Catholic priesthood crisis

ABC Local Radio, Sunday, March 6, 2011

Please note: the following is not an exact transcription of the audio of this program available at href=” In the absence of a transcript provided by the ABC, it seeks, rather, to be an accurate representation of some parts of the discussion. See my commentary, and feel free to leave comments, on this post on my blog: Two Completely Different Ideas of the Church: A Tale of Two Radio Programs.]

The Website for Sunday Nights describes this program as follows:

This week saw the release of two publications on the Priesthood in the Catholic Church in Australia. The first is the announcement of a forthcoming book on the Priesthood by Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll, the second is a research document by Peter J. Wilkinson. Both regard the priesthood as facing a crisis. Wilkinson actually suggests a coming disaster.

There is a crisis in the Catholic priesthood. Beset by scandal, ageing, and with evergrowing workloads, the priesthood in an age of doubt is no place for the fainthearted.

One of the reports concentrated on the statistics, the other one surveys and interviews with priests about their view of their vocation.

We bring together the authors of the reports, together with one of Australia’s most experienced church leaders. Bishop Patrick Power, Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn.Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll are the authors of ‘OUR FATHERS: What Australian Catholic Priests Really Think about their Lives and their Church’, to be released at the end of the month by John Garrett publishing. . Peter J. Wilkinson is the author of ‘CATHOLIC PARISH MINISTRY IN AUSTRALIA: FACING DISASTER’. We are also joined by Bernice Moore of Women and the Australian Church, one of the groups that supported Peter Wilkinson’s research.

Peter Wilkinson: The study is based on official data; I did it with the one goal to inform myself. Catholic population is growing, particularly with migrants, and about 100,000 per year. The church in its organisational development needs to plan for priests to serve the church in the future. An alarming rate of decline in the number of priests. 750 active priests under 60 years old. [Wilkinson doesn’t actually give the numbers of the increase in seminarians]. At least one third of seminarians are from overseas. Approximately 20 to 22% of priests are sourced from overseas.

John Cleary: Why is this a “disaster”?

Peter Wilkinson: The role of the parish priest is to provide pastoral care for his parish community. The lack of resident priests, merged parishes.

Chris McGillion: A question of morale and workload. John and I decided to go with “a forum in which priests could vent their spleen completely anonymously”. The rate of regular Mass attendances plummeted. There has been a doubling of Catholic population but massive collapse of regular Mass attendance.

John Cleary: Is the reason for this secular society or lack of priests?

Chris McGillion: Probably the former. 90% of our respondents said that life is a priest has been fulfilling. A small minority feel they are locked in this situation. This is a reflection on the nature of the profession rather than the vocation. The priest is stressed and overworked and poorly managed, having work that he feels has very little to do with priesthood and more to do with bureaucracy and parish administration. The sex abuse crisis has made it more difficult, one priest said he doesn’t feel he can enter a schoolyard without feeling under suspicion.

John O’Carroll: The decline in Mass attendance is an issue – “we are dying”. Also the ageing of parishioners.

Pat Power: Need to remember that good things are happening on the ground. The ones going to Mass are still very much a part of the scene. They are a source of “good news”. I wrote to the Pope about the critical lack of clergy and the diocese of Wilcannia Forbes, focusing on health and morale issues, requesting decisive action to address this crisis.

John Cleary: I raise the matter of the 1998 Synod of Bishops on Oceania and the “statement of conclusions”, which said “get your act together”. Wasn’t it a bit of a tough judgement?

Pat Power: I felt it was an unfair judgement, came from discontented people in Australia with a particular point of view. [Regarding my letter to the Pope] tonight I felt was the time to talk about it. I raise the issue of married men being ordained to the priesthood, and also asked for consideration of the readmission of priests who have left active ministry.

John Carroll: This was a courageous move. Many priests showing this kind of personal courage speaking out within the system, and going to the media in the end.

Bernice Moore: Advocating married priests. Obvious the present model of ministry is not working. No real consultation or accepting accountability to the people of God at this stage. We have the best educated laity that we have ever had and why not begin to think of another way of ministry and why not enable the giftedness of those people and there are men and women with tertiary qualifications in theology and they could immediately have their gifts enabled. There are ex-priests who are married who could be enabled. Why do we resist… – The thinking behind the refusal to ordain women? What’s that about?

John Cleary: Well there are a number of issues you raise there, Bernice Moore, as an active layperson in the Church, a committed Catholic.

Chris McGillion: The paradox: priests are vocationally fulfilled but professionally challenged: issues of governance. Priests feel disdain, distaste, to the way the Vatican has pursued governance and judgement of the Australian bishops as a whole within Australia. Priests told us that the order of priority of the internal challenges to be faced by the church are 1) lay involvement, 2) Mass attendance, 3) priesthood reform (meaning questions about priests who have left and married coming back and questions about women being ordained). And only at fifth-place recruiting more vocations. This is 180° different from the official priorities.

John Cleary: The nature of the priesthood? What is the priest?

Pat Power: We’d always see the ordained priesthood in terms of the total mission of the church, not in any way isolated or opposed to the vocation of the whole people of God. Bernice mentioned women’s ordination. There are theological implications of that proposal. 17,000 Australian Catholics signed a petition asking to look again at the ordination of women. At the moment the issue is seen as a closed question and most Catholics would see the need to examine this whole issue again.

Bernice Moore: We are calling on Tradition to be used as the answer to why we cannot call on a wider definition of ministry. The ordination of women is impossible because of Tradition. Married priests, optional celibacy, and so on. [Quotes poem:] “Tradition doesn’t have to weigh us down… We have made these things, we can unmake them.”

John Cleary: The church recognises that there is a crisis, but some sections of the church, and Rome particularly at the moment, is saying that the way forward is to pull up the drawbridge, and to say the way forward is to look at who we once were and not at who we might become.

Pat Power: That’s true, but there are also a significant number of Catholics and I suppose they are the ones still going to Mass, who would be taking just that attitude. Australian bishops must represent to Rome the kind of things we are hearing tonight. A much bigger picture than just World Youth Day, as in my letter to the Pope.

Peter Wilkinson: The Statement of Conclusions told Australian priests to affirm their identity, they should give greater attention to “pious practices”, and to retrieve for themselves those tasks entrusted to the laity but rightly belonging to the ordained clergy. This is flying in the face of what Catholics in Australia are saying. It seems to me that the Australian church as church hasn’t really yet come to grips with Australian culture. There are many good qualities in the Australian culture absent from the church.
1) Democratic process. We expect this in government and public corporations, but it is largely absent from the church.
2) Gender equality and equality of opportunity. That discrimination exists in our church. Gender equality and equality of opportunity are not there.
3) Freedom of expression
4) Transparency and accountability from those who govern us and are in authority. It’s not there in our church
5) Cultural and religious tolerance. That I would say is in our church, and highly commendable.
But so many of our best values are not present in the church, and I think Catholics in this country are not entirely at home because those values are not present and they are not incorporated in the way the Catholic Church conducts its business.

Pat Power: I believe all these values were enshrined in the Second Vatican Council, and it is one of my regrets that we seem to be resiling from the teaching of the Council.

Chris McGillion: [quotations from priests we interviewed:] “Practising homosexuals, divorced and remarried Catholics, Catholics who are living together but aren’t married all find a place in my parish, but they don’t find a place in my church.” “My parish is disconnected effectively from the institutional church. They will not give money to a diocesan charitable fund because they know that a part of that money will go to the training of seminarians that they don’t feel comfortable with, or will go to the upkeep of the Archdiocese which they’re not particularly happy about but they’ll come up to me after the collection and say ‘Father, if you need any money for anything let us know and we’ll give it to you.'”

Bernice Moore: The decrease in the number of people going to Mass and so on. Having spent most of my life as a teacher in Catholic secondary schools, I see very clearly what has happened with the young and this is a disconnect which is what we are talking about.

John Cleary: Is there a change in sensibilities, Bernice, over simple things such as “what is sin?”, For example?

Bernice Moore: I would agree totally. Once you see you cannot unsee, and so they’re not going back to another black and white, this is bad, this is good.

John Cleary: We have Father Daniel Donovan on the line. Father Donovan has been concerned about the priesthood for a number of years

Daniel Donovan: I feel that priests have not really been consulted in much that has gone on in the church over the last few years. Many of them after ordination have been put into parishes… After seminary training that didn’t really prepare you for life in a parish. We came from, like, a monastic type of preparation, and it was very difficult just to translate that into the lives of ordinary people, and to serving them, and I think that one of the big problems that has come in this “reversal” as I see it, of parish life is the fact that the priests who have achieved that relationship with their people have now been put back into their areas which were no longer what they had been doing, but they have to reverse what they’re been doing and the things they have learnt through their experience… At sea about the real role of the laity. The laity could be more involved… Religious sisters and people being involved in parish ministries, and I see that as a big step forward. I went into a parish once to look after it while the parish priest had gone on holidays and one of the ladies said to me, she “enjoyed Sister’s mass better than Father’s”. And she was a regular goer. So I think there is a lot that religious sisters can contribute to parishes.

John Cleary: Do you think there is something about the nature of the priesthood itself that needs to be tackled?

Daniel Donovan:… Most of the priests have solved that kind of question in their own minds and in their own parishes, but I do think that what we are getting today is a kind of a new vent on priesthood – it’s clericalism, and I think that when the clericalism comes in with many people kind of feeling they’re better than – it tends to kind of sully the waters of priesthood as service, and that’s been my concern for a while. I’ve had a little bit to do with some of the seminarians were coming through, and it’s very much a kind of closed shop, and their kind of a sense is, you know, that they’re going to go out there and tell the people how to kind of reach salvation…

John Cleary: So it is a reassertion of the old high view of the priesthood?

Daniel Donovan: Very much so, and I think that that is one of the things that Rome, particularly in that Statement of Conclusions, was looking at: how the priests more or less keep that line between the people and themselves and I find that a very kind of an unsatisfactory way of approaching people. And I just feel that people today are looking for a ministry, but they somehow or other don’t want the institutional church. I get a call or lots of calls from undertakers asking me if I will do a funeral at a cemetery in a chapel at the cemetery because people want the priest but they do not want to go to a church to be told how they have to organise their funeral service… So I think that the institutional church is still saying that we must get back to what it was before, and keep that dividing line between people and themselves.

John Cleary: We have two competing views of the church, the people of God. One is the reassertion of the high view of the priest as the voice of authority, the other, Bernice and others have outlined to us, is this growing understanding of the laity as the people of God and in some ways laity better skilled to help the church in all sorts of ways than the priesthood is.

Pat Power: Well, I don’t think it’s an either/or thing, John.

John Cleary: But it’s being presented as an either or by certain elements in the church.

Pat Power: I’d say in the best parishes that I see there is that sense of collaboration… One of the things that I would really appeal to people, particularly listeners denied that might somehow or other feel on the edge for alienated or so on, don’t ever lose sight of your own sense of ownership within the life of the church. It belongs just as much to you, to every baptised person, as it does to the Pope himself.

John Cleary: But people are feeling that that sense of ownership is not being honoured…

Please remember that the above does not make a claim to be an accurate transcription of the radio program. For the original audio of this program, see: href=”