Friday, 4 March 2011

The 'Wilkinson Report': leadership of the Church in Australia

I've been writing about the challenges in leadership required to address the priest shortage over the last week, so perhaps it is timely to see the issue discussed in a new report by Peter Wilkinson called 'Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster'.

How bad is the state of the Australian Church really?

I haven't read the report properly yet, and predictably given the background of the author and that it was sponsored by Catholics for Ministry and Women and the Australian Church, and being pushed through the acatholica website, it's perspective is predictably not orthodox when it comes to analysis of the reasons for the current state of affairs and possible solutions (yep, priestesses get a sympathetic mention!).

Still, on a quick skim, it does seem to have a strong focus on telling the story based on the data, and contains a lot of very useful information that is generally quite hard to uncover, such as number of seminarians by diocese for 2010.

So even if it mostly comes to very different conclusions to the ones I've been proposing, the report does seem helpful in highlighting just how serious the problems in the Australian Church are, and some of the issues and tensions in doing anything about it.

Take these findings for example, extracted from the summary:
  • one in four Australian parishes is without a full-time resident priest;
  • very few new parishes are being established, despite a rapidly increasing Catholic population;
  • 184 existing parishes have been merged since 1994, with more likely to follow;
  • since 1995... home-grown vocations to the priesthood have been few;
  • the average age of priests actively ministering in parishes is 60 years and rising.
Overseas priests

The report makes a considerable play on the use of overseas priests, correctly I think making the point that there is something of a mismatch between the missionary orientation of many of these foreign priests and bishops who find this challenging.  Now of course, that is the very reason why traditionalists and conservatives (myself included) want to see more of these priests - we want to see more of a missionary orientation in the Church! 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paul Collins (and no doubt many other liberals and bishops) in a commentary on the report in Eureka Street, sees this as problematic, for exactly the same reasons but the opposite perspective:

"Another difficulty that Wilkinson doesn't canvass is that many of these foreign priests are inexperienced and come from cultures that are tribal and patriarchical. They have little or no comprehension of the kinds of faith challenges that face Catholics living in a secular, individualistic, consumerist culture that places a strong emphasis on equality, women's rights, and co-responsibility for parish ministry and mission."

The problem of leadership?

On one part of the analysis however, the liberal and traditionalist perspectives do have some degree of alignment, and that is on the need for leadership by the bishops.

In discussing possible solutions, Wilkinson argues that de facto, what has been adopted is a 'do nothing' strategy.  In theory, he argues, bishops would reject this strategy, but in practice, it is what they are doing, evidenced by things like the failure to come to terms with pedophile priests, treat victims well, and adopt greater transparency and accountability.

I'm not sure that Wilkinson is entirely right here - in fact, all the signs are that our bishops are embarking on a coordinated strategy of promoting lay 'ministry' and leadership and presenting this as if it could be a substitute for priestly ministry. 

It is true that it is a do nothing strategy as far as priestly recruitment is concerned.  But it does attempt to present this as something positive, reflecting the kind of thinking Wilkinson espouses, even while in practice being a vision which effectively turns priests into sacramental machine-dispensers, wandering about the countryside and consecrating the Eucharist for future use in lay lead services without a priest.

The battleground is laid out....


JARay said...

When you say that priests are "wondering about the countryside " do you really mean "wondering" or do you mean "wandering"?
I do a bit of wondering about the countryside but I usually do it in a sedentary position.
On a more serious note, here, in the Archdiocese of Perth, we have a healthy number of seminarians in St. Charles' seminary but most of them are from what one would call "ethnic" backgounds...Phillippinos,
Vietnamese, Africans and often their English is not easily understood by the average congregation. I know of no parishes within the Archdiocese without at least one resident priest even if he has come from Korea or India.

Kate said...

Actually I probably mean both given the orthodoxy or lack thereof of many priests! But thanks for the catch, I've corrected it.

I personally don't see the problem with seminarians of ethnic backgrounds recruited if necessary from overseas - surely in the course of several years in the seminary some work can be done to help them speak English clearly enough to be understood!

And I suspect they generally have some what more fervour than the average native born priest, which can make up for a lot...