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Whither the future of the Australian hierarchy

By Paul Collins

One of the things that infuriates informed Catholics is the way the media treats Cardinal George Pell of Sydney as a kind of "official spokesman" for Australian Catholicism. He is referred to often as the country’s "top Catholic leader" whose views somehow represent those of the local church.

This is perhaps understandable given he is a cardinal. But Sydney is not even the largest diocese in the country (578,000 Catholics with 139 parishes):  Melbourne is, with just over one million Catholics and 231 parishes. The fact is George Pell is simply the Sydney Archbishop and Metropolitan (this means very little) of New South Wales (excluding Canberra-Goulburn), and his remit ends at the borders of his diocese.

If there is an official spokesman for the bishops it is the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Francis Carroll of Canberra-Goulburn. He has the rare distinction of having been a bishop for more than half of his life - 38 years, making him the most experienced church leader in the country. Ordained auxiliary bishop in 1967, he was Bishop of Wagga from 1968 to 1983, and has been Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn since then. He submitted his resignation to Rome on 5 September this year when he turned 75. He has been president of the Bishops’ Conference for four years.

Several other bishops are also close to the retirement age of 75: Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta is 72, Bishops Jeremiah Coffey of Sale and Patrick Dougherty of Bathurst are 73, and Bishop Edmund Collins of Darwin is 74.

Rome last month accepted the resignation of Archbishop Carroll and his departure from the scene leaves open the Conference presidency and the archbishopric of the national capital. This is a unique archdiocese because it potentially gives the incumbent an influential role in national politics. One who exploited this was Archbishop Eris O’Brien, Canberra Archbishop from 1953 to 1966. He made it his business to build bridges with the Menzies government and was instrumental in finally breaking the nexus and getting state aid from the Commonwealth Government for Catholic schools.

So who is likely to get Canberra? To a considerable extent this will rest in the hands of the recently arrived Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Ambrose de Paoli, an American of Italian extraction, formerly Nuncio in Japan. Certainly, there is a perception abroad among bishops and others who have met him that, as an American, he has a better feel than his predecessors, the Italians Franco Brambilla and Francesco Canaloni, for the cultural conditions in which the Australian church operates. Also he is at the end of his diplomatic career and is not climbing the greasy pole of Vatican preferment.

The first sign of any new approach that Benedict XVI might bring to the appointment of bishops, and the kind of influence that De Paoli might wield, will be revealed by who is made Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn. It is unlikely that someone who is not already a bishop will be appointed.

At present several bishops’ names are being mentioned. Those alluded to most often are Bishops Michael Putney of Townsville and Mark Coleridge, auxiliary of Melbourne. Putney studied in Rome and Leuven (Belgium). He did a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University and taught systematic theology at the Queensland provincial seminary of Banyo for twenty years. He has been prominent in ecumenical dialogue and was ordained auxiliary bishop of Brisbane in 1995. He was appointed Bishop of Townsville in 2001.

Mark Coleridge is also a Roman graduate. After seminary studies in Melbourne, he worked in parishes from 1974 to 1980. In the 1980s he completed the relatively rare advanced degree of a doctorate in scripture at the Biblicum in Rome and Jerusalem, and taught at Catholic Theological College and was appointed Master there in 1996. For a number of years he was official media spokesman for Melbourne Archdiocese, and from 1998 he worked in the Secretariat of State in the Vatican. In 2002 he became auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.

Both Coleridge and Putney are intelligent, theologically sophisticated, and cautious. Both have played their cards carefully and neither has blotted his ecclesiastical copybooks by outspoken or contentious comments, although in September 2002 Coleridge was accused of sending misogynist and certainly ill-judged e-mails to the prominent and influential Anglican laywoman and journalist, Dr Muriel Porter.

Another name that is mentioned is Bishop Peter Ingham of Wollongong. A man with a long history of pastoral care, Ingham is kind and approachable. Wollongong was not an easy appointment with several difficult sexual abuse cases and the continuing disruptive presence of William Kamm, to so-called ‘Little Pebble’ and his ‘apparitions’. Ingham has successfully dealt with these issues.

The bishop who would be the first choice of people from the Canberra Archdiocese is the present auxiliary, Bishop Patrick Power. Not only is Power known nationally for his views on social justice and his outspoken willingness to support marginalized people in the church, he is also recognized as a person of integrity who has in effect carried much of the pastoral administration of the archdiocese. Sadly, his honesty and integrity probably makes him an unlikely choice as Archbishop.

Carroll’s retirement also brings up the question of the presidency of the episcopal conference. The most likely successor is the Vice-President, Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane. The office is an elected one for two years. Many are surprised that Cardinal Pell is not the president, although he does chair two Episcopal committees, Doctrine and Morals, and Education.

This brings up the whole question implicitly posed at the beginning: what influence does Pell have on the Episcopal bench and on appointments? I suspect his dominance is not as great as many think. He certainly does have influence at the Congregation of Bishops in Rome and thus on Episcopal appointments. Clearly the selection of bishops like Belgian-born Luke Matthys in Armidale and convert Anglican Geoffrey Jarrett in Lismore, and his own Sydney auxiliaries, Anthony Fisher and Julian Porteous, are Pell-influenced appointments. But he is still far from dominating the Australian church as the media tends to present him.

Most of the bishops are typically Australian: they don’t like ‘tall poppies’ and I would be surprised, for instance, if Pell had the numbers to be elected president of the conference, let alone to influence all Episcopal appointments.

As I pointed out in a couple of places in my recent book God’s New Man (2005) one of the key issues facing Benedict XVI is the standard of the episcopate he inherited from the Wojtyla papacy. The Australian episcopate simply fits into a world-wide pattern.

Many of the cardinals and bishops appointed by John Paul are poor quality leaders. They lack pastoral sensitivity, mature spirituality, and sometimes even a sound knowledge of Catholic teaching and theology. This is not to say that there are no good bishops. There are many, but there are also many whose mediocrity has dragged down the standards of the world-wide Episcopal bench.

Many seem very dependent on papal or Roman approval and are unwilling to assume genuine leadership and make good decisions for the local church. They seem suspended between Rome and their primary obligation to the local Catholic community entrusted to their leadership. You have the impression of a group of inadequate men anxious to avoid open debate, intellectual inquiry or any form of disagreement.

Much of this is the product of the process of appointing bishops by a Roman bureaucracy determined to control the whole church as centrally as possible. Any priest who has said or done anything significant or who has rocked the boat in any way is simply excluded from appointment. Thus, with some notable exceptions, most bishops nowadays are simply too afraid to take initiatives for the good of their own diocese and are constantly looking over their shoulders to Rome. A kind of co-dependency has been set up that indicates a dysfunctional relationship.

Thus the question of Episcopal collegiality becomes quite complicated. This presupposes a bench of bishops able to assume co-responsibility for the church. So even if Benedict was willing to begin to use a more consultative approach with the bishops in the government of the church, it is doubtful if many of them would want to take the initiative, or even have much to offer. So perhaps the first problem the pope faces is the gradual replacement of the present bishops with men of better quality and with genuine leadership potential. Given his own intelligence and modesty there is some hope that he will appoint more pastorally and theologically able priests as bishops, although with the catastrophic decline in the number of priests he will have a very small pool on which he can draw.

The question of who is appointed bishop and how they are chosen is a fundamental one for the renewal of the church. It is intimately inter-connected with who can become a priest and how they are selected. The basic problem is that all of these issues are essentially inter-locked. It will need a strong visionary leader to break this impasse. It remains to be seen if Benedict XVI has this vision.

Paul Collins’ most recent book is God’s New Man, Melbourne University Press, 2005

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