By Paul Collins
Like it or not, Catholicism is still enormously influential in Australia. It is Australia’s largest non-government employer through its schools, hospitals and aged care with around 230,000 people working directly for the church. It also runs many voluntary organisations, like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society with some 20,700 members and 41,150 volunteers with a huge impact on social welfare.
Despite this, Catholicism’s reputation has been effectively trashed in the media and wider community by the sexual abuse crisis and church leaders’ appalling, long-term failure to deal decisively with clerical abusers. The revelations of the royal commission reinforced the church’s toxic reputation.
The result: people are abandoning Catholicism in droves. The percentage of self-confessed Catholics in the population has dropped from 27 per cent in 2001 to 22.6 per cent in the 2016 census. Of the 5.3 million Catholics in 2106, only 11.8 per cent attended Mass regularly.
In an attempt to respond, Australia’s 46 bishops are gathering with 99 invited priests, 25 religious sisters and around 110 laypeople from across Australia in a Plenary Council in early October to try to sort out the church’s future.
To prepare for the plenary, a nationwide consultation was held with Australian Catholics. The response was enormous: more than 222,000 people participated, with 17,457 written submissions from groups and individuals. Issues emerging from the consultation focused around clerical control, lack of leadership, accountability, marginalisation of laypeople in decision making, election of bishops, gender and sexual issues, ministry, especially that of women, married priests, the church’s role in a secular culture and relationships with the wider community.
But that’s where democracy and consultation ended. The plenary organisers watered down these issues into a 69-page, bland, cautious document lacking any sense of crisis, written by an archbishop, a priest and two laypeople, entitled Continuing the Journey.
A victim of historic sex abuse by a WA priest has been awarded a massive payout.
This document constitutes the agenda for the plenary. It doesn’t reflect community concerns and the hard questions expressed in the consultations, but replaces them with generic, vague and frustratingly generalised concerns like “prayer”, “conversion”, “formation”, “structures”, “institutions”, and “governance”. This rhetoric doesn’t encourage discussion of the practical and hard questions that the church faces and understandably many committed Catholics have already lost faith in the plenary process.
The plenary’s first session meets next Sunday. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will employ a “multi-modal” format, combining in-person and online engagement. A second session will meet in October 2022. Bishops alone will have a deliberative vote. It will be their conclusions that go to the Vatican for approval and given the snail’s pace of Rome, it’ll be 2024 before anything practical begins.
Australia is an object lesson in what not to do when planning church renewal. Don’t go the way that gets you caught-up in a morass of church law and hands over all decision-making power to bishops, not all of whom, it is clear, are really committed to the plenary process, let alone to reforming the church. The fundamental mistake was using a church law-regulated plenary process as the way of confronting Catholicism’s woes. The suspicion is that the bishops chose this precisely because it was tightly controlled by law, allowing them to manage it.
It would have been much better to have had a less-structured national assembly, where a variety of views could be expressed freely, and indicative votes could show what the local Catholic community wanted, leading to concrete actions. While Catholicism remains very influential in Australia through its ministries, the number of active Catholics continues to shrink and the church is increasingly a hollowed-out institution. It’s unlikely that the Plenary Council will do much to halt that decay.
That is unless the bishops put aside their clerical habits and let the faithful in the pews have a much greater say.
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