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Australian church facing biggest crisis in its history, says Brisbane Archbishop

09 October 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

The archbishop said the Church had been 'shaken to the core' by the abuse scandal and today was being called to a 'greater authenticity'

A leading Australian bishop says the Church in his country is facing the biggest crisis in its history after taking part in talks with the Vatican over how to address the problem. 

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, who is Vice President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, told The Tablet that he and fellow bishops were in Rome to discuss the fallout of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and how the Church will adopt a new approach. This, he says, will look at how to include women in positions of “governance”.  

High on the agenda at the Vatican summit was Australia’s Royal Commission inquiry into how institutions handled child sexual abuse. This has seen the Catholic Church facing unrelenting criticism for its response to the scandal. The problem has been magnified after the Australian police’s decision to charge Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican treasurer and former Archbishop of Sydney, with historic sexual offences.  

It was the day after Cardinal Pell appeared for a hearing in Melbourne Magistrates court last Friday, that the Vatican issued a statement that an Australian delegation had met with a range of Holy See officials to discuss the “situation” facing the Church. These included Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State and Pope Francis’ number two, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister equivalent whose previous job was papal ambassador to Australia. 

Cardinal Pell has taken a leave of absence from his job as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy while he seeks to clear his name and the cardinal has firmly denied the charges against him. Archbishop Coleridge said the case was discussed with the Vatican officials but only to provide the Holy See with an insight "into the atmosphere in Australia around this case."

In the interview the archbishop said the Church had been “shaken to the core” by the abuse scandal and today was being called to a “greater authenticity”. 

He explained: “In this, the call of the Royal Commission and the call of Pope Francis converge in what looks to be one of the strange disruptions of the Holy Spirit.”

The crisis, Archbishop Coleridge stressed, was “both threat and opportunity” but required the Church to adopt a new approach. To that end the bishops have announced a plenary council to take place in 2020 which will undertake a wide ranging review of its mission including how to give more responsibility to lay people. One of the major criticisms of the Australian church has been clericalism, which has seen too much responsibility placed in the hands of priests and bishops. 

In the interview, the archbishop said that one topic to be discussed at the plenary council is how to involve women in the running of the Church, and not simply its “management” within which they are already heavily involved.

“It’s clear then that the Church here is passing through a time of deep, painful and permanent change – which is why the bishops have decided for a Plenary Council, which was also discussed in our meeting in Rome. The Plenary Council will have to make bold decisions about the future, taking into account the changed and changing facts on the ground,” he said. 

Below is the full question and answer with Archbishop Coleridge.  

A Vatican statement on Saturday said the Australian Bishops' conference held meetings with various offices of the Holy See last week. Can you explain the context behind them and why they took place? 

The Catholic Church in Australia is now facing the greatest crisis in her relatively brief history. This is not just because of the Royal Commission, but the Royal Commission has been a mighty catalyst in the process that has led to the crisis. This is recognised by many in Rome, not least by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, currently the Secretary for Relations with States and formerly Apostolic Nuncio in Australia. Earlier this year the Secretariat of State invited Archbishop [Denis] Hart [President of the Australian Bishops' Conference] and me to come to Rome for discussions and to bring with us anyone of our choosing. We decided to invite Justice Neville Owen, Chair of the Truth Justice and Healing Council that has coordinated the Church’s engagement with the Royal Commission. The point of the discussions was to exchange information and to consider ways of working together more effectively to address the crisis which was seen as a moment of both threat and opportunity.

One of the topics discussed was the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. When are you expecting it to report, and what sort of impact do you expect it to have on Catholicism in Australia?

The Royal Commission will present its Final Report on 15 December 2017. It will be a multi-volume Report which will take time to read and absorb. It will contain many recommendations to the governments of Australia who will ultimately have to decide what to do with the recommendations. The Royal Commission has already had a huge impact on the Church in Australia, and the Final Report will make the impact still greater. The Church has been shaken to the core, or as one well-informed voice has said, “It has broken the heart of the Church in this land”. Yet there’s a searing grace in this, summoning the whole Church to a greater authenticity. In this, the call of the Royal Commission and the call of Pope Francis converge in what looks to be one of the strange disruptions of the Holy Spirit.  

 

There have been a lot of negative headlines about the Church in Australia, but on the ground it still retains a significant presence through its parishes, schools and hospitals. The influx of immigrants has also boosted numbers. What is the state of play in the Australian church?

It’s true that the Catholic Church remains a significant presence in Australia because of our education, health care and social welfare agencies (largely government-funded). But our social and political influence has waned greatly, as has our moral authority; and this has happened at a time when Australia is debating issues of great social importance.  The bishops have far less clout than once was and are regarded more or less benignly as stake-holders to be managed rather than leaders to be listened to. It’s clear then that the Church here is passing through a time of deep, painful and permanent change – which is why the bishops have decided for a Plenary Council, which was also discussed in our meeting in Rome. The Plenary Council will have to make bold decisions about the future, taking into account the changed and changing facts on the ground. One of the most obvious new facts is the growing importance of the so-called ethnic communities, in which much of the Church’s real spiritual energy is now found. They are no longer exotic satellites.

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen recently said the model of "exalted, separated and elitist priesthood is drawing its last breaths", while during your meetings with Holy See officials the question of "greater participation of the laity in decision-making roles in the Church" was discussed. What shape might this take? 

I’m not sure that the kind of priesthood described by Bishop Long [of Parramatta] has been as evident in Australia as elsewhere. But there has been much talk (especially in the Royal Commission) about clericalism, and much of it has been on the mark. This doesn’t mean that we’re about to abolish ordination, but it does mean that we need to reconsider the recruitment and formation of candidates for ordination and the lifelong formation of those ordained.  It also means that we’ll need to ask how to include lay people – especially women – not just in the management of the Church (as we already do here on a large scale) but in the governance of the Church.  That will be another question for the Plenary Council.

Australia is currently voting on a same-sex marriage referendum. Some voices in the Church have spoken in support of such a move. While many do not support same-sex marriage, do you sense a shift in the Australian Church to a more pastoral and understanding approach to gay Catholics? 

It’s not just a question of how to accompany gay Catholics. Them certainly – but others as well who struggle to find their place in the community of the Church and to recognise the truth of their life in the teaching of the Church.  The big question is how we become a more inclusive Church without abandoning truths of the faith we have received rather than concocted. That question was at the heart of the two Synods on marriage and the family, and it’s at the heart of Amoris Laetitia. It’s very much a work in progress, and that’s seen in the range of Catholic responses to the same-sex marriage vote in Australia. But this wasn’t part of our discussions in Rome.

PICTURE: Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge (left) leaves the building after appearing at the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse in Sydney, February 2017 

 



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