e-mail us
Cardinal says Rome had ‘jaundiced view’

NCR Staff

Australia’s highest-ranking prelate says that because Vatican authorities took to heart the complaints of a small group of conservative Catholic activists, they developed a “more jaundiced view” of the church in his country than it deserves.

That view, says Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney, led to a swift and highly public crackdown by the Vatican on Australian use of the so-called “third rite” of confession, a communal form of the sacrament that ends in general absolution.

Clancy spoke to NCR by phone from his residence in Sydney.

Though canon law says general absolution should be reserved for cases of “grave necessity,” the practice had become common in parts of Australia until December 1998, when the first of three Vatican documents demanded a halt.

Many in Australia attribute the crackdown to the intervention of a lay advocacy group called the Australian Catholics Advocacy Centre, which sent members into parishes to gather evidence on how the sacrament was celebrated, compiled affidavits and sent dossiers with their complaints to Rome (NCR, May 21).

Clancy said he agrees with Rome that Australian practice should reflect the rules of the universal church. But the public and seemingly punitive character of the Vatican reaction, he said, is troubling.

“I would have appreciated a more sympathetic view,” Clancy said, “a greater understanding of our situation out there, the vast distances we cover and the shortage of priests,” that make it difficult to administer individual confessions, Clancy said.

“With the benefit of hindsight, all this might have been handled differently, so as not to give the impression that these pressure groups won. That’s a dangerous precedent.

“It wasn’t just the Catholics Advocacy Centre, though they were the best-organized. The perception has been created that Rome accepted the word of these people who write in to them, who are not always known to the bishops. So the way the cookie crumbled was unfortunate,” he said.

In December, a Rome meeting between some of Australia’s bishops and a group of Vatican officials led to a joint statement about the church in Australia, which was the first document that called for an end to third-rite confession.

“The Vatican released a summary of the document just as we were leaving for home,” Clancy said. “The summary seemed to emphasize all the negatives and leave out anything positive. Again, it gave the impression of a bleak view of our church in Rome that didn’t help matters.”

Clancy, 75, has submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II in accord with canon law. So far no replacement has been named.

Clancy said he recognizes that for many Australians third-rite confession has become an important part of their spirituality.

“It was a very satisfying way of receiving the sacrament, there’s no doubt about that,” Clancy said. “Especially the community dimension -- there was a sense of the whole church being present.

“It’s quite understandable that priests and people find this decision difficult,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he supports Rome’s position. “The third rite loses the value of the one-to-one encounter between the confessor and the penitent, the counseling that is necessary more and more these days,” he said.

Clancy added, however, that he sees a need for further evolution in the sacrament in order to capture the communal dimension of sin and forgiveness that many Australians prize.

“Maybe there’s a fourth rite out there somewhere,” Clancy said. “We need to study the question.”

Clancy said he rejects the criticism from some Australian Catholics that the bishops should have done more to defend the third rite.

“My basic answer is that in our discussions in Rome, there was quite a spirited defense of the third rite, especially from one or two bishops in whose dioceses it was used. Their position simply didn’t prevail.”

In an April 14 letter to all the country’s Catholics, Clancy said that spying on liturgies is unacceptable to most Australians, a comment widely seen as a reference to the Catholics Advocacy Centre. Though the letter purported to reflect the unanimous sentiment of the bishops’ conference, the center’s founder, Sydney lawyer Paul Brazier, told NCR that sympathetic bishops told him they agreed to the rebuke only as part of a compromise to get rid of third-rite confession.

“That’s rubbish,” Clancy said. “I chaired that meeting and I have no impression of that sort of compromise taking place. There might be a few bishops who felt that way, but I’d be speculating if I said that,” Clancy said.

Clancy said the difficulty in dealing with groups like the Advocacy Centre is that while their tactics may be objectionable, Catholics do have a right to present their concerns to church authorities.

“So you do have to try to dialogue,” he said. “But there’s a lot of angry people around who feel disillusioned that things aren’t as they remember them when they were young. Any attempt to dialogue doesn’t work because these people are almost temperamentally incapable of it.”

Clancy said that he and his fellow bishops allowed the third rite to flourish in Australia under the assumption that they had Rome’s blessing.

“The impression here was that our use of the third rite was not exactly according to regulations, but it was being tolerated and monitored by the powers that be,” he said. “There was certainly no conscious defiance. That’s why the suddenness of Rome’s action was sort of jarring.”

By the same token, Clancy said he was not aware until recently of just how pervasive third-rite confession was in the country. “Had I realized it, I might have acted earlier,” he said.

“The publicity this whole thing has got has probably given a false impression to the world that the church in Australia is in extremis, which of course it isn’t,” Clancy said. “The church in Australia is alive and well.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999