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Australians urged to obey church teaching

NCR Staff

Faced with what they call a worldwide “crisis of faith,” high-ranking Vatican officials and Australian bishops in Rome for their ad limina visits issued a document urging greater fidelity to church teaching as an antidote to secularization.

Though addressed to Australians, the document says much of its analysis applies to the entire church. It was released Dec. 14 in Rome.

Observers noted the striking contrast between the new document and the tone of the Synod for Oceania, which ended at the same time the document was issued. During the synod, where Australia’s bishops were a majority of the 82 in attendance, several Australian prelates spoke in favor of reforms in celibacy, the distribution of power in the church and the pastoral care of homosexuals and divorcées (see article below).

One high-profile Australian Catholic, Sacred Heart Missionary Fr. Paul Collins, said the document’s conclusions seemed “imposed” by the Vatican. Another Australian priest warned the document could reinforce images of a “harshly clerical church.”

The document cautions that a “sense of equality” must not diminish clerical authority or blur the distinction between ordained priests and laity. It calls on priests to recommit themselves to “pious exercises,” such as the rosary, and on religious men and women to return to living and working in community. It demands that seminarians accept the requirement of lifelong celibacy.

It proposes a clampdown on public dissent and greater adherence to Vatican policies in liturgies, schools and other areas.

Chris McGillon, a religious-affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, said that the document “amounts to a counter-reformation in all aspects of Catholic life” in that nation.

“Tolerance of and openness to all opinions and perspectives on the truth can lead to indifference,” the document warns, echoing the recent encyclical Fides et ratio. “This makes it very difficult to affirm that the God revealed in sacred scripture is indeed the one true God.”

Flowing from this relativism, the document asserts multiple crises in the church:

  • In Christology, including the tendency to see Jesus “as a great prophet of humanity” who “questions the rules of religion”;
  • in Christian anthropology, “in a concept of conscience that elevates the individual conscience to the level of an absolute”;
  • in “certain forms of feminism”;
  • in morality, where “heterosexuality and homosexuality come to be seen simply as two morally equivalent variations”;
  • and in ecclesiology, in the belief that “the church needs to be reorganized to make it more suited to the present day.”

Six curial officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and six Australian bishops, including Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney, signed the document. It was presented as the conclusions of discussions between the bishops and curial agencies.

The document rejects dissent. “In matters of faith, communion rules out such concepts as ‘loyal opposition’ or ‘faithful subversion.’ The faithful strive to deepen their understanding of the faith, not to oppose it or to subvert it,” it says.

In personal remarks to the bishops on the day the document was released, the pope said, “The teaching of the magisterium is sometimes met with reservation and questioning, a tendency which is sometimes fueled by media interest in dissent, or in some cases by the intention to use the media as a kind of stratagem to force the church into changes she cannot make,” the pope said. “The Bishops’ task is not to win arguments but to win souls for Christ ... ”

In its details, the document often reads like a summary of the key themes of John Paul’s papacy.

It tells priests to discontinue general absolution except in rare cases. Reaffirming last year’s Vatican instruction on lay ministry, it says “the identity of the priest has been further clouded when tasks have been entrusted to laity that belong to the ministerial priesthood.”

On liturgy, it decries “the tendency on the part of some priests and parishes to make their own changes to liturgical texts and structures, whether by omissions, by additions or by substitutions.”

The document eschews inclusive language, or the use of gender-neutral terms, in liturgical texts. “It is essential that the translation of the texts not be so much a work of ‘creativity’ as of a faithful and exact vernacular rendering of the original text,” it says.

The document laments trends in feminist scholarship that “can lead to a rejection of the privileged place given to scriptural language describing the Trinity” with masculine terms.

It calls on administrators and bishops to ensure fidelity to the magisterium in Catholic schools and universities.

Australian newspapers reported that some of the bishops who signed the document later distanced themselves from it slightly. Michael Putney, auxiliary bishop of Brisbane, said he did not foresee a “blunt use of authority.” Clancy said that any decisions on the living arrangements of religious would be made on a “case by case basis.”

Collins told NCR in a telephone interview that he felt the document’s analysis of modern culture is too hasty.

“The word secularization gets tossed around a lot without defining it,” he said. “It seems to mean that people are just hedonists. But most people I know have a desire for ethical standards, for meaning and for some sort of spirituality. To use sweeping labels to sum up someone’s point of view is outrageous.”

Collins’ book Papal Power, advocating reform in church structures, is under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Collins said the conflict between the synod and the document is glaring. “It’s as if the synod never happened,” he said. He suggested many of the conclusions in the document may have been “imposed” by the curia.

Jesuit Fr. Andrew Hamilton, a Catholic theologian and writer in Australia, said he felt the document’s emphasis was misplaced. “While I could easily identify instances of the trends highlighted in the document, I have not found them dominant in the communities with which I work,” he told NCR via E-mail. “In particular the kind of feminism described was foreign to me.”

“The greatest challenge I have found in Australia has been to enable Catholics and others to perceive the church as proclaiming the Good News of the gospel. They often feel discouraged and experience the church as a place of burden. If that condition is general, then the admonishing tone of the document and its emphasis on obedience may risk exacerbating the tendency which it rightly deplores: the tendency to divorce the harshly clerical church from the compassionate Jesus.”

Collins said he worried that the injunctions against general absolution seem to reflect a recent incident in Sydney. “A group of ultraconservatives put together a list of priests giving general absolution, and it included some of the most respected and senior priests in the diocese,” Collins said.

Highlighting the issue in the document could be seen as a validation of this sort of maneuver, Collins said. “This sort of thing plays into the hands of the extreme reactionaries in the church, who really represent no one but themselves.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998