'Call to Change' in Tasmania: but whose 'vision of Church'?

'Call to Change' in Tasmania: but whose 'vision of Church'?

Michael Gilchrist

The Hobart Archdiocesan periodical, The Standard, headlined its September 2000 edition: "Call is now to ACTION," while its editor, Ms Penny Edman, declared enthusiastically, "The Catholic Church in Tasmania again has a clear and purposeful direction. Its people are ready to move forward!"

Not all of these "people," though, as Tasmanian lay Catholics have been contacting AD2000 in recent months, to express deep concern about a planned restructuring of the Archdiocese, apparently under the influence of a Catalyst for Renewal style "vision of Church."

Catalyst for Renewal promotes a radicalised version of Catholicism at odds with the thrust of the Statement of Conclusions and Catechism of the Catholic Church. Writings it recommends are often difficult to reconcile with Church teachings.

Public forum

On 22 April 1999, Catalyst for Renewal organised its own response to the Statement of Conclusions with a public forum in the Sydney Town Hall. Catalyst's Executive Director, Fr Michael Whelan SM, criticised the procedures followed in preparing the Statement and its "hidden agenda." This was despite the fact that the Statement was endorsed by the Australian bishops and the Holy See.

The launch of the restructuring program for the Hobart Archdiocese - titled Call to Change - took place on 27 April 1999 and was followed by 16 months of meetings, parish assemblies and discussion sessions, culminating in the release of a set of policies in August. They are due to take effect at the start of 2001.

The Archdiocese of Hobart, which takes in the whole of Tasmania, has a Catholic population roughly equal to that of the Diocese of Ballarat (Victoria).

A lengthy feature article by Catalyst for Renewal's Fr Whelan appeared in the July 1999 edition of The Standard. Titled "Responding to a Changing Church: It's the Journey that Matters," Fr Whelan's article informed readers: "For generations, we Catholics have had a seemingly unshakeable confidence in our identity, a conviction that we had the answers. There was a taken-for-granted religious world that was very stable and predictable. Times have changed."

Fr Whelan continued: "For example, the Church is struggling at this time to understand (in the light of the Good News, the Tradition and the historical reality in which she finds herself) the meanings of such central features as priesthood, Eucharist, the authority and responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome, marriage, evangelisation, catechesis and so on. We need to have many conversations about these things."

The Standard then provided a number of discussion questions around Fr Whelan's article for its readers to reflect upon.

The Catalyst for Renewal influence was further evident in a series of Call to Change discussion papers for parishes and Church organisations, that consisted largely of extracts from Catalyst's own journal, The Mix. After reading these, people were invited to provide "Feedback to Archbishop Doyle" in the spaces provided.

In one of these pieces, Fr Richard Lennan of the Catholic Institute of Sydney offered the following advice: "A Church with all the answers is a Church which no longer needs to live by faith. A Church which is willing to experiment, willing to suggest a possible answer which may have to be revised later, is the only Church to which it is possible for human beings to belong ... Authenticity also demands that we be willing to evaluate our present strategies and structures in order to ascertain whether they are leading us into the future or whether they are seeking merely to repeat the past ...".

While the declining number of active priests was what apparently prompted the setting up of Call to Change, its co-ordinator, Sr Louise Cotton, made it clear in The Standard (July 2000) that this was "not the only or principal reason for Call to Change. She pointed out: "We would still need to examine our parishes in the light of the Gospel and vision of Church expressed by Vatican II."

What was of concern was not merely the specific Call to Change policies that Archbishop Doyle announced at meetings in Hobart, Burnie and Launceston between 15- 17 August 2000, but�the kind of theological thinking that seemed to underpin them and likely to determine their future direction. The impression given was that this thinking was closer to Catalyst for Renewal than to the Statement of Conclusions.

Policies

Among policy initatives arising from Call to Change, the number of Tasmanian parishes, starting at the beginning of 2001, will be cut from 39 to 24 by means of amalgamations, with some assets to be disposed of and lay people trained to perform funerals. In addition, Tasmania's parishes were called on to "broaden the range of worship opportunities available, providing scope for lay leadership, creative ritual, lay preaching and sharing of faith, and ecumenical celebrations."

The priest shortfall over the past 10-15 years has prompted quite different responses around Australia.

In Perth, Wagga Wagga and Melbourne, for example, success has been achieved in building up the number of priests, both by accepting priests from overseas who wish to settle in Australia and through greater seminary numbers.

However, in an article in The Standard (July 2000), Archbishop Doyle said he did not favour importing priests from other Australian dioceses or from overseas; and while he called on "the entire Catholic community to take seriously our responsibility to foster religious and priestly vocations," it was not clear if the kind of approach that has proved successful in Australia and overseas was envisaged for Tasmania.

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