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Catholic bishops urged to meet Pope Francis to push for reform

Open letter to Australian bishops about speaking out on damaging issues

A call to Australia’s Catholic bishops to press for urgent reform of the church’s culture and governance could help Pope Francis achieve his own agenda, theology professor Neil Ormerod says.

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He was commenting on an open letter that has called on Australian bishops to lead a delegation to Rome to seek urgent changes to the Catholic Church’s fundamental views on women, celibacy, governance and the handling of child sexual abuse cases.

“We’re very concerned that our church fails to conduct itself in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.” – Peter Johnstone

Peak reform group Catholics for Renewal sent the letter to all Australian parishes with the hope that thousands of people would sign it.

The letter urged bishops to take immediate steps to “execute necessary reforms now”, rather than “deferring to the Holy See” (the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome) or waiting for the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Changes they could take now, according to Catholics for Renewal, include appointing women to more senior diocesan positions, eradicating the “corrosive” ‘Boys’ Club’ culture of clericalism, and reconciling fully and publicly with all abuse victims and their families.

In addition, the letter urged the bishops to send an urgent delegation to Pope Francis, seeking mandatory reporting of all child sex abuse cases to the police, as well as a review of priestly celibacy and the inclusion of women in top decision-making positions.

“I think Pope Francis wants to see things happen often, but at the same time he doesn’t want to be a dictator.” – Neil Ormerod

Neil Ormerod of the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy commented that the letter could help the Pope in his battle with the curia (the Holy See’s administration) over such reforms.

“There are a lot of reasons why I think the Pope is sympathetic about trying to eradicate this culture of clericalism. He’s spoken on that several times and he’s also talked about the importance of trying to get women into more significant positions in the church,” Ormerod said.

“So as much as anything else, these things are trying to offer him support for his agenda, which often he’s finding internal resistance within the curia in Rome.

“I mean, even on the issue of sexual abuse there’s still clearly a lot of people in Rome who just don’t get it. I think Pope Francis wants to see things happen often, but at the same time he doesn’t want to be a dictator. He wants people to come to the realisation themselves.”

“Many important issues for the life and renewal of the church are currently being addressed in a systematic way.” – Denis Hart

The move for renewal was acknowledged in a statement by Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Denis Hart, who said: “Many important issues for the life and renewal of the church are currently being addressed in a systematic way by bishops in their dioceses, and by the national Bishops’ Conference. Some have been mentioned by Catholics for Renewal.”

Catholics for Renewal president Peter Johnstone said the open letter had been drafted in consultation with “hundreds” of Catholics of a wide variety of views. He said the group, which encompasses priests and resigned priests, began in 2011 by launching an open letter to bishops and the Pope seeking renewal of the church, which received 8000 signatures.

“Our concern has always been with what we’ve described as the dysfunctional governance of the church … so that means its structure, its leadership, its culture but particularly its accountability in the way it takes its decisions and its inclusiveness in decision-making and, indeed, transparency on all these things,” he said.

“We are committed Catholics – we’re people of faith and we’re very concerned that our church fails to conduct itself in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. What we’re saying pretty simply is that a Christian church should be fully accountable, it should be inclusive of the people of God. It certainly should not be discriminatory against women and it should always take decisions on Christian principles.”

Johnstone, a former senior manager in the non-profit and government sectors, accused the Catholic Church of being responsible for clerical child sexual abuse because it “protected paedophiles and shifted them to new parishes where they were not known and exposed further children to abuse, so the institutional church actually was responsible for abuse.”

“All that has come out in the Royal Commission and it’s the worst possible example of the faults of the church … we’re saying ‘let’s not wait for the Royal Commission report – everyone knows what’s wrong; the bishops and the leaders of the church should be taking steps immediately’ and we’re hopeful that they will.”

“…it will take a long time for the church to regain some sort of credible moral voice in the public arena.” – Neil Ormerod

Ormerod, who made a submission to the Royal Commission on clericalism, institutional factors and celibacy, said several witnesses pointed out that “these are the sorts of changes that need to happen.”

“I think there’s emotional support among priests. All of [the reforms] are achievable but it’s such a change of mentality and culture that I don’t think they have any idea of how to achieve them.”

Ormerod noted that the Adelaide diocese, where women had been involved in senior diocesan positions for two decades, had significantly lower rates of clerical sex abuse than other Australian dioceses.

He believes introducing women into decision-making senior roles would help to break down the ‘boys’ club’ of clericalism, which he described as “a self-reinforcing system of self-regard and self-protection” in which the priest has no other community of reference than the church “from ordination to the grave.”

He also believes priests should have a pastoral supervisor to give feedback on their ministerial role. Both Ormerod and Johnstone believe the reputation of the church has suffered broadly in society as a result of the child sex abuse scandal.

“Not only the abuse but the way in which it’s been handled is a counter-sign to the gospel, so it’s real moment of de-evangelisation,” said Ormerod.

“That’s a cause of great sadness and I think it will take a long time for the church to regain some sort of credible moral voice in the public arena because of it.”

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