GARRY J. EVERETT. The culture of the church – some personal experiences.

Currently the Catholic Church in Australia, and in a number of overseas countries (e.g. Chile and Ireland), is experiencing a crisis in its culture. In Australia the Royal Commission into sexual abuse of minors has described this culture as toxic. The Commission also described the culture as excessively clerical in the sense that it is based on notions of priestly power, privilege and prestige, accompanied by lack of transparency and accountability, as well as failing to engage the lay people effectively. In Rome, Pope Francis has described the culture of the Catholic Church in Chile as “one of abuse and cover-up”.

Culture is a difficult word to unpack. However, one of the simplest descriptions of culture is: “the way we do things around here”.  This description indicates that there is an established mode of operation known at least to those in power. It also implies that that mode is not open to negotiation; that the powerful always win and the powerless always lose. The culture also protects itself from close examination. This is a depiction of an unhealthy culture, but nonetheless a true description.

Sometimes it is helpful, in trying to understand a culture, to look at several examples of what might be termed “manifestations of the culture at work”.  The following examples are personal experiences drawn from the last few years of interacting with various levels of the clergy in Australia. While each example may appear insignificant, it is the cumulative effect of all the examples that reveals how the culture works and impacts on adherents.

Example 1. I have written to three different bishops on separate occasions concerning aspects of the Church. One bishop failed to acknowledge receipt of my three pieces of correspondence and did not reply. The other two bishops had secretaries who acknowledged receipt, but the bishops have never replied.

Example 2. I asked a parish priest about the size of the surplus in the parish accounts because it was not reported in any written information provided. The reply was: “it is prudent to have a surplus”. When pressed by a comment:”that was not the question”, the conversation was terminated.

Example 3. In 2015-16 the Vatican undertook a survey of church members on a range of issues related to the announced Synod on the Family.  It took a few hours to complete the survey, and I received a letter thanking me for the care and consideration displayed in completing the survey. However, those who completed the survey never received the results. We were denied the knowledge of what other Catholics thought on the issues. Apparently the decision not to share the results with contributors was only made once the returns were processed.

The above examples are personal, but in discussions with other Catholics it is apparent that I am not alone in experiencing these and other unhealthy aspects of Church culture. Of course those who experienced sexual abuse in the Church have publicly revealed their own examples of the how the culture of the Church failed them also.  The point is that one does not have to experience dramatic examples of cultural dysfunction in order to know that there are problems within the organization. It is the myriad of little slights (or “sleights”) that lead to a sense of betrayal of trust and alienation from the fold. Some perpetrators of the slights are probably unconscious of their behaviour, so ingrained has it become, and so rarely has it been subjected to analysis by them or others.

Sadly, any attempt to change  the culture  is usually controlled by the existing culture. Consequently, the expectation is that nothing will change, and the cynics will read that as a perfect illustration that the culture has won again. Already the recently launched Plenary Council in Australia has adversely come under scrutiny as being yet another example of poor process. It appears that the process itself was never widely consulted on among the laity before its adoption by the hierarchy.

The Church can do better, but not while it persists with old models of change processes that have failed to deliver the radical changes that the faithful feel are long overdue in this country.  The unhealthy culture identified by the Royal Commission and the Pope will see to that.

Garry Everett  is retired after a long career in education. Much of his work was in adult education. He has studied internationally with particular focus on theology, social justice and church renewal. Currently he consults on processes of change.

 

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10 Responses to GARRY J. EVERETT. The culture of the church – some personal experiences.

  1. Julian McPherson says:

    I’m an Australian living in Chile. My mother-in-law has been going to the same big city church for most of her life. She revealed this weekend that within the last 6 to 8 months Sunday attendances at her church have dropped off by about 70%. One has to assume that has happened all over this small country.

  2. Gregan McMahon says:

    Yes, and that’s why it’s hopeless to expect reform from the clergy: not only are they the last people to want change, they are the ones whose position is most at risk from it. Finding a process for change is going to be difficult if not impossible.

  3. Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, Garry. Your examples are indeed very indicative of the Church’s culture and will not surprise anyone who has had the temerity to ask the mildest of questions of the institutional church. The unaccountability and secrecy, together with a compliant culture bred into the faithful, ensure minimal challenges to Church leaders. Even the Plenary Council 2020/21, an apparent step towards inclusion of the faithful, will serve to defer action on the Royal Commission’s condemnation of that same culture; and the Plenary Council’s facilitators are already struggling to have bishops lead consultations in their dioceses. True listening would force a degree of accountability, transparency, and even inclusiveness. Even women would be listened to – dangerous stuff! How can any Catholic accept the unevidenced claim of the Magisterium that Jesus did not want women to be priests, let alone accept a culture that exalts bishops as the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, ignoring the views of the people of God? It’s past time for all Catholics to demand accountability from Church leaders.

    • You raise some very dangerous thoughts here Peter!!! This is what happens when the laity are better educated than in anytime in history – they start to query doctrine and ‘truths’ and find them wanting. The bishops are not used to being queried, because they are no longer to be seen as the fount of all knowledge and truth, and in fact, I wonder if they know how to communicate outside of so called pastoral letters, where they have the upper hand in the contents.

  4. Evan Hadkins says:

    Perhaps change will come when church members start organising their own meetings and render the hierarchy irrelevant (God won’t mind if people are kind to each other without a priest being present).

  5. Oh, Garry, how I sadly concur with your own experiences. The last straw came for me when I reached out to our then new Archbishop in Brisbane because a wonderful sermon he had given on seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the abused. After apparently reading my story given to him by the then head of the head of National Catholic Professional Standards was, “Oh that poor man”…..Months passed and I awaited a reply. After a number of emails, I was sent a dismissive letter saying how sorry he was for the situation “I had found myself in” and that the Church had done all they … well, were required to. I just wanted to meet him so he could actually see my face and hear my voice, but I never heard from him again even after many, many requests. But I get it now, and you have outlined it perfectly here. But what really upsets me now is that he is now head of the ACBC. And so, it goes on, but nothing actually changes. So, I chose to research the whole issue instead. Indeed, an co-authored article of mine has just been published (https://journals.equinoxpub.com/index.php/JASR/article/view/32747) one I hope he reads, after all he did inspire me.

  6. Oh, Garry, how I sadly concur with your own experiences. As a result, I chose to research the whole issue instead. Indeed, an co-authored article of mine has just been published (https://journals.equinoxpub.com/index.php/JASR/article/view/32747) one I hope the ACBC, especially its head, reads, after all it was he who ‘inspired’ me.

  7. Garry I submitted a 32,000 word submission on the enquiry which took some weeks in a busy teaching career based on the principles I had been taught in various theology courses , the last school of thought was the practical school of theology developed in USA. I also depended upon my observations over a forty six year carer in secondary teaching where we had regular pastoral experience of all the issues raised. Given that the fundamental teaching of Jesus is based on inclusion, forgiveness. love and solidarity which Paul continued in his letters it was not hard to distinguish what the Bishops should do to reform the man made rules they had brought in . I received a note of acknowledgement and was heartened by Mark Coleridge’s response to my question that he read every submission overs some months before the synod which covered the whole spectrum from acceptance to rejection although this is antithetical to Jesus teaching and Pope Francis theme that we should love not judge as well as modern knowledge of human psychology and sexuality. I was further encouraged by his report after the Synod of how Francis played positive politics by maintaining the status quo for now but making hard line conservatives justify their positions which caused some re- thinking while organizing sub committees with chairmen and secretaries that would move the debate along. As we know this is long process but in the interim h has given local bishops the ability to act pastorally which happens in many parishes on a regular basis with no fanfare.
    The recent analogy that the problem isn’t the rotten fish but the barrel is apt because this is certainly a situation where we need new wineskins to remain relevant as revelation moves on to a new age just as Jesus challenged the age old rules in the Jewish Church of his lifetime by touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners and outcasts etc.
    That problem is not new and is something we have struggled with since the Constantine embraced Christianity as a political solution and then turned the Institution into a Roman Empire Department. While this has brought some benefits , it has equally brought all the problems identified in the Royal Commission where the Corporate leadership has not adjusted to the changing nature of its flock form accepting servants to people with faith seeking understanding who will see, judge and act based on what the gospel has inspired them to do.

  8. Wayne, I’m not sure from where you are coming or what point/s you are exactly trying to make but it sounds like you are questioning Garry’s conclusions. Either way I have a question: Was Jesus loving, judging or doing something else when he continually questioned, criticised and admonished others, including the equivalent of the ‘priests and bishops’ of his day, who were not being who they should be, not acting in love and service of those in most need, not being God/Love. Paraphrasing Jesus, it is easy to ‘reply’ to people who support you and who have bowed down to you; much harder to admit fear and error, and respond to those who may be questioning, criticising and admonishing you because you are not representing the Person who anointed you to represent Him, and gave you your reason to exist in the role you do. The story of the Good Samaritan, for example, not only taught, “who is my neighbour” it also deeply criticised the established clergy and their culture (beliefs, attitudes and behaviours). The woman about to be stoned not only taught ‘we should not judge’ but that we should perhaps look beyond the superficial, and deeper into the heart of a ‘sinning’ person, an act which may result in conversion of that person: Remember Jesus sort of ‘judged’ her when he also said “stop being a prostitute”. It also ‘judged’ those who are willing to thoughtlessly and self-righteously throw stones at others when we should be throwing them at ourselves especially if we metaphorically use the ‘prostitutes’ we are stoning for our own pleasure. He was ‘criticising, questioning, admonishing the status quo of his day, and those who wanted to maintain that status quo for their own benefit and at the expense of others, sort of like the clericalist Church today.

  9. The church needed lay people to “demand some explanation” and have the courage to tell church leaders “This is the path I think we have to take”, the Pope said. I hope Mark Coleridge is listening, and the 2020 meet allows this to occur.

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