A Long Way From Rome


Why the Australian Catholic Church is in Crisis

Edited by Chris McGillion. Allen & Unwin 239 pp $29.95
Reviewed by Patrick O?Farrell*

What would be really surprising is if the Australian Catholic Church were not in crisis. That would be one for the books, enough to convince even the most rabid atheist of the church?s divine authenticity. For the fact is that every other major Western institution is in crisis—the family, political parties trade unions, universities, law, medicine, the Anglican Church, bowling clubs. If it is an institution, or even merely an organization and particularly if it claims any kind of authority or sets out rules, today it has a problem — it is in crisis.

Or, rather, multitudes of crises—structural crises, crises of confidence, support, attendance, enthusiasm, purpose, unity, loyalty, direction and of course leadership. Basically all authority is in crisis. This is the age of the sovereign man, sufficient unto himself. He owns himself and is free to make his own rules instead of having them imposed from above or outside. Belief in extraneous laws of salvation has declined, as have notions of the forbidden. The ethics of private life have become matters of individual choice rather than mass conformity to external guidelines and rules from on high.

All this is 60s stuff, becoming mass reality in the 70s and pretty obvious. But it is an international human context only fitfully or dimly perceived by the contributors to this book. Had they accorded the wider scene more importance they might have asked a different and far more interesting question: not why is the Australian Catholic Church in crisis but why is it not in far deeper trouble and disarray, given the pressures it is under? Why is it so relatively healthy?

But reviewers are forever complaining about what they have got, rather than being grateful for it and this book offers a lot to be grateful for. Valuable information, serious concern over important matters, stimulus and a critical spirit ( a ?formidable indictment” as the clich? would have it) which, though sharp and pointed is nonetheless committed and restrained.

And, while this is a book for Catholic ?insiders”, its subject, being a major institution, demands wide and general attention. It is a significant contribution to discussion of crucial aspects of Australian society.

Listing the chapter headings will convey both content and tone. ”Visions, revisions and scandal: A church in crisis? (Chris McGillion, who also wrote the introduction and afterword) ?Why people don?t listen to the Pope” (Damien Grace) ?The silenced majority” (Morag Fraser) ?The lost art of Catholic ritual” (John Carmody) ?Popular culture?s new high priests” (Juliette Hughes) ?Has the church a future? The generational divide (Michael Mullins) ?Imagination abandoned” (Paul Collins).

The issue they all address in various ways is the present character of the Catholic Church, particularly in the direction taken by its authorities, Australian and Roman.

The contributors are journalists of some kind. This has pluses and minuses. A plus is that the book is oriented toward conveying particular information which may be unfamiliar to an ordinary reader. Particularly means only some of it may be dismissed as gene- ralised, unsupported grievance mongering. Another advantage is that journalists usually know how to write. The book, apart from a couple of hiccup chapters, reads easily.

But the disadvantage of involving only one kind of professional approach is that it omits others. This is a subject that would profit from other perspectives—say, those of a philosopher, a sociologist, a theologian, even a historian. The problem with the journalistic approach is that it seldom goes beyond the facts, the story. It is not fundamentally concerned with the intrinsic nature of a situation or what it means, or how it fits into some wider present or past. The journalist?s concern is to describe, not to dissect and ponder.

Pondering is what this case needs and lots of it. Particularly on the nature and function of authority — a broader concern than canvassed here in a Catholic context. Yet the solution to the problem of there being too much liberty and choice is not to assume there should be none. Implicitly and explicitly, this book contributes to that assumption.

Patrick O?Farrell is emeritus scientia professor at the University of NSW. This review was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum section on March 1-2 and has been reproduced by permission of the publisher.