The issues facing Australian Catholicism

The issues facing Australian Catholicism

Bishop George Pell

I want to begin with a sporting analogy and an apology to followers of other codes, by comparing the first one thousand years of Catholicism in Australia with a game of Australian Rules Football.

In this scenario we are only approaching quarter-time in the match. The wind is against us and conditions are muddy and difficult. We are a few goals behind, but there have been patches of good play, although some of the veteran players are rattled and another group inclined to play their own game.

The captain-coach (Pope), a player of extraordinary strength and skill, is performing well but has not yet succeeded in imposing a coherent game on his team. Fewer supporters come to the home and away games, although there are big crowds for the finals at Christmas and Easter. As always, many of these supporters, some only interested spectators, give contradictory, often useless and occasionally damaging advice. But active support is vital even from those supporters who are more interested in seeing the Catholic team's opponents beaten, rather than in the team itself.

Due to retirements and recruiting difficulties we are battling to field a good first eighteen, we do not have as many under-age teams, although there are a number of youngsters coming through who are keen to have a go in the big time.

Other teams from the same district are still in the competition, with many attractive, clever stylists, but they are not physically strong and the crowds at their games have fallen steadily.

The Catholic team's opponents now play a different type of game, no longer applying heavy physical pressure, but moving the ball around freely and unexpectedly.

Some Catholic key position players lack mobility, being better suited to the older, tougher, more direct type of encounter.

However, the Catholic side has no alternative except to utilise its strengths. The match is not lost, although the team has to regain confidence in its ability to play in its traditional style. Our opponents too are finding conditions harsher, their easy confidence shaken by developments elsewhere.

In other words, the Catholic team has to slow the game down and close up play. We should start a few fights. This tight defensive play will give us time to see which of our young forwards adapt best to the new conditions.

As they grow in confidence, we will be better placed to take advantage of the wind change (which shall come certainly at some stage), to take more risks and regularly run the ball out of defence. The remainder of the first quarter should be quite exciting!

Morale is regularly good in Catholic parishes, despite concern for our young people and for the decline in vocations, because most of the reforms since Vatican II have widespread approval and the doubling of the absolute numbers of Catholics in the twenty years before 1970 have masked the percentage decline in practice.

The worldwide Catholic community has gone through a period of religiously-inspired change since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), greater than any changes since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Such changes were introduced here without hesitation by local bishops, who were strong exponents of Roman obedience and blissfully ignorant, at least initially, of the sociological consequences of the revolution they were effecting. The 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul Vl, Humanae Vitae, against artificial contraception was another catalyst for upheaval.

The Council changed the language of the liturgy from Latin into English and provoked substantial and beautiful reforms to the Mass and the ritual of the sacraments, so that our liturgical style is much closer to that of Cranmer and the Lutherans than previously. Most outsiders present at Catholic rituals can now understand basically what we are about.

The Vatican I emphasis on papal infallibility was complemented by the developed understanding of the leadership role of the bishops, with and under the Pope (collegiality); the Church was described in more biblical terms as a mystery; the community of all the faithful, before the role of the clergy was outlined, ecumenism was officially adopted, the right of individuals to religious freedom was recognised and the Church was urged to reject its closed, defensive attitudes to the world and dialogue with whatever was good.

The important practical consequences were that the softer line against Communism started by Pope John XXIII gained momentum and Catholics, particularly in South America and some parts of Asia, became more involved in the struggle for social justice. These latter developments were only a widening and deepening of the tradition of Papal social teaching begun by Pope Leo Xlll in 1891, with his encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the new state of play in an age of republicanism, democracy and the continuing industrial revolution which offered unprecedented opportunities to improve the living conditions of the masses.

It was Archbishop Mannix who claimed that the Church had been slow to realise and grasp the opportunities democracies offered for church life, especially pluralist democracies like Australia where anti-religious traditions are muted, although he rightly refused to accept that legitimate pluralism included softness towards Communism or any other form of totalitarianism.

Catholicism is a development of Jewish monotheism, which sees Christ as the promised Messiah and the Son of God.

Catholicism is not a religion of the Book and private judgement. Catholics are committed not just to the Bible as the primary revelation about the fatherhood of God and the lordship of Jesus, but also to the creeds, developed by the great Councils, the sacraments and the commandments. In other words the leaders of the Church, Pope and bishops, are the servants and defenders of a precious, two thousand-year-old tradition, which they are not at liberty to dismantle, or to set aside because elements are now judged inappropriate.

Vincent of Lerins in 431 accepted or rejected developments from the wealth of Scriptural teaching by judging whether they accorded with what was held everywhere, in every age by all Catholics. Cardinal Newman last century developed a theory for the development of doctrine, within this secondary framework, to identify genuine depthings of truth and practice, as distinct from errors or mistakes.

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain what is central, and therefore essential, to the Catholic tradition as distinct from what is optional, or at least less important. The existence of baptismal formulae and creeds from the earliest centuries are witnesses to this differentiation and the Second Vatican Council spoke of the hierarchy of truths. A diversity of customs and a variety of theologies are no barriers to Catholic unity, which need not imply uniformity, even within Australia.

In fact one of the reasons for dismay among many older Australian Catholics was precisely because they distinguished little between what was essential and what was less important. When Latin was abandoned, ecumenism embraced and junior clergy and religious emancipated in their dress and lifestyles, many wondered whether the core of the tradition had been abandoned or was next on the list.

My central claim is that the primary task of Catholicism in Australia is to maintain the integrity of the Catholic tradition, the central inalienable core of faith and practice.

This will be better achieved by increasing the number of committed and nominal adherents, but this missionary perspective is secondary to the maintenance of the tradition. Certainly core doctrines, for example the divinity of Jesus, the central position of the Pope and important moral teaching on for example the indissolubility of the family, the defence of life and human dignity through social justice, cannot be jettisoned to gain adherents.

It is theoretically possible that defence of the core traditions might mean a smaller Church. We should still stick with the tradition. However, we shall slow the exodus from the Church and attract more converts not only by defending and developing the core of Catholicism, but also by energetically promoting many aspects of the style of Australian Catholicism, which we have been tempted to down play for reasons of ecumenism or as concessions to modernity.


In other words, Catholics need a style which is a mite more confrontational and certainly much less conciliatory towards secular values. The Cross is a sign of contradiction.

Children in our Catholic schools should be told regularly that Catholics should attend Sunday Mass and that the Ten Commandments are part of Divine Revelation, essential guidelines for the manifestation of Christian love rather than the sociologically-conditioned, inadequate efforts of an ancient Middle Eastern tribe or, as Bertrand Russell claimed, like a set of exam requirements, where only six out of ten questions need be attempted.

The doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly ditched, at least in our schools, or comprehensively restated, because too many Catholic youngsters have concluded that values are personal inventions, that we can paint our moral pictures any way we choose. This devastating illusion is one of the causes of the AIDS epidemic. There are moral truths. No one is free to welcome the Holocaust, to torture prisoners of conscience, to burn widows on their husbands' funeral pyres.

None of these are likely options for any Australian Catholics, but coherent objection to them requires that there are moral truths. All Australian youngsters, inside and outside Catholic schools, should be taught this.

As Catholics are now committed to ecumenism with other Christians and open to the goodness in the world, they are more likely to vent their spleen on other Catholics.

Differences are necessary for vitality. One wag has even suggested that the only group in the New Testament completely united in their sense of direction was the Gadarene swine as they raced over the cliff! Certainly one important task of a bishop is to dampen down factionalism, to encourage dialogue and to inhibit the institutionalising of the factions. Political models of left and right are often misleading when crudely pasted onto religious individuals or communities, but tribalism is always a temptation for a few.

There are not significant differences, even among Catholic elites in Australia, on for example the divinity of Christ or the content (or most of it) of the creeds. However, there is a tendency among a few, to distinguish the local community or church from the "official church", to question the need of a ministerial priesthood as distinct from the priesthood of all the baptised, to explicitly deny that priests must be male and celibate and to effectively downgrade the leadership of the Pope and bishops, while not excluding these institutions, in favour of an ostensibly communitarian model of Church government, led in fact by middle-order functionaries.

The future health of the Catholic community will depend on the treatment these issues receive in houses of formation for priests, religious, pastoral workers and teachers.

The defence of central Catholic truths, including support for ecumenism, and the retention of a distinctive Catholic style, are the only ways to maintain Catholicism as a mass Church, strong among men and among the poor.

A Catholic Church made up of elite, middle class devotees would be treason.

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