Heavily impacted by Irish influence – especially by Ireland’s Cardinal Cullen in the later 1800s – the Australian Catholic church now stands close to dissolution following a familiar and shattering sequence of events: the mishandling of clerical abuse, the media revelation of that – and then the disillusionment and demoralisation that Ireland has witnessed.
This was the picture presented by David Timbs and Peter Wilkinson of Catholics for Renewal in a Zoom conference on Saturday May 15, sponsored by We Are Church Ireland. On May 20th 2021, speaking to ACI on Zoom, David concentrated on the background to the Synodal Council set for October this year – and offered words of advice for our own ‘synodal pathway’. “Ask your bishops for things they cannot dismiss as ‘outside our competence’!”
Shadowing the Irish story, attendance at Mass in Australia has slumped from 74% in 1954 to 12% in 2016 – while one in two of serving priests are from abroad, on short-term contracts.
“Our credibility is shot to pieces,” admitted Archbishop Coleridge, Chair of the Australian Bishops Conference, in preparation for a national Plenary Council. The need for radical renewal is plain – but so are the divisions that threaten further disaster
How can those divisions be bridged?
On Thursday May 20th, speaking to ACI, David Timbs gave a detailed account of the background to the October 2021 Plenary Council – beginning with the impact of the clerical child abuse crisis on a secretive church structure that had not significantly changed since Vatican II. Recognising the importance of realism and honesty in speaking with lay people, a number of reforming bishops have given some hope to reformers for the upcoming plenary council, but the old instinct to believe that nothing should change (‘semper idem’ – ‘always the same’) is still strong. David fears that minimalism, a determination to change as little as possible, could dog the council – as conservative bishops insist that x, y and z are ‘beyond our competence‘.
So his advice to ACI is to be sure to ask Irish bishops to do what does lie within their competence – to make sure they cannot use this excuse for doing nothing! With this in mind he advised us to study certain church canons that do allow for greater lay participation in the governance of the church in certain circumstances – which probably do now apply, or soon will apply, as numbers of ordained and fit clergy plummet.