The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which met at Kensington, Sydney, between 6-15 April, was one of the most important in the Church's 200-year history in this country.
For the first time since Vatican II, the Church's leadership in Australia has collectively accepted the reality of a deepening crisis of faith along with the need for remedial action. This was confirmed at the end of their conference, when the bishops issued a document titled Letter from the Australian Bishops to the Catholic People of Australia.
Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, according to a report in The Record (6.5.99), told a gathering of businessmen that the meeting of bishops had been conducted in a "gentlemanly" manner in an atmosphere of tension. He suggested that the "position of consensus" reached in the Letter had averted the possibility of a split in the Church in Australia.
The bishops' Letter noted the Holy Father's strong endorsement of the Statement of Conclusions and his insistence that the bishops take action to address key problem areas: "The Pope ... reminds bishops that they 'may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals or Church discipline'."
The Letter expressed what was the crux of the matter in paragraph 9: "By most measurable criteria such as religious affiliation, church attendance, vocations, marriage in church, etc, secularisation is making great inroads in Australia. This indicates a crisis of faith. Within the Church there are different understandings of the person of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Church, the role of conscience and various moral problems, and not all understandings are in agreement with Catholic teaching. Some less than appropriate practices can at times take place at liturgical celebrations ...".
In paragraph 12, the Letter indicated that the bishops would be following the Pope's request that the use of the Third Rite of reconciliation "be kept strictly within the conditions laid down by Canon Law." Under Australian conditions, that meant - in effect - not to be celebrated at all. Yet Bishop Brian Heenan of Rockhampton has already indicated he will leave it to his priests to decide on use of the Third Rite.
However, as this journal goes to press, Archbishop Leonard Faulkner of Adelaide, who had earlier allowed the Third Rite to continue over Easter, was due to release amended pastoral guidelines for the Sacrament of Penance on 18 May.
Prior to the Bishops Conference, in an apparent response to the reluctance of several Australian bishops to clamp down on illicit Third Rite celebrations, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments had issued a 3-page document, dated 19 March, emphatically re-stating the Church's teaching on the Sacrament of Penance.
The document drew attention to the situation in Australia, which had caused concern in Rome: "In recent years, in spite of repeated clarifications given by the Holy See on the necessary conditions for the valid and licit administration of the Sacrament of Penance, there has been an increasing demand for the indiscriminate use of 'general absolution'."
The Congregation indicated that its document was designed to remove "any remaining doubt or confusion regarding this matter" and to make clear the existing "law in force" on "the essential conditions for the ordinary and extraordinary celebration of the sacrament in the Latin Church."
The document concluded with the words "... all deviations from the authentic practice of the Church in this regard constitute a serious and wrongful deprivation, also punishable in accordance with the sacred canons."
'Liberal' elements in the Church in Australia - including counterparts to overseas bodies such as We Are Church and Call to Action - are clearly disturbed at the turn of events and have been organising themselves to resist reforms. Earlier this year, the Australian Conference of Religious Leaders and the National Council of Priests issued their own dissenting statement, denying the thrust of the Statement of Conclusions.
Taking this a stage further, the body Catalyst for Renewal organised a "Public Forum on the Statement of Conclusions" in the Sydney Town Hall on 22 April (see report on page 6). Prior to the Forum, Catalyst's spokesman, Fr Michael Whelan, told The Catholic Weekly that the criticisms of Australian Catholicism contained in the Statement of Conclusions were "offensive" and lacking in an understanding of the "Australian Church." The document was based, he said, on "negative material" sent to the "Roman Curia by sources other than the bishops who actually met with them." This in turn is being used to force "our bishops to knuckle under."
Crisis of faith
This interpretation was effectively contradicted by Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta (Sydney), who offered strong support for the Statement in his diocesan paper, Catholic Outlook (May 1999):
"Since returning from Rome, I have heard people challenge the Statement's claim that there is a crisis of faith in Australia and that the Roman Curia has misread the situation.
"Let's be quite clear about this: the Statement of Conclusions has the approval of the Australian Bishops. The document belongs as much to them, as it does to members of the Roman Curia. The Australian Bishops having signed it are now doing their best to respond to, and help the discussion about it.
"The recent letter from the Australian Bishops ... looks frankly at the problems that have surfaced. Already I have met with priests of the diocese and with the religious to discuss the document ...".
It is gratifying that Bishop Manning, along with many other Australian bishops, has accepted the challenge presented by the Statement. No doubt these bishops are well aware of the uphill battle they face if substantial progress is to be achieved in remedying deep-seated problem areas such as liturgy, teacher education and catechetics.
But essential to any such progress is what the Statement of Conclusions headed (n. 15) "The Bishop and his Collaborators":
"In choosing his collaborators in the diocesan administration, in the 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."
A bishop who addresses this challenge decisively will be signalling that he is serious about tackling the reform process - for, it is the calibre of the Church's "middle-management" which can make or break any reform program.
Yet even with the most orthodox, competent diocesan officials to help them, the bishops face the major challenge that most Australian Catholics have been influenced by the prevailing culture of secularism, that the national average weekly Mass attendance is now down to 18 percent and falling, while two generations are largely ignorant of the faith and tend to dismiss or reject the Church's moral teachings.
It is 'make or break time' for the Catholic Church in Australia. The forces of orthodoxy may have 'won' the opening skirmish over general absolutions, but the wider challenges facing the Church have still to be addressed.