'Holland of the Pacific'?: Catholicism in New Zealand

'Holland of the Pacific'?: Catholicism in New Zealand

John Kennedy OBE

(The late) John Kennedy OBE, the writer of this article, the first of a two-part series on Catholicism in New Zealand, was for 22 years editor of the New Zealand 'Tablet,' the country's national Catholic weekly. He retired in 1989 and later spent four months in Europe looking at the state of the Church there. A visit to Rome included meetings withy key curial officials.

Mr Kennedy and Michael Gilchrist, Associate Editor of 'AD2000,' were two of the keynote speakers at a conference in New Zealand in February 1990. The conference addressed some of the issues raised in this article.

Back in July, 1988, at the Sydney conference on "The Christian Family Towards 2000", I was startled when a young Religious priest referred to the Church in New Zealand as "the Holland of the Pacific." It seemed so harsh a judgment on the state of the Church in my homeland that I was moved at first to resent the description. I certainly do not now. There is far too much truth in it for comfort.

Yet it is not the whole truth. There is a great deal that is good and positive happening in the Church here. There are areas of encouragement and potential which can and should be built upon. Not the least of them is a basically sound laity. Because of this the Catholic Church remains the nation's most cohesive religious entity.

Against this must be set the fact that there is a steady and continuing erosion in religious practice. Mass counts are a shadow of what they used to be. One of the most disturbing aspects of attendance at Sunday Mass these days is to note how few young people there are compared with even fifteen years ago.

My personal view is that the future of the Church lies in the hands of the laity to the extent that, on some present trends, some expression of the sensus fidelium may eventually be necessary.

There are, unfortunately, real grounds for questioning the commitment of sections of the Church to such fundamental issues as the doctrine of the Real Presence, the nature of the priesthood, the Petrine Primacy, the official teaching of the Church on matters of sexual morality, ranging from contraception to abortion to homosexuality, and, lastly, but of extreme importance, the matter of the permanence of marriage.

Barrage of criticism

One of the problems of writing about the Church in New Zealand is that the moment you draw attention to any areas of real concern, you receive, not a reasoned response, but a barrage of criticism on the grounds that you are being "negative". That accusation has been levelled at me repeatedly by Cardinal Williams of Wellington and Bishop Cullinane, the Secretary of the Bishops' Conference.

At the September 1986 Conference of the Bishops, for instance, a session which was supposed to be concerned with ways of promoting the Catholic press, turned instead into an attack on the Catholic press for reporting problems which were surfacing in regards to liturgical development, the efficacy of Catholic schools, the lack of content in religious education, ecumenism, the emergence of left-wing influences in justice and peace activities and so on. It ended with the Cardinal declaring that there was no way in which he would support The Tablet while it continued to be "negative". He and his fellow bishops, with the notable exception of Christchurch, seen by many as the hope of the Church here, will almost certainly dub this article "negative", just as they would the magazine in which it appears.

The central problem of the Church in New Zealand today turns upon whether those responsible for the transmission of the Faith in its entirety are doing just that. There are three parties involved here, and they are, in order of importance, the bishops, the diocesan clergy, and the Catholic schools system.

It would, I think, be a salutary exercise for each bishop at the end of every year to take up the rite for the consecration of a bishop and examine his conscience in terms of the sacred oaths which he took during that ceremony. The bishop is at once pastor and teacher and protector and propounder of the Faith. The emphasis today, however, is too much on the pastoral. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of bishops to face the fact that they have been given authority and that there are times when it should be used.

The role of authority in the transmission of the Faith should never be under-estimated. But its impact now is less than it used to be, so that when authority is invoked, there is likely to be a row. That brings in the media, and the Church usually emerges in a poor light. So the bishop resolves to be more careful next time. And that can mean that there isn't a next time.

Episcopal leadership

The bulk of the laity are still keen for strong episcopal leadership. They realise instinctively that they must have it and that without it they will be overwhelmed by the secular society around them. They want to see the Catholic position strongly put. They are uncomfortable with the "on-the-one-hand this and on-the-other-hand that" comments which are trotted out from the growing Catholic bureaucracy on the issues of the day. They wonder, too, why it is that the bishops seem more willing to speak on socio-economic issues than on basic matters of faith. They are troubled that so much of episcopal thinking seems to be conditioned by the left. There is at present a very strong reaction developing against the preoccupation of most of the hierarchy and their advisers to support, almost without qualification, the claims being advanced by Maori activists.

It is not easy to discuss many of these things openly in the Catholic press because personalities are involved, because people clam up or are unwilling to let their names be used, and, perhaps most of all, because the Catholic press here is run on a shoestring. Again, there is a hang-over of the old notion that it is "not right" to question a bishop or what he is doing. Then there is the view that anything which has the slightest hint of scandal about it should not be aired in the Catholic press or anywhere else.

A case in point occurred in January-February 1988 when Sacred Heart College, Lower Hutt, appointed a former priest, who had not been laicised and who had gone through a form of marriage with a young woman who was expecting his child, to a teaching post. I reported the matter in The Tablet because it seemed to me that there was an issue of deep importance here.

It was this: under integration, the Catholic schools system is integrated with the State system. This integration includes a guarantee that a "special character" of the Catholic school, which is clearly defined in each case, must be preserved.

The Tablet took the view that the employment of the un-laicised, "married" priest clearly breached the "special character" requirement, especially since "special character" clearly states that Catholic doctrines and practices must apply in the school. So we asked the question: How can a Catholic college employ a teacher who is living, and is known to be living, in a situation which clearly conflicts with the doctrines, laws and disciplines of the Church, and yet claim that it has a special character conferred by its adherence to the Catholic Faith?

The Cardinal, rightly, was outraged, but the advice that he was given by his legal and other experts was that there was nothing he could do, so tight then were the conditions which protected the position of the teacher once he had been formally appointed. So it stood.

At the time there was criticism that it had been made known. It was thought to be unfair to the teacher. No-one wanted to discuss the question of what Catholic teenagers would think about the college openly condoning a situation which was clearly not in accord with what they were being taught in religious education.

I was to learn last year when I went to Europe that Rome was deeply worried by what had happened and by the failure of the Cardinal to challenge the appointment. Rome felt, and still feels, that he should have consulted more widely and that he should have taken the case to the High Court on the ground that the appointment by the college board was in clear breach of the "special character" provision and therefore invalid.

De facto situations

Unfortunately the situation that prevailed here is not an exception. There are a substantial number of teachers in Catholic schools now living in de facto situations. But even when these matters become public knowledge, nothing is done.

There is hope, however, that that may change. Under the restructuring of education by the Lange-Palmer Governments, each school, State and Catholic, is now controlled by its own board, with rights of appointment and of hiring and firing. Principals are being put on contract and parents are being given much more say.

This could be the opening needed to enforce parents' wishes for a stronger, more Catholic approach and for more content in the teaching of the Faith.

I should say here that I do not for a moment doubt the goodwill of the bishops. They are worthy men intent on doing their pastoral duty. But they have inhibited, albeit unwittingly, their ability to do that by surrounding themselves with advisers who are totally committed to a so-called "progressive" outlook. For all the synods that have been held, the contact between the bishops and the real thinking of the mass of their laity is tenuous.

Auckland Diocese recently provided a case in point. The Bishop, Dr Denis Browne, called a diocesan synod. Lead-up preparation took about 18 months by way of discussion groups, etc. The Bishop emphasised that the object of the synod was to produce a pastoral plan that would vitalise and renew New Zealand's most populous diocese. Even when the word got out that feminist activists and radicals had other plans, he was assuring those who voiced doubts that they had nothing to worry about.

He could not have been more wrong. When the synod was held it did the predictable things expected of it, and then it moved into the forbidden areas, coming out strongly for women's ordination and an end to priestly celibacy. Some of the priests attending were appalled at the vehemence the radicals, including nuns, displayed towards the priesthood. It was a classic example of what a well-organised rump can achieve.

Women's ordination and an end to celibacy! Sex ahoy! The media whooped for joy and waded in. Church spokespeople, caught on the hop, at first denied and then had to admit what had happened. Poor Bishop Browne, because he had put his faith in the assurances of people who either couldn't deliver or had no intention of delivering, ended up with mud all over his chasuble. What was to have been a triumph of renewal became one of the saddest weekends in the history of the Auckland Diocese.

Dunedin diocese plans a synod next October; the "progressives" are firmly in command of the organisation of it, and unless Bishop Leonard Boyle heeds what happened in Auckland, there could be a repeat performance.

At the moment the laity fall into roughly three groups. There are those who are "progressive" and enthusiastic for change. They are not usually well read in the Faith - for that matter how many Catholics are? But they have been to seminars and hearkened unto the gurus from the United States who flash through the country from time to time. These tend to be the people who are closest to the bishops. They sit on diocesan councils and commissions. Women are notably to the fore here, with the Sophia Women's Network, dedicated to feminism and women's ordination, having a strong influence. On one occasion they forced a session of the Bishops' Conference to listen to them by threatening a march. The Catholic Women's League, traditionally the main women's group, and strongest lay body, now lacks the impact it once had.

Crunch situation

The second group comprises those laity who have given it away in disgust, with some of them joining the Lefebvrists, who now have a

national network of Mass centres, served by two priests who travel incessantly. I am told there is a distinct likelihood that some priests may join them.

The major group who are loyal, still going to Mass, saying their prayers and supporting the Church financially. But some of them are becoming irregular in their Mass attendance and reception of the Sacrament of Penance. They tell themselves that what is happening must be all right if that is the way the Bishop wants it. Their numbers are, according to Mass attendance figures, falling.

The real strength of the Church still lies with this group. Given strong, confident leadership by the bishops, they could make the Church vigorous and missionary once again. Bishop Meeking in Christchurch is providing the kind of leadership which is needed. But there again comes a crunch situation. Just as the Holy Father faces a tremendous problem in obtaining action lower down on what he wants, so, too, a diocesan bishop who tries to tighten the reins has an immensely intractable problem. If he is not careful in how he goes about it, the horses may bolt.

That is why there was more than usual significance in the "Christchurch tea party" in December 1989. Cathedral parish folk, but by no means all, challenged the right of the Bishop to rule that the back of the Cathedral was not the place for morning tea after Mass. So they sipped their tea on the steps of the Cathedral under the eyes of the TV cameras.

(NEXT MONTH: The Bishops and Rome; trouble in the seminaries, the priesthood today and the Catholic family.)

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