Philippa Martyr: All in the name of governance

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The Plenary Council delegates and writers have shown a touching faith in the power of corporate governance to save the Church in Australia. They seem to believe that supervision and codes of conduct will prevent abuses of power.

But what if these things become a way of abusing power instead?

I’ve worked in corporate and public services all my life. I’ve seen dozens of codes of conduct, and I’ve written and reviewed policies galore.

Yet some of my workplaces were rife with bullying and abuses of power. Abusive people are usually good at using official processes for punishment. People inside the corporate world know that codes of conduct don’t do any real good. They don’t change people’s behaviours.

But they do create a process by which bosses can get rid of someone. This can be someone who doesn’t do their job properly – or it can be someone they don’t like, or who doesn’t fit in. If management can prove you breached a code of conduct, it’s much harder to involve Fair Work Australia.

An interesting case has come up in Switzerland. In the diocese of Chur, a group of priests has refused to sign off on their new code of conduct.

“Signing off on this code would prevent a priest from doing a major part of his job – to identify sin, call it a sin, and find out how he can help a person to stop sinning.”

The priests were okay with around 95 per cent of the new code, which they said was just common sense. But the remaining 5 per cent appears to directly defy Church teaching on sexuality.

Here’s some verbatim quotes from the new code of conduct:

“I refrain from sweeping negative assessments of allegedly unbiblical behaviour based on sexual orientation.”

“In pastoral conversations, I do not actively take up topics related to sexuality. In any case, I refrain from offensive questioning about intimate life and relationship status. This also applies to conversations I have as a supervisor.”

“I recognise sexual rights as human rights, especially the right to sexual self-determination.”

All three of these are very vaguely written. What is ‘offensive questioning’? Who gets to decide? And how would 1 Corinthians 5 – where St Paul calls out a local case of incest – stack up against this?

In the diocese of Chur, a group of priests has refused to sign off on their new code of conduct, which appears to directly defy Church teaching on sexuality. Photo: Adrian Michael/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
In the diocese of Chur, a group of priests has refused to sign off on their new code of conduct, which appears to directly defy Church teaching on sexuality. Photo: Adrian Michael/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Signing off on this code would prevent a priest from doing a major part of his job – to identify sin, call it a sin, and find out how he can help a person to stop sinning. This has set millions of people free and helped them to live peaceful and integrated lives.

The last quote from the code is the most dangerous. The principle of sexual autonomy is the bedrock of Western secular materialist culture.

It says in a nutshell, “If I want to do something sexually, this is a human right, and no one can or should stop me.”

It’s driven legalised abortion, contraception, and a sexual free-for-all. This principle has fuelled the culture of death for decades. It’s also a favourite idea of people who think the Catholic Church needs to change its teaching on human sexuality.

This code of conduct would put anyone’s sexual behaviour off-limits for discussion. This would be great for priests and people with dodgy sex lives who don’t want anyone knowing about it.

But it would also stop a priest or supervisor identifying a possible adult or paedophile offender. So much for making the Church a safer place.

Do you think it couldn’t happen here?… the governance review that is informing the Plenary Council process … shows the same touching faith in codes of conduct.”

A priest couldn’t effectively counsel engaged couples or anyone seeking an annulment. He couldn’t help a porn addict, or someone trapped in sexual compulsion.

Some priests are already fine with this, because they like the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. It means they won’t upset anyone.

The Bishop of Chur is one of them. He thinks anyone rejecting the code shows “massive quality deficits in the ability to reflect, since the person tends to make sweeping judgments or does not sufficiently share the concern for prevention. Further cooperation is not advisable.”

And there you have it. Those priests had better pack their bags and start looking for another diocese. Or another vocation.

Do you think it couldn’t happen here? Look at The Light from the Southern Cross, the governance review that is informing the Plenary Council process. It shows the same touching faith in codes of conduct.

There are people already involved in the Plenary Council who are itching for a code of conduct like the one in Chur. Recommendations for sections 5.4.4 and 6.7.1 open the way for exactly this kind of process.

These people can’t force changes to Church teaching on sexuality and the ordained ministry. But they may be able to make priests’ lives impossible instead, and all in the name of ‘governance’.