Nun challenges church – stop suppressing Catholic reform

A prominent US Benedictine nun is warning Australia’s Catholic Church to stop suppressing Catholic reform from its ordinary members or face an inevitable decline.

This is not the first time Sister Joan Chittister has called out Australia’s Catholic hierarchy. She was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop.

Now she is renewing calls for women’s ordination and for laypeople to be given more power over parishes.

Chittister’s challenging call comes at a time when the nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest.

Reforms such as these were meant to be thrashed out at this year’s Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.

Said to be the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the working documents prepared for the event suggest some of the more contentious issues on the agenda may not get a full hearing – if they are discussed at all.

“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” says Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson.

“It is very disappointing.”

Chittister says she shares concerns that suppressing Catholic reform “by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements.

The upshot will be that ever more people will abandon their parishes.

“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone,” she says.

Speaking to an audience of 3000 this month, she added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”

Chittister’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of the upcoming Plenary Council.

Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.

Whether the Church actually has a will to change is something Catholic Australia has yet to find out. It is reportedly concerned that change is not on the agenda.

Their fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.

Peter Johnstone, who is the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, is urging Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.


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