After decades of modernist infiltration, collapsing vocations and clerical sex abuse scandals and cover-up, the Church in Australia is in meltdown. Recognizing this, the country's bishops and many lay Catholic leaders are entertaining radical changes to the Faith, including:
On Sunday, the National Centre for Pastoral Research issued "Listen to What the Spirit is Saying," the 314-page final report on the preparatory "listening and dialogue" sessions of Plenary Council 2020, a national effort to remake Australian Catholicism.
According to the report: "The need for the inclusion of people who were divorced and remarried was one of the central themes discussed. ... Several hundred participants voiced their concerns and dismay on this issue."
The document included responses from both groups and individuals determined to change Church teaching in this area:
"Marriage is a civil institution that has been made into a sacrament by the Church. Like many rules established by the Church, there is a need to revisit them and see them in the light of modern life."
"To demand that people who have committed themselves to a new relationship either exit that relationship, or continue in it but without sexual intimacy, or be excluded from full participation in the Eucharist, is both unrealistic and unjust."
"We need to allow divorced and remarried couples to return to full communion with the Church as recipients of Eucharist without necessarily fulfilling requirements for annulment."
The report documented "calls for greater inclusivity" in regards to the Eucharist, with many participants arguing that the decision of whether or not to receive Holy Communion should flow from an individual's conscience, not Church decree:
"It is important that we welcome all to the Eucharistic table, including those from other faith traditions, the divorced and gay/ lesbian. As a church we must love — it is not our role to judge."
"Catholics who have been considered marginalized are to be free to choose whether they receive Eucharist and participate in Catholic ceremonies and parish life."
"To accept all people to Communion — it is stupid to require people to be perfect before they come to Communion which is actually for those who need God's love."
The report also noted repeated calls for abolition of priestly celibacy, which some participants hoped would end the country's priest shortage, while others believed that the discipline was "old-fashioned and needed to be changed to suit the modern times."
Dovetailing participants' calls for an end to priestly celibacy were demands for women's ordination:
"It is critical to open up opportunities for women priests, deacons and acolytes, not simply use them as support staff — as readers, catechists, flower arrangers, vestment launderers and church cleaners, while telling them patronisingly how valuable they are. This will no longer work."
"The practice of not allowing women to preside at Eucharist or to lead the community does not come from Jesus, but from an over-emphasis on tradition, which ignores the role of culture in the maintenance of that tradition."
"A banning of the conversation around the ordination of women is insulting to all of us. It is also abusive. ... Failure to seriously consider the ordination of women will render the hierarchy irrelevant in an increasing number of people's eyes. … Let us listen. Then let our Australian Church present the case forcefully and persistently to the Vatican, refusing to be silenced."
"There needs to be a much greater leadership role for women in the Church, women who by their very nature are lifegiving, nurturing and compassionate. Let's start with ordaining female deacons (deaconesses) whose primary role is one of service."
According to the report, participants were very concerned with issues of social justice — and with homosexuality, in particular. Many respondents suggested that God is asking for an end to "discrimination" against "the LGBTI community," in Australia, insinuating that Catholic teaching on homosexual acts is unjust:
"We believe in a public apology and active reconciliation attempts for people who have experienced hate among the Church such as people who are LBGTQI+."
"We need to be teaching our children tolerance [and] acceptance of all people and equality for all. It is very hard to do this when the Church itself advocates for discrimination in its schools. … If a student at a Catholic school identifies as LGBTQI then that student should be supported in whatever way that student needs, not just in ways the Church deems appropriate. ... Heterosexual teachers should not [be] employed over a more qualified gay candidate, just because of their sexuality. It is not up to us to judge people."
Many session participants called for the Church to "modernize" its teachings.
In a section titled "Bringing the Church into the 21st Century," the report identified several key areas of concern, including in-vitro fertilization (IVF), same-sex "marriage," abortion and euthanasia:
"We believe the use of artificial birth control needs to be revisited. We have two beautiful grandchildren that we would not have had if it wasn't for IVF. They are clearly a gift from God."
"In a world of growing population, which our environment cannot sustain into the future, birth control needs to be formally accepted as a moral imperative for the developing world in particular."
"A few moral issues being put forward: … the Church to fall in line with current society standards ... gay marriage to be legitimised within the Church by marrying or blessing the unions, legitimizing gay lifestyles."
"Stop objecting to abortion and contraception. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that life begins at conception, and it is high time you trusted women to make the most appropriate health decisions for themselves."
"I am in favour of euthanasia and abortion when the welfare of the elderly, sick, mothers-to-be, unborn babies are in question."
The report also noted that many participants called for the concept of sin to be changed:
"Science supports that some human behaviours are natural and therefore cannot be considered sinful such as sex [and] masturbation. The rules the Catholic Church have in place can only have terrible effects on mental health because of the guilt placed on young people who are fighting internally as to what is a natural function of the human body and what is considered a sin in the Catholic Church."
"The issue of sin needs to be reviewed. The more accurate translation of sin from the Aramaic is 'missing the mark.' Children should not live in fear of sinning. They should be encouraged to reflect on encounters and choices that they have made and wonder how they could have done things differently."
"Basically what is needed is an effort to bring the Church and its teachings into the modern world, making sure that things are logical and take account of modern scientific knowledge. For a start, the whole concept of original sin needs to be reexplored. The notion of a 'fall' and God punishing all mankind … simply cannot be sustained in the light of modern knowledge. ... Jesus' life and teaching could be made more meaningful without sacrifice and redemption dominating everything. The idea of a vengeful God demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as expiation is totally primitive and cannot possibly be equated with a loving God."
"Listen to What the Spirit is Saying" reveals much about the state of today's Church in Australia, including flaws inherent in the plenary process itself.
Critics have blasted the "listening and dialogue" sessions as a theological sham — an exercise in participatory democracy in which majority opinion is interpreted as the voice of God.
They note that of the more than 222,000 people who took part in the sessions, self-identified Catholics made up just 72% of participants; and that, of these, nearly one in four admitted they did not attend Mass regularly.
More than one-fourth of all participants, meanwhile, were undeclared, Protestant, agnostic/atheist or members of other faiths, including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Why, many faithful Catholics are asking, are Australia's bishops seeking counsel from Protestants, non-Christians and atheists?