The Pope's agenda - overcoming the obstacles

The Pope's agenda - overcoming the obstacles

Michael Gilchrist

With 30 years' experience in Catholic secondary and tertiary education Michael Gilchrist is the author of several books on contemporary Catholicism including 'Rome or the Bush' and 'Catholicism into the 90s', and assistant editor of 'AD2000'. He was a featured speaker on November 9, 1991 at the "Faithful to the Pope" conference in Melbourne, organised by Catholics United for the Faith. Fifteen organisations in all were involved at the conference. This article is adapted from Michael Gilchrist's address.

Pope John Paul II's agenda for the Catholic Church as it approaches its third millennium includes goals of renewing Catholicism in the true letter and spirit of Vatican II, (in the context of the Church's 2000 year tradition), and of strengthening unity and orthodoxy.

For the past 25 years, a form of pseudo-renewal, allegedly based on Vatican II, has afflicted the Church to the point of creating in places internal schisms accompanied by such aberrations as religious indifferentism (one religion as 'true' as another) liturgical adventurism, a doctrinally weak and vacuous catechesis, a 'this world' emphasis for Catholicism, a 'democratic' rather than a hierarchical Church, a downgrading of individual sin (and regular confession), doctrinal and moral pluralism, blurred distinctions between the ordained priesthood and the laity, a weakening of papal authority, a 'demythologised' Scripture, the sidelining of Marian devotions, the stripping of church interiors, and so on.

The sixteen documents of Vatican II as with Scripture are not always self-explanatory, being at times ambiguously worded and open to contradictory applications. Without guidance from the Church's Magisterium, fragmentation and confusion can easily occur, as with the 'Bible only' Protestant Christians.

It is a measure of the Church's present crisis that such a remarkable, gifted man as John Paul II faces the daunting - some might even suggest, losing - battle he does to restore unity and orthodoxy to the whole Church.

What, then, are the more specific ingredients of Pope John Paul II's agenda?

It is clear, at the outset, that John Paul has been at one with Pope John XXIII in striving to safeguard the deposit of Faith (while renewing its presentation) and with Pope Paul VI in confirming the force of the Church's moral teachings on marriage and family in Humanae Vitae, complementing these with encyclicals of his own such as Familiaris Consortio. And if we look through the long list of the present Pope's many encyclicals and addresses we find a comprehensive outline and analysis of the full range of Catholic beliefs and practices. It is these which offer authoritative, reliable representations of Council teachings, rather than the opinions of dissenting theologians such as McBrien, Hellwig, Kung or Schillebeeckx.

The Pope's Australian visit

During his 1986 visit to Australia, the Pope gave some indications of his major concerns for the Church there.

He spoke on Papal authority: "Of particular importance is the service of authority, and in a unique way the ministry of the Pope. For the Successor of Peter is charged with that special responsibility of presiding over the whole flock in charity, protecting legitimate variety while ensuring that such variety does not hinder unity."

He stressed the importance of priestly vocations: I repeat the appeal I made to the whole Church earlier this year in my message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations: 'The Church has an urgent need of priests. This is one of the most crucial problems facing Christian communities. Jesus did not want a Church without priests. If priests are lacking, then Jesus is lacking in the world, as is His Eucharist and His forgiveness.

He warned Australia's Bishops of the inroads of secularism and moral indifference: "Your own pastoral experience shows how quickly unbelief and moral indifference can make inroads into a society built on Christian traditions. While on the one hand you can verify a ferment of new energies and commitment on the part of many groups and persons within your local Churches, you have also been able to individualise the signs of levelling out of Catholic life on the part of some to the point where they accept a completely secular outlook as the norm of judgement and behaviour. I refer among other aspects to the incidence of divorce and abortion and to the documented fall in religious practice."

And he repeated what he had said and written on many other occasions about the need for a solid, doctrinally sound catechesis in Catholic schools - something still honoured more in the breach than in the practice in this country: It is extremely important that the Deposit of Faith be transmitted in its purity and entirety to future generations. The young especially cannot be expected to adhere wholeheartedly to the Gospel message unless it is presented in a clear and certain way. They recognise that the faith of the Church is a matter not merely of general attitudes to life. It is a matter of the divinely revealed word of God."

The Pope's wide ranging agenda for renewal can be found spelt out in a host of documents and addresses, such as his reminder that the Mass is "above all else" a sacrifice, a sacred ritual, not simply a meal, community 'togetherness' - even entertainment - and that the liturgical rubrics and disciplines of the universal Church are to be faithfully observed.

Responses from the world's Catholics and their leaders and teachers to such admonitions have been mixed, occasionally positive - particularly towards his social justice statements - but at times ranging from polite indifference to overt hostility. Some National Bishops' Conferences and individual bishops around the world have paid little more than lip service to Papal instructions and teachings, notably on seminary training, liturgy and catechetics. And even where active episcopal co-operation is the rule, obstruction may continue from stalemated bureaucracies or well entrenched 'progressive' elements, many of them allowed continued use of Church facilities to bypass, weaken or reject official teachings.

At the Church's coal face, meanwhile, in parishes, schools, teachers' colleges or seminaries, as I set out in Rome or the Bush and New Church or True Church, Catholics are likely to be isolated from papal influence, offered distorted, opinionated versions of Catholicism and even intimidated if they try to defend papal policies and teachings.

The Pope's response, as we know, has been to engage in exhausting travels to every part of the globe, addressing his message directly to the people, to priests and religious, and to local bishops, as he did during his 1986 Australian visit. At the same time he has appointed as many strong, orthodox bishops as possible in the United States men such as Cardinals O'Connor and Law, Archbishop Stafford, and more recently, Bishop Myers of Peoria, Illinois, not to mention Bishop Lustiger in Paris and a number of no-nonsense appointees in Austria, Germany, Latin America and elsewhere.

Despite all this - and there was a time, perhaps five or ten years ago, in the spirit of Paul Johnson's book, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration, when many orthodox Catholics had high hopes of an early and significant papal impact on the Church here - the sad reality is that much of what the Holy Father has said or written is scarcely noticed, let alone read and heeded, by most Australian Catholics, as their rate of practice continues to slide, accelerated by rampant secularism and materialism, family breakdowns and inadequate presentations of the Faith in our educational and theological institutions.

In the Melbourne Archdiocese - not untypical of other Australian dioceses - the latest statistics put the average rate of weekly Mass attendances at less than 25 percent, meaning that a large proportion of students in Catholic schools actually come from non-practising homes. Even were there adequate religion programmes and soundly trained, 'committed' Catholic teachers in every classroom, our schools would still be facing an uphill and possibly losing battle to hold the younger generation for the Faith.

Under these circumstances it is understandable that many of today's still-practising Catholics have become despondent - not to mention outraged - at the prospect of this continuing and apparently unchecked spiritual erosion.

It was with such thoughts in mind that my recent book, Catholicism into the 90s, sought to balance negative views of the Church's condition by examining some 'seeds of hope', situations where the Papal agenda was being actively supported and promoted - principally in the United States, where some of the most impressive apostolates in the English-speaking world are to be found.

Among the thirty or so organisations described were Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, with an estimated audience for its excellent 24 hours a day, seven days a week Catholic programmes of over 15 million, and 'Catholic Answers', with its renewed approach to apologetics and dynamic responses to the inroads of fundamentalist Protestantism on Church membership. Equally encouraging were a number of solidly Catholic tertiary institutions such as Steubenville University in Ohio and Thomas Aquinas College in California, as well as Apostolic Catechetical Institutes linked directly to the Vatican which provide for qualifications to teach religion in Catholic schools, and the Seton Home Study School, the biggest and best of its kind in the U.S. There are many other equally impressive examples of what can be done.

Australian apostolates

Australia, despite its much smaller Catholic population (4 million as against 55 million in the U.S.A.), has not been found wanting either. Here we find distributors of orthodox religious books and resources, such as the John XXIII Fellowship Cooperative in Melbourne and the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre in Sydney, while many of Australia's priests and religious loyal to Papal teachings have been organised for the past five or six years into the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and The Association for the Promotion of Religious Life, each producing excellent newsletters. Nor should we overlook the Confraternity of Christ the Priest in Victoria and Bishop Brennan's new Wagga seminary, nor the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community in Sydney (and other charismatic communities in Brisbane, Canberra and Perth), the Campion Fellowship, numbers of Marian and pro-life organisations and, of course, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Opus Dei.

More Catholics certainly need to be alerted to the existence of apostolates such as these and encouraged to join, support or promote them. These apostolates, in turn, should co-operate more with one another to increase their overall effectiveness. More Australian bishops are already coming to appreciate and promote many of their efforts and if more members from such groups make their views felt increasingly on parish and diocesan decision-making bodies the tasks of reforming bishops will be made far easier.

Then the Pope's key teachings need to be made more accessible to the average Catholic, whether through parish homilies or in conveniently available and digestible pamphlets and booklets (also valuable for use in secondary schools). The Pope's writings and addresses already provide solid substance for entire theology units and Church authorities might consider introducing more of these as ingredients for current theology degrees in seminaries, theology institutes and adult education centres.

Catechetics programmes such as Faith and Life and Image of God, not to mention Father Tierney's excellent catechetical publications, need to be more effectively 'sold' to C.E.O. personnel, school principals or R.E. coordinators, especially with the Universal Catechism's publication due this year, while the circulations of journals such as AD2000, This Rock, Majellan or Contact could be further boosted in Catholic parishes to foster a religious climate more conducive to the Papal agenda. The stocks of John XXIII Co-op and similar publishers and distributors of books and audio-visual materials should be more widely promoted and circulated so that sound Catholic publications find their way into more homes, school libraries and theology course listings.

In other words, rather than merely criticising the obvious deficiencies of existing activities and publications in the Church, we should be emphasising the positive approach of promoting more satisfactory alternatives.

Such desirable developments would make even more headway if the Church's leadership were to come to terms with the hard reality of a de facto internal schism and introduced some tough 'stand and be counted' policies. The still influential neo-modernism will eventually die a natural death. In the meantime, unfortunately, many Catholics, long misled or denied access to the truth, will have sought spiritual substance elsewhere from fundamentalist sects or Eastern religions.

The Church in Australia will no doubt survive the present crisis, but it is likely to be a much "leaner" proposition than in the past.

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