Archbishop Porteous: On reading ‘Towards the Second Assembly’
By Archbishop Julian Porteous
As a bishop I hope and pray that the Second Assembly for the Plenary Council will set the Church on a path of spiritual and pastoral renewal such that it will be able to meet the challenges of our time. I write what follows out of great love for the Church and deep concern for its future. On reading the working document for the Plenary Council, “Towards the Second Assembly”, I sense a church that has lost confidence in itself; a church that has lost confidence in its identity and mission.
There are, of course, many good proposals in the document which flow from the various interventions in the First Assembly, but there are some things that are lacking. Overall, I sense that there is a lack of confidence in what we as Catholics have to offer our society as it loses its sense of God and abandons Christian virtue. We are at a critical moment as we witness the radical decline in faith and morals occurring in our nation. This is the time for the Church to rise up with new evangelical vigour. This is the time to turn all our attention to announcing a word of life and hope. This document, sadly, I believe, does not reflect such an intent.
The language used in the document at times is more akin to that of a secular report than of an ecclesial document. For example, the Church is too often presented on the horizontal level as simply a friendly community. It is described, for example, as a “supportive and inclusive community” (P.10), or “a just, compassionate and outward looking Church”. (P.10) While we hope this is true, there is no real witness in the document to its deeper reality as, for example, the “Mystical Body of Christ”. The mystery of the Church is not in evidence.
Many propositions are quite vague and nebulous, lacking precision and spiritual intent, like calling us to have “loving attention to our world”. (P.14) It speaks of the “pressing social, moral and institutional challenges” but does not mention spiritual challenges we face. (P.14) In another place one proposition states what would seem obvious, “Seek ways to increase access to the Eucharist and other sacraments for all members of the Church”. (P.10) No detail is given to what this means or how it can be achieved.
What is lacking is the nobility of vision found in the great works of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The text is like a modern office block in comparison to a cathedral: functional but lacking that which elevates the mind and heart and witnesses to the transcendent. The Catholic theological tradition has been shaped by great minds of holy men and women. In this tradition an encounter with the mystery of the All Holy God has taken the human mind and spirit beyond the limits of the material and immediate.
We, in the Catholic Church, are blessed by our body of theology and spirituality that has captivated souls and raised them to aspire to holiness. It has raised up thousands of saints and given courage to countless martyrs. The Catholic faith has inspired mystics and founders of religious orders. Belief in what the Catholic faith offers to human life has resulted in thousands of missionaries pouring out their lives to enable others to know Christ and discover joy, hope and salvation in him.
One senses in this document a church that has become tired and has lost its sense of purpose; a church that has surrendered to the surrounding cultural ethos. While it speaks of making “God’s reign of justice, love and peace” (Page 15) visible, it rarely speaks of the task of bringing people under the grace of salvation by a bold proclamation of the cross of Christ. It suggests a church that has chosen to adopt a course of accommodation to the worldview of the society around it. References to the “signs of the times” (P.17 et al) suggest adapting to the times rather than finding new ways to evangelise the times. The use of the phrase in the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (#4), speaks of seeking more effective ways to communicate the Gospel to the age, while this Plenary document suggests becoming more like the age. The true ‘sign of our times’ is that our society has lost sight of Christ, lost a desire for truth as it embraces all sorts of ideologies, and no longer knows that there is a loving and merciful God who has created the universe and desires that all come to salvation and know the truth. (see I Tim 2:4)
The document suggests that we need to find “new ways of being Church”, (P.17) rather than entering more deeply into the mystery of the Church to unleash the power of the life of Grace. There is a sense we are a church that has embraced the option of wanting to be accepted and approved by the world; a church that wants to seem relevant within a secular society. The document mouths the aspirations of the times giving them a Christian veneer. It uncritically adopts the language of the day, like its repeated declaration that we are an “inclusive Church”. (P.10)
In all this one senses that the salt has lost its flavour and, as the Lord warned, will be trampled underfoot by men. There is no sense in the document of the Catholic Church in Australia being prepared to be a prophetic voice speaking truth with love within the culture, to challenge the prevailing ethos. Have we become afraid to speak out what we believe? When the prophet Jeremiah was called, the Lord told him to speak what he was commanded to speak and the Lord warned him, “Do not be dismayed in their presence or in their presence I will make you dismayed”. (Jer 1:17) If we shrink from our prophetic task we will become caught in a spiritual paralysis.
Rather than evangelising the culture, the document indicates that the Church has chosen to allow the prevailing culture to evangelise it. (see P.17) It speaks endlessly of listening and dialogue and not of proclamation. (P.17) This is a church that does not have the confidence to declare its message with vigour and clarity. St Paul urged his readers: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. (Rom 12:2) The document lacks an authentically Catholic vision of human life inspired by Christ’s teaching and the zeal to proclaim what it knows to be true and right.
The first Christians knew that they had a message which offered the path to eternal salvation and they boldly proclaimed Jesus Christ risen from the dead as Lord and Saviour, and the Church grew rapidly as people embraced this message. Yet this document lacks a sense that the Church has the “words of everlasting life”. It does not seem to believe that it alone can offer the transcendent truth and the way to salvation. It lacks a call to personal conversion and the pursuit of higher and noble spiritual ideals.
While we have been encouraged in the Plenary Council journey to listen to the Spirit of God, it seems that what has been heard instead is the spirit of the age. Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near at hand. In other words, that God was close and accessible. The Lord said that what was required to bring one’s life under the grace and mercy of God was to repent and believe. (Mk 1:15) The Church has the perennial mission of calling people to change the orientation of their life and direct it towards God, opening their hearts to the grace of salvation. Over Christian history the clear proclamation of the Christian message – the kerygma – has brought about conversions and deep faith.
There is clear evidence that those Christian churches that have chosen the path of accommodation to the times have sunk into decline and have become a shell of their former selves. Those churches that align themselves to the spirit of the age offer no attraction to the people of the age. Why join something that is just like everything else? It is those churches who have boldly proclaimed the kerygma and have been prepared to stand by those Christian tenets which challenge the culture that are flourishing. People will be attracted to something which reflects the true, the good and the beautiful. People search for something that challenges them to be better than they are.
There is a strange attraction of the human heart towards the truth. Even if it is resisted it still attracts. The faithful presentation of the Gospel reveals a power to transform people’s lives. St Paul said that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because “it is the power of God to save all who have faith”. (Rom 1:16)
The Church has one task – to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation. The mission of the Church is to enable people to encounter Christ in such a way that they open their hearts and lives fully to him. As St Paul VI declared, “The Church exists in order to evangelise”. (EN 14) This missionary impulse is lacking in this document.
This working paper is inviting members of the Plenary Council to embrace a number of proposals that are inconsistent with authentic Catholic faith and would simply hasten the demise of the faith in Australia. The document fails seriously when it abandons fidelity to the Catholic Tradition expressed in the Scriptures and the Magisterium. For instance, it persists in advocating for the Third Rite of Reconciliation (P.24) when this is a settled question. With the constant focus on extending the role of the laity in Church governance it threatens to radically change the nature of the Church as founded by Christ.
While lay people have a role in contributing to the governance and leadership of the Church the many proposals listed in the document on this question clearly go against the consistent teaching of the Church, expressed most recently in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, that such governance by divine intent, is solely entrusted to bishops. The Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, stated, “This Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God”. (LG 18) Yet the document proposes something not canvassed at the First Assembly, a lay body to parallel the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. (P.11)
The document also lacks an affirmation of the role of priests especially in their pastoral and sacramental ministry. It could benefit from a clear and unambiguous promotion of the need for priestly vocations. Too much of the document focuses on women’s involvement in leadership within the Church and promotes claims for women to be ordained to the diaconate (P.12), while it lacks a promotion of both authentic religious life for women and more generally complementary nature of the feminine genius. It actually asks bishops to “continue to review the universal teaching of the Church which precludes women from the papacy, the episcopacy and priesthood”. (P.13) This is directly against Catholic teaching.
The sharp edge of the call to conversion and faith is lacking in the document. In the face of the rise of those who declare that they have no faith it is necessary more than ever to issue the call to faith. For those whose lives are at variance with Christian moral teaching, the Church invites them to hear Christian teaching about the true nature of human life and the path to human flourishing. It is this truth found in Catholic teaching that will set them free. (see John 8:32)
In places the document seeks to change the traditional teaching and practice of the Church, in some instances wanting Canon Law to be changed, such as proposing that lay people be able to preach in the Sacred Liturgy. (P.26) The desire for the clericalisation of the laity reflects a confusion about the complementary roles of priest and laity in the sacred liturgy and more generally in the mission of the Church.
The Church in Australia is in the midst of an existential crisis as it witnesses thousands abandoning participation in the sacramental life of the Church each year. The Church is in serious decline, yet no real recognition of this reality is given in the document. A Plenary Council at this moment in our history should have this crisis at the heart of its deliberations, yet scant recognition is given to the question.
Because the crisis of faith is not acknowledged, the document makes no effort to propose a way forward for the Church. While there are many external factors, the document fails to consider the possible internal causes for the loss of faith among so many Catholics. In times past, in times of crisis, the Church has been able to respond robustly to the challenge of the age. The time of the Counter Reformation is such an example. The Church at that time set about the task of serious internal spiritual and moral reform and, in time, witnessed a renewed vitality of faith and great missionary zeal.
If this working document is largely accepted as the basis for the Second Assembly it will not facilitate the spiritual and pastoral renewal so needed at this time, but rather it will allow the process of further decline to occur, if not accelerate it. Without a serious effort at interior renewal and a new zeal for evangelisation the Church in Australia runs the risk of becoming a shallow image of its former self.
Our Lady Help of Christians, Patroness of Australia, pray for us.