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Cardinal George Pell has spent the past several months in Sydney, as the Catholic Church prepares for its first reform conference in more than 80 years. By Mike Seccombe.

Exclusive: George Pell returned to Australia ahead of church reforms

Cardinal George Pell at his home in the Vatican in May.
Credit: AP

The Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, the man who replaced George Pell as leader of the conservatives in the Australian Catholic Church, began his homily during last Sunday’s Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral with a very pointed story from the gospels.

It related to “bickering” between Christ’s disciples, not over “crucial questions of Christian doctrine, identity and mission” but over power. It was fuelled, the archbishop said, by “jealousy, ambition, the desire always to get one’s own way”.

Fisher was talking days after Cardinal Pell left Sydney to return to Rome. The former Vatican treasurer had been in the country for several months, ahead of key reforms being discussed by the local church.

In his homily, Fisher quoted Mark’s gospel on how Jesus taught his disciples the error of their ways: “If you really want to be first, put yourself last … Among the Gentiles the rulers lord it over them … but it must not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant …”

The lesson, said Fisher, was this: “No more squabbling over power … For Christians, authority is about service not control.”

There was no mistaking the point of the parable. It was a warning shot directed towards would-be Catholic reformers who will push for greater accountability, inclusion and transparency, and less “clericalism” from the church hierarchy, at the Plenary Council that begins on Sunday, October 3.

It’s been 84 years since the Australian church engaged in such a collective, formal act of self-examination, and considered changes to some of the laws that govern its operation. A great deal has changed since the 1937 plenary – in the broader society, at least. Divorce and same-sex relationships, for example, are now widely accepted, as are women in leadership roles and consultative management. People worry about different things, such as overpopulation, climate and the environment, the nuclear threat.

Much has changed for the church, too, although the changes have been mostly for the worse. It is in long-term decline by any measure. But Fisher was quite clear: reforms that dilute the power of the ordained men who run the show and give greater responsibility to lay members will be strongly resisted.

“In the lead-up to the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia,” he said, “there’s been a lot of talk about the failures of some past church leaders and the exercise of power self-servingly, unaccountably, even harmfully – as the royal commission pointed out ... But should we throw the ecclesial baby out with the bathwater?”

Fisher argued not. It was a matter of “ancient faith that the church is the whole people of God and that the hierarchical structure that serves them is divinely ordained”.

He said, “Assuming secular accounts of power and aping secular modes of governance, some would reduce the role of pastors to the ceremonial, while leaving church governance to boards of lay experts. But such proposals are at odds with Catholic faith.”

Francis Sullivan, the man responsible for co-ordinating the church’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, was not at all surprised by Fisher’s words.

Now chair of Catholic Social Services Australia, and a member of the Plenary Council, Sullivan says there is “massive resistance” to change. Reactionaries such as Cardinal Pell have used their influence in Rome to support the appointment of like-minded people to top positions here. “As I’ve often said,” Sullivan notes, “the church uses inertia as a management tool.”

Even the current Pope, who has expressed openness to change or at least the discussion of change, “still struggles to bring a lot of characters along”.

Sullivan says there was a “massive moral failure of leadership” when Pell led the Australian church. The cardinal’s quiet return to Australia is being treated with suspicion by reformers. When asked, the church would not say why he was in the country. One progressive offered this explanation: “I presume he was back to stiffen the sinews of the bishops about the plenary, to make sure they didn’t make any decisions they shouldn’t make.”

Those decisions are on the future direction of the church. The precise topics won’t be decided until the plenary meets, but they may include the ordination of women, a married priesthood, professional supervision of priests, and a say for parishioners in selecting their priests and determining how parish money is spent.

“All these are things the reactive elements will say you can’t do,” Sullivan notes, “because they go against the mediaeval structures and culture that have dominated.” He says the plenary will be a fight about “how power, participation and privilege operate in the culture of the church in Australia”.

So far, the leadership of the Australian church has been unwilling to confront these issues. For more than a decade, the church hierarchy resisted the very idea of a plenary. It was first proposed in 2007 and knocked back by the bishops. The same happened in 2011 when, in the face of the growing scandal about the sexual abuse of children by priests and a cover-up by the church leadership, the reform group Catholics for Renewal wrote to the bishops arguing the church had lost its way.

Finally, in 2016, at the urging of the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, who was prompted to action after hearing the Pope speak to the Synod on the Family in Rome, the bishops reluctantly agreed. The council was to be held over two assemblies – one in late 2020 and the other in the first half of 2021 – but they were delayed a year by Covid-19.

“There are many bishops who are scared about the Plenary Council process because it’ll raise questions they feel they can’t answer,” says Sullivan.

While many of the bishops weren’t eager to contemplate reform, many of the faithful certainly were. The process of seeking their views – the so-called “listening and dialogue” phase – began on Pentecost Sunday in 2018 with an invitation to people to respond to the question: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” It elicited 17,500 submissions, representing the views of about 220,000 people.

But Sullivan’s worry, and that of many other reform-minded Catholics, is that the plenary process has been set up to yield no change, that the “reactionary position” that has characterised the Catholic hierarchy in Australia will prevail, and the long decline in the church’s relevance will be accelerated by disappointment.

And the situation is dire already. Dr Peter Wilkinson, a founder of Catholics for Renewal, calls it an existential crisis. There are several aspects to it.

First, ever fewer people are identifying as Catholic, and the decline is particularly steep among the young. “The de-identification starts very early,” Wilkinson says. “It starts when kids leave secondary school.”

Second, even those people who still identify with the faith no longer have much engagement with the institution. “Mass attendance used to be around 75 per cent in the 1950s. And now, it’s just a little over 10 per cent,” says Wilkinson.

Third, the church is running out of priests. Wilkinson says numbers have dried up. “Back in the 1960s, the number of trainee priests in seminaries was around 1500 at any one time. Now, it’s down to about 200, and over half of those in the seminaries are overseas-born.” 

The shortage of priests means parishes are increasingly being amalgamated or priests are required to tend multiple flocks. That, combined with the constant churning of temporary migrants, means the priests “don’t really get embedded in the culture or the society” of their parishes.

The final aspect of the crisis, Wilkinson says, is financial. As a result of the lack of trust in the bishops stemming from the sex abuse scandal and its cover-up, and the broader failure to engage with the faithful, “the money tap’s been turned off”.

One might assume such a crisis would motivate a serious rethink about the way the church conducts itself. As Sullivan told a gathering a couple of weeks ago – at the launch of a book put together by progressive forces, A Church for All: A Guide to the Australian Plenary Council and Beyond  – that was the hope when the process began.

“Back then, everything was on the table,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, someone has taken things off the table. It is hard to trust a process that changes the rules of engagement as it goes.

“There has already been widespread bewilderment in the published agenda for the plenary. It appears to be very bland when compared with the 17,500 heartfelt submissions and the impassioned discussions and dialogues over the last three years.”

The agenda is not all that is narrow. So is the membership of the group who will ultimately decide what becomes law. There are 279 members of the Plenary Council, but the majority have only what is called a “consultative vote”. The votes that matter are “deliberative” votes, and they are cast by the bishops. There are 45 in total.

Their vote is constrained, too. Sullivan explains: “So, they can’t change – even though people might want them to – they can’t change a law that says women can’t be priests, for example. That is a universal thing, not just something that pertains to Australia. But if they had a mind, they could … petition for that sort of thing in Rome. It comes down to how much spine the bishops have. It always comes down to how much spine bishops have to actually stand up for an Australian experience of the Catholic Church.”

Tracy McEwan, vice-president of another group pushing for reform called Women and the Australian Church, can speak to the experience and expectations of Australian Catholics, both through her work within it and her work on a PhD on the views of Catholic women, particularly Generation X women like herself.

“When the Plenary Council process started, I was actually working as my parish’s animator, as they called us,” she says. “I ran a series of sessions with parishioners to gather data for the church as to what the key issues were for people in the institution.”

Those key issues included things such as greater inclusion of queer people, greater involvement of the laity in governance, and changes in the church’s attitude towards women.

McEwan found immense frustration, and feels it herself.

“They took all these submissions from people on the ground, then they produced a series of working documents … It says that the underrepresentation of women in leadership and governance is only ‘perceived’.

“Something like three in five mass attenders are women. And I think around three-quarters of Catholic employees are women. Women basically are doing all the work. And the men in leadership think this problem is ‘perceived’?”

In the 39-page working document that underpins the plenary agenda, she says, women are mentioned in just two  paragraphs: “one noting that they contribute greatly, and the other noting the perceived underrepresentation of women in decision-making roles is ‘a challenging issue for many in Australia’.”

She calls this trivialisation “clerical mansplaining”.

Particularly troubling for younger women, she says, are the teachings around gender and sexuality. “We’re still operating in a church where LGBTQ people are understood to be fundamentally disordered,” she said. “And … the limitations for women around, you know, contraception, around sex before marriage … concepts like purity and virginity, are really marginalising. You know, we’re talking about a church where you can bless a car but not a same-sex union.”

McEwan said it’s little wonder women and particularly younger women are increasingly giving up on the church, if not the faith. “I don’t think you ever stop being a Catholic. The formation experience for Catholics is very holistic … You’re brought into this institution as an infant and heavily socialised in the doctrine and teachings into adulthood.

“But my experience working with younger women is that women are looking for places outside these traditional structures, where they can be heard and where they can hear women.

“So there’s a big generational decline in the numbers of women who are attending, but there is also a significant decline in real terms of whole congregations.”

She cites the statistics. Between 2007 and 2011, the number attending Mass fell by 39,000 people. Most of them were younger.

“The church is actually, literally dying,” says Peter Johnstone, co-convener of an umbrella group of 20 Catholic organisations called the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.

“I look around me, I’m in the 70s. And most of the other people going to church are in the 70s or 80s. When we die, there’s going to be nothing left because all of our children have seen through the hypocrisy.”

What his 20 constituent organisations have in common, he says, is concern that the church has become “very hierarchical, autocratic, secretive, confidential and exclusive”.

“Of course, the classic example is the cover-up of child sexual abuse. Quite apart from child sexual abuse itself, which was absolutely terrible, the cover-up was incredible, because it was utterly contrary to the faith.”

It would be shocking in any institution, he says, but “when the very purpose of an organisation is love and care … there is something fundamentally wrong with the institution”.

It goes beyond that, too. Some of the church’s leaders, he says, still would see Catholics subordinate their consciences to the direction of the priests and bishops. “But modern, thinking Catholics simply won’t cop that.”

Of course, the church is not a democracy. But, he says, “the magisterium, those running the church, should not take decisions without listening to the faithful …”

Johnstone reels off examples of high-handed behaviour from the church’s leaders, some relating to purely church issues and others to broader community issues. As an example of the former, he notes that only six of the 28 dioceses in Australia have established pastoral councils to take lay guidance, even though it is required under canon law. As an example of the latter, he points to the recent objection of Archbishop Fisher to the New South Wales government saying that people going to Mass must be vaccinated.

“We’ve got these celibate old blokes – who are good people, a lot of them – but they do not have the openness to the real world. And they take a whole range of decisions, whether it’s things like reception of the Eucharist by people who have divorced and remarried, their attitude to LGBTQ people…”

At every level, it seems, the church is deeply divided. That division, stripped of all its ecclesiastical language and spiritual dressing, is essentially about politics.

“The church likes to downplay the existence of those sorts of splits,” says John Warhurst, “but there’s no doubt that there’s polarisation within both the Catholic Church in Australia and more broadly.”

Warhurst is chair of one of the major reform groups, Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a member of the Plenary Council and author of the book Wrestling with the Church Hierarchy. He is also an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

The fight in the church, he says, has “very, very strong echoes” of party politics: there’s a conservative wing and a progressive one; Coleridge is like the Malcolm Turnbull of the church in Australia, the small-l Catholic, being undermined by the reactionaries, led by Fisher and Pell. There is also tension between the rank-and-file membership, who want a greater say, and the organisation that seeks to maintain control.

The rank-and-file want many things: consideration at least of the ordination of female deacons and married priests, greater respect for minority groups, and above all a greater say for the laity. Some quote the gospel in support. They want a more inclusive church, less focused on itself and more focused on the spirit of God.

But the gospel can be quoted to many ends, as Fisher’s homily showed. And that is the irony here. The reactionaries have seized the church for themselves, even if Jesus was a radical. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Exclusive: George Pell returned to Australia ahead of church reforms".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.