The Catholic Church in Australia is about to engage in a major consultation of its members. This is the first such consultation in almost 70 years. Why now? There could be any of a number of reasons. Nationally, Mass attendance has dropped from over 50% in the 1950s to about 10% today. Many parishes are struggling financially. The Royal Commission into institutional responses to the sexual abuse of minors in the Australian Catholic Church, delivered a caustic report revealing that the very culture of the Church is now toxic.
Could the proposed consultation be a positive step, a “getting on the front foot” reaction to the crises? Perhaps. For some it may well be another bureaucratic attempt to be seen to be doing something, when in reality it is a process with the wrong focus. Catholics are being seduced by the trumpeting of “we are listening” – a component of consultation. But listening is not enough. The consultation, part of the Plenary Council, occupies most of the process time which also includes: consolidation of emerging ideas, reflection on ideas, and summative papers. The end product is some form of draft pastoral decrees and legislation which will go to the final session of the Council in May 2021.
What is wrong with this process? This seems a fair question. It is the focus that governs everything. The process is aiming to listen to thousands of different issues, when in fact there is only one glaring issue which ultimately determines the fate of every other issue. The culture of the church is toxic and must be changed. This is the most important message given to the Catholic Church in its history in this country. It does not matter what other changes might be agreed to, even legislated. If you try to plant changes into a toxic culture, there can be only one result – death by poisoning!
The Council needs to change its focus to solving this problem. A changed focus will require a changed process. The changed process should give priority to engaging the services of those who can help the Church to detoxify the body corporate. No other goal matters at this point. The focus must change from issues identification to restoring health; to curing the malaise; to eliminating the toxic culture.
Who can help?
One obvious group of experts, are well credentialed cultural anthropologists. If their expertise is combined with the experience of the Catholics of Australia, there exists a productive form of consultation. Productive, because the focus would be on alternative solutions, not more issues. Catholics could listen to some expert advice (a la the Royal Commission), debate the pros and cons, and finally agree upon a remedy which may take a generation to implement – at least as long as it took the existing toxic culture to emerge. In this process the listening is not seducing people away from the real issue, but is at the heart of solving the problem.
Cultural change usually requires some form of intervention. Such intervention needs to be expert, well-resourced, and sustained over a long period. The intervention must tackle the taboos of power, privilege, and prestige; issues of transparency and accountability; and must close the gap between rhetoric and reality. The current work of the Royal Commission into the banking and financial services industries in Australia, has shone a spotlight on many cultures that require such intervention. The Catholic Church is no exception. Whilst admitting errors, none of these institutions has promised cultural reform. Why?
Could the answer lie in the belief that culture is just one of the issues facing the organisation? It is a mistake to think this way. Culture is a qualitatively different issue from all other issues. Everything thrives or dies in the culture of an organisation. If you want to restore health to a seriously ill organisation, then first change its culture. All other changes will occur naturally after that. Not to treat the culture first, is to become suicidal.
Garry Everett is a 77-year-old recent widower, with 5 adult children and 9 grand-children. He is a cradle Catholic; attended Catholic schools; acquired academic qualifications including in theology; have been a student and facilitator of change in organisations, especially in Church, for almost 50 years; and has taught at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. He has had a number of articles published in religious media. He is a hope-filled pro-active person, who believes that people are co-creators with God. Together, the seemingly impossible becomes possible.