The Catholic Church is a wealthy institution, but Archbishop Anthony Fisher is right that to compare its type of wealth to that of Westfield or Wesfarmers is crude and simplistic. Nevertheless, that wealth, however calculated, stands in stark contrast to the resistance and mean-spiritedness that, it has now been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, has characterised its leaders' treatment of those who were sexually abused while in the church's care.
This injustice has compounded the crimes that happened on its watch and its criminal cover-ups. Most of the victims were Catholics themselves at the time.
There is another disjunction that troubles many Catholics. The rhythm of church life experienced by most ordinary Catholics is not one of great wealth, but of local fund-raising and donations to church causes. This month, there are two major church-related campaigns: the Vinnies annual doorknock appeal and the Project Compassion annual Lenten appeal to support the church's international aid and development arm, Caritas Australia. Last year, Project Compassion raised $359,000 in Canberra-Goulburn alone.
This disjunction between the hurt that has been done under the church's name and the demands made on ordinary Catholics is one reason for the growing bewilderment and lack of trust that is now sweeping the church. The National Church Life Survey, conducted across 20 denominations, has reported that 48 per cent of Catholic respondents agreed (only 34 per cent disagreed) that sexual abuse by clergy had damaged their confidence in church authorities.
In the past, Catholics were mainly loyal and hard-working subjects rather than informed and vocal citizens within their own church. Bewilderment and lack of trust is now turning belatedly to activism and demands for renewal of church governance and structures, as well as for the transparency and accountability rightly demanded by the community at large. It remains to be seen whether the church's authorities are really listening.
Catholic bishops are unwise to defend the church's position by circling the wagons and being overly defensive. Some public criticism is ill-informed, but Fisher is wrong to describe it as a relentless campaign to "strip the church of its assets and influence". It is also mistaken to emphasise a chasm between the secular and religious worlds when cooperation in service and campaigning is the norm.
Current investigations into church wealth may be driven primarily by a desire to establish a capacity to pay reparations, but it is too easy to jump from wealth to power and influence. The Catholic Church has been and continues, to some extent, to be politically and socially influential. But that influence has never primarily been built on wealth but on the large numbers of its voters in the community, their supposed unity and discipline, and the network of Catholics spread through political parties, unions, corporations, the legal profession and the public service.
However, much of Australian history has been about such Catholics competing with one another from their bases in one or other of these networks. The church contains examples of every social and political viewpoint across the spectrum. It is true, for instance, that Cardinal George Pell and Tony Abbott campaigned together against the charities commission, but that very commission was vigorously supported by many more Catholic agencies and headed by Susan Pascoe, a life-long Catholic with a background of senior church employment in Victoria.
Furthermore, network and voting power is declining with each succeeding generation. Numbers are down as is any remaining adherence to shared norms. Some organisational influence persists and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is among the most influential pressure groups in Australian politics today.
However, the power and influence record of the Catholic Church in recent times is decidedly spotty, and the story is as much about weakness as strength. For anyone to claim or infer otherwise is to fall victim to conspiratorial thinking. Evaluating that influence is made difficult by the fact that Catholics are usually found on all sides of any debate, whatever the church's official stance. And even the official stance will vary across Australia, as it did during the same-sex marriage postal survey campaign.
The church's external power and influence includes three elements.
First, there is its successful defence of its own interests in education funding and taxation. On education funding, the federal government scheme has not been finally decided, but the church has at least fought a successful rearguard action to maintain its position during a lengthy transition. On tax exemptions, it and other churches have prevailed so far, as it has on anti-discrimination provisions in employment law.
Second, there is its highly publicised leadership in conservative moral campaigns. On same-sex marriage, led by the Sydney Catholic church, it was clearly on the losing side, while in Victoria the Melbourne Catholic church, led by Archbishop Denis Hart, could not prevent the Parliament passing euthanasia legislation.
Third, there is its less prominent involvement in progressive social campaigns. Despite hard campaigning by its agencies, often alongside secular organisations, on many social and economic issues, it has had little success. These causes include the defence of asylum seekers and refugees, increasing Newstart unemployment benefits beyond the poverty line, and resisting drastic cuts to the foreign aid budget.
The church's wealth deserves sophisticated investigation and Catholics themselves should welcome that. Existing publicly available information is unnecessarily partial. Transparency has not been part of its culture.
The same sophisticated investigation must apply to its power. It still has the resources to be influential, but there is plenty of competition and its lobbying failures currently outweigh its successes.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and chairman of Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.
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