Lay community key to reforming Catholicism

Book Cover - Getting Back on MissionOne of the most extraordinary recent examples of commitment is the loyalty shown by many post-Vatican II Catholics to the church. Despite their steadfast support for the emphases of that Council, these lay Catholics, supported by many priests, are often seen as a ‘nuisance’ by senior church leaders whose real focus has been protecting their own positions and clericalist ideology. Their commitment has been further tested by the sexual abuse scandals and the abject failure of many bishops in dealing with them.

The forthcoming Plenary Council of 2020/2021 will be a further test of the loyalty of these Catholics. How serious are the bishops when they call on Catholics to ‘engage in an open and inclusive experience of listening, dialogue and discernment about the future’ of Australian Catholicism? Will they really listen to those who have remained loyal to the teachings of Vatican II?

Catholics for Renewal is one of several groups of Vatican II Catholics. It prepared a detailed submission for the Plenary Council and has now published that submission as a book, Getting Back on Mission: Reforming Our Church Together (Garratt Publishing, 2019).

Robert Fitzgerald, one of the Royal Commissioners into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, talks in the book about the causes of abuse and says that ‘poor governance, inadequate leadership and an unhealthy culture that preferences secrecy and the church’s own interests’, as well as ‘the absence of females and their participation in leadership roles’, all contributed to the bishops’ abject failure in deal with sexual abuse. Fitzgerald speaks of the hierarchy’s ‘fear of the non-ordained, especially women’, and an ‘arrogant assertion … of the unique privilege of an ordained class’. In other words, clericalism.

Fitzgerald emphasises especially the importance of ‘good church governance’. This goes to the heart of Getting Back on Mission. As the title indicates, for too long the church has been ‘off mission’ in a self-engrossed, self-righteous, clericalist miasma that has led to massive disaffiliation of Catholics, a catastrophic fall in Mass attendance and sacramental practice. People feel alienated from bishops who, in turn, have retreated into their bunkers. To cap it all, faithful Catholics have had to witness the scandal of sexual abuse and the secretiveness of the bishops in dealing with this crisis.

As I know from personal experience, anyone in the past who called attention to these issues was accused at best of exaggeration and at worst of being a ‘Judas’. Getting Back on Mission correctly points out that until the church accepts good governance characterised by accountability, transparency, inclusion and a recognition of the equality of women, it will continue its culture of clericalism and secrecy.

At the heart of the argument are the theological principles of the radical equality of all the baptised and the sensus fidelium, the intuitive sense that the faithful have to discern the belief of the church. That is why soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman challenges the hierarchy to consult the lay faithful ‘in matters of doctrine’.

“This conflict has become corrosive and toxic.”

The reality is that the pope and bishops don’t own the church and don’t govern according to some type of Führerprinzip. They are accountable to the whole community. As the First Letter of Peter says: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’.

Vatican II recovered this communitarian vision of the church in the first two chapters of Lumen gentium, the Council’s primary document on the church, and it is to this vision that post-Vatican II Catholics have faithfully adhered. It is many in the hierarchy who have continued to hang onto the absolute monarchy model of church that evolved primarily in the post-Reformation period and that was given its definitive form by Saint Robert Bellarmine in his Controversies against the Protestants and confirmed by the First Vatican Council (1870).

This is the model presented in the third chapter of Lumen gentium. Here the church is seen as a clerical hierarchy under the control of the pope whose primary task is to shepherd the sheep, the laity. In fact, Lumen gentium represents a compromise between the large majority of bishops at Vatican II who espoused the dynamic image of church presented in chapters one and two, and a small minority whose uncompromising emphasis was on the hierarchical model.

Since Vatican II, Catholics have been caught-up in the disjunction between these two models. It’s obvious that they are mutually exclusive and they have led to endless conflicts in church life between those who operate out of a hierarchical model and those for whom the priority is community. This conflict has become corrosive and toxic.

Catholicism has to resolve this dichotomy. Unequivocally, the people of God image represented by the first two chapters alone reflects the New Testament’s understanding of the church, and this model is normative for us. This is also the key conflict underlying the Plenary Council as it plays itself out in the Australian church.

Getting Back on Mission provides us with an excellent understanding of this disjunction and plots a course to negotiate our way through it. It remains to be seen if the church’s leadership has the courage to grasp the challenge that Getting Back on Mission provides.


Book Cover - Getting Back on Mission
Getting Back on Mission: Reforming our Church Together (ISBN:9781925009651) will be available in September 2019. Search for it at

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Paul CollinsPaul Collins is the author of 15 books, several of which focus on church governance and Australian Catholicism.


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