PAUL COLLINS. First Step to a Better Church?

ACBC Failure Governance Report

Title: PAUL COLLINS. First Step to a Better Church?

Author: Paul Collins

Publisher: John Menadue–Pearls and Irritations

Date: 03JUN 2020

I must admit up-front that I’m not a fan of committee reports. They’re usually pedestrian and repetitious, even at the best of times. So, to be honest, I didn’t approach the 200-page Governance Review Project Team (GRPT) report The Light from the Southern Cross with much enthusiasm.

The origin of the report is the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse where the commissioners called for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) to ‘conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.’

This task eventually landed in the lap of the GRPT with seven members and four international advisors. All are distinguished and generous Catholics, mainly laypeople, and they had to work within a tight time frame and very limited terms of reference which focused on governance. My criticisms are not of them, but of the ACBC’s failure to allow them to explore deeper ecclesiological issues.

The report gets off to a good start with a quirky quotation from Henry Lawson and an introduction that is based on sound theology, particularly on John Henry Newman’s comment that ‘Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ They also quote Pope Francis’ commentary: ‘[Newman] is not speaking here about changing for change’s sake, or following every new fashion, but rather about the conviction that development and growth are a normal part of human life.’ Francis says that change involves interior conversion, yet ‘often we approach change as if it were a matter of simply putting on new clothes,’ that is window-dressing without interior change.

While the report says that it ‘is not seeking to remake the Church in the image of corporate or civil entities,’ but only ‘to identify existing good practice in the Catholic Church in Australia,’ there are four modern governance buzz words, originally suggested by the Royal Commission, that regularly recur: ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’.

Clearly, it would be excellent if the hierarchy and institutional church adopted these standards as embedded working norms, but the problem is that these words are derived from the processes of modern democracy, when the church is neither modern, nor democratic. It is a baroque, seventeenth century absolutist structure with the pope as universal ruler and each bishop a tinpot king in his own domain.

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