e-mail us
Ecclesial watchdogs snapping in Australia

NCR Staff

Catholic theology understands confession as a means to reconciliation, but in Australia a tumultuous national debate over confession has left many Catholics feeling anything but reconciled to the church or to one another.

While the details may be specific to Australia, the underlying issues -- the ability of local churches to craft their own pastoral practices, and the role of self-appointed ecclesial watchdogs -- have a wider resonance.

In recent months the Vatican has moved to end use of the “third rite” of reconciliation, a communal form of confession widely popular in Australia. Most observers believe the crackdown was triggered by the Australian Catholics Advocacy Centre, a lay group that approaches church disputes like lawsuits -- amassing evidence, framing arguments in terms of canon law and filing requests for action with church authorities.

The group’s founder says he is in contact with American Catholics interested in copying his methods.

The conflict has its roots in 1973, when the Vatican approved three new rites for confession. The first is individual; the second is a group service leading to individual confession; and the third is a group service ending in a general absolution. The third rite is reserved for cases of “grave necessity,” a phrase Rome has interpreted over the years in an increasingly narrow fashion.

Some conservative Catholics have long complained that “misuse” of general absolution is part of a pattern of disregard for liturgical rules in the post-Vatican II church.

Sources in Australia -- a country of 18 million with 5 million Catholics -- say the third rite has nevertheless been broadly used there, especially during Advent and Lent.

‘They feel at home’

“[People] fill the church, sometimes more so than for Mass,” said Fr. Peter Robinson, pastor of St. Martin of Tours parish in suburban Melbourne. “They feel at home, they feel forgiven, they feel as if they have loved their God more than yesterday. That’s the Australian scene.”

“We’re facing the most serious crisis in the Australian church ever,” Robinson told NCR in a telephone interview. “Years of pastoral work are being destroyed overnight.”

Another pastor who asked not to be identified told NCR that in his experience, “One-on-one confession was dead by 1974. There’s no forcing people back into the box.”

Paul Brazier, a Sydney lawyer and founder of the Catholics Advocacy Centre, says claims that the third rite “works” miss the point. “It doesn’t work, because the sacrament is invalid under canon law,” he said.

“The third rite may work in the sense of everybody feeling happy-happy and slapping each other on the back,” he said. “But that’s not what the Catholic church is all about.”

Brazier spoke to NCR from San Francisco, at the end of a series of meetings with Catholic activists in the United States.

Some Australians believe an alarming precedent has been set, given the near-universal impression that Brazier’s group got what it wanted from Rome.

“Do you really want a situation where every time a Catholic feels aggrieved, they hire a barrister and start compiling dossiers?” said Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, an Australian broadcaster and church historian. Collins’ book Papal Power is under investigation by Rome.

Though there’s no official link between the Vatican action and the Advocacy Centre’s efforts, it was in December 1998 -- a few months after the bulk of Brazier’s data went to Rome -- that a joint statement from curial officials and 15 of Australia’s 39 bishops called for, among other things, a halt to third-rite confessions (NCR, Dec. 25, 1998).

A Dec. 14 letter to the Australian bishops from John Paul II reiterated the ban.

The most strident language came in a March 19 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which warned that misuse of the third rite is “punishable in accordance with the sacred canons.”

Brazier’s campaign to collect evidence of illicit third-rite celebrations was remarkably systematic. The group published a detailed four-page “witness observation form” for use at penance services in parishes across the country. Members kept detailed notes during the services and later swore out notarized statements, which Brazier included in dossiers sent to bishops, and in some cases to Rome.

Some priests objected to having “witnesses” present. Twice, priests scuffled with witnesses who refused to identify themselves or to surrender their forms -- altercations Brazier says were “stage-managed.”

Robinson expressed his frustration differently, actually burning the forms during a Holy Week penance service, along with a letter asking him to report on other priests. Media reports say the action met with “whoops of applause” in his congregation.

“They were as angry at these bastards as I was,” Robinson said. “Australians just can’t stand spies and dobbers” -- the latter term being an idiom roughly equivalent to “back-stabbers.”

After what many say was a contentious national meeting, the country’s bishops issued an April 14 letter addressed to all Catholics. Signed by Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney, the letter says they must abide by the pope’s instructions.

“The Clancy letter is a tragedy,” Collins said. “It’s such a complete failure of leadership. It simply refuses to listen to the experience of people and takes the authority of people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Despite the statement, Archbishop Leonard Faulkner of the Adelaide diocese said the third rite can continue there for now because of a pre-existing arrangement with the Vatican. Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane said the decision doesn’t prevent Catholics from explaining to Rome why they support general absolution.

The April 14 letter also contains an indirect rebuke of the Advocacy Centre: “Some groups have initiated a deliberate and intrusive surveillance of clergy and liturgical celebrations,” it said. “While Catholics have a right to be heard, such tactics are not acceptable to most Australians.”

Compromise language

Brazier dismissed the criticism, telling NCR that sympathetic bishops told him the language was part of a compromise to secure consent to ending general absolution.

Brazier claims the third rite is virtually “dead” in Australia. Others believe it will endure -- even if priests omit the actual words of absolution, and hence no sacrament is offered in the strict canonical sense.

Bernadette Reeders, a member of a lay group called Women and the Australian Church, told NCR she has already experienced community penance services that do not include the “magic words.”

“No one was bothered,” she said. “We knew the presence of Christ in the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

Brazier warns that if priests hold communal services giving the impression of absolution, it’s tantamount to falsifying the sacrament. In such a case, he said his group will bring a canonical petition asking for the removal of the priest’s faculties.

Some observers predict ideology in this case will give way to arithmetic. Given the priest shortage, they say, communal penance will eventually be the only form that makes sense many places.

Brazier declined to identify anyone with whom he met on his just-concluded American trip, but he serves as an advisor and Australian contact for two U.S.-based groups: Human Life International, a pro-life group headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia, and the St. Joseph Foundation, a San Antonio-based group that also assists laity in bringing complaints under canon law.

Brazier said Americans he spoke with hope to challenge “liturgical abuses” here as well as “laxity” in Catholic schooling. He said they mentioned the Los Angeles archdiocese as one possible place to begin.

“I have no plans right now to take the Centre international,” he said. “But who knows? If things don’t get moving here, maybe I’ll be like Rupert Murdoch and come over and do it myself.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999