Archbishop Hickey: how to address the crisis of faith

Archbishop Hickey: how to address the crisis of faith

Archbishop Barry Hickey

The following is the text of an address given by Archbishop Barry Hickey at the 2005 Annual Conference of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (ACCC). It was first published in 'The Priest', the journal of the ACCC, whose website is

Lately I have been reading commentaries by Australian theologians about the Second Vatican Council which concluded forty years ago. Its first Decree, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, issued on 4 December 1963.

The last Decree was a tie between Ad Gentes on the Church's missionary activity, Dignitatis Humanae on Religious Liberty, Presbyterorum Ordinis on the Ministry and Life of Priests, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. All four Decrees bear the date 7 December 1965.

What were our theologians saying? Running through all their writings was an almost universal theme of pessimism. They were not complaining about the Second Vatican Council. For them it was the greatest Church event in recent memory. They were lamenting the blocking of the reforms that Vatican II had given rise to in the Church. They were dispirited, frustrated and at times angry, losing hope of recovering any momentum for further change.

Who and what did they identify as responsible for slowing down reforms, even reversing them? They held that the policies of the Vatican, recent episcopal appointments and the influence of backroom conservatives are the reasons why the advances inspired by Vatican II have stalled: in the enculturation of the liturgy; in the participation of the laity, especially of women; in the decision-making processes of the Church; in the ordination of married men and in moderating the law of celibacy; in a renewed understanding of human sexuality and in the inclusion of minority lifestyles in the Eucharist.

These Bishops, they say, are now in place. The future is firmly in their hands even with a change of leadership in Rome. We are in a state of crisis, they say. Yes, there is a crisis, but not the crisis they think.

In what I say now I will be revealing much of myself. Normally I accept that a variety of views can co- exist in the Church, and I believe, if only theoretically, that I cannot always be right. But I do think it is time someone offered a contrary view to what is apparently the accepted position of the theological elites in Australia.

In the first place, many of the reforms so ardently desired by the elite are not necessarily part of the vision nor of the authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The values that Vatican II acknowledged in the world (such as the recognition of fundamental human rights, freedom of conscience, personal autonomy, freedom from discrimination and prejudice and a just economic order) highlight many of the good movements we should all endorse. It is the Christian view that all human dignity comes from God the Creator, enhanced immeasurably by the fact of the Incarnation. However a too naive acceptance of the world's goodness can lead to a lot of trouble.

Gospel guidance

It must be acknowledged that the implementation of these human values without the guidance of the Gospel can lead to totally unacceptable consequences like the right to abortion, the conditional rights of unborn children (especially those diagnosed with a disability), the acceptance of a variety of actively sexual lifestyles outside and within marriage, and the unqualified right to choose.

All of these consequences, hailed as the fruits of a liberated modern civilisation, are presently destroying that civilisation, already exposing their destructive nature. Embracing the values of society must be qualified sharply by revealed truth that the world cannot offer.

Some have placed their trust in a more democratic Church. We should be careful not to conclude that the spirit of the Council would lead inevitably to a democratic or even a synodal decision-making process in the development of doctrine or in the redefinition of sexual morality or life issues as some other churches have done.

These issues, crucial in contemporary society, are nonetheless - after all the discussion and theological reflection - subject to the final teaching authority, Peter.

Welcome though it was at the time, the assertion of Vatican II that it would approach the modern world not so much with dogma and morality, but with love and an openness to movements of the Spirit, was never intended to forfeit the Church's dogmatic and moral responsibilities.

The social and moral upheavals since the Second Vatican Council - unforeseen to a large extent - require as much a response from the Church as open and sympathetic listening. As Chesterton once said: "An open mind is like an open mouth. Eventually it must come down on something solid."

This is the time for coming down on something solid, food for the soul and mind, not the bitter fruit of unbridled choice liberated from Gospel scrutiny. It is my view that the dangers of immersing oneself too much in contemporary culture are overcome by becoming counter- cultural.

Let us take biblical theology for instance. Our understanding of the formation of the books of the Bible has been enormously advanced by literary and historical criticism and explication, so that we can know fairly accurately what the texts meant in their original context.

We know the difference between Scriptural truth and historical truth. We accept the Judaic and rabbinical language of the Bible and of Jesus himself, and are careful not to impose on the texts mediaeval or contemporary philosophical or theological intellectual constructs. All this is of invaluable help for which we are grateful to and somewhat in awe of Catholic biblical theologians of world repute. What is missing here?

What is often omitted is the radical nature of the Bible. We should be terrified by Jesus saying "Sell what you have, give it to the poor and come follow me". Who among us has done that? Or by his words, "Forgive not seven times, but seventy by seven times"; "If you lust for a woman you have already committed adultery"; or even, "Take my yoke upon me and learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls". Jesus also seems to say "Do not resist evil done to yourself". Amazing!

These words cut through our attitudes like a sword, a two-edged sword, cutting away our attachments to self and our possessions, opening us up to the power of God's word. Maybe the theologians leave this to the spiritual directors, but this is not always made clear.

What I am trying to say is that the crisis of the present time will not be met by aligning ourselves too closely to the values of contemporary society, but by lives of radical love, poverty, trust and generosity. This is what Jesus said then and is surely saying to us now. Our personal lives are to contrast sharply with the ways of the world, as we try to enter the Kingdom of love, justice and compassion by living by biblical standards.

Those of us who are called on to give special witness to these values, the priests and religious, would do well to examine the lifestyle we have grown used to - of money, expensive restaurants, the best wine, houses that lack nothing, books to burn, and emotional attachments that are not consistent with total self- giving to God.

Asceticism may well be our proper response to the affluence with which we are surrounded. Even our commitment to the poor will lack credibility if we are not poor with them, as we must offer what we have - not gold and silver which is the responsibility of society - but the life- giving Word of God. A conversion of lifestyle is maybe part of the answer to the present crisis. But there is more.

The crisis of the present time will not be met by aligning ourselves too closely to the values of contemporary society, but by lives of radical love, poverty, trust and generosity.

Disastrous results

It has been said that if we do more of the same we will get the same results. Many have been pursuing a path whose disastrous results are starkly visible now. It will not help to continue the same policies.

I refer of course to the precipitous fall in Mass attendance over the last forty years, the ignorance of Catholic teaching and traditions among our Catholic and State school leavers, the lack of statistical difference between Catholics and the population at large in marriage breakdowns and remarriage, in the use of contraception, the frequency of abortion, the lack of courage to publicly afffirm Catholic teaching among lay leaders in society, the collapse of Religious Institutes and vocations to the priesthood, to name a few.

A recent commentary on the Church Life Survey said that there was little evidence that this trend was about to be reversed.

We must examine what has led to this situation and resolve not to continue the same policies. I cannot rejoice in this evidence of a Church in decline. I cannot blame it on Rome nor on the Holy Spirit as a sign of the times calling us to reshape the Church.

The Church has already been reshaped by the acceptance of secular values, in themselves good but naively embraced with little critical judgement applied in the light of Scripture, Catholic teaching and Catholic history.

Even the value of participation and decision- making by the laity has had unfortunate results in leaving us with all the disadvantages of bureaucracy, meetings and management processes, let alone the expense of setting all this up and keeping it going.

The simplicity of the Gospel can easily be eroded by bureaucratic structures that make the Church a place of employment and career advancement. There must be better ways of drawing the whole Church into active participation than by copying the ways of the world by becoming a massively large employer.

The prayer life of the Church has not been unaffected by the "reformers". The devotions once enthusiastically promoted are now at best tolerated. Priests generally avoid them, perhaps for the wrong reasons.

What we are left with is the Mass, or the Eucharistic Liturgy. This is the source and summit of our life in the Church, but somehow it has been left all alone. The devotions have been cleared away. Statues and crosses have disappeared from the houses. Family prayer is not spoken of much. Just the Mass. "Only the picture", not the frame that accentuated its mystery and importance. We have enough theological reflections on the Mass to understand what we can of the great mysteries it celebrates, but participation is still formal, wordy and without warmth, as if we should all be intellectuals who can appreciate the layers of meaning.

While people still come to Mass, those who do are looking for a total experience of reverence, mystery, pageant, prayer, community worship, looking for the Bread of Life from the Word of God and the Lamb of God.

It is diffficult for Mass to supply all this, and without the additional devotional life they remain unsatisfied or they look in other directions - the friendliness of the local Bible church and the experience of the Spirit they find there or the assured promise of enlightenment of some New Age path, or simply more sport.


Now is the time to diagnose the reason for our sickness and to apply the remedies.

I believe the remedies are to be found in a return to the simplicity of the Church's life and teaching. We have become too bureaucratic and too much part of the world. There are signs already that the present Holy Father - with his approach infused with the mind of St Augustine of Hippo - believes a smaller, simpler Church is inevitable and may be necessary for the present.

In that community, removed a little from the world, new energies and missionary zeal will grow, enabling the Church to recapture the secular society, much like the approach of St Benedict, whose name he chose, and who formed new communities to preserve and offer again to humanity the good news of Jesus Christ.

The virtue of orthodoxy is not simply to be right. That would be egotistical. The virtue of orthodoxy is that only in the truth can one begin to see God's purpose for us and his love for us.

Fidelity to the truth gives us the assurance that God is active in the world and in our lives. It helps us understand better the treasure of the Kingdom of God which is infinitely greater than a treasure buried in a field or a pearl of great price.

The faith entrusted to the Church is a blessing in itself but it is also a means to an end, not just intellectually satisfying. It allows us to see how radical is the Gospel, how our lives can be transformed as we enter more deeply into God's kingdom, how we can trust God absolutely, how we can love truly and be loved - in brief, fidelity to the truth can open us up to the work of the Holy Spirit so we can grasp fully "the breadth and length and height and depths of Christ's love, and experience that love which surpasses all knowledge, so that (we) may attain to the fulness of God Himself" (Eph. 3:18-19).

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