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Tipping a tipping point in Catholicism

Date

The Catholic train wreck is unfolding before us. An organisation that claims moral leadership ought to be a paragon.

The evidence of abuse has been compounded by a sordid protection of the guilty and the resistance to scrutiny and change. Weird and neolithic attitudes about obedience, sex and forgiveness appear to have produced strange and cruel consequences. The damage to lives is incalculable. This we all know and have known for years. It has consumed this blog on and off for some time.

But what is the damage to the church and its moral authority?

In all of the noise and fury, we may be witnessing a historical moment for faith in Australia. Apart from the damage to individuals, what does this crisis mean for Catholicism and other faiths? Will it destroy the credibility of Catholicism as we know it or will it galvanise the change agents in the Catholic kingdom and lead to adjustment and renewal? Can the reputational damage be limited to Catholicism?

This is a moment of truth for Australian faith.

I am tipping a tipping point. A tipping point is that time when society changes dramatically as a result of an event.

The royal commission will soon start its work. A Fairfax/Nielsen poll has shown that an unprecedented 95 per cent of Australians support the government's decision to launch a royal commission. It appears that Australians are shocked and impatient.

The commission will, in all probability, chronicle an abhorrent history. It will be excruciating but necessary. Catholicism will be purged by the brute force of public exposure. The funny thing is that the very commission that Cardinal George Pell resisted may be the thing that saves Catholicism in Australia in the longer term.

There are various notions that describe moments of historical change. Thomas Kuhn wrote of the paradigm shift – that moment when the basic assumptions or paradigms change forever. The Darwinian and Copernican revolutions heralded such transformation. Another buzzword for a similar phenomenon is the "tipping point", described by Malcolm Gladwell as when certain events have a revolutionary effect.

A tipping point is hard to discern. I cannot, however, believe that this global scandal will not cause at least profound medium-term damage to Catholicism. However, it is also possible that the crisis will lead to reform and regeneration. This is an unlikely scenario but must not be discounted. Australian Catholicism is full of reformers and decency. The Catholics for Ministry are but one example.

In a political sense, centuries of glacial secularisation have already partially tipped the bucket. This was exemplified at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development when the conference largely ignored the views of Pope John Paul II on contraception.

So there is a long history of decline in power and influence as manifested by empty pews, abating political credibility and depopulation of the priesthood.

But don't be deceived into believing that this is a one-way trip down the plughole. The number of Catholics is surging globally, from 437 million in 1970 to three-fold that number today (nudging 1.2 billion). That doesn't sound like a tipping point to me. It is huge growth. Catholicism is winning converts in sub-Saharan Africa and east Asia. But it is not just a numbers game. That exponential growth must be taken into account with the decline in the quality of belief in the West.

Let me look at a crystal ball for a minute. I see Catholicism growing in Africa and Asia and losing its moral grandeur in the West. It's centralised structure will console itself with conquests in its new world.

So the forces for change in the West will be resisted for the foreseeable future. This will lead to fracturing in the West and an uncomfortable relationship between the various Catholic congregations. In Australia, Catholicism will recover over time if the reformers succeed.

I suspect that the reformers of the church may have problems. The growth in Africa and Asia may embolden Rome to resist change for another century or two. The growing congregations tend, if the Anglican example in Africa is a precedent, to be quite conservative. So the conservatism of the growth areas could further fetter the reformers.

If reform fails, I see the Australian Catholic Church losing members and assets to other denominations or secular organisations that will take over the significant welfare assets.

Thus, Catholicism might well prosper and grow globally but, like Presbyterianism, become a shattered husk in Australia as Christians decamp to less problematic denominations that don't require their clergy to take such demanding vows.

Questions about how the church has handled child abuse allegations will not die. The royal commission will soon start its work. Paradoxically, it might be a saving grace for Australian Catholicism.

What is your view?

  • Is this the death knell for Australian Catholicism or will it survive?
  • Will Catholicism ever be able to adopt reforms most of us think are unexceptional
  • Will it need to change anyway after it survives the abuse crisis?
  • What part did abstinence play in this drama?
  • Should the seal of the confession be broken?

857 comments

  • To be honest Dick, I think an organisation that outlasted the Roman Empire,
    the rise of Islam, the Reformantion and the Enlightenment will probably
    see out the Commonwealth of Australia.

    Stalin once asked how many divisions does the pope have,
    well both him and the Red Army are long gone.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 1:25PM
    • Of course catholicism will go on ... go on in exactly the same way it has for centuries, and once again they are going after the uneducated masses in Africa and Asia.

      Nothing will change they will continue to protect each other and their institution in the name of their godless god.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 4:43PM
    • Yeah, Hinduism has really seen out the distance. Hell of a religion, hey?

      Commenter
      Caffetierra Moka
      Location
      Sector 7-G
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 4:45PM
    • That's pretty funny. And true.

      Commenter
      Peter
      Location
      West End
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 4:57PM
    • SteveH forever the fervent Catholic Church apologist. LNP voter and climate change denier as well I believe. I believe Catholics are ashamed but lazy and apathetic. Witness the virtual takeover in most parihs by the neo cons like SteveH who reported any doctrinal variation back to head office as quickly as possible.

      Commenter
      sipper
      Location
      inner Melb
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 5:23PM
    • DICK HERE.

      Thanks SteveH.

      The longevity of Catholicism is to be admired. That longevity is why I have been so equivocal in my assessment of the tipping point. Globally, Catholicism will survive this crisis. Locally though, Catholicism may be fatally tarnished. Time will tell. I imagine I will be long dead before we can know the answer.

      Dick

      Commenter
      Dick Gross
      Location
      St Kilda
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 5:24PM
    • DICK HERE.

      Thanks SteveH.

      The longevity of Catholicism is to be admired. That longevity is why I have been so equivocal in my assessment of the tipping point. Globally, Catholicism will survive this crisis. Locally though, Catholicism may be fatally tarnished. Time will tell. I imagine I will be long dead before we can know the answer.

      Dick

      Commenter
      Dick Gross
      Location
      St Kilda
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 5:24PM
    • As usual, SteveH upholds the Right, with a modicum of intelligence (which puts him a step above most of his co-thinkers). His summary, however, is a bit misleading.

      The Church has survived the rise of Islam, but lost many of its bastions. It also survived the Reformation, losing many remaining bastions. It has, so far, survived the Enlightenment, though this is an ongoing process which has emptied tmost of Europe's churches. Even Ireland and Poland have seen collapses in mass attendance, seminary enrolment and the observation of Church teaching by the faithful. In his last years, Pope John Paul II railed against his fellow Poles for deserting the Church - and at this very moment, a movement is erupting in Ireland to demand a woman's right to choose abortion.

      In response to Dick's questions:

      Is this the death knell for Australian Catholicism or will it survive? It will survive, but as a much smaller organisation, with many Catholics ignoring the clergy.

      Will Catholicism ever be able to adopt reforms most of us think are unexceptional? No way. The Church hasn't survived this far through making concessions t public opinion and it isn't about to start.

      Will it need to change anyway after it survives the abuse crisis? It might clean up its act on child abuse, but nothing else.

      What part did abstinence play in this drama? In a society not wracked by guilt over sex, a vow of abstinence is an anacrhonism, only embraced by those who feel they need to suppress their sexuality. Abstinence cuts the pool of priests down to those who have a good reason to abstain.

      Should the seal of the confession be broken? No. The perpetrators just won't confess. Also, a good priest would withhold absolution unless the perpetrator hands himself in.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 8:54PM
    • sipper,
      What an absolute and typical lie, I have never defended the Catholic Church,
      I am neither a member nor a believer, the only office I have access to
      has only myself in it (now that the dog has died).

      The fact when I make a comment that goes beyond the Tony and Julia show,
      and can access or quote an academic text or research that contradicts
      popular twaddle which makes others uncomfortable
      says more about them than me.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 7:10AM
    • Outlasted the Roman empire????? It is the continuation of Roman empire.

      Pontifex Maximus anyone? Christian theft of title? Pope Damasus I and the idea of apostalistic succession?

      Get thee to some history books. :-)

      Commenter
      Francis Allen
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 7:44PM

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