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A daunting task or radical opportunity? The Catholic Church’s challenges in Australia

With the recent appointment of Cardinal George Pell to Rome, the Catholic Church in Australia will lose a dominant figure. While there are criticisms, his influence and legacy are broad ranging. Pell’s…

Whatever one makes of George Pell’s legacy, the Catholic Church in Australia must tackle challenges on several fronts without one of its dominant figures of recent times. AAP/Paul Miller

With the recent appointment of Cardinal George Pell to Rome, the Catholic Church in Australia will lose a dominant figure. While there are criticisms, his influence and legacy are broad ranging.

Pell’s time as Archbishop of Melbourne and, more recently, as Archbishop of Sydney was marked by a desire to bring Christ to the world, drawing on the emphasis of John Paul II. He expanded Catholic institutions (investing in Catholic schools, universities and social services), focused on the young and vocations (for example by bringing World Youth Day to Australia and reforming the seminary), maintained a constant public presence and cultivated political links.

Pell’s aim was seemingly to form a church with a strong sense of itself and orientated to mission in the world. Whether he has achieved this aim is contested, along with his vision of the church.

Whatever we make of Cardinal Pell’s legacy, the next Archbishop of Sydney will certainly have large shoes to fill and, along with the whole church, some daunting challenges. The most immediate are twofold: the sexual abuse crisis, and the declining number of regular church-goers.

Embracing a victim-centred response

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse presents the Catholic Church with two challenges: to improve dialogue with and accountability for the victims of abuse, and to examine its culture and processes.

Cardinal Pell’s recent statement that victims should be able to sue the church indicates misgivings about aspects of the church’s approach. While I don’t want to underestimate the task that church leaders faced and the efforts of many to act with goodwill, there have been major failures. These are gradually being acknowledged.

The challenge remains to make the church’s response a victim-centred one that is fair, compassionate and long-term. The establishment of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, with its commitment to full disclosure and justice, is a positive step. It is clear that the church must fulfil its duty of care to all involved.

The cultural and structural questions are too large to fully address in relation to this crisis, but I will point to one major issue. Pope Francis has emphasised that the church needs to guard against a mentality that is inward-focused, which becomes self-protective.

In it, we come to place what we perceive to be the church’s interests (or our own interests) above the care of people and the mission of Christ. This can happen in small ways on an individual or parish level (for example in scrupulosity or in protecting “our territory” against others) and in larger ways, as has occurred in the responses to sexual abuse.

Such a mentality was not the only reason the church authorities reacted to sexual abuse claims in the way they did. The historical contexts need to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, this institutional and managerial mentality remains an ever-present threat and appears in various forms.

This mentality can be present, for example, in lay managerialism and priestly clericalism, which prioritise leaders and place the perceived imperatives of the institution above the people involved.

The church is not the only institution that faces this problem. But it is a particular challenge for Catholic bureaucracies and institutions, many of which are expanding at rates that the church can barely keep up with. These institutions can be criticised for being less like the Christian community that is their inspiration and more like impersonal corporations.

A related issue is the place and formation of staff in these institutions. The people who work for the church are not just its most important “resources” (as a good spin of capitalism might have it), but are its constitutive parts, giving the church a body in the world. Achieving goals and prudent management is important, but this should not be the first priority; otherwise, the world is gained but the soul is lost.

A focus on people – on the staff and those people who are served (and hurt) by these institutions – needs to be the priority. The church should not be about building empires. It should be about cultivating a community of persons with particular gifts and a shared mission to serve the world in accordance with Christ’s love.

With the growth in Catholic school numbers, the challenge for the church is to attract students and their families into the life of the parish. AAP/Dean Lewins

Answering the call to a ‘new evangelisation’

The other major issue that the Catholic Church faces is the decline in the number of regular churchgoers and the associated decline in clergy numbers.

Despite these downward trends, there are opportunities: the numbers attending Catholic schools continue to grow; those who are initiated into the church each year are many; people continue to attend church at Christmas and Easter in large numbers; and newer groups (such as migrant communities, the new ecclesial movements and charismatic movements) are attracting large numbers.

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are increasing and there is a discernible, if small, group of young people committed to the church’s mission.

Yet the church in Australia needs a radical approach to capitalise on the opportunities of what Pope John Paul II called the “new evangelisation”. Some of this involves doing the small things well, such as welcoming people to church, offering good homilies, providing appropriate music and giving a space for the laity to contribute actively to the life of the parish.

Issues of shared governance and consultation on the parish and diocesan level are important here. Even more than this, the emphasis should be on the spiritual role and formation of the clergy (rather than an administrative focus), the spiritual formation of the laity, and opportunities for discernment about what each lay person can contribute.

Other initiatives must focus on how we initiate people into the church, attract Catholic school students and their families into the life of the parish, educate the faithful and enable partnerships between clergy and laity.

For example, I know of a parish program in the US for the initiation of children and their families, which stretches over a number of years. Families attend regular classes, retreats and Sunday services. This is the kind of long-term initiative, made possible by collaboration between the priest and laity, that the Australian church needs to consider to arrest the decline in churchgoer numbers.

In the same way, we need to think of more holistic approaches to the education and spiritual formation of those wishing to teach and work in Catholic institutions. These initiatives must be based in a sound understanding of the faith and in a renewed commitment to collaboration and dialogue. To do this, the church needs leadership that engages and empowers committed laity as well as more outreach to those less engaged with the church.

With Francis as an exemplar, the Catholic Church in Australia has a chance to re-focus on its mission to present the unique joys and gifts that come with being a follower of Christ.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Andrew Smith


    The failure of Archbishop Pell and Pope Francis to support the UN call to investigate human rights abuse cover ups (particularly the hiding of sex abusers) by the Vatican is, sadly, the current exemplar that highlights the need for the Catholic Church to re-focus.

  2. Jack Ruffin
    Jack Ruffin is a Friend of The Conversation.

    logged in via email

    Pell going to Rome is no big deal. Its not radical, it's not new. The big changes can only come from parishioners. The challenge for parishioners in this church is whether they can continue to be affiliated with a business that treats people as this one does of should they speak out loudly, or simply leave. The last two seem to be the only ethical options. To do anything else is effectively condoning the actions of the hierarchy.
    Do the rest of us think they can do it?

  3. Patrick Maher

    Retired Doctor of Psychology and Academic

    Oh dear. John turns out to be a shill for Pell.

    Ambition and certainty make for such hubris - and Pell has both in spades. Both imperious and peremptory and almost totally without guilt - look up the books on psychopathy and sociopathy - not a bad fit. Many of the priests, bishops and one or two Archbishops I spoke to in a previous life were very wary of Pell. Perhaps 'circumspect' better describes their perceptions. Even the Jesuits were wary of Pell - he easily out-jesuitic-ed them. Most people can see through the 'call' to Rome.

  4. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    For many Australians Cardinal Pell = the Catholic Church. He symbolised what it supposedly stands for. Pell's brazen, 'take no prisoners' personality offended thousands and, I believe, drove many of those thousands away as far away from from the church as they could possibly get. He was unrepentant because he didn't want people of left or green persuasion in its fold. Or at least that's how it all came across.

    Many who are in the church would celebrate Pell's departure, not that they dislike him…

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  5. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    LOL, way to be objective and white wash all the problems with him

    He defended and protected kiddie fiddlers - oh how great thou art, love your pride in this man

  6. Giles Pickford
    Giles Pickford is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired, Wollongong

    The Church needs to follow the example of Jesus. He did not choose to protect himself. He chose to give himself entirely. The reason why the Church is failing is that it makes the wrong choice repeatedly. By putting itself first, it has denied Jesus for decades.

  7. Janeen Harris


    Considering the attitude of the church to sex offenders in its midst, I would have thought it was time for catholicism to die a natural death. The blind leading the blind comes to mind. How can an institution be believed in when they show themselves to be ignorant, predatory, and self-righteous? There seems to be very little christianity going on among them.

  8. Helena Kadmos

    PhD research

    The opportunities, identified above, for church growth arouse dim inspiration. It is well and truly past time to loosen the dying grip on the one and only priesthood. It is not, in any way, that all celibate men are essentially bad, or that all married men and women, gay or straight, are essentially better. But open and inclusive diversity, in all areas of church participation and leadership, genuine invitations to allow all members to develop and share their own callings, is the only way forward for the Christian church. Wherever one group in society has been allowed to barricade itself behind power structures that fulfill its own needs, evil has flourished. Only the challenges faced, on a daily basis, from interactions with people who are not like us, who do not agree with us, who think and behave differently to us, protect us from our own selfish impulses.

  9. anthony hoad
    anthony hoad is a Friend of The Conversation.

    sys admin

    It's in the book.
    I think it's been a long time since Catholicism and Christianity parted ways.

    Isn't the founder of the Christian Church reported to have said:

    Matthew chapter 17
    16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles
    17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
    18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.…

    18.5 And whoever receives one such…

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    1. Janeen Harris


      In reply to anthony hoad

      Not a long time at all. Act.s 5. Murder in the name of god. Christians supported it. Bad move.