by Barney Zwartz
Some changes to church doctrines would make it more appealing.
In less than a month, Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass in Sydney before an expected congregation of 500,000 — the high point of the week-long World Youth Day celebration that the Catholic Church in Australia hopes will revitalise church attendance and religious commitment.
Secular critics fear that — helped by an ever-rising injection of Government funds, so far about $130 million — it may. Many Catholics are sceptical. Yes, there will be a media-fuelled surge of interest. Devout young Catholics will find their faith affirmed, and some less-committed will be reached. But many young people will attend in the same spirit as a concert — an interesting event, but not life-changing.
The church would be wrong to put all its eggs in the World Youth Day basket. As it enters its third millennium, it needs another bout of self-examination of the sort it has done sporadically through the centuries.
The issues today are as serious as any in the past: plummeting Mass attendance, the dramatic decline in priests and religious orders, the advance of secularism, the challenge of Islam, and especially the alienation of ordinary Catholics from the institutional church. Disenchantment over such issues as contraception, the place of women, authoritarianism and the sexual abuse crisis have left millions still believing in Jesus but not the church.
Now it is time to try a touch of democracy. Some relatively simple reforms would not affect the church's core teaching of hope and salvation, which are non-negotiable. But how the church operates as an institution should always be open to self-examination.
Three books in recent months by leading Australian Catholics — philosopher Max Charlesworth, former priest and Catholic commentator Paul Collins and former Sydney bishop Geoffrey Robinson — have suggested such reforms.
They want to curb papal power and the Curia — the Vatican bureaucracy that is virtually all male, all clerical and unaccountable to the wider church — and to re-examine certain doctrines, peripheral accretions over time, that could be readily changed. These include allowing married priests, contraception and greater involvement by laymen and women.
Charlesworth discusses the conflict between the values liberal democracies take for granted and the almost totalitarian rule the Vatican seeks over its adherents. It wasn't always so, he argues, and it needn't be now.
The way the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, treats dissident theologians — its "Star Chamber methods" — are, he says, completely at odds with elementary principles of justice. The insistence that Catholics should obey their bishops before their consciences is another conflict, since the basis of democratic society is the freedom of the individual to make judgements of conscience.
Particularly revealing is the church's response to revelations of priestly sexual abuse and the long institutional cover-up, finally exposed by an American lay group, Voice of the Faithful, and the media. The fact that the church still hasn't dealt with it well reflects the hierarchy's discomfort at being challenged by laypeople.
Despite all this, there is a strong similarity (not coincidental) between Christian and democratic values, such as equality, freedom, conscience and human dignity. Politically, these values are protected by the constitution, universal suffrage and an array of checks and balances. Why shouldn't the church operate the same way? Why not let laypeople vote for the Pope? They did for the first 1000 years. And it took centuries for today's authoritarian structure to emerge out of a variety of local systems.
These suggestions horrify conservative Catholics, because the majority can easily be wrong. The church's motto is semper eadem ("always the same") because it is the repository and guardian of religious truth for all time and cannot be subject to the tides of intellectual fashion.
In fact, of course, the church can and does change — both culturally and theologically — around the edges while maintaining its central message. For centuries, the church justified persecution and bad faith on the grounds that "error has no rights".
But the reforming Vatican II council in the 1960s recognised that "in matters of religion no one can be forced to act in a manner contrary to his beliefs" — a massive U-turn that the church presented as a "development". It took 1000 years for celibacy to become a requirement for priests (even then for purely practical reasons), while papal infallibility has been a formal doctrine for only 138 years.
In all its "developments", the church has rightly been responding to its environment. Today it has come to terms with its diminished role in a pluralistic West, and explicitly accepts that other religions contain truth.
Given the often-justified criticism of the institutional church, it's easy to forget that it has been an enormous force for good: tending people, promoting justice, providing education, offering compassion, consolation and hope. It will keep doing it — but how much more successfully if it can lower the last drawbridges and emerge from behind the battlements.
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.