Voices for Changing the Church in Australia

By: Patricia Madigan

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, initiated by the Australian government, took place between January 2013 and December 15, 2017, on which date its final report was made public. One of its important insights in regard to the Catholic Church was that there was a dangerous interplay between a culture of clericalism and a lack of good governance structures. It recommended that the Catholic Church in Australia explore ways in which its “structure and practices of governance may be made more accountable, more transparent, more meaningfully consultative and more participatory, including at the diocesan and parish level.” 

An implementation advisory group (IAG) was appointed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) to carry out a governance review. Its report, The Light of the Southern Cross, was completed in May 2020 and acknowledged that the failure to utilize the knowledge, skill, and expertise of lay women and men had been a significant contributor to poor past governance practices.

Among the IAG recommendations under the heading “inclusivity and co-responsibility” were that:

  • the appointment of lay women and men to senior decision-making bodies and agencies be accelerated;
  • leadership teams be inclusive of the laity (women and men), exercising co-responsibility with bishops, priests, and religious; and
  • laypeople and particularly women take a critical role in relation to the selection and formation of seminarians, including their suitability for ordination, and be involved in decisions regarding the placement of priests and appointments of bishops.

These recommendations were remarkably similar to those proposed 20 years ago in a four-year research project on “The Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia” (1996–1999). This project, undertaken by the ACBC, drew on the knowledge and experience of a wide spectrum of Australian Catholics through public hearings and received more than 2,500 written submissions. The final report, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, was launched in time for the Church’s Jubilee Year of 2000. 

Among the nine decisions and 31 proposals to which the bishops’ conference committed itself were:

  1. ​to achieve a better balance of men and women in existing leadership bodies and professional roles within the church;
  2. to provide at the national level guidelines and resources which would include the application of inclusive language, for use in the church’s liturgy, prayer, and pastoral and social life; and
  3. that greater attention be given to the education of clergy, religious, and laity towards attitudinal change in recognizing equal value, equal rights of women and men within the lay faithful of the church.

The Woman and Man report revealed a strong sense of pain and alienation resulting from the Church’s stance on women. It recognized that the lack of women’s participation “arises not because the demands of serving the Gospel and the Church are too great” or because Catholic women lack the skill or willingness to contribute, but rather because there “are too few and limited ways to be of service in the decision-making, leadership and ministerial roles of the Church.” The Church was seen to be lagging behind the wider Australian society in recognizing the changing role of women as one of the “signs of the times” and affirming the equality of women. The very limited participation of women in decision-making at present and the need to increase women’s involvement in decision-making at all levels were constant and major themes. However, at a national conference of Catholic women held in Adelaide in 2019, it was acknowledged that very few of these decisions or proposals had been effectively implemented in the last 20 years.

Questions remain as we approach the Australian Plenary Council originally planned for 2020-2021, but now scheduled for 2021-2022 due to COVID-19. Although the first two preparatory phases of the council journey, “Listening and Dialogue” and “Listening and Discernment,” attracted a huge number of 17,000 submissions from individuals and groups of Catholic faithful from all over Australia, the wider Catholic community has not been consulted in the development of the instrumentum laboris, the strategic working document central to the plenary council process, which is soon to be sent to Rome. Also, there has been very little lay involvement in the selection of diocesan delegates who will attend the plenary council. These are matters of deep concern.

It is clear from the conclusions of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the research project on The Participation of Women (1996–1999), and the governance review The Light of the Southern Cross (2020) that there is a coherence in what both Australian Catholics and the wider community see as the way forward for the future of the Church. An important component will be the inclusion of women at all levels of Church life. 

It is significant that this vision is also strongly evident in the final document of the Amazon Synod, “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” (2019), which speaks of wanting to "create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” 

It goes on to state:

“The voice of women should therefore be heard, they should be consulted and participate in decision-making and, in this way, contribute with their sensitivity to Church synodality…..Their leadership must be more fully assumed in the heart of the Church, recognized and promoted by strengthening their participation in the pastoral councils of parishes and dioceses, and also in positions of governance” (no. 101).

In the various activities of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and, indeed, in all Gerard Mannion’s many endeavors as a Catholic and a scholar, he was always generous in ensuring that women’s scholarship and leadership were recognized and included. It is clear that Gerard lived this vision in a prophetic way during his own lifetime.

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