The Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum (The Deposit of Faith") which introduces the new universal Catechism begins with the sentence "Guarding the Deposit of Faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church, and which she fulfils in every age."
The Deposit of Faith is the compendium of Catholic beliefs, adherence to which effectively defines a person as a real rather than a nominal member of the Catholic Church. It is not necessarily the supporting arguments but the teachings themselves, contained in the Creeds, the solemn statements of General Councils, and the clearly infallible or irreformable declarations of the Popes which command the ultimate obedience of the Catholic, because he believes that Christ has guaranteed them against error.
No one other than the perennial opponents of the present Pope - and, to some extent, of his recent predecessors - would deny that the Popes have made every effort to carry out this particular responsibility.
Nevertheless, the falling away from the most fundamental Catholic teachings, whether in the field of doctrine or morals, has been palpable - among a not inconsiderable number of bishops, priests and laity. For nigh on three decades, in countries like the United States, Britain and Australia, sociology, anthropology, environmentalism, feminism, ecumenism, or an amalgam of all of them, have been substituted for Catholic truth. The education system has consequently produced two entire generations of religious illiterates. The problem has become almost insoluble, since most of the teachers themselves are now products of this system, and cannot communicate knowledge which they themselves do not possess.
This, however, is only one part of the problem, and it is more a consequence than the cause. The real cause is that there are persons of varying degrees of authority within the Church - they include bishops, priests and laymen - who can describe themselves as Catholics only with a fair degree of poetic licence.
The result is that in this country the Church is faced with a major, well-organised rebellion, led by those who are determined to substitute themselves for the Pope as the voice of final authority.
This rebellion has been implicit for almost two decades. It has become explicit in recent weeks when persons holding high positions in the Church have publicly set the Pope's authority at naught - and nobody has been prepared to do anything effective about it. To varying degrees, different bishops have publicly proclaimed their solidarity with the Pope. It is rumoured that some have privately rebuked priests who have publicly attacked the Pope. Those attacks have, however, been public, not private. As far as one can see, they still publicly proclaim the same anti-Papal positions, yet still occupy the same offices. In other words, nothing relevant to the problem has been done.
In his authoritative letter on the question of the ordination of women, the Pope gave a clear and binding decision that to countenance such a proposal was beyond the Church's competence; that the decision in question was binding on all Catholics; and that the finality of the decision precluded further public discussion.
Certain key bodies made it clear beyond doubt that they did not accept the decision, intended to campaign against it, and to challenge the authority of the decision itself. That is what all the various declarations meant, even if couched in the more guarded language of a right to continue to discuss a principle clearly settled by the Pope.
The statements referred to include:
- The letter of the National Executive of the Association of Major Religious Superiors, dated June 3, 1994, which clearly implied that its members spoke for the 12,000 religious and the 170 religious houses which they allegedly represented.
- The press release of the Australian Catholic Theological Association, which claimed to represent 100 members, many of them teaching in seminaries, institutes and universities.
- The press release of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association, whose numerical membership is uncertain.
What is now a general rebellion of the entire educational leadership of the Catholic Church in this country cannot be simply brushed aside as a mere incident. As far as can be ascertained, nothing like this has happened in the U.S. and Britain, however bad the situation in these countries may be.
The resultant situation in this country is thus unique.
The statements claim to have the adherence of the 12,000 remaining members of the various orders. They obviously represent the majority opinion of the various Catholic Education Offices, which are responsible for the religious instruction of young Catholics They must be presumed to represent the opinions of most theologians and biblical scholars who instruct students for the priesthood and the religious life, as well as future religion teachers in the schools.
It is what they teach, not what the Church or the Pope teach, which is actually what is offered as the Catholic faith to the majority of Australian Catholics.
Since their members have proceeded from individual "dissent" to a general corporate rebellion against the Pope, the practical question is "What is going to be done about it?"
Past history indicates that the likely answer is "Nothing."
A considerable proportion of the Catholics who still regularly attend Mass - whether a majority or a minority can only be guessed at - are disgusted at the situation in which they find themselves. They have come to the conclusion that they have no ground left on which to stand. Even if one discounts their other services, they keep the Church going with their financial contributions. The money they subscribe is, as often as not, eaten up by clerics, academics and others, disloyal to the Church's teachings. They should not give a penny to the orders or institutes involved in attacks on the Pope.
Has the organisational structure established by the Catholic Church in Australia to transmit the deposit of faith become too powerful for today's bishops to challenge, much less dismantle?