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Self-sabotaging Catholicism won’t help Australia, archbishop says of plenary council prep

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA

Bishop Julian Porteous of Sydney leaves St. Mary's Cathedral after celebrating Mass Feb. 12, 2013. (CNS photo/Daniel Munoz, Reuters)

Denver Newsroom, Apr 13, 2022 / 16:57 pm (CNA).

At a time when Catholicism in Australia faces crises such as a loss of faith and declining religious practice, a plenary council preparatory document shows “serious failures” that suggest a lack of confidence and “evangelical vigor,” one archbishop has said.

The document’s doctrinal contradictions and general tone, he said, can encourage Catholics to shrink from their “prophetic task” and become caught in a “spiritual paralysis.”

“This is the time for the Church to rise up with new evangelical vigor. This is the time to turn all our attention to announcing a word of life and hope,” Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart said in an April 11 commentary. In reading the working document, he said, “I sense a church that has lost confidence in itself; a church that has lost confidence in its identity and mission.”

“The sharp edge of the call to conversion and faith is lacking in the document. In the face of the rise of those who declare that they have no faith it is necessary more than ever to issue the call to faith,” said Porteous, whose archdiocese is on the island of Tasmania.

“The Church in Australia is in the midst of an existential crisis as it witnesses thousands abandoning participation in the sacramental life of the Church each year,” he added. “The Church is in serious decline, yet no real recognition of this reality is given in the document.”

“Because the crisis of faith is not acknowledged, the document makes no effort to propose a way forward for the Church,” he said.

Porteous wrote in response to the working document “Towards the Second Assembly,” assembled as the Catholic Church in Australia is in the midst of its Fifth Plenary Council. A plenary council is the highest formal gathering of all particular Churches in a country, and it has legislative and governing authority. The first assembly of the plenary council took place in October 2021 in Adelaide. The second assembly is set to be held July 4-9 in Sydney.

Laypeople have been invited to participate in council sessions and bishops will vote on binding resolutions, which will be sent to the Vatican for approval.

The working document, which has not been released to the public, includes draft proposals that will be up for a vote at the next assembly. According to the Archdiocese of Sydney-based newspaper The Catholic Weekly, these propositions include “every dimension of Church life from governance to liturgical worship and vary in character from radical reforms to conservative defenses of traditional practices.”

Porteous, however, thought that the working document should not set the agenda for the next meeting.

“If this working document is largely accepted as the basis for the Second Assembly it will not facilitate the spiritual and pastoral renewal so needed at this time, but rather it will allow the process of further decline to occur, if not accelerate it,” he said. “Without a serious effort at interior renewal and a new zeal for evangelization the Church in Australia runs the risk of becoming a shallow image of its former self.”

“One senses in this document a church that has become tired and has lost its sense of purpose; a church that has surrendered to the surrounding cultural ethos,” he added. The document too rarely speaks of “bringing people under the grace of salvation by a bold proclamation of the cross of Christ.”

About 1 in 10 Catholics in Australia regularly attend Mass, and Church leaders have voiced concern about vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage. In addition to a culture of secularism, the Church continues to respond to sexual abuse scandals. A 2017 royal commission report found that the Catholic Church and other institutions in the country showed serious failings for decades in protecting children from abuse.

Rather than seeing “more effective ways to communicate the Gospel to the age,” Porteous said, the document is more about “adapting to the times rather than finding new ways to evangelize the times.”

“The true ‘sign of our times’ is that our society has lost sight of Christ, lost a desire for truth as it embraces all sorts of ideologies, and no longer knows that there is a loving and merciful God who has created the universe and desires that all come to salvation and know the truth,” he said.

“What is lacking is the nobility of vision found in the great works of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” the archbishop continued. “The text is like a modern office block in comparison to a cathedral: functional but lacking that which elevates the mind and heart and witnesses to the transcendent.”

The archbishop also warned that the document embraces “a number of proposals that are inconsistent with authentic Catholic faith and would simply hasten the demise of the faith in Australia.”

He criticized the document’s attempt to revive general absolution as a replacement for sacramental confession. At one point the document goes “directly against Catholic teaching” by asking bishops to “continue to review the universal teaching of the Church which precludes women from the papacy, the episcopacy and priesthood.” In the archbishop’s view, it lacks efforts to promote the “authentic religious life” of women religious, and instead promotes the ordination of women as deacons.

Rather than discuss a positive role for priests, including “clear and unambiguous promotion” of priestly vocations, the document instead calls for changes to Catholic teaching and practice by proposing that lay people be allowed to preach at Mass.

“The desire for the clericalization of the laity reflects a confusion about the complementary roles of priest and laity in the sacred liturgy and more generally in the mission of the Church,” Porteous said.

The document’s intentions to promote lay involvement and the involvement of women have merit, but its specific proposals go awry, he said. Porteous questioned the document’s proposal of a lay body to parallel the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Many proposals on this question “clearly go against the consistent teaching of the Church, expressed most recently in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, that such governance by divine intent, is solely entrusted to bishops.”

“The language used in the document at times is more akin to that of a secular report than of an ecclesial document,” he added. In his view, it too often presents the Church “on the horizontal level as simply a friendly community.” He cited descriptions of the Church as “supportive and inclusive community” or “a just, compassionate and outward looking Church.”

“While we hope this is true, there is no real witness in the document to its deeper reality as, for example, the ‘Mystical Body of Christ’. The mystery of the Church is not in evidence,” said the archbishop.

“The document mouths the aspirations of the times giving them a Christian veneer. It uncritically adopts the language of the day, like its repeated declaration that we are ‘an inclusive Church’,” he lamented.

For Porteous, Catholics need to take the path of “entering more deeply into the mystery of the Church to unleash the power of the life of grace.”

He called for the Catholic Church to be prepared “to be a prophetic voice speaking truth with love within the culture, to challenge the prevailing ethos.”

“Have we become afraid to speak out what we believe?” he asked. “If we shrink from our prophetic task we will become caught in a spiritual paralysis.”

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  1. “…it (the Catholic church) witnesses thousands abandoning participation in the sacramental life of the Church each year”…?…?

    A nonessential service. Covid times remember? The church locked the doors and denied access to the sacraments because they are not essential…pot calling the kettle black maybe?

    Also “Have we become afraid to speak out what we believe?” he asked”

    It’s worse, much worse, “we” instructed the people that the faith is


    It hasn’t gone away and it must be dealt with

  2. “It uncritically adopts the language of the day, like its repeated declaration that we are ‘an inclusive Church’”

    Nothing wrong with that. The evangelical impulse is to preach the Gospel to everybody. In Mark 16:15 Jesus is quoted urging his disciples to preach to all creation.

    Archbishop Porteous knows the problematic theology will be a non-starter in Rome. As for matters of practice, perhaps some are worth listening to and considering carefully. When people advocate for lay preaching, they might well be alluding to the poor quality of clergy homilies. When the homilist chats about his last vacation, or tells a joke or two, or shows off his knowledge of arcane theology, it isn’t helpful to the struggles in the faith lives of ordinary people.

    It might be a matter of not just hearing proposals and getting nervous. Maybe it’s listening more deeply to the concerns of the lay people that are still going to church.

    • Todd, you are quite correct to agree and affirm that the Lord did not enter into uncritical ballyhoo and therefore the document cannot either. They certainly will remove it. Grace and Peace in JMJ

  3. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).
    “But, who am I to judge?”

    • You are right. Jesus said it differently.
      “Judge not, that you may not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother: Let me cast the mote out of thy eye; and behold a beam is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

      • My meaning is overlapped by yours, but is also different…

        There comes a time when deterioration is so pervasive in a society that the words of conversion no longer have anywhere to connect. Modern society no longer remembers the language of religion, let alone faith. How does one educate an amnesiac about his place in the story of history? This kind of situation is the same, but also a little different than personal hypocrisy.

        Bernanos says it this way:

        “The modern world will shortly no longer possess sufficient spiritual reserves to commit genuine evil. Already . . . we can witness a lethal slackening of men’s conscience that is attacking not only their moral life, but also their very heart and mind, altering and decomposing even their imagination . . . The menacing crisis is one of infantilism” (Diary of a Country Priest).

        How does one alert an infantile to take serious things seriously when the very idea of seriousness no longer has any meaning? Closer to my meaning is Mark 2:22 when he has Christ explaining the new wine needs new wine skins; or Paul when he counsels that spiritual realities are only comprehended spiritually (1 Cor 2:14).

        But, today, “’spiritually,’ what’s that?”

  4. How is it that missionaries of old were able to evangelize in face of extreme conditions and at the risk of life whereas today modern man can’t or won’t even challenge a politician for fear of being divisive? And how can people attempt to evangelize if they don’t even know basic catechism? We know that the church stopped teaching catechism after the council so how can the ignorant evangelize effectively? I say get back the basics of catholic education and fix the liturgy before any calls for evangelization are made otherwise it is doomed to the same failure we’ve all experienced for the last 50 years.

    • Check the record of a saint like Francis de Sales.

      As for challenging politicians, that is not the work of evangelization. Neither is waiting for the perfect liturgy, the perfect school for catechesis, or the right moment as the world would counsel us: when we are totally secure in our beliefs, friends, and teachers. Preaching the Gospel is not about sales methods. It’s about John 13:35. It’s about trusting our Lord and his power to give us grace. Jesus sent the 72 in Luke 10 before they had a catechism, a liturgy, or much more beyond their friendship with him.

  5. This report sounds like an emulation of the German Bishops with the same themes running through it. Many are a little sceptical that what will eventuate has already been agreed upon. In respect of the need to Evangelise, we must remember that those involved in the spreading of he Gospel Message must be willing to step out into the world to proclaim the Message and not just preaching it to the already converted

  6. In my experience, in Australia the Church is either

    1. rejected for its handling of sexual abuse (or this is used as an excuse because as Chesterton may have said: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but found hard and not tried), or
    2. regarded as little more than a social welfare agency on a good day, with precious little spiritual dimension.

    Unlike the USA, there is very little organised public support for keynote Christian (and Orthodox Jewish, etc, etc) values such as the right to life. Morality (other than inclusivity) is best kept private as is belief in God, unless it be ‘personal’ belief in a life of humanistic virtue, arguably based on an acceptable Eastern belief-system with little precision about its demands, as opposed to ‘organised’, ‘traditional’ religious belief.

    In this context, IMHO there have been few participants in the synodal process and a disproportionate number of these see radical change in line with national/secular societal values as being the key to making the Church, not necessarily the Christian message, more acceptable. ‘It is difficult to interpret silence’ as one commentator on the low level of participation remarked.

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