Catholicism at the crossroads

Catholicism at the crossroads

Michael Gilchrist

The present situation in Australia cannot yet be compared with that in Holland. Nevertheless, the process of Protestantisation, however far one may judge that it has proceeded, points ultimately to a similar conclusion. This is the message which emerges inevitably from much of the material prepared for diocesan assemblies and synods held recently in a number of Australian dioceses.

Not only are basic problems being overlooked; we are also witnessing attempts to legitimise a new 'model' of Catholicism based on questionable theological opinions and one-sided interpretations of Vatican II and papal documents.

This is not to malign all the materials being currently produced and discussed, nor to oversimplify the motives or intentions of everyone involved. Nevertheless, there is enough to provide grounds for serious concern and questioning.

New "model"

The basis of these assemblies or their equivalents entails a reaching out to the Church's 'grass-roots' through a series of "fact-finding" exercises and questionnaires.

"Representatives" of parishes then meet together to discuss topics and to produce lists and priorities to guide future Church policies.

Assumptions that a new "model" of Catholicism is imminent are very common. A proposal for lay ministries in the Parramatta Diocese stated confidently: "The Catholic Church in general and the local church in particular are in transition from a hierarchical to a community model". In Ballarat, a working document for the Priests' Assembly stated: "We have had a rigid scaffold around us from the past; now is the time to let go and let the tree grow on its own". In Perth, material for the "Year of Mission" Assembly referred to the "need to move away from authoritarian Church structures". Whether "moving away from authoritarian Church structures" to bureaucratic Church structures, camouflaged by democratic forms is a sign of progress, is something not discussed.

The first draft Position Papers for the Canberra-Goulburn Diocesan Synod showed a distinct preference for the "we are church" and "people of God" models, the latter, allegedly "canonised" by Vatican II. The anonymous authors were apparently unaware that the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome had down played such models in favour of "Body of Christ". Of course, the former two models offer seeming legitimacy for a "democratic" people's church, devoid of hierarchical pre-eminence and strong ties with Rome.

Typically, such assertions have not been backed by anything more authoritative than "current theological thinking" or the "spirit of Vatican II". (In fact, Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, headed one of its chapters with "The Church is Hierarchical".)

In Perth, the "Year of Mission", 1988-1989, gave birth to such bodies as The Mission Planning Group, Mission Team, Year of Mission Committees, Grass Roots facilitators, Parish Assembly facilitators, and a host of others. It seemed a case of too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.

Accompanying this new class of futurologists within the Church is what amounts to a new-church- speak, full of warmth-inducing buzz words such as "participatory", "inclusive", "discernment", "possibilities", "partnership", "celebration", "movements", "affirming" and "grassroots consultations".

Processes

The following examples are typical of the cloudy, waffly language favoured by the authors of some assembly materials: "... opening ourselves to learning together for commitment and for change and growth ..."; "a heightened awareness of new realities and determinations to face fresh challenges" and "movement towards new ways of working together ... to implement a model of church which can truly facilitate equality and participation".

The underlying tone of some assemblies can be best appreciated in the preferred approaches to liturgy. If these were any indication, one wondered where the Catholic Church would be by the year 2000; well beyond Protestantism it seemed.

In the Ballarat Diocese, the Southern Region Assembly participated in a "Prayer Service" (4 June 1989) which included "An Australian Creed" to be read standing as a "Renewal of Baptismal Commitment". This "commitment" was more oriented towards the Greenies than traditional Catholicism and, presumably, seen as a vital ingredient of the new model.

In Perth, the Year of Mission was capped off by a spectacular two- hour "Eucharistic Ceremony", described in vivid detail in the diocesan weekly, The Record, (26 May).

Key participants in the liturgical entertainment were students from Santa Maria College. The "Creed" used at that college's Opening of the School Year Mass in February was something of a foretaste of the students' Year of Mission contributions to liturgy.

Discernment

Twenty Santa Maria students, colourfully costumed as clowns, presented on stage to the 6,000 strong congregation at the Perth Entertainment Centre, what were described as "Clowning for Jesus" sketches while another Santa Maria group danced for the Opening Song, the lighting of candles, the Responsorial Psalm and the Communion Reflection; the Recessional Hymn enjoyed a "leaping tambourine accompaniment". The Record next described how a "liturgical dancer" led representatives of the four corners of the Archdiocese "in linking up streamers in a circle which was then slowly raised as a symbol of our unity as the People of God.

Fr. Kevin Dance CP, Perth's chief "facilitator", explained the Year of Mission exercise as "a process of community discernment" consisting of parish meetings, controlled by "grassroots facilitators". This culminated in a meeting at Santa Maria College on Pentecost Sunday 1989 with an assembly of 600 laity, priests and religious which, in turn, broke up into 62 groups, and in just one hour, discussed no fewer than 400 "issues" thought to be important to the Archdiocese. These were then refined into 20 major issues and voted on in order of priority.

Among the top place getters were "Adult Education and Faith Formation", "Partnership in Ministry", "Church as Outreach in Mission", "Remodelling the Church Community" and "Women in the Church". Reform of the defective experientialist catechetics and some theology courses at teachers' colleges and seminaries or curbing rampant liturgical abuses did not merit serious attention in Perth, or elsewhere, for that matter.

Agenda

Despite numerous Papal statements and documents on the nature and importance of the ordained priesthood, assembly/synod materials speculate about a married clergy, "Pastoral Teams" of the non- ordained to run priestless parishes, the use of ex-priests and even the question of women's ordination. In Perth, material called for "the involvement of women in decision- making and representation in all (my emphasis) aspects of Church life". In Ballarat draft discussion material for the Priests' Assembly in 1989 asked whether celibacy was "outmoded and life-denying" and even whether more priests were "necessary".

In Brisbane, despite an acknowledgment that Rome still had the final word on the subject, a questionnaire for the August 1989 Archdiocesan Assembly wanted to know the numbers favouring "the introduction of women priests". What was the point of such an exercise? Was a "majority" verdict on priestesses supposed to give Rome food for thought?

There has also been particular emphasis on the need for more "adult education" or re-education in the Faith. To judge from accounts of this worthy-sounding goal, the education is to be of a particular type. In the Parramatta Diocese there was mention of "current theological writings" in connection with lay "leadership" while the Ballarat Priests' Assembly material recommended that "competent Catholics be invited to provide information about contemporary Ecclesiology". In Canberra-Goulburn it was asked: "What kind of education/renewal do people most need to prepare them for the changing Church?"

If one was to judge from the favoured authors among recommended readings for teachers in diocesan catechetical guidelines the re- education in the faith sought by assembly experts would reflect the thinking of KŸng, McBrien, Schillebeeckx, Buhlmann, Boff, Hellwig and the like.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission's Catholic expert, Fr Paul Collins, told a 1987 Melbourne Conference, Catholic Schools Towards 2000, that a future Church would have to allow "the real decisions" such as "Church teaching, catechetics, morals, liturgy, Church law, marriage ..." to be determined "at the local level".

The underlying thrust of available assembly/synod materials is consistent with Collins' "future Church" scenario.

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