This Sunday marks the beginning of a new year (Year B, to be precise) in the Church’s liturgical calendar. That may be a relief for Australian Catholics, who will be glad to say goodbye to 2017 a few weeks early.
The year opened on a hard note, with the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, in its fifth and final year, holding a three-week “wrap-up” session on the Catholic Church in February. The results were shocking and sickening, and were splashed across the news daily. While the vast majority of abuse was historical (between 1950 and 2010) these reports cast a chill on all good-hearted people – Catholic or not.
Many faithful Catholics were further disappointed and disillusioned as entire archdioceses lay paralysed by silence, peeping out from behind media releases and communications offices. Where were the prayer vigils? The novenas? The tears? Church billboards declaring “Not in my name”?
While disappointment was one emotion, another was rage. And the mainstream media capitalised on the zeitgeist, openly speculating whether it was Catholicism itself – from celibacy to Confession – that was intrinsically paedophilic.
Over the months, the spotlight was slowly directed towards one man – Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, Cardinal George Pell. The cardinal became the subject of countless articles, parodies and memes. A comedic song, calling him “scum”, gathered 2.5 million views, while a polemical book Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell was published in May. In November, an obscene public mural crept across a pub wall in Sydney depicting the cardinal with former prime minister Tony Abbott.
When Cardinal Pell returned to Melbourne from the Vatican to answer charges of historic child sex abuse – charges which he will denounce when the trial begins in March next year – hundreds of journalists camped for hours to report as the 76-year-old presented himself to court.
As June slipped into August, the spotlight shifted from the Catholic Church, and Cardinal Pell in particular, to Christian morality in general.
Australia has never been, strictly speaking, a Judaeo-Christian country. It is a country that was built on Enlightenment ideals, but at a time when Enlightenment principles were still benefiting from, and dependent on, a robust Christianity. But the past few months have seen the axe laid to the last tendrils of Christianity in Australia, and a new morality is replacing the old.
While the new secular morality is rightfully outraged at the historic abuse of children, it seems less clear on how it feels about the current sexualisation of children.
In September, The Gender Fairy, a book which teaches that being a “boy” or a “girl” can be a matter of personal decision, was released. It ends with the claim: “Only you know whether you are a girl or a boy.”
The Gender Fairy is promoted by the radical LGBTQI sex education programme, Safe Schools. Although Safe Schools’ work is marketed as an anti-bullying programme, the federal government announced it would discontinue funding out of concern over some of the material (including online links to other resources full of graphic content).
Dismissing these concerns as “homophobic”, the Victoria government pledged $1 million of its own funds, declaring that all state secondary schools would be members of the Safe Schools Coalition by 2018.
November has also been a month for headlines, with the historic announcement that a solid majority of Australians (62 per cent) voted “yes” to proposals to change the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry, quickly followed by the Victoria government’s upper house voting to allow euthanasia. In this way, same-sex marriage and euthanasia for Victorians may be legal by Christmas.
Out of this changing culture it is clear that there are three groups emerging within the Catholic community. The first group does not realise that there has been any change; the second group seeks to embrace the changing culture; and the third group rejects the new culture.
Statistics suggest that the first group has the largest membership. Of the nearly 5.5 million Australians who put themselves down as Catholic in the 2016 census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, fewer than 10 per cent said they attend Mass. And only 10 per cent of that 10 per cent accept all the teachings of the Church.
The second, smaller, group is passionate about seeing the Church move “with the times”. Driven by a desire for reform, its members dominate the corridors of the diocesan and archdiocesan offices, Catholic education offices, academic boards and hospital ethics committees.
The third group seeks to hold to the truths of the faith and embrace the Cross as a “stumbling block”, and believes that the spirit of the world, as Scripture says, is antithetical to the Holy Spirit.
For Catholics of this third kind, the most hostile places are the “edifices built in prosperity”, that is, the hospitals, schools and universities with Catholic names.
The fraught relationship between these groups dominates the experience of Catholics “on the ground”. As Catholic leadership roles are often mastered by people who no longer believe in the power of the Catholic message, this explains many decisions made by the Church this year.
It explains how millions can be spent in high schools implementing a dubious “Catholic Identity Project” from Louvain University in Belgium (a country haemorrhaging its Catholic identity at giddying speed), while the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne, one of the bastions of international-level orthodox Catholic academia, is closed for “financial reasons”.
It explains how Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta could write a letter before the same-sex marriage plebiscite telling Catholics “It should not be a matter of a simple answer Yes or No”, and weeks later be asked to write the 2017-2018 Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement (“Everyone’s Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy”) without a word of reproach.
It also explains how a chaplain at one Catholic college could be sacked days after celebrating his first Extraordinary Form Mass on campus, and how a Victorian Catholic palliative care nurse could receive a letter from the office of Archbishop Denis Hart in response to her request that Victoria be consecrated to Our Lady, following the example of Archbishop Julian Porteous of Tasmania. She was told: “Prayer is valuable. Keep it up. Consecrations should not be used as some kind of weapon.”
This new culture is not “out there” but fighting for the hearts of the churches in Australia.
In a short talk entitled “What will the future Church look like?” given in 1969, Joseph Ratzinger said: “From the crisis of today a new Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”
Ratzinger has often been called prophetic for this talk, delivered nearly 50 years ago. But perhaps he was not being prophetic. Perhaps he was calling attention to what is known, what needs to be remembered and what is repeatedly revealed – from Exodus to Maccabees to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. For gold to be purified, it must be first tested in the furnace. Perhaps this is what is happening to Catholicism in Australia.
But the Church doesn’t end with the furnace; it ends in hope.
Last Sunday, which was the last of the liturgical year, we celebrated the feast of Christ the King. The Church in Australia will face the new year as the Church will do across the world – not with a sigh of relief, but with confidence that the battle is already won.
Natasha Marsh is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne
This article first appeared in the December 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here