I am a little sorry to be discussing the Royal Commission again this week, but there is still one critical issue which I need to address before moving on – and that is, “What’s happens next?”
We might think that with this final round of testimony from Cardinal Pell over, the most important hearings for the Church are done.
Not so. I’m going to suggest to you that the most critical public hearing is still to come.
The Royal Commission only announces its schedule a short time in advance, so we can’t be sure when it will be, but, either at the end of this year or early in 2017, there will be a “Catholic wrap up” hearing. This will not look at a specific case study, but rather the Church as a whole – its structure, its teachings, its culture and its practices.
The commission has already foreshadowed that these areas could include canon law, mandatory celibacy, the authority of bishops, the confessional seal and even the ordination of women.
In other words, it will open up a discussion on all of those issues which people love to hate about the Church.
And, as many of us have experienced, everyone is an expert on what is wrong with the Church!
But aside from having all of this debated around the dinner table and in mainstream and social media, the most crucial discussion will be inside the commission hearing room.
I don’t want to understate this point. How the Church approaches this hearing could have a dramatic effect on how we operate in the years to come. I’m not being dramatic. Justice Peter McClellan has said the wrap-up hearing may result in “a significant challenge to the manner of operation of the Catholic Church.”
It is crucial.
Let me give you a few examples.
Justice McClellan has said previously that the Royal Commission would recommend a change in the process for removing a priest from ministry if the processes had not sufficiently changed since the case of Fr Peter Searson (c. 1997). Pope John Paul II made significant changes in 2001, but it is unclear if these will be sufficient for the commission.
This tells us that the commission will see it within its competence to recommend changes to the universal law of the Church.
Justice McClellan has also foreshadowed a recommendation to fundamentally change the way schools operate so that the parish priest does not have as much influence over the school, instead placing this power in the hands of a separate professional body.
The relationship between a parish priest and a school can be crucial to ensure the “Catholic” nature of the school, and so a change which would sideline the priests could risk a reduction in the Catholic identity of the school.
In questioning of Fr John Walshe, Commissioner McClellan raised the idea of women being placed on the college of consultors or other positions where powers of governance traditionally linked to ordination are exercised.
The seal of confession has often been raised, and there have been priests who have told the commission that they would go to the police if a crime was confessed, giving the indication that there is room for the Church to move on such issues.
Another item frequently discussed is the discipline of mandatory celibacy, and it is not out of the question that the commission will recommend a change in this regard.
And then there is the issue of the role of the bishop. A number of cases have appeared where an abusive priest has remained in ministry because a bishop refused to act. Commissioner McClellan has suggested that the amount of power vested in a bishop is indicative of poor corporate governance, and is a structure whichhas contributed to the “management failures” in relation to abusive priests.
When questioning Cardinal Pell, the commissioner has proposed a “significant middle management structure”, but Cardinal Pell replied that such a structure is not Catholic, because our structure is one where a priest is responsible to his bishop who is then responsible to the Pope. Indeed, an apostolic church cannot supplant the authority of a Bishop and remain an apostolic church.
After hearing Cardinal Pell’s response, Justice McClellan said that it was an issue which would be taken up with those who represent the Church in Australia in the course of the summary hearing. I may be reading too much into that comment, but it seems that Justice McClellan thought the idea would get a more favourable treatment in that setting.
If that is true, it would be a disaster.
We desperately need those who are responsible for representing the Church in this summary hearing to be absolutely unequivocal when articulating and protecting unchangeable Church teaching, while still seeking to co-operate with the commission for the sake of protecting children.
We need them to do this even though it will be unpopular.
I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received in the past few weeks telling me that I should not be so vocal in defending the Church in these times. The advice is that this is not a time to be defensive; that shame for what has transpired should inspire me to remain silent. I understand what they are saying, but I do not agree. And if this is the approach adopted by those representing the Church at the summary hearing, we will find ourselves in very dangerous waters.
If the Church does not strongly assert that some of our teachings are unchangeable, then the Commission could be led to believe that we are open to straying from our most fundamental teachings and the structures which make the Catholic Church “Catholic.”
If this happens, the commission could make recommendations to change these things in its final report, which is due in December 2017. At that time, our leaders would have no choice but to reject any such recommendations and the Church would understandably be criticised for not co-operating with the commission and wasting four years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by letting the commission believe we were open to making changes to unchangeable teachings.
The better approach would be to address these issues in the summary hearing, and not to shy away from the hard truths. It would give us the time and opportunity to work with the commission and find solutions with which everyone is satisfied.