Australian Reforming Catholics


Public statements representing ARC’s viewpoint

Since its inception, Australian Reforming Catholics (ARC) has placed emphasis on seeking change in the following areas.

The emphasis has been further endorsed by ARC members when they have come together at meetings and conferences, as well as through response to surveys.

We attempt to: 

  • Expose clericalism and inappropriate hierarchical power; create participatory structures
  • Advocate equality when more than 50% of the Church are women and when women have little influence on what is said and done
  • Point out irrational teachings, doctrines, and practices that conflict with the spirit of what Jesus preached
  • Discuss and write about the need for revised scriptural interpretation in the light of modern understanding of literature. 

The following paper was presented by John Buggy, the Spokesperson for Australian Reforming Catholics, at the Curia Leaders’ Workshop conducted by the Diocese of Broken Bay on 10-11 May 2007. This paper, although written quite some time ago, highlights how participation in the Church has declined and something of what needs to be done.

Understanding Disaffected Catholics

Since I was asked to present the reasons why so many Catholics are disaffected with the Church from the perspective of the members of Australian Reforming Catholics and those who are affiliated with or support them, I have entitled my presentation as “Understanding the Disaffected”. The term “disconnected” has been used here today and, while some might describe themselves or others in this way, I think that the term that Bishop Walker has used is the more appropriate. “Disaffection” implies a deeper, more heartfelt disappointment that I believe is contained in the sentiments that have been expressed to me by those who genuinely seek reform in the Church.

Understanding the “Disaffected”

I would like to begin by quoting from the Diocese of Broken Bay Vision for 2006-2010:

“A particular focus will be . . . evangelisation of the many baptised Catholics who are disaffected from the life and worship of the Church”.

My first question is: Who is meant by the “disaffected”? There is an implied definition in the body of this vision document. They are “baptised Catholics” who “do not participate in a full way”. My second question is: What is meant by a “full way”? Does participating in a full way include going to Mass every Sunday, going to confession in confessional boxes, saying the rosary, reciting the creed with absolute conviction? If it does, then there are many Catholics that would not fit into this definition. I do not have a clear idea of what this “full way” means, so I am not sure of the desired result of the planned evangelisation.

Categories of the “Disaffected”

From the experience of speaking to a variety of people dissatisfied with the institutional Church, I would like to form some loose categories that may assist our discussion:

1. Those who have never really connected
2. Those hurt by an individual or incident and now not connected
3. Those who have little connection following frustration and are disaffected
4. Those who connect, but are still very frustrated and disaffected

The first group are those who have never really connected with the life of the Church. They may have even gone to a Catholic school, but there has never really been an emotional attachment. The second have connected, but have received some emotional scarring that has severed that connection, be it, for example, a hurt from a priest or refusal of sacraments for some reason. The third group are those who would prefer to be still connected but the contradictions of the teachings and practices are too much for them to bear and their attendance at church is occasional, if at all. The fourth group are those who do attend Mass and the sacraments, but are frustrated that their spiritual life is mostly not enhanced by this, nor is what they experience in line with Church teachings and directives. As this frustration increases, it appears that more of these then move into group three.

Within this broad distinction the members of Australian Reforming Catholics (ARC) and their supporters generally come from groups three and four. They consist of some very committed people who pay to attend conferences held by ARC and read ARC’s literature. They include religious nuns and brothers as well as a number of priests. It is unfortunate that some of the religious who attend our conferences and read our periodicals do not take the step of becoming members because of fear of recrimination. For the purposes of this discussion I have labelled groups three and four the “disaffected seekers”.

What are some of the practices of the “disaffected seekers”?

Some of the characteristics that I have found this group to have are:

1. They seek out those who understand their spirituality
2. They engage in activities that demonstrate their concern for others, usually through their desire to act out what they understand Christianity to be
3. They look for a local “church of choice” where they can feel comfortable while developing their spirituality.

What are the “disaffected seekers” looking for?

1 A spiritual home that reflects equality, tolerance and understanding. This home could be a “church of choice” or simply a community of the like-minded
2. Teachings that stand the test of reasonableness, when they consider that so much that is said to them from the institutional Church defies this
3. Relationships that reflect the love that Jesus showed and spoke about.

The stumbling blocks that prevent the disaffection from being overcome could be grouped into four main areas:

Exercise of Church Authority

1. Exclusion of women from roles within which real authority is exercised. There is no point in the Church simply extending the number of “handmaiden” roles that can be performed. Women know that there is no genuine argument against their participation in the same way as men.

2. Lack of effective influence by the “People of God” who are the Church (ref: Vatican Council I I- Dogmatic Constitution of the Church: Ch.2). The Church is not the hierarchy, yet the people have very little influence upon its teachings and direction.

3. Abuse of authority at local levels. Not only do the people have no say in the appointment of their pastors and bishops, but also so often appointments are made in direct opposition to their wishes. There are also ineffective appeal mechanisms against decisions or inaction.

Church Teaching on Life Matters

1. The pain and falsehood in marriage annulments. The pain is often experienced when people, wishing to continue their sacramental life, feel forced to go through a process of demonstrating that they were never married, when they believe that they had a valid marriage that failed. Many see the process as simply “Catholic divorce”.

2. Sacraments refused to those divorced and re-married. Whether affected by this or not, the “disaffected seekers” see this as totally incompatible with the love that Jesus showed and the fact that he rejected no one who came to him with a sincere heart.

3. Lack of appropriate teaching and counselling on the primacy of conscience that was emphasised in the Second Vatican Council. (ref: The Church in the Modern World 1:16)

4. Confused approach to sexuality and homosexuality in a variety of Church teachings and directives.

Experience of Liturgy

1. The use of language in so much of the set texts, readings and prayers is mostly non-inclusive and often outdated in meaning. If the pronoun “she” were used every time there was reference to God, it might grate upon your ears. So imagine how it might grate upon the ears of most women when the pronoun “he” is used exclusively in contexts where “she” should be included.

2. Sermons, readings and commentary that reflect fundamentalist interpretations of scripture. So often there is little evidence that there is knowledge of hermeneutics and modern literary criticism that sheds light on the religious truth that should be the basis of the reflection.

What they are expected to believe

1. Scriptural interpretation that ignores the scholarship that has put paid to many medieval myths. The scriptures are writings of their time; they were not dictated by God. In particular, hymns, prayers, poems and midrash express religious sentiment, but not literal truth.

2. Some dogmas maintained as the expression of faith that defy the complementarity of reason. Dogma is not faith, but an attempt to encapsulate what the faith tradition is. It evolves with revelation and is in harmony with reason.

3. Perspectives that illustrate the retention of warped theologies – e.g. original sin, punishment, a male God of judgment, might and power, etc. Apart from the fact that God has no gender, the images of punishment by an all-powerful deity traps people into guilt and images of God not consistent with the relationships we seek to build with one another as a result of attempting to follow the example of Jesus.

Is there any support for this reality?

The above points are an attempt to capture the reality of where many of the disaffected see themselves in relation to the Church. Many would like to use the term “our Church”, but hesitate to do so unless it refers to a small community to which they relate. However, it appears that there is some hope.

In his recent address to Catholic Administrators entitled “Shaping the Future of the Church”, Archbishop Philip Wilson, President of the Australian Bishops Conference, quotes Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor:

what characterises the contemporary period ( in contrast with the medieval) is “expressive” individualism, which emphasises “realising one’s own humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own (humanity) as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

Taylor adds: “the religious life or practice that I become part of not only must be my choice, but must speak to me; it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” (Varieties of Religion, 94)

Archbishop Wilson adds: “Forcing religious belief makes no sense in this culture”

He then links this with the perspective of St Augustine: “A set of beliefs imposed by an external authority that fails to make sense of the believer’s inner world cannot be called faith in Augustine’s understanding of the term”.

Let’s Re-think Evangelisation

The “disaffected seekers” are well aware of what the Gospel message really means. It would be an affront to them to say that they need to be evangelised, even though they yearn to know more about Jesus and see that reflected in the Church. So many of them live out what Jesus was about in their relationships with others. This is principally what Jesus asked us to do.

The “disaffected seekers” do not see that they spiritually gain much more through a closer association with the institutional Church. The examples of stumbling blocks that I have outlined present considerable barriers at both an intellectual and emotional level. They see that the institution of the Church is more focussed on protecting the past than seeking the truth and trusting the Spirit.

Re-evangelise the Church

A new and open honesty is needed which recognises that the public face of the Church has to change if we are to reconnect with the many disaffected. This honesty has to be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that at least our local diocese gives evidence of a Church that has moved:

1. From power, certainty, and rules to humility, learning and being open to truth
2. From distinction based on belief adherence and rule-keeping to acceptance of those who seek with a sincere heart
3. From judgment and punishment to love and acceptance.

What can we do?

The first reaction might be to say that the local church and even the local diocese cannot do a great deal in the matters that have been outlined because the direction in these areas comes from Rome. I beg to differ. With a bit of courage there is a lot that can be done and the bishop in his diocese has plenty in his power to do so.

1. Choose language that both communicates and is conducive to prayer. Language is powerful. Inclusive language draws people in; judgment excludes. Forget about sticking to set words if the message is not conveyed by them. The language of understanding and prayer must be the language of the people using it.

2. Re-visit Vatican II, summarise what the documents meant to convey and publicise it. Let people know the impact of the change in perspective contained, for example, in the Constitution on Divine Revelation. Let them know that the bible teaches religious, not literal truth. While scripture is inspired, not all of it is revelation and revelation itself is progressive; it has not come all at once and that is the reason why the Spirit is continually active within us.

3. Re-vitalise the celebration of sacraments. These are the points where not only the People of God connect with Jesus Christ, but many others have the opportunity. Think of how many people within and outside the Church can be inspired at weddings and funerals by what is said and done. Consider how Baptism and Confirmation can be significant events now that older children and adults are often the recipients. Decide whether we want Penance to be relevant or to simply slide into ever-spiralling decline.

4. Evangelise the priests. So many do not have the basic message of Jesus that love takes precedent over rules, a message that many of the “disaffected seekers” have taken to their hearts. The language that many priests use illustrates this lack. They need to be re-acquainted with the use of the “internal forum” where they are able to interpret directions for individuals in a way that enables them to develop their conscience and act accordingly without guilt and confusion. This applies particularly to some of the priests who have been brought here recently from very different cultures and whose approach often is at variance with the whole spirit of Vatican II.

What have we got to offer?

There is much that can be done to engage people if we have the courage. However, if we cannot engage the “disaffected seekers” there is little chance of engaging the other categories. Surely it would be easier to start where we are likely to gain attention, because there is already a level of commitment. But whatever is done, it cannot be more of the same. There will be no advance if the effort is not genuine.

Innovation is needed. If we have tried something many times and failed, then doing the same as we have done before usually produces the same result and it is silly to be surprised at that.

The main challenge is not to encourage participation in a Church that does not really change. God is love and Jesus Christ is the embodiment of that love. The challenge for us is to ensure that our Church consistently and visibly reflects that love.

Catholics call for greater accountability in decisions

A national conference organised by Australian Reforming Catholics (ARC) was held at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney on 23-24 October 2004.

A theme that kept recurring under the many aspects discussed might be called “ownership of the Church”. If the Church is the People of God (so defined at the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) then the People should own it. A cursory glance at the present structures, traditional as they are, suggests that a male group identifying themselves with “Church” owns the People. The participants considered that in an era when people are mostly literate, even in religious and theological spheres, and communication is instant around the world, people should no longer be passive listeners. There is a growing appreciation of the truth that the Holy Spirit informs and instructs all of the People, not only a male hierarchy, and there must be ground shift to give effect to these developments. Surely the process will be slow as progress in that direction is not yet happening. But it must not now be denied. Such a shift can only occur with a greater sharing of responsibility of the authority that is now exercised by only a few.

Those present at the conference insisted that the accountability of the clergy should be exercised in a manner by which the People of God participate in decision-making processes

People should not be in situations where they are simply the “first to know the latest”.

a group of people laughing

In addition to the participation in decision-making, the participants at the conference strongly believe that all should be able to exercise their right of freedom of expression, even for example, the freedom to discuss such topics as the ordination of women.

Amongst a range of issues, the primacy of the individual informed conscience and the ability to act upon it emerged as an issue of crucial importance.

The Sacraments, Relationships and Meaning

The Secretariat of Australian Reforming Catholics is astounded at some of the responses to the controversy concerning the words used during Baptism at the Catholic Church at South Brisbane.

By all accounts, it appears that the priests at this Church have been endeavouring to provide the sacraments and liturgical celebrations in a manner that engages their people in a meaningful way. To be accused of not performing valid Baptisms into the Catholic Church must be particularly disheartening.

There are two major issues that arise from this controversy. The first is in relation to the images and concepts by which we seek to engage in an understanding of God through the person of Jesus Christ. Our Church was helped in its understanding by the doctrine of the Trinity and the titles of Father, Son and Spirit. However, we do not claim to know everything about the mystery of God and words are also inadequate in many ways in leading us through this mystery, just as they were for the writers of the Old Testament. In an age now where many people feel less included, for example, through images and words that imply a God who has male characteristics only, our Church should be more open to using language and practices that enable more people to come towards that mystery. If the words “Creator, Liberator and Sustainer” enable some people to come closer to the meaning of the Trinity, then why should there be such a problem if people have a choice about the way it is expressed? Our understanding is that not all people are baptised at the South Brisbane Church with these words and if some are assisted in faith through their usage, then there should be concentration on what is most important.

The second issue arising from this controversy is most crucial. To state that the sacrament is invalid because alternative words have been used to convey the same fundamental meaning and intent is to reduce the sacrament to the realm of magic.

The sacraments are about relationships with God through Jesus Christ. If I say “Good morning to you” when it is past midday, is my greeting less acceptable? Or if I genuinely attempt to greet a person in their language and get it all wrong, are they likely to refuse to accept my greeting? Those who wish to claim that the Baptisms are invalid when the intent was to perform a valid baptism appear to have ignored the Church’s fundamental teaching about the efficacy of the sacraments. This states that the sacraments derive their efficacy from the saving act of Jesus (ex opere operato) and need no extra human intervention to make them effective. As long as a person responds to the invitation to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the sacrament takes effect. In the case of infant Baptism, this occurs through the response of those seeking that relationship for the child.

It appears to Australian Reforming Catholics that more attention should be given to ways of helping people to respond to that invitation rather than causing needless heartache and concern to those who have come to our Church seeking to understand and respond to the mystery of God through Jesus Christ.