Benedict XVI speaks out on the crisis of faith in Australia

Benedict XVI speaks out on the crisis of faith in Australia

Michael Gilchrist

Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out on the crisis of faith in Australia: "The mainline Churches appear to be dying. This is true above all in Australia and also in Europe, but not so much in the United States ... The Catholic Church is not in such bad shape as the historical mainline Protestant Churches, but it also faces the problems of this moment in history."

The occasion for this stark assessment was the Pope's recent vacation in the Italian Alps when he participated in a question and answer session on 25 July with the bishop and priests of the Diocese of Aosta. The session was taped and a transcript from the tape recordings was later published - in Italian only - in the 27 July edition of L'Osservatore Romano and on the Holy See's website.

An English translation has since become available.

Benedict's words were significant since, more than almost anyone else outside Australia, he has a precise and accurate grasp of the state of the Church in this country. In his long-time role as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, he had occasion to study vast quantities of documentation on key problem areas.

Given his pivotal role in the meetings in Rome almost seven years ago, which gave rise to the Statement of Conclusions, he might now be wondering at the apparent lack of progress made in addressing the specific problems identified then.

Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke out on the crisis of faith in Australia: "The mainline Churches appear to be dying. This is true above all in Australia and also in Europe, but not so much in the United States ... The Catholic Church is not in such bad shape as the historical mainline Protestant Churches, but it also faces the problems of this moment in history."

The occasion for this stark assessment was the Pope's recent vacation in the Italian Alps when he participated in a question and answer session on 25 July with the bishop and priests of the Diocese of Aosta. The session was taped and a transcript from the tape recordings was later published - in Italian only - in the 27 July edition of L'Osservatore Romano and on the Holy See's website.

An English translation has since become available.

Benedict's words were significant since, more than almost anyone else outside Australia, he has a precise and accurate grasp of the state of the Church in this country. In his long-time role as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, he had occasion to study vast quantities of documentation on key problem areas.

Given his pivotal role in the meetings in Rome almost seven years ago, which gave rise to the Statement of Conclusions, he might now be wondering at the apparent lack of progress made in addressing the specific problems identified then.

In February 1999, AD2000 published a report titled "John Paul II throws down the gauntlet to Australia's bishops" which referred to a summary of discussions at the end of 1998 between a number of Australian bishops and leading members of the Curia, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which was titled Statement of Conclusions. (This detailed report can be accessed at www.ad2000.com.au/articles/1999/feb1999p3_379.html).

The document most certainly reflected Cardinal Ratzinger's understanding of the Church's condition in Australia and what needed to be done and may well have prompted his recent comment as Pope Benedict XVI.

At the time, John Paul II endorsed the Statement during his address to the Australian bishops in Rome for the Synod of Oceania and for their ad limina visits and called on them to implement it: "I earnestly recommend to your prayer and reflection, to your responsibility and action, the document which summarises your meetings with the various Dicasteries of the Holy See." He then identified some of the document's key recommendations.

"Your meetings with some of the Congregations of the Roman Curia have focused on questions of doctrine and morality, the liturgy, the role of the Bishop, evangelisation and mission, the priesthood, religious life, and Catholic education. In each of these areas, your own personal responsibility is vital ... Each individual bishop, then, is called to assume his full responsibility, setting his face resolutely against all that might harm the faith that has been handed down (cf I Cor 4:7)."

Later, in his closing address to the bishops, John Paul II said: "Until recently, the Catholic community in Australia knew nothing but consistent growth ... Now perhaps it appears that the momentum has slackened."

The Statement of Conclusions offered a number of general observations about what it described as the "crisis in faith" in Australia.

Central to any progress in addressing this crisis of faith, it said, was the responsibility of each bishop to "affirm, admonish and correct according to what the specific circumstances require." The bishops' responsibility was spelled out: "The People of God look to their shepherds for guidance and leadership now more than ever in these confusing and increasingly secularised times."

The bishops' teaching, it said, had to be "[I]n union with the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church ... The People of God who are entrusted to their care have a right to receive authentic and clear Catholic teaching from those who represent the Church in its various institutions ...

"It is their grave responsibility, clearly and unambiguously, to proclaim the Church's teaching and to do all that they can to preserve the faithful from error ... The bishop may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals or Church discipline, and true unity must never be at the expense of truth."

Correcting errors

In his office of sanctifying, a bishop should "exercise vigilance over the celebration and administration of the sacraments in his diocese" ensuring "the sacraments are administered according to the proper liturgical norms ... If he discovers that these norms are not being followed properly, with integrity and reverence, he acts quickly to correct the error or abuse ... The Australian bishops realise that the sacred Liturgy is at the heart of their pastoral responsibilities."

Referring to the administration of dioceses, the Statement said that in "choosing their collaborators in the diocesan administration, seminary and in parishes, bishops need to make these appointments with a careful eye and with great attention, always giving emphasis to sanctity of life, orthodoxy and pastoral competence. Continual vigilance is imperative in order to safeguard the integrity of the Faith and to ensure that it is clearly taught and explained at all levels of diocesan life."

The Statement then spelled out the Church's requirements in religious education, theology, religious life, seminaries, liturgy, sacraments and other key areas, and called on Australia's bishops to address any deficiencies in these.

Almost seven years on, it appears that, with some honourable exceptions, the situation has continued to deteriorate, with the Statement filed away in the too-hard-basket.

As Benedict XVI's comments indicate, there is much work still to be done.

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