The first Australian Catholic Plenary Council in 85 years concluded earlier this month. Does it matter?
Our imagination opens up different possibilities of life and living which can be tested against reality, argued Jorge Ortega y Gasset mid-last century.
In the latest nationwide census result, about 40 per cent of the respondents found themselves unable to choose any of the possibilities of being a religious person that their imagination was able to conceive. This prompted a tick next to 'no religion'. Contrastingly, 44 per cent could still answer they take one of the multitude forms of Christianity as something of a guide.
The same 2021 census has Roman Catholicism as the largest Christian denomination at 20 per cent of the Australian population (5 million). Catholicism reached its greatest proportion of the Australian population 30 years ago (1991, 27.3 per cent), and was at its numerical maximum back in 2011 (5.4 million). This amounts to Australian Catholicism shrinking year by year, as measured by census numbers. Well above 90 per cent of Catholics under 50 do not regularly participate in activities such as the weekly Catholic mass.
Does this matter?
It matters if one takes love of neighbour and love of enemy as central to life and living and if one understands the Christian God as having manifested this and wanting this life for humanity.
But that is not saying the Catholic church crisis matters because the Australian Catholic church has been exemplary in following this way of life.
Physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse has been inflicted on multiple thousands of children, on many adults, and in consequence of their abuse has also done great damage to their families and friends, church people and people in the streets.
Much of that abuse was perpetrated by members of Catholic institutions unchecked over decades. The abuse was accompanied by self-imposed deafness to pleas of protection and compassion made to numerous Catholic office-bearers. There were attendant ubiquitous cover-ups. There is a continuing lack of real public remorse and repentance, and the past and present stony-hearted and closed-fisted compensation of direct survivor-victims cries to heaven.
There is a shameful absence of offers of readily available support to the multitude more who knew or know victims and care for and about them and are concomitantly hurt, distressed and traumatised. There was and remains an obstinate unwillingness to be held directly accountable for any of this.
That numerous Catholics over the decades and centuries have led inspiring lives, loving lives, saintly lives, does not help with this. Christianity has no utilitarian ledger with a column for good and another for evil, where each column can be added up to see which of the two comes out ahead. Christian churches avow a just and loving God, not a utilitarian accountant.
The crisis in the Catholic church does matter because the victims of abuse, and others who have suffered injustice and harm from an autocratic church, deserve restorative justice.
So far Catholic officeholders have largely outsourced justice, transparency and accountability. They have left it to 'outsiders' to raise the alarm, listen to abuse victims, try and comfort them, publicly acknowledge theirs and their family and friends' trauma, establish what is needed, determine the level of compensation, and recommend necessary changes to protect against abuse. The royal commission is the stand-out example, but there have been numerous others. Essentially the only justice, transparency and accountability in evidence has been exacted from the outside.
However, restorative justice necessitates those responsible for injury, and the bystanders with them and after them, to own up and make every effort to remedy what can be remedied.
The final text of the first Australian Catholic Plenary Council since 1937 acknowledges this. It acknowledges the necessity for restorative justice and its three indispensable components. It does this by supporting the Uluru Statement of the Heart, with its restorative components of Voice, Treaty and Truth. Notwithstanding this ostensible support, there is then a large blank where there should be concrete measures for having Voice, Treaty and Truth with "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in and beyond the Church for the part played by the Church in the harms they have suffered". Saying 'sorry' alone, by itself, leaves reconciliation by the Catholic church with the First Nations entirely outsourced to an 'outside', government process.
The next section of the Plenary Council document again "says sorry". This time "to the victims and survivors of abuse, their families and communities". Again, there is a blank where one could expect concrete measures to demonstrate the personal acceptance of responsibility, measures for deep listening to the pain, and for generous, remorseful reparation, on the model of Voice, Treaty and Truth.
And, yet again, further compounding my bitter disappointment and distress, the Voice, Treaty and Truth with women, with LGBTIQA+ people, and with others' suffering, within the Catholic church and outside, remains a gaping blank in the Plenary text. Where is the loving in practice of those who have suffered and continue to suffer ignorance, discrimination, offence, pain and injustice from an often deaf church?
The Catholic church crisis matters because the Christian message of deep care and compassion is important to myself and many others, and should not be allowed to be betrayed by decisions, policies, practices and structures which belie love. The world is too much in need of being shown love to leave matters where this Plenary Council left them.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.