Friday, 7 December 2012

Towards a conversation abut the future of the Church in Australia

Every day sees another story on the abuse crisis in Australia in the media.  Last night it was the 7.30 Report, with a story on the St John of God order; and this morning I was alerted to the latest developments in the Parramatta Christian Brothers saga.

And I'm afraid this stream of stories is not going to stop; quite the contrary.

So I want to try and open up a conversation with readers on how we should respond to the ongoing effects of the Royal Commission into institutional sex abuse in Australia on ourselves in the practice of our faith, and on the Church community more generally.

How do we cope with the ugliness and horror of it all?

You would have to hope that few of us can be any further disillusioned about the state of our hierarchy and religious orders, but unfortunately some of the stories I'm privy to suggest that the worst is still to come.

Most of us understand, I think, that no matter how bad the sins of the clergy and hierarchy, the holiness of the Church itself, an institution that transcends the divide between heaven and earth, remains.

We know that no matter how terrible the state of the earthly institution at times (and even the most casual perusal of Church history shows that heresy can indeed be almost universal at certain times and places; that that those in positions of responsibility can be very corrupt and sinful indeed!), grace still flows through the sacraments; grace still flows through the liturgy; grace still flows through faithfulness to the Church's teachings.  That is because all of these depend not on the merits of the men who are entrusted with the position of standing in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) to us, but rather on Christ himself.

All the same, I continue to receive emails about the injustices still being perpetuated by the hierarchy and priests, most of which have only tangential relevance to do with the abuse crisis.  Rather, they reflect the broader malaise of the Australian (and indeed Western) Church: dissenting priests who are actually rewarded for their erroneous ideas and abuses of power; faithful priests who are treated appallingly badly; and arrogant, narcissistic, self-absorbed and/or bullying priests left in place, destroying the communities they are supposed to serve.

Getting in front of the agenda

Everyone has their limits as to how much they can take - and I suspect that all of us are likely to come up against that limit in the not so distant future as yet more horrors are revealed.  But the key to dealing with what is coming is surely to try and get in front of it, and take control to the degree that we can.

Accordingly, today I want to start a series on just how we do prepare ourselves for the next few years of trial for the Church in this country.  I want to float a few ideas of my own.  But I'd also like to invite readers to through there own ideas into the arena, because I think this is a big conversation that all in the Church need to have.

It seems to me that there are potentially three areas of response that we could consider: firstly how we practice our own faith; secondly influencing the Church's interactions with the Royal Commission; and finally broader reform of the Australian (and perhaps wider) Church.

For ourselves: above all the grace of perseverance

The first thing we have to remember, I would suggest, is that although, as I noted above, we all have our own human limits of 'how much we can take', those limits can be transcended with the help of grace.  With God's help we can do superhuman things; we can be saints!

To me, that suggests that perhaps the top priority is (continue) to pray for the grace of perseverance both for ourselves and others.  An excellent prayer for this purpose is the St Benedict novena prayer, but there are many others around.

A second point that we perhaps need to consider is whether we, as Catholics, need to become visible models of charity and good works.  The first step is, of course to strive to be more compassionate and kind, to reach out to our neighbour.  But even as we do, our proper instinct is, I think, is to pray and do our good works in secret as far as possible and let people think what they think!  But in the current environment, perhaps we need to be a little more public about what we do, at least at the parish and institutional level, and use it more explicitly as a witness to our faith?

Thirdly, though we ourselves may be victims, friends of victims, or feel aggrieved at the actions or inactions of the hierarchy, we are part of the Church and we should take on some of the burden of that sin, and make what reparation we can.  Personally, I think the bishops should be suggesting things like Friday abstinence as an offering for the sins perpetrated, and/or both doing and advocating some  fasting to the same end, but in the meantime we can do that individually.

Institutional response

The ACBC plenary last week set up a new Council to work with the Commission, and the non-episcopal members of that Council will be announced in coming weeks.

In the meantime, perhaps there would be some value in considering just what we all think the priorities and strategy of that group should be?

The Council will face some hard decisions and have to juggle some competing considerations about how to approach the Royal Commission.  They could surely do with some broader input from the laity on this.

At the purely practical level, for example, should the Church be pro-active and release a list in each diocese of all those convicted or removed from the priesthood from these crimes as some victims groups have advocated?  What about all of those who have been involved in handling cases (whether or not implicated in cover-ups)?

The extraordinary degree of unanimity on the need for a Royal Commission - 95% of Australians support it - suggests that few Catholics, let alone the broader public, really buy the line that Towards Healing is enough and has worked well.  So what changes to current practices, procedures and publicly provided information should be made in order to get in front of the issue?

Reforming the Church?

The far bigger agenda though, is surely what changes need to be made to the Church operates more generally.

All the indications are that at least some members of the current hierarchy will find their position untenable as a result of the outcomes of the various police investigations, State level Inquiries and the Royal Commission.  Will this be enough to effect the necessary change in culture though?  My own view is no.

Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane recently wrote a rather good piece on the need for humility on the part of the clergy, whether or not they are guilty of any crimes or cover ups.

But not long after I read it I went to Mass and was confronted with a fill-in priest (naturally a Jesuit) who proceeded to perpetuate a number of liturgical abuses (let's skip the preparatory rites, because hey, we are surely sinless; bound down from the sanctuary at the sign of peace to shake hands with as many people as possible, because hey, I'm surely the most important person here aren't I? and there were more...) and preach Arianism in the sermon.  Humility requires obedience first and foremost, and that is still sadly lacking in so many cases amongst our clergy!

Cardinal Pell recently pointed to the need to recover our catholic identity and shore up our practice: recovering our sense of the sacred in the liturgy would be a good start.  So would simple things like extending the Eucharistic fast to three hours; bringing back Friday abstinence; and restoring a few Holy Days of Obligation.

But we also need, I think, to look more fundamentally at the way the Church is run.  Making the idea of lay co-responsibility in the Church a reality shouldn't just be seen as a liberal agenda, but rather as recovery of a legitimate aspect of the Church's ongoing reality in my view.  English conservative theologian Fr Aidan Nicholls OP, for example, recently noted that there are creative ways that could be used to better engage the laity without compromising on orthodoxy:

"...Readers of The Tablet would like to see an element of lay governance operating in the Catholic dioceses. Readers of The Catholic Herald would shut their ears in horror at the prospect.  But an Anglo-Catholic gentleman who is now in communion with the Holy See suggested to me that if the Catholic bishops in England do not have obvious regular means for listening to a larger range of the committed laity than their own bureaucrats and ‘professional Catholics’ such as those in the media, something like a synod with a house of laity in the Catholic Church in England would be perfectly compatible with continuing orthodoxy if – a very important ‘if’ – all lay members of such a synod were required to declare their conscientious allegiance to all the Church teaches and their fealty to the Church’s hierarchical constitution by making exactly the same profession of faith and taking precisely the same accompanying oath of fidelity as, since the pontificate of John Paul II, the Catholic Church has asked of her office-holders…”

He wasn't necessarily advocating this particular option: just suggesting that there is scope to bridge the ideological divide in the Church on this issue.

So what do you think?


GOR said...

If the abuse reporting cycle plays out in Australia as it did here in the US then yes, Kate, things will get worse before they get better. As more cases are revealed or adjudicated, expect some in the legal profession (anyone seen Jeff Anderson around Sydney, lately?) to initiate class-action suits against individual dioceses, with diocesan bankruptcies ensuing due to outrageous ‘settlements’.

Even declaring bankruptcy will not be a panacea. Besides going after diocesan assets, the claimants will seek to access the assets of individual parishes. Here in Milwaukee a judge just ruled that parishes were separate legal entities and could not be ‘merged’ with the assets of the diocese for bankruptcy purposes. But it took much wrangling and legal expense to get to this point.

As with so many things in life the innocent suffer with the guilty – or, frequently, more so. It will be a testing time for people’s faith and difficult to “keep one’s head”. But in the end we have the prime example of innocence betrayed – the crucifixion of Our Lord. While we may rightly lament the injustice of it all, we must remember we were not promised a rose garden, but a cross. If we remain faithful, God willing, the real ‘rose garden’ – Heaven - will come later.

R J said...

It would seem to me that one factor aggravating the Australian case is the assumption that it is a relevant analogue to the American case.

American Catholicism today really is sui generis, in its (mostly) good, and in its horribly bad. Along with French Catholicism and perhaps Polish Catholicism, it is probably the only geographical sector of the Faith left which still has any independent political clout (I exclude miniature states like Malta). Moreover, Chesterton rightly called America "a nation with the soul of a church."

Therefore it surely makes limited sense to take the line - all too familiar, alas - that the good things of American Catholicism can be bodily spliced onto what little remains of Catholicism in this country. For one thing, Americans are mostly brought up with a belief (however theoretical this belief has been since FDR and, especially, LBJ) that socialism is A Bad Thing. By contrast, Australia has been a government-dependent society as I never tire of saying, since 1788. This ensures the hopelessness of the American model in the Australian context of pure Erastianism. As does the gross disparity between Mass attendance rates there versus Mass attendance rates here.

We surely can learn much more from the abuse aftermath in a land whose dirigiste political system resembles our own: namely, Ireland. The vast majority of Irish prelates, like ours, were so profoundly unimaginative that they never really imagined scandal could overwhelm the local Church at all. Just as our own stupider Catholics imagined that the Mannix cultural-administrative imperium could last forever, so the Irish hierarchy appears mostly to have imagined that the De Valera cultural-administrative imperium could last forever. Well, that is one delusion long overdue for the rubbish-bin.

In The Remnant of November 3, 2011, I submitted the following for readers' consideration:

"[Australia's] flourishing Islamist and Green ideologies, however objectionable, thrive primarily in [a] moral vacuum ... For decades Australian Catholic administration has operated according to the de facto principle (supposing 'principle' to be the right word)of 'no enemies on the Homintern Left.' It now has two choices. Either it eliminates immediately all traces of this mythomania. Or else it will become as irreparably humiliated as its Hibernian counterpart, which might yet acquire the crank cult privileges appertaining to (say) Jehovah's Witnesses membership, but which is otherwise, humanly speaking, finished."

Nothing in what has happened recently with Royal Commission and Victorian parliamentary commission enquiries has caused me to change my mind. But I do wonder how many Joe and Jodie Sixpacks in the Australian pews of a Sunday morning would even understand that which so many millions of American Catholics - and quite a few Irish Catholics - have lately been forced to discern: the concept of "Back to the catacombs."

Catherine said...

By and large I agree with Kate. However much I'd like to see the Eucharistic fast lengthened, Holy Days of Obligation increased and Friday abstinence more official, the majority would be guilty of disobedience if these things were done, and it means more when it comes from the heart anyway.

As Kate says, we definitely need to work on being more sincere in our response to God, and that begins with a commitment to personal prayer. That's the first thing to do.

The second thing to do is to pray for all of our priests and religious on a daily basis ; the good, the bad, and the in between. They all need prayer support, because when their spiritual lives improve, so do ours.

Lastly we need to be pro-active in presenting good news stories of the Catholic Church : The good done by many volunteers, the power of the sacraments to change lives for the better, the treasures of truths in the Catechism and writings of the doctors of the Church.

The first two, personal prayer and prayer for priests, are only what Our Lady in all of her reported apparitions of the last 100 years has been asking for. So let's give it a go.