 years ago . The disbanding of CACW so close to the Plenary Council has certainly exacerbated that disillusionment Meanwhile I am truly happy to hear better news from Queensland.It can be done!

Margaret | 23 June 2020  

Thank you, John RD, A review of Canon Law was one of three goals John XXIII set himself to initiate early in his Papacy. 1. to convene a synod of the diocese of Rome Understandable because he had just become Bishop of Rome. 2. call an ecumenical council (Partly because Vat 1 had left much unfinished business and partly because WWs 1 & 2 exposed the need for greater Christian unity); and 3. to bring Canon Law up to date with social realities within the Church.. Re- Canon Law: The work of nearly twenty three years exemplified the saying - The mountain was in labour and produced a mouse. Vat 2, like Vat1, has left the Church with much more unfinished business. The Synod of Rome was a big boost to the morale of local priests who received an encouraging pastoral pep talk from a very down to earth Bishop at a High Mass 24 on November 1960. Canon Law, even without the need for a Referendum, is like the Australian Constitution - very hard to amend. Sixty years may have produced three Papal Saints but they has not produced a Saintly Reformer who can read the signs of times.

Joseph Quigley | 26 June 2020  

I'd have to disagree with your negative assessment of the "three Papal Saints"' (John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II) ability "to read the signs of the times", Joseph. As I see it,ach of them was exposed to and responded to a remarkably rapid period of change - much of it marked by the tumult of war, the advance of aggressive secular ideologies, and the rapid advance of technology and the outlook of scientism that accompanied it. All called the world to peace based on justice, and proclaimed to the world the personal call to relationship with God and service of one another. All bore personal witness to Christ and to the need for repentance and faith. All exercised their Petrine office calling diligently as teachers and pastors - regrettably, without edifying and dependable support from a number of their episcopal confreres, clergy, religious and laity. Call for reform, as Christ himself experienced, doesn't always fall on receptive ears, and its effect is not always immediately or dramatically obvious. Reform, I believe, is most effective, as Mother Teresa counselled, when we begin with ourselves in response Christ and his Gospel; and in this, happily, we have the example and encouragement of many, including these three Popes, who have gone before us and accompany us in the communion of saints: the leaven of reform.

John RD | 29 June 2020  

No wonder the Church has problems at various levels. The old idiom 'no taxation without a vote' holds true for the church membership as much as for society as a whole. Every Catholic ,be they laity or clergy ,should be equally represented and capable of making their voices meaningful in all forums. And the CHURCH should be able to speak as one peak body ,be legally structured accordingly and all assets accounted for in the same manner. Until this happens the Church will continue to be unrepresentative with an outdated structure.

Ronald Farrell | 30 June 2020  

John Warhurst has valiantly carried the burden of reformist ideas relating to the Synod, as much for ES as in his capacity as a highly regarded policy academic from an equally esteemed university and discipline. Unfortunately, he overstretched himself in commenting favourably on Malcolm Turnbull's criticism of the Bishops on the school-funding issue in a recent edition of John Menadue's Blog, 'Pearls and Irritations' (https://johnmenadue.com/catholic-bishops-must-embrace-transparency-and-accountability/). To elucidate: John's policy expertise didn't extend to interrogating Turnbull's Gonski-based criticisms of the Bishops, whom John should have excoriated for their star chamber approach to extracting concessions out of Prime Ministers from times immemorial on the Catholic School Funding question. Indeed, in a published response to John in the same journal, I observed that had John spoken with his wife, who was once the Chief Executive Officer of the National Catholic Education Commission, she would have been able to give him a run-down and an enlightening policy critique of the chaotic machinery now in place to represent the Catholic schools funding cause at official levels, viz. an enormous bureaucracy, its episcopal appointments based largely on grace and favour considerations rather than sound policy research. Indeed, the NCEC is ripe for reform at the Synod.

Dr Michael FURTADO | 02 July 2020  

John Warhurst's suggestion of according a more equitable role to CRA on matters of church governance makes great sense on several counts. The congregations have played a major role in setting up and servicing Australia's Catholic schools and hospitals as well as aged-care facilities and, in the past, orphanages and homes for the disabled. Added to that, religious women and some men play major roles in the administration and operation of parish and diocesan-based pastoral care service provision. Indeed, it would be ironic if CRA were to be locked out of this discussion, since several agencies of the Catholic Church in Australia, including the National Catholic Education Commission as well as Catholic Health Care Services, are entities that liaise between government, both state and Commonwealth, and service-providers that are still substantially congregationally-owned. John Warhurst would also know, from his location in Canberra as well as his personal and family connections, about the complexity of cultures and charisms that permeate and hallmark the enormous variety of traditions that identify particular Catholic school systems and their educational ethos and climate. The inclusive and participatory impulse shouldn't just reflect those who attend Synod but on Synod's impact on the entirety of Australian Catholicism.

Michael Furtado | 02 July 2020  

John Warhurst may need to address a legal reality, which is that the Synod was called/called for by the Bishops and not the Major Superiors. Also, it could be argued in a court of law, if it tragically ever came to it, that they are paying for it, or at least that the money, regardless of its source, is theirs. Hopefully it would never come to such a matter being disputed for, as a Catholic community, we would be the laughing stock of the nation. The point, however, offers itself as a possible cause for critical reflection. After Vatican II, the shared or communitarian impulse came to the fore in Catholic thinking, both theological, if not canonical. Theological journals came to reflect this new impulse, e.g. 'Priests and People'. The Hymnody changed and became much more inclusive, following the Vatican II principle that good liturgy could only be based on sound theology. Bishops put away flamboyant aspects of their episcopal attire/language, agreeing that these were the accretions of cultural history and not of Catholic essentialism. Perchance there's an opportunity for a professor of politics to guide discussion in how democracy itself has advanced to better reflect the more inclusive polity.

Michael Furtado | 06 July 2020  

So, Eureka Street, assuming that John Warhurst reads his correspondence in preparation for his next fervorino about the Synod, what's to prevent ES from approaching at least one of several bishops to gauge their individual responses to the swathe of articles, proposals, suggestions and opinions on that topic. Obviously, the terms in which such an article or comment or response is invited should explicitly assume that the bishop in question would speak for himself so as ensure his ethical integrity and reputational protection. Such a gesture could help thaw the ice, as it were, set in as a result of competing tensions arising out of the consultation process so far. It would also counter the derailing effect of delay driven by the coronaviral outbreak: when urgent discussions are postponed, an inevitable jaundice sets in as a consequence of a loss of momentum. Might I suggest Bishop Greg O'Kelly as a first port of call. He is a Jesuit who has amassed a rich portfolio of articles for this journal, so its not as if he might respond to such an invite without prior knowledge of what ES does and his standing as one who has already been published in it.

Michael Furtado | 08 July 2020