Monica Doumit: The lay Catholic loose cannons

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Kristina Kenneally
Together with Francis Sullivan, Senator Kristina Kenneally forms a duo of high-profile dissident Catholics on numerous Church practices or teachings. PHOTO: AAP/Alan Porritt

Two weeks ago, ABC’s Q&A program screened a special episode titled ‘A Church in Crisis’. It was timed just after the suppression order relating to Cardinal George Pell’s conviction had been lifted and was immediately preceded by a 4Corners episode dedicated to the Cardinal.

A pleasant night’s viewing it was not!

Two of the panellists on the program were Francis Sullivan, the former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, and Senator Kristina Keneally, both of whom, as you would know, are often called upon by the media for comment as “lay Catholics”, and neither of them have been short of interview requests in recent weeks.

While there was much said on the Q&A episode that had me – at times – resisting the urge to dust off my Twitter account, there are two standouts that I cannot leave unchallenged.

Related article: Monica Doumit: Standing tall on womens’ shoulders

The first were comments made by Senator Keneally about the role of women in the Church.  It is no secret that she and I disagree on women’s ordination (we’ve even debated the topic on another ABC program, God Forbid!)  But this is about more than women’s ordination; it’s about the role of women in the Church more broadly.

Senator Keneally said:

“I would say to the women of Australia, the Catholic women of Australia, you know, let’s consider what would happen if all Catholic women withdrew their voluntary labour from the Catholic Church, which really does prop up the system.”

Aren’t all of us here voluntarily, men and women, clergy and lay? Isn’t participating in the life and ministry of the Church part of our universal vocation to holiness? So why does the Senator suggest that it is women who should consider walking away? And for how long?

Francis Sullivan
The former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan. Source: Twitter

Presumably, the Senator meant that us women should withdraw unless and until the Church changes the rules on ordination, because otherwise she would be suggesting that all laypeople withdraw their time and talent and treasure.  Even if the Church did open up Holy Orders to women (it won’t), what does that mean for the efforts of those of us women who still don’t feel called to the priesthood?

The fundamental problem of the argument about female ordination is not that it ignores a definitive answer from the Church, but that it diminishes the extraordinary efforts made by faithful women every day. The only people who have ever told me that I am not valued in the Church are those who do so in their lobbying for women’s ordination. The only people who label me as a second-class citizen are, ironically, those who presume to do so in the name of women’s equality.

Senator Keneally does not speak for me, or about me. To the women reading this, whatever your view on women’s ordination, please don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are less valued in the eyes of the Church than a man, ordained or otherwise. You’re not.

On the back of this discussion about women’s ordination, Mr Sullivan made some comments about migrant priests. This is what he said:

“[If] you look at the Australian scene, there is a shortage of priests, and the only place priests are really coming from is outside of Australia. And for about the 10 percent of Catholics who practise, they are finding, at times, it difficult to relate to the individuals who are now their priest, and the priests themselves are finding it difficult. And there’s only one reason for that, and that’s because we don’t open up the ministry, as Kristina said, to former priests, to married men and to women… It’s a debate about opening up the whole holy orders debate into making Australia an Australian Catholic Church, where Australians are ministering to each other about Australians’ lifestyles, so we can relate to each other…”

What made these comments particularly stand out for me is that I was watching the episode with two priest friends of mine, both of whom had been born overseas. As he made the comments, I made light of it: “You guys ruin everything; you’re so unrelatable.”

But I didn’t find it funny at all.

I was surprised that no one on the panel, or in the audience, or in the commentaries afterwards, called him out on it. The ABC, I thought, prides itself on its reputation for diversity and for standing for the rights of minorities. Their television promo played immediately before that night’s episode used the unofficial Australian anthem: “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come. We share a dream and sing with one voice. I am, you are, we are Australian.”

Yet no one thought to ask Mr Sullivan why he thought that the song did not include those who have come to Australia as priests, or who migrated here and became priests after they arrived.

Poor form, ABC.  Poor form, Mr Sullivan.  You don’t speak for me either.