The Sydney Town Hall was crowded on the evening of 22 April to hear a panel of five speakers assess the Statement of Conclusions, produced by a meeting of Australian bishops and officials of the Roman Curia. It was released on 14 December 1998.
The public forum had been organised by Catalyst for Renewal, a Sydney-based group working for "conversation within the Catholic Church of Australia."
If the crowd was expecting a close examination of the document, then it should have been terribly disappointed. The Statement contains an analysis of the condition of the Church in Australia, plus a series of recommendations, mostly addressed to bishops, priests, and members of religious orders.
Neither the analysis of the condition of the Church nor the recommendations for remedying its defects was discussed, other than incidentally. Not a single one of the Statement's recommendations was evaluated to see if it were one the Church should follow. In place of rational analysis, we, the audience, heard pronouncements on the speakers' favourite preoccupations, and were obliged to hear exhortations to "go forward" and to "dialogue".
In short, a couple of thousand Catholics braved bad weather to take part in a non-event.
The President of Catalyst for Renewal, Mrs Marea Donovan, opened proceedings by saying the Statement contains "some offensive statements". We were not told which ones. However, she found significant a recent remark of Robert Fitzgerald that "the Church must not fear the modern world." We were left to guess the bearing of this on the Statement.
Bishop Heenan of Rockhampton was the first speaker of the panel. He gave information on the preparation of the Statement. He said it "reflects tensions between the universal Church and the local Church". We were left to guess where the tensions lay.
Sister Annette Cuncliffe RSC, President, Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, was "disappointed with the Statement." She found it not true to the experience of a large number of Catholics. I suppose she meant that it contains falsities. Her example was that the Statement said there had been a decline in the sense of sin. Not so, said Sr Annette, because the use of the first and second Rites of Penance (Confession) shows people do have a sense of sin (applause). One would have thought that the scarcity of penitents, using any of the Rites, was proof enough of the diminishing sense of sin.
Seeing that her expertise lies in the area of the religious orders, one presumed she would scrutinise the Statement's proposals regarding them. She had little to say on the subject. She defended the practice of religious men and women living outside a community in individual or small group residences. This practice, she said, allows a religious to stand with the marginalised. She failed to mention that religious, who are not involved with the marginalised, often live apart from a community. Some academics come to mind.
At this point she passed up an opportunity to mention that in the USA those female Religious Institutes which do follow the recommendations of Rome have 29% of their members aged 25-40 years old, whilst those who do not have 0.9% in the same age group.
Robert Fitzgerald, Community Services Commissioner for NSW, began by saying he did not know much of the theology of the Church, and went on to prove the soundness of this assessment.
Restricted to eight minutes of speaking, he studiously ignored the contents of the Statement. Instead, he gave his ration of time to a rousing speech, of which the theme was "the Church is best when open, not closed." He opined that she has a stark choice: like a tethered boat, she can go round in circles, or she can go forward (tumultuous applause). He did not seem to notice the Statement's accurate analysis of the state of the Church - that she is busy going backwards.
This state is obvious to many. One bishop who attended the Synod of Oceania said to me, "Those Australian bishops must be in cloud-cuckoo land. Don't they know they are presiding over a patient with terminal illness?"
Father Michael Whelan SM, Executive Director of Catalyst for Renewal, was programmed to deal with challenges posed by the Statement. He spent most of his time criticising the procedures followed in preparing it. "Should not we be part of the process?" he demanded. Seeing that the Statement summarises a meeting held between Australian bishops and Curial officials in Rome, it is difficult to see how "we" (presumably five million Catholics) could have been consulted.
The Statement contains a hidden agenda, said Fr Whelan. The real agenda is about POWER (frantic applause). He did not divulge how he had unearthed this hidden agenda.
Taking a benevolent view of his claim, one could agree with Fr Whelan. After all, the Statement asserts the rights of bishops to teach, sanctify, and govern their dioceses and, consequently, the duty of their people to believe and obey them. Indeed, the Statement urges bishops, priests, and religious superiors to carry out their duties - to exercise the powers they have.
But I don't think Fr Whelan had this in mind.
Bishop Robinson, an Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, addressed the question, "Where to from here?"
As answer, he mentioned he had spoken at the Synod of Oceania about sexual abuse. The Synod had been very important. Recent tragedies of drug abuse and suicide remind us of the questions, "Who am I?" and "What is the purpose of my existence?" Eloquent stuff, but what it had to do with the Statement escapes me.
At the end of the evening, I struggled to account for the prolonged periods of applause. Perhaps the majority were marching to a drum I could not hear. Was it a call to arms to defend the gallant little Australian Church against the encroachments of Rome?
Dr Frank Mobbs is a retired university lecturer and author, based in Gosford, NSW.