By John Warhurst.

This article was first published in Eureka Street and is shared here for your interest.

Discussion of church life in Australia is incomplete without consideration of who speaks for the church at the national level. The answer to the question ‘Who presides over the Catholic church in Australia?’ is more complicated than you might think, but certainly includes two national peak bodies, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), and potentially a third, the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (AMPJP). In the longer term another may emerge as a new relationship between laity and clergy develops.
Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

These two big national bodies represent the major historical fault line in the Australian church since its beginning which has not been between bishops and the laity, who have played no formal decision-making role at all, but between dioceses and religious institutes (orders and congregations). One well known example of this faultline was the conflict between Mary MacKillop and certain bishops.

Those who have followed the controversy about the delayed release of the new report on church governance, The Lightfrom the Southern Cross, have witnessed the national church in action through the ACBC, led by the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge. Yet the report was commissioned jointly by the bishops and CRA, representing the leaders of religious institutes. Until now CRA, headed by the Marist Brothers’ provincial, Peter Carroll, has remained silent.

ACBC comprises bishops from 28 dioceses and five non-territorial sections of the church and is supported by a significant secretariat in Canberra, while CRA represents more than 150 congregations of sisters, brothers and priests, supported by five staff in Sydney.

Both the ACBC and CRA responded on behalf of the church to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s recommendation of a review of church governance and culture, and created the Implementation Advisory Group, the authors of the church governance report.

The third body’s potential role is hinted at in a recent ACBC announcement regarding important developments in the National Response Protocol, described as a ‘whole-of-church’ approach for handling complaints of sexual abuse and other misconduct. This followed ACBC çonversations with both CRA and Association of Ministerial Public Judicial Persons, which was formed in 2016 and now has 11 member bodies, including Calvary Ministries Ltd and Mary Aikenhead Ministries.

‘The question of a separate national voice for lay men and women remains unresolved. There is no one peak lay body outside of specialised fields.’

These Minterserial PJPs are corporate entities, created to govern ministries in education, health, aged care and other fields previously governed by religious institutes. They are largely composed of lay people, meaning that they represent a third element of the church in Australia. But they have a narrow mandate restricted to specific church ministries and cannot speak for lay Catholics as a whole.

The relationship between the two major church peak bodies is dominated by the ACBC; CRA is a very junior partner. The arrangement is lop-sided. The health of the Australian church would benefit if the voices of Catholic religious institutes were heard more frequently and more strongly.

The continued emergence of lay-led MPJPs may help to redress the imbalance among peak bodies as the AMPJP, still with limited resources, seeks greater engagement with the rest of the church.

The question of a separate national voice for lay men and women remains unresolved. There is no one peak lay body outside of specialised fields. The church renewal movement is represented by a loose network, the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR), made up of 15 individual groups.

The ACCCR’s recent Communique to the Catholic Bishops and Religious Leaders of Australia called for a national council of the laity composed of equal numbers of women and men with responsibility for the church in partnership with the ACBC. Such a national council, if it ever came to fruition, could potentially be a fourth peak church body operating alongside the bishops, the religious institutes and the AMPJP.

The immediate priority though should be to strengthen the ability of Catholic religious institute leaders to hold the diocesan church leaders to account. The whole church should take CRA more seriously as a key peak body sitting alongside the bishops.

John Warhurst: John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

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