Friday, 10 May 2013

Renewing the Church in Australia Step 1: Abolish the ACBC and start again!

I suggested, in a post a few days ago, that a genuine revival - a new Pentecost and New Evangelization if you will - is still perhaps possible for Australia, but only if we open our hearts and minds and truly did God's will.

It will not, however, happen without radical change.

So let me suggest, over the next nine days, some of the things that I think need to happen for that change to occur.

I want to start with leadership issues, because leadership is always crucial.

Leadership doesn't always have to come from above: indeed, many of the great reform movements in the Church in ages past have been led by saints who were laypeople or religious, operating outside the hierarchy, indeed often directly at odds with it!  Nonetheless, the Church is hierarchically constituted, so wherever the process starts, and whoever leads it, part of the program has to be reform of the leadership of the Church.

There is a lot of talk, at the moment, about the need for reform of the Curia.  Let's start a little closer to home! A useful starting point, in my opinion, would be the abolition of the current Australian Catholics Bishops Conference bureaucracy: wipe the slate clean, and start again!

The need for the ACBC?

Theologically of course, there is no such thing as the Australian Church, only the Church in Australia.  The universal Church, has, as Pope Benedict XVI taught, ontological and temporal priority, and the local Church subsists in a diocese.  Still, bishops need to deal with the Federal authorities, so some kind of common structure to avoid duplication and overlap does make sense.  And of course there are shared cultural sensibilities that make collaboration sensible in many cases.  As a result, Canon Law established these conferences and gave them some limited powers of decision-making.

The dangers of bishops conferences though is that they encourage or allow bishops to abdicate their own responsibility; tend to foster lowest common denominator compromises; and that their bureaucracies acquire a momentum all of their own.

All of those problems have long been rampant in Australia.

The latest ACBC plenary

Last night, with admirable speed, the ACBC put out a media release on its latest plenary meeting, held between 2-9 May.

Good indeed to see such a fast report of the outcomes, a dramatic improvement on the past.

The problem though is, that if the record is to be believed, absolutely nothing of substance was decided bar bureaucratic trivia, such as a change in name of the Bishops Commission for Mission and Faith Formation to Bishops Commission for Evangelisation, plus a few assorted appointments, and the suggestion that all priests have the delegation to lift the excommunication in cases of abortion.  Even the Royal Commission (and other assorted inquiries) into Child Abuse only gets a one sentence mention.  There do seem to have been a number of interesting speakers to the meeting, but we are given no flavour of what they had to say.

There are some tantalising hints in it, on which I'll say more in later posts (just what was the decision on the publication of the Pastoral Research Office's research on Mass Attendees beliefs, for example, and what is in those standard tables of census and other data being prepared for websites??!).

So I'm prepared to believe that the week this meeting took of our leaders time did actually achieve somewhat more than the record suggests.  But equally, it is pretty hard to see that this was the kind of meeting that is going to fire up our leaders into going back to their dioceses and launching a genuine attempt at a new evangelisation.

And that should be no surprise given the fact that so many of the current ACBC offices seem more about  undermining genuine Catholicism than actually promoting it.

Let me just give three examples of what seem to me to be among the most problematic parts of the ACBC bureaucracy, namely the Office for the Participation of Women, the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, and Caritas Australia.

The case for abolition....Office for the Participation of Women

The whole rationale for the Office of the Participation of Women seems pretty dodgy to me in the first place.  It is presumably premised on the article of faith held in certain circles that there is a lack of 'visibility', 'influence' or 'participation' of women in the Church.

Yet the latest survey of actual Church-goers, reported on in the Pastoral Research Office's Profile of the Australian Catholic Community released in March 2013, shows that in fact three-fifths (61 per cent) of those who turn up on Sunday to Mass were female.  I'd guess its even higher at daily Mass, it certainly is in my parish.

But even if there is a need for such an Office, it would surely be preferable for them to be finding away of promoting the role of women in the Church within the framework of the Churches actual teachings.

The Report on the Bishops's Plenary notes that:

The OPW hosted an International Women’s Day 2013 Celebration on the 8th March in the garden of the General Secretariat in Canberra to launch the International Women’s Day 2013 Parish Resource which was produced by the Bishops Commission for Church Ministry and the Council for Australian Catholic Women and distributed to all parishes across Australia. This resource is produced and distributed annually and dioceses are encouraged to promote it widely among clergy and other Catholic organisations and agencies.

Yet as The Record has pointed out, this 'Parish Resource' seems on the face of it to be seriously erroneous:

‘Our Father’ might not be the best way to think of God, according to a document released last week by the Office for the Participation of Women (OPW), an official body of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC).[And yet Our Lord taught us to say...]

The suggestion is contained in the OPW’s Parish Resource 2013, a document that was designed to help parishes celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday, March 10.

The document also suggests the role of ‘mother’ may have been deliberately excluded from the parable of the Prodigal Son, found in the Gospel of Luke (15: 1-3, 11-32).[Presumably under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, given the teaching of Vatican II on this subject, reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini: "A key concept for understanding the sacred text as the word of God in human words is certainly that of inspiration. Here too we can suggest an analogy: as the word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the same Spirit. Sacred Scripture is “the word of God set down in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”.[66] In this way one recognizes the full importance of the human author who wrote the inspired texts and, at the same time, God himself as the true author. As the Synod Fathers affirmed, the theme of inspiration is clearly decisive for an adequate approach to the Scriptures and their correct interpretation,[67] which for its part is to be done in the same Spirit in whom the sacred texts were written.[68] Whenever our awareness of its inspiration grows weak, we risk reading Scripture as an object of historical curiosity and not as the work of the Holy Spirit in which we can hear the Lord himself speak and recognize his presence in history."

“Today, it is timely to ask, ‘Where was the mother of the two sons?’,” the document states.

“Was the father widowed? Or was the mother still part of the family but simply written out of the story, in the way that many women’s roles and contributions were not included in Scripture?[Well, actually they surely are included!  Just not, one assumes in the roles those advocating the ordination of women and such like things would like to see!]

The Gospel writer Luke had been praised for his inclusion of women in the past, the document states, but Scripture scholars were now saying he had trivialised their tasks and roles....[So being a mother, the women standing stalwart at the foot of the Cross (unlike the disciples), and tending to the needs of the disciples is dismissed as trivial?!]

The Record article goes on to draw attention to a number of other questionable examples of the Office's work.

The Office of Film and Broadcasting

Similar issues regularly arise with the work of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

The case for such an Office at the time of its origins back in the 1930s: that was time when the film industry was just emerging as a form of mass entertainment, and when the index of forbidden books still existed.  The case for today, I would suggest, is much less clear cut.

But if it is going to exist, surely the advice it gives should actually be genuinely informed by a Catholic sensibility.

I haven't actually seen the tv series Game of Thrones, but I have been following the debate around it.  I had been considering getting the videos to have a look - until I read a review from someone writing from an entirely secularist perspective who said: "Yes, it was interesting, but it was - in typical HBO fashion - filled with gratuitous nudity/sex/incest/what have you as hooks for the people who watch for that sort of thing."  That review seems entirely with the many reviews around the place that suggest that it is, in short, pornographic.

Nor, as far as I can gather, does it have any redeeming features in terms of its actual content.  I actually bought the book, which I gather the TV series is reasonably true too.  I'm normally a fan of the fantasy genre, particularly with a nice political focus, but I've given up at the half way mark because the work seems to be relentlessly secularist in tone.  As one Catholic commentator  over at St Peter's list has noted:

"The literary trap that Martin does not avoid is that of modernity. One such pitfall is the inability for modernity to understand virtue. Almost every character in the series is an anti-hero. They are lesser evils fighting against greater evils. Those characters which do appear to be good speak of honor, not virtue. Inevitably, this leads to vague notions of morality based off naval gazing, i.e., seeking the “right” and “honorable” answer by self-searching and not external standards. However, even these vague moral heroes are naive, exploitable, and ultimately lost within a Machiavellian political power structure. It is a pit almost all modern literature falls into – modernity understands evil, but it does not understand good."

I could add any number of other examples of the author's positive undermining of key institutions such as the depiction of the pseudo-monastic military order the Black Watch as a bunch of traitors with no sense of mateship or brotherhood whatsoever in their ethos.

With all this in mind, one might expect the Film and Broadcasting Office to take a fairly negative view of the show.  Certainly the Sydney Archdiocese's Being Catholic blog, aimed at teachers, asks the question, can Catholics watch the Game of Thrones, and gives a clear answer: no!

Over there, Jonathon Doyle argues that what we watch affects us, and Game of Thrones strikes out on all possible grounds:

"We are sensory beings. What we see and hear has an impact upon our spiritual nature. And no, it does not matter whether you think it does or not. It just does. For example, there is a reason we have art galleries and a reason we have the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Beauty is an essential aspect of what it means to be human because beauty is one of the three transcendentals that constitute what is taking place in the heart of the Godhead. Within the very essence of the Trinity exist Truth, Beauty and Goodness in their ultimate and full expression. So, in this life the degree to which we expose ourselves to truth, beauty and goodness will strongly impact our relationship with God and our ability to experience him in daily life.You contemplate beauty you get closer to God…you watch Game of Thrones you get the opposite.

Game of Thrones strikes out on all three transcendentals. It is not true, in the sense that its depictions of sexuality and human intimacy do not conform to the truth of human sexuality as an exclusive gift by which spouses make a mutual self-donative gift of love in harmony with the self-giving essence of the Trinity. Game of Thrones is not beautiful and it ain’t got the market cornered on goodness either!

By contrast, the Film and Broadcasting Office's review devotes a paragraph to defending the right of Catholics to watch 'gratuitous sex and violence', several paragraphs to the evils of pirated downloading of the show, and has almost nothing whatsoever to say about the other content of the show.

Here is the opening of the review, with my comments:

"There are other programs too, that instruct in different ways, not simply in their content but in the ethical arguments they provoke over the method by which they are seen. [Yet there seems no evidence that Game of Thrones actually does this!] Season Three of HBO’s Game Of Thrones is currently screening on cable and can be subscribed to legally through Itunes for all who for whatever reason choose not to have cable. The most commonly cited objection to the program is that it is full of gratuitous sex and violence. That can be argued, for the program is strong meat for anyone who cannot remember I Claudius which in the mid to late 1970s also showed full frontal nudity, confronting sex scenes and appalling violence. GOT is as horrifically violent as The Sopranos or The Wire, as sexually explicit as I Claudius and its language is as profane as any modern police procedural movie. [Yet those shows depicted sex and violence for a reason, to advance plot and characterisation.  Sex and violence in I Claudius for example, was not designed titillate but to appall the viewer.]  One could argue perhaps that anything you see on GOT you will also see in a production of Titus Andronicus or The Revenger’s Tragedy. Greek tragedies (and comedies) dealt with obscenity and violence by alluding to them rather than enacting them. Today our entertainments enact as much as they allude. It is the mindset that we bring to such matters that counts: any secondary school student will have seen far more outrageous behaviours depicted than ever we baby-boomers and Gen X-ers did. The discussions about such matters are far from simple and must continue.

If it is indeed the case that it is 'the mindset' we bring to watching a show that counts and not its actual content, why then do we need film and tv reviews to guide us at all?  Let's just redirect the time and money elsewhere to a more useful purpose.  Though personally, I think Mr Doyle's position, that what we watch does in fact affect us, and there are some shows we shouldn't watch, is actually the Catholic one.

Caritas Australia

Caritas worldwide is undergoing something of a reform process, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, and that seems to be happening in Australia too, as a new vision and mission statement was approved at the Plenary, and the current CEO is retiring.   Still, I would question whether the organisation has a reason for existing at all.

If you subscribe to Caritas on twitter or elsewhere, you will have been bombarded of late, with lobbying on behalf of the aid budget in the upcoming Budget.

Yet this is not entirely disinterested lobbying on behalf of the world's poor: around a third of Caritas' Budget comes from Government, according to its 2011-12 Annual Report.

Now I can understand the rationale for a Catholic aid agency to distribute the money actually raised by Catholics - but is there a case for becoming just another agency for Government?  Well, perhaps, if they acted, as Pope Francis recently called on Church agencies to do, not just as another NGO, but in a genuinely Catholic way.

Unfortunately Caritas Australia explicitly rejects doing that.

In a sermon a few days ago, Pope Francis reaffirmed that proclaiming the faith is not proselytism: he cites the story of St Paul preaching in the Areopagus as an example to us of what we must do.  Vatican Radio reported that:

"The Pope warned that, “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ.” The Pope exhorted Christians to do as Paul did and begin to “build bridges and to move forward”:

"Paul teaches us this journey of evangelization, because Jesus did, because he is well aware that evangelization is not proselytizing: it is because he is sure of Jesus Christ and does not need to justify himself [or] to seek reasons to justify himself. When the Church loses this apostolic courage, she becomes a stalled Church, a tidy Church a nice, a Church that is nice to look at, but that is without fertility, because she has lost the courage to go to the outskirts, where there are many people who are victims of idolatry, worldliness of weak thought, [of] so many things. Let us today ask St Paul to give us this apostolic courage, this spiritual fervor, so that we might be confident...

By contrast, Caritas Australia's policy appears to refuse to spread the faith even when people are attracted to it and explicitly ask for more information.  Consider, for example, this appalling story contained on the "Principles of Engagement on International Development Through the Lens of Catholic Social Teaching" document from their website.  After a  brief (highly selective and distorted) summary of Catholic Social Teaching on the subject, it concludes that its workers

"...must be “credible witnesses to Christ” but not engage “in what is nowadays considered proselytism” The extra such workers should bring is summed up in a story from the earthquake-struck zone of Bam an old Muslim lady asked a Caritas worker for a Bible. The reply was “We can’t do that. Caritas does not proselytise but you are Muslim – why do you want one?

The old lady replies that she found their approach attractive, so naturally wanted to know more about the faith that inspired them - but apparently, in Caritas' view, refusing that request reflects our treatment of people with dignity and respect for their humanity!

Enough said.

You can find the next part of this series here.


Matthias said...

I will be cancelling my support of Caritas now and increasing my donations to the Local latin mass group

Kate Edwards said...

Matthias - While that was pretty much my reaction, you might want to hold off and see what the new mission and vision statement looks like, and how quickly Pope Francis' words flow through. There is definitely a reform process happening, trickling down from the international level, though how far and fast it will occur is another matter...

A Canberra Observer said...

The ACBC clearly had lots of 'stuff' on the agenda. Some of it looks worthwhile, some of it I suspect could disappear without a ripple.

What amazes me is that the key social and moral issues of the day, and how the Church is going to combat them, are completely absent:
- homosexual 'marriage'
- euthanasia
- even more liberal abortion legislation

People will fall into mortal sin because of these things and the Church is silent, silent, silent. These bishops have an awful responsibility.

I suggest that step 2 is that the Catholic Education Offices are all abolished as well, as I can bet you that the general approach to the key moral issues will be of the ostrich variety, or if discussed the experiential group share pap style - teach categorically? I would be surprised.

Kate Edwards said...

CO - Education is certainly on the list, though not my step 2 (though I'm not sure my steps are in priority order).

And you are right about the ACBC agenda - lots of hints of vaguely interesting things, but not much to suggest they are focused on the big threats of the moment. Though in fairness, the NSW bishops have put out a good statement on the latest Euthanasia bill there.

And in reality maybe it is better if they are silent, because the lowest common denominator outcome might be worse in this forum - in the UK for example, the bishops conference have actually put in a submission in support of the notorious euthanasia-by-not-very- much-stealth Liverpool Care Pathway: