November 24, 2007
Culture wars in the Catholic Church came to a rowdy head in Camberwell this week when a group of protesters disrupted a meeting held to gather support for ordaining married men.
Organiser Paul Collins said the busiest of the 700 people who went to Camberwell Civic Centre on Thursday night were the two security guards.
More than 20 protesters waving placards with slogans such as "we obey the pope" heckled and shouted, preventing most of the discussion, Mr Collins said.
Both sides agree that the church in Australia is in crisis over the shortage of priests. Where they differ is the solution. Progressives want to reverse the 1000-year-old celibacy condition and to discuss women priests.
Conservatives believe importing priests from Asia and Africa is the solution until the number of Australian vocations grows.
But many overseas-trained priests have trouble adapting to Australian culture, and Australian vocations are too few.
Mr Collins, a former priest, and co-organiser Frank Purcell hope to present a petition with nearly 17,000 signatures to Australia's Catholic bishops when they meet in Sydney next week. The petition urges the church to select and train married men for priesthood, to bridge the gap by bringing back priests who left to marry, and to begin a discussion on ordaining women — the most controversial aspect.
"We are not dissidents. We want to support the bishops," Mr Collins said. "We think about 28 of the 42 Australian bishops are pastoral bishops. They are concerned that many Catholics, especially in rural dioceses, are being deprived of the Mass, sacraments and local leadership.
"We think about eight might be anxious for higher office and not willing to blot their escutcheon, and only about five are really conservative and would agree with Cardinal (George) Pell."
Throughout Australia, parishes are being merged due to a lack of priests, and the situation worsens every year as priests retire or pass away and are not replaced. The average age is 63.
In Queensland, the parishes of Hughenden, Winton and Richmond are looked after by one priest, who travels 680 kilometres for three Masses every Sunday, according to Mr Collins. In Toowoomba, by 2014 there will be 14 active priests for 32 parishes in a diocese the size of Germany.
The problem is that ending the celibacy requirement needs Vatican approval. There are in fact about 20 married priests in Australia — former Anglicans who converted to Rome.
Canberra auxiliary bishop Pat Power has openly urged allowing priests to marry, while Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone tried to raise the subject in a visit with Pope John Paul II in 2004. Unfortunately, the Pope was too ill to respond.
According to Mr Collins, not only won't the Vatican consider the problem, it doesn't understand it.
"In Rome, you trip over well-fed clerics everywhere, and these guys have no idea what it is to be parish priest in central-west Queensland, or Melbourne," he said.
Both sides agree there is no theological reason why married men cannot be ordained. It could happen with a stroke of the Pope's pen. For the first 1000 years of Christianity, most priests — and Popes — were married, but Gregory VII, who died in 1085, introduced celibacy to break lay control of the church.
Bishop Malone, chairman of the Australian bishops' commission for church ministry, told The Age the bishops would discuss the matter again next week.
"Not all my colleagues would agree, but I think the church needs to look seriously at it, and I support it," he said.