Who are Catholics Speak Out (CSO)?
CSO began in 2003 when Frank Purcell and Paul Collins became concerned about statements from Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the Catholic doctrine of freedom of conscience. In his 1999 Acton Lecture in the US Pell had said that Catholic religious educators should 'quietly ditch' the notion of the primacy of conscience. He continued: 'This has never been a Catholic doctrine ... It is a short cut, which often leads the unitiated to feel even more complacent while "doing their own thing".' Pell called this attitude 'the Donald Duck heresy' which, he said, 'rests squarely on the fallacy of overwhelming natural virtue.' This is the belief, Pell says, that all natural impulses are good. Donald Duck believed this and was never out of trouble!
Pell repeated these views on 30 May 2003 in the Catalyst for Renewal Bishops Forum when he said unequivocally 'I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.' He went on to refer to the doctrine as 'mischievous'. (Paul Collins deals in detail with Pell's views and the question of the theology of conscience in his book Between the Rock and a Hard Place. Being Catholic Today Sydney: ABC Books, 2004, pp 148-160)
Disturbed by Pell’s views, a group of 25 prominent Australian Catholics, including Purcell and Collins, signed a letter to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeking clarification on the cardinal's views on conscience. Needless to say the CDF ignored the letter — CSO has now learned by experience that the Vatican generally ignores all letters sent to them — but the issue did get considerable publicity in Australia and Pell doesn't seem to have repeated his peculiar views since then.
Slowly a small, foundational group (Anne O’Brien, Cecilia Merrigan, Marilyn Hatton, Margaret Purcell, John Collins, Terry Curtin, Peter Wilkinson, Brian McKittrick) joined Purcell and Collins and CSO got underway in early 2004. CSO is convinced that working together with other Catholics on these kinds of ministerial and belief issues is important.
CSO's next move was to join 29 other Catholics, including priests and sisters, to write to every bishop in Australia - both active and retired - setting out the issues that were later to evolve into the Petition (see below). The letter asked the bishops to include these issues on the agenda of the November 2007 meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Fourteen bishops (out of 41) responded to this letter. Most were positive, a few non-committal and only one negative, but still friendly. CSO believes that Australian Catholics are lucky. Fortunately we still have a majority of bishops whose orientation is essentially pastoral and whose primary care is for people and the needs of their dioceses. But they are hamstrung by the Vatican and their fear of assuming responsibility for the local church.
CSO decided that the time had come to try to find a way to support these more pastoral bishops, while at the same time highlighting that an individual bishop's primary responsibility is to his diocese. Only secondarily is he responsible for the universal church through his membership of the college of bishops. After some reflection CSO drew-up a Petition to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). The Petition asked the bishop to ...
- Acknowledge that there is a major crisis in ministry within the Australian Church
- Acknowledge that there is no doctrinal barrier to the ordination of married men
- Take practical steps toward ordaining suitably qualified married men
- Encourage the discussion of the role of women in ministry and in the authority structures of the Church
- Encourage discussion of the question of women's ordination
- Establish appropriate training programs to prepare both men and women for ministry
- Invite priests who have left the ministry to return to active ministry.
CSO contacted more than 100 parishes (out of 1300) across all dioceses in Australia and asked them to request parishioners to sign the Petition. People did so after Sunday Mass in droves. CSO also set-up a meeting at Camberwell Town Hall in Melbourne attended by more than 600 people to explain and support the Petition. Despite the presence of an extremely noisy and disruptive group of (mainly) young reactionaries, those in attendance supported the Petition overwhelmingly.
Almost 17,000 Catholics, including 168 priests, many of them senior priests, eventually signed the Petition. CSO understands that the bishops did discuss the matters raised in the Petition and then handed it over to the central committee of the ACBC for further deliberation. CSO had heard nothing definitive for seven months until we received a letter dated 9 May 2008 from the-then President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide. Wilson told CSO: 'The matters [you] raise in the Petition are of quite diverse doctrinal and disciplinary import. They are also largely beyond our competence as a National Conference of Bishops within the universal Church. Your letter seems to underestimate the challenges to faith which we now confront. It would not, therefore, be appropriate in these circumstances for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to engage in on-going correspondence with you on these issues. The Bishops will, however, continue in other ways to address the current challenges.'
Essentially Wilson was telling us that the issues raised were 'beyond their competence' as a Conference. This is an unsatisfactory reply. It is surely the responsibility of the Australian bishops to provide the sacraments and appropriate pastoral care for the local church. But they have become so beholden to the Vatican that they seem to have abrogated their primary responsibility to the local church and to its people. The Australian bishops are not alone in this; it is a problem in most countries with the Vatican exercising rigid control over the local Churches in an attempt to re-interpret the thrust and meaning of the Second Vatican Council.
So much for the views of 16,746 Mass-going Catholics including 168 priests, most of them senior parish priests from about 120 selected parishes from across all Australian dioceses.
Following the enormous work put into the Petition CSO decided that we needed to facilitate a major research project to understand fully the actual situation of priests and parishes in Australia. This gradually developed into the major project undertaken by Dr Peter Wilkinson which in 2011 became Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster? Peter prepared an update of the statistics in 2012.
CSO believes that the result of the crisis in ministry will be that more and more people, especially in rural areas, will be deprived of the Eucharist. This is an intolerable, even heretical situation in an essentially sacramental Church like ours.
Undeterred by Archbishop Wilson's response CSO also asked the bishops to set up mediation structures so that Catholics can, in the tradition of the Gospel, work through their disagreements and conflicts in a Christian way. Even though it is mandated by the new Code of Canon Law and has been called for by Pope John Paul II, the Bishops' Committee on Canon Law have admitted to CSO that nothing along the lines of a grievance procedure has been established in Australia.
Since then CSO held a meeting in Melbourne in mid-2009 bringing together from across the country some 50 representatives from reform-minded groups and interested religious orders. We spent the day building bridges between the different groups and individuals.
As part of this co-operative process CSO have worked closely with WATAC — Women and the Australian Church — on a number of issues. This co-operation began with the Vatican's imposition of the new, or perhaps more accurately 'olde' English translation of the Mass. After Paul Collins published his pamphlet And Also With You. Is the New English Version of the Mass a Betrayal of Vatican II? Bernice Moore of WATAC approached CSO to see how we could work on this issue together. We sent copies of the Collins pamphlet, and information on the US webpage 'What if we said Wait?' to every parish in Australia and asked for responses. These were many and varied and came to WATAC via post, phone and email. All were honest and many were passionate. These responses were compiled into another pamphlet which was sent to all those who responded — almost all were parish priests — as well as to the Australian bishops.
CSO, together with WATAC and Catholics for Renewal facilitated An Australian Catholic Coalition - A Call for Church Renewal (ACCCR) based on the Call to Renewal statement and with the October meeting of 2013 established a tangible base for renewal within Australian Catholicism. We have also developed, with a number of other Catholic renewal groups, a Parish Charter to celebrate Vatican II.
Despite set-backs, CSO remains hopeful and we have been especially strengthened by the approach taken by Pope Francis. Nevertheless, we are increasingly of the opinion that a more direct approach to those issues that impede the implementation of Vatican Council II is required. This means that laypeople will have to have the courage to assume increasing levels of ministerial leadership in the Church. Thus our title — Catholics Speak Out.