That Petition: "A Letter to the Catholic Bishops of Australia"

I have been a bit slow of late getting onto this matter. I was alerted to the Petition “A Letter to the Catholic Bishops of Australia” when it came out, but have only just gotten around to reading it because it was not high on my priorities.

But I am aquainted with one of the drafters, Frank Purcell. I don’t want to question either Frank Purcell’s or Paul Collin’s sincerity, or that of the other signatories. Sincerity, however, isn’t the issue here. The fact is that what they are asking for is directly contrary to law of the Church (canon law) and to the law of God (God’s Word revealed in the Scriptures, interpreted by Sacred Tradition and clarified for today by the Magisterium). That should be enough for us. But not for the petitioners.

Perhaps their problem is a certain degree of positivism–the idea that the only thing that is blocking the Catholic Churches in Australia (there is no such thing as the “Australian Catholic Church”–the “national Church” is not a “Church in the proper sense”) from ordaining married men and women is some positivist law from “the Vatican”. In short, some things can’t be done because the can’t (in objective reality) be done, not just because some nominal authority says that they can’t be done.

Here is the text of the petition and my comments in [bold]:

18 June 2007

Dear Bishop ______________,

We write to you as members of the Australian Catholic Church to express deep concern about several key challenges that are facing us all as Catholics. At the same time we are especially heartened that the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has commissioned excellent research projects on the specific issues that we wish to highlight.

These specific issues are:

The increasingly acute shortage of suitable priests to maintain our Mass-centred, Eucharistic spirituality and the celebration of the other sacraments; [I wish I could believe that the petitioners were really concerned about the priest shortage–which has been a result of a lack of evangelisation and catechisation as much as anything (the reapplication of which is the real solution to the priest shortage–as I have said before, this isn’t rocket science). But here it is simply used as fuel to the fire for their argument for married and female priests.]
The increasing drift of young people from the Church because of the difficulties we face in our ministry to them. [Again the solution is evangelisation and catechisation. I wonder if the petitioners are all supporters of WYD? I also wonder how having married and women priests are expected to minister to the young better? It doesn’t seem to have worked for those protestant communions which have both.]
The lack of full leadership roles for women. [I wonder about the word “full” and even more about the word “leadership”. The Church supports women in leadership roles in society, and it is arguably the case that there are more women currently leading in the Church’s parishes throughout Australia than men. Nevertheless, I thought the point of the Church was to provide servanthood roles for its members rather than leadership roles]

It is obvious to most Catholics that there is a major crisis of ministry and leadership in Australian Catholicism. A number of bishops have acknowledged this. This is already limiting the Church’s capacity to provide Mass and the sacraments for the Catholic community. It is also damaging the Church’s capacity to provide pastoral care and is limiting its missionary role in the wider secular community. The Church, at its best, could play a crucial role in ameliorating the suffering and darkness in which so many people live: not only their mental, physical, emotional and psychological suffering, but their spiritual darkness as they search for meaning and direction in their daily lives. [No one has an argument with this.]

While it is true that bishops are constrained in what they can do by the Vatican [see what I mean by “positivism”? The Church is constrained in what it can do by God’s Word], the Catholic tradition is clear: the bishop’s primary responsibility is to his diocese and more broadly to the national Church. [A very odd ecclesiology here. For a start, there is no such thing as a “national Church” to which bishops are responsible, and secondly the bishops are as much responsible for collegiality and communion with the Una Sancta Catholica as they are for their own local particular Church.]

At the same time we are aware that there are many people in our communities who are already well educated in theology and liturgy and are well gifted with talent for pastoral ministry and leadership. [Education and talent, though extremely important in chosing candidates for the priesthood, do not in themselves make anyone a necessary candidate]

We are therefore asking each bishop individually and the bishops as a conference to:

Acknowledge that there is a major crisis in ministry within the Australian Catholic Church [many bishops have acknowledged this and that is why there are strong vocations programs in many dioceses];
Acknowledge that there is no doctrinal or theological barrier to the ordination of married men [While we can acknowlege this, we must also acknowledge that there are strong doctrinal and theological reasons for celibacy. The latter has been judged to outweigh any perceived benefits that would come from relaxing the canonical discipline of priestly celibacy]. The Australian Church [there it is again] has already ordained married former Anglican priests;
Take practical steps toward ordaining suitably qualified married men [this cannot be done because it is against canon law; the petitioners may wish the law to be changed, but cannot reasonably expect the bishops to act contrary to it as it stands];
Encourage a wide-ranging discussion of the role of women in ministry and in the authority structures of the Church, including the question of women’s ordination [it strikes me that the bishops would be far more agreeable to having such a “wide-ranging discussion” if it were made quite clear from the outset that it DID NOT INCLUDE the question of women’s ordination. On top of this, the petitioners are ignoring the fact that Pope John Paul II declared that the matter of the ordination of women cannot be “considered still open to debate” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).];
Establish appropriate scriptural, theological and pastoral training programs (campus, distance and online) to prepare suitable women and men for ministry [I believe these are generally called seminaries. Those diocese which do not have them might well think about establishing them]. These candidates should have the recommendation of their parishes and communities, and should participate in mentored pastoral work [There is always the possibility of priests mentoring local parishioners for a greater role in pastoral care of the parish. I did it when I was a parish pastor in the Lutheran Church and I know many priests who are doing it now in thier own parishes. We don’t need “experts” to prepare such practical leaders];
Invite priests who have left the ministry to return to active priesthood, subject to negotiation with the local bishop [There are canonical restrictions here–besides the issue of the fact that many have left to get married. Besides, do we really want to fill up our vacant parishes with men who have put their hand to the plough and turned back?].

We would therefore request that these issues be pl
aced on the agenda of the November plenary meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference later this year.

Your’s sincerely,

Paul Collins & Frank Purcell

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11 Responses to That Petition: "A Letter to the Catholic Bishops of Australia"

  1. Mike says:

    I find it funny that they’re publicising this as if it’s a major revolution or something. Of the 36 signatories – in most cases we already know they believe this stuff. It’s just not very impressive.

  2. Chris Burgwald says:

    Why do those who agitate for priestesses so often point to looming inavailability of the sacraments due to the priest shortage as the reason for ordaining women? After all, the reasons generally given for the necessity of the sacraments are based on particular doctrines authoritatively taught by the Magisterium. And many of those particular doctrines must also strike the agitators as as antiquated as the ordination of men alone; not only that, but the reason we believe that these doctrines are authentic is because they are taught by the Magisterium, as is the reservation of ordination to men alone.

    I certainly don’t think that all of these agitators are disingenuous… I just think that they haven’t considered the reasons why they think the sacraments are so important to begin with, and how their views on that matter squares with their dismissal of Magisterial teaching on ordination.

  3. Schütz says:

    Yes, it is worth asking which sacraments they view as so important?

    More deacons (married ones at that) would take care of baptisms and marriages.

    Bishops already cover confirmations and ordinations.

    So that leaves: Eucharist, Confession, Anointing.

    Why is it that we never hear enough about the way priest shortages affect the availability of the Sacrament of Confession?

    And since they are obviously willing to make alterations to the Sacrament of Holy Orders to meet their demands, why then, not agitate for changes to the requirements of the other sacraments? Why not agitate for lay presidency of the Eucharist? That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?

  4. Past Elder says:

    Welcome to the “Catholic Church”. What’s the big deal? It’s been this way since Vatican II. You didn’t notice?

    There is no such thing as the Australian Catholic Church.

    There is also no such thing as the word “your’s”.

    At one time, you didn’t get out of grade school (elementary school) not knowing that. But then at one time you didn’t get out of Catholic grade school not knowing that holding the positions of the “Petition” puts you outside of the Catholic faith.

    I hope you didn’t join the “Catholic Church” thinking things like the Petition were in any way uncharacteristic.

  5. Chris Burgwald says:

    Or to go even further, Schutz, why do these folks think we need any of those three sacraments anyway? What is the ground of their belief in any of even those?

  6. Tony Bartel says:

    I agree with most of what you write, David, and from the tone of the letter the petitioners sound as if they would be much happier being Anglicans (at least outside the Diocese of Sydney).

    However, I would make two observations.

    1) I think it is uncharitable to question their hunger to celebrate the Eucharist. I am not saying that they believe everything the magisterium teaches about that Sacrament, but it does seem highly likely that they acknowledge its central place in the Christian life. We do, after all, know other non-Catholic Christians who value the Eucharist, believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and wish to celebrate it every Lord’s day, if not daily. And some of these do, unfortunately, also advocate the ordination of women.

    2) I would be interested to know what the “strong doctrinal and theological reasons” for celibacy are.

    I can quite understand the Catholic position on celibacy for the priesthood as a matter of discipline. I can also certainly see how it has aided the apostolic ministry of the Church, freeing up men to devote their lives to the priesthood and to take on positions and situation that would be difficult for a married man.

    Nevertheless, if there are strong doctrinal and theological reasons for not ordaining married men, then it is difficult to see how exceptions can be made in the case of those previously ordained in other eccesial communities.

    It is more difficult to understand how this can continue to happen in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, where such ordination is not an exception, but a regular (and canonical) practice.

    I am not arguing about whether or not celibacy should be abandoned for Latin Rite priests. It may still be a very good thing for the Church and something that will continue to aid the apostolic mission of the Church. That is not my call to make and if I were Catholic I would be happy to leave that in the hands of the holy father. I just feel that it is a bit of a stretch to argue that there are strong doctrinal and theological reasons not to ordain married men, but then to allow it to happen in other contexts.

  7. Schütz says:


    I wasn’t suggesting that the petitioners were not serious in their desire for the Eucharist. However, 1) their desire for more priests seems exclusively attached to the priest as a Eucharistic supplier, and not to value the rest of priestly ministry, such as the Sacrament of Penance, and 2) they seem to have a policy of “The Eucharist at any cost”. The cost–of their plan to ordain women at least–would be an invalidation of the very Eucharist they seek.

    On the issue of the strong doctrinal and theological reasons for priestly celibacy, perhaps that is a subject in itself for a blog. For the moment, let us acknowlege the difference between something being doctrinally and theologically permissable, and something which is doctrinally and theologically desirable.

    The gift of celibacy has been of immense value to the Western priesthood, as it has been to the episcopacy in all rites. We could relax it, but we would need to be aware that we are “trading” one beneficial gift for another.

  8. Schütz says:

    Past Elder,

    “I hope you didn’t join the “Catholic Church” thinking things like the Petition were in any way uncharacteristic.”

    Thank you so much for your concern. I am touched.

    In fact, when I joined the Catholic Church I knew that there were many within her who held precisely these notions.

    However, I was also aware that she herself explicitly rejected these notions, and firmly resisted the sort of pressure that the petitioners bring to bear upon her bishops.

    The fact that the petition has a kitten’s chance at a Heavy Metal concert of being heard confirms my conviction that the Church governed by the Successor of Peter is indeed the Una Catholica.

  9. Christine says:

    The fact that the petition has a kitten’s chance at a Heavy Metal concert of being heard confirms my conviction that the Church governed by the Successor of Peter is indeed the Una Catholica.

    Amen to that, David! Same goes for here in the good old USA. The graying heads of the Call to Action crowd continue to agitate, to no avail.

    It is my understanding that Orthodox priests are obliged to abstain from relations with their wives the night before they celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

    I am very grateful that I am able to attend weekday Mass (or go to Confession, attend Eucharistic devotions, etc.) on my lunch hour at my downtown Diocesan Cathedral. A gift made possible by our celibate priests.

  10. Christine says:

    On the “Australian Catholic Church” — oh, those naughty fellows!

    Messrs. Collins and Purcell should be forced to write “The Catholic Church in Australia” on a particularly squeaky blackboard at least 300 times !

  11. Past Elder says:

    Well brother I think you think I was being sarcastic or something.

    Now I realise that in a religion shot through with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, development of doctrine, aggiornamento and clarification upon clarification the plain sense of the words is a novel concept (that was sarcasm) but that is all I meant — I hope you didn’t think this sort of thing was not normative in Catholic life, now.

    That things like the Petition are officially rejected in books on a shelf, within five feet of most chanceries, and in isolated circles here and there, and that to consider that typical of Catholic belief as actually lived and believed one must cling to that and ignore the experience of millions of Catholics world wide — that was on the list, though well down it, of reasons why I could no longer see the “Catholic Church” as either the Catholic Church or the catholic church.

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