The scope for diversity
It is sometimes suggested that the Australian Church exhibits a branch office mentality, with dioceses being little more than franchisees.
In my view, a quick survey of the various diocesan websites will quickly persuade you that nothing could be further from the truth!
There are some things, of course, that one might expect to be common to all dioceses in a particular country, reflecting decisions of the Bishops Conference for example. Indeed, at the moment, most Australian dioceses are working up to the Year of Grace that starts on Pentecost.
And of course that there should always be a core of things that are common to all dioceses across the world: promotion of vocations; the teachings of the Church; the sacraments; the preservation of the patrimony of the Church including her traditional devotions; and the promotion and observance of Church law for example.
As I've gone through this survey of Australia's dioceses, I've tried to put to some of the differences in effort and approach in these areas that I think either don't reflect sufficient attention to these basic elements of what it means to be part of the Catholic Church, are not legitimate variations in approach, or reflect approaches that are not working. And I'll do some more on that front.
But that still leaves free many areas where priorities and emphases between dioceses can and do legitimately differ depending on things like demographics (such as significant numbers of Indigenous people or migrants); local issues and challenges (such as the presence of refugee detention centres, unemployment, etc), local history; and the interests and views of the bishop, priests, religious and laypeople of the diocese.
Legitimate diversity vs dissent
The problem for the Church though is always to ensure that these different priorities, emphases and activities stay within the bounds of the Church, and distort the core of what the Church is about.
That social justice doesn't lose sight of God's eternal justice; that ecological concern doesn't come at the expense of mission; that concern for the ecumenism doesn't become accommodationism that sacrifices the search for truth and true unity; and that promotion of the role of the laity doesn't undermine the key role of the priest for example.
In some dioceses, these danges are perhaps mitigated by a certain indifferentism, a lack of fervour and genuine commitment. In others however, in which I number Broken Bay, there would appear to be a positive excess of enthusiasm, hence my decision to dwell on it a little.
I mentioned yesterday three areas in which Broken Bay is on the surface at least doing good things, namely promoting lectio divina, the education of the laity, and transparency. Are these initiatives in fact delivering what they should be though?
Broken Bay Diocese heavily promotes lectio divina: its Advent books print run in 2010 apparently was 70,000 copies, and its diocesan magazine is adorned with cute pictures of primary school children apparently engaged in the practice.
I’m all in favour of finding ways to get Catholics to actually read Scripture.
But the challenge here is to make it a genuine experience that feeds into and reinforces our faith rather than one that actively subverts it. And that requires not just reading the text, but putting it into the context of the Tradition.
For Catholics to read Scripture well, in my view, they need helpful information about the Scriptural, cultural and historical context; they need the aid of the insights offered by the Fathers, Theologians and Saints; and they need it to be linked in a positive way to the liturgy and sacramentals, to the Catechism and other key Magisterial documents.
I’ve blogged on this subject extensively before, including in the context of Broken Bay’s ‘How to do lectio divina guide’. That guide certainly bears little or no resemblance to Pope Benedict XVI's guidance on the subject offered in his post-Synodal Exhortation, Verbum Domini.
Take a look at this year’s Broken Bay Diocese Guide to the Lent readings. Open it up on the first set of readings for Ash Wednesday and really, you have to wonder whether the ‘contextualisation’ provided does more to harm than help:
“Ash Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility. [How???] This day burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway back to committees and memos.[What on earth is this getting at?!]
This day has become a virtual sacramental of Catholic identity,[and we wouldn't want that would we?] as people throng to “get ashes,” which, paradoxically, is just what the Gospel counsels against – external signs of devotion.
Karl Rahner captured so eloquently the meaning of this sign: “When on Ash Wednesday we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told that we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord. In these words we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God’s life forever.” (The Eternal Year, p. 62)[So where is the reminder of the symbolism of repentance and so forth!]
Education of the laity
Another major focus of this diocese is the education of the laity, focusing particularly on the Broken Bay Institute. Again on the surface this looks like a great initiative, with lots of innovative approaches to service delivery, such as the day long ‘econferences’ that have attracted more than 60,000 people each time, across 28 countries.
But the problem once again is content. I’ve previously blogged about the spirit of Vatician IIism that infected the econference on the Holy Spirit here.
The standard courses the Institute seem to be just as problematic looking if not more so.
I’ve seen the reading list for one of the introductory units for the theology Masters degree there for example. It features the infamous Richard McBrien, whose works have been strongly critiqued by the US Bishops Conference, Thomas Groome, whose dissenting views on the ordination of women and malign influence on Australian religious education are well-known. It includes several works by well known Adelaide liberal Fr Denis Edwards, whose most recent attempt to develop a 'planetary spirituality' you can read about at AD 2000.
And take a look at the course outline for its Christology course (always a good test for the slant of an institution!). The first few ‘themes’ for the course are conventional enough, but then it continues with things like “…Christologies of liberal Theologians; Catholic Christology; Christ as Liberator, Christology of Feminist Theologians, Christ as Corpus Mysticum; Christ and Liturgy; Christ and other religions; Christ in secular world”.
Transparency and accountability
Finally, I mentioned the cause of transparency and accountability.
There is a fair amount of information about its activities in the public domain, thanks to an edition of the diocesan magazine from November last year celebrating twenty-five years of the dioceses establishment. Now in that context, of course one can expect a positive spin, even though it is reporting against the diocese’s pastoral plan.
All the same, the point of transparency is not just to put a positive spin, but to help promote a focus on what needs to be done. And this is utterly lacking in any of the material that I can find on the website.
The magazine gushes, for example, that “Every Sunday, from the Peninsula, to the North Shore and up to the Central Coast, about 30,000 people gather together in 26 parishes to celebrate Mass. These tens of thousands of people who come together every weekend in the Diocese of Broken Bay to proclaim their Catholic faith in Jesus Christ are a powerful witness to the community in which we live.” And in this in a diocese where some 24,000 children attend catholic schools…so if they are their parents attended mass that would be around 72,000 each week.
It goes on: “Of course, we would dearly love to have all of the 218,407 people who identify as Catholic
in the population of the Broken Bay Diocese joining us in the celebration of the Eucharist.” That seems to be the 2006 figure, not the most recently available data. And while its pretty much on the national average, its significantly lower than the 18.3% of neighbouring Sydney and Parramatta dioceses back then.
There is data for marriages (282), baptisms (2513), first communions (2,439) and confirmations (2767), but it is hard to know how this relates to total number of marriages in the area, babies born, etc.
Where is it all headed?
There are a few other issues I'd like to discuss in relation to Broken Bay diocese, not least its 'lay leadership model'. So for Part 3 of this series on Broken Bay Diocese, click here.