Fatal fault line in Catholic Church governance
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Fatal fault line in Catholic Church governance

By Robert Carey

The culture in the Catholic Church of covering up the sexual abuse of minors by clergy has come into sharp focus in Australia during the recent trial of its cardinal, George Pell. Pell boasted of having implemented best practice in the Church’s response to sexual abuse in the Church. When he was Archbishop of Melbourne (1996–2001), he introduced the “Melbourne Response”, a set of policies for the compensation of abuse victims. The model is now discredited, with some saying the Melbourne Response was Pell’s way of ensuring the Church’s handling of sexual abuse complaints was not transparent and that any response to victims remained firmly under the control of the Church and of Pell himself. 

The culture of cover-up is hardly a new thing in institutions and neither is its repudiation. Half a century ago the battle lines were clearly drawn in the Catholic Church between those calling for more transparency in Church communication and those vested in a culture of unaccountability. This battle occurred at a watershed moment in the Catholic Church’s history. Between 1962 and 1965, the Church held an ecumenical council of all the Church’s bishops, the Second Vatican Council. It was a reforming moment that promised a new dawn for the Church – and also a degree of instability. Issues and questions hitherto out of bounds, or apparently settled, were put on the table: relations with other Christians, with the Jews and with non-believers; the relevance of traditional liturgical practices; the structure of the priesthood; the practices of religious communities; the role of the lay faithful; and the question of whether or how Catholic teaching might be adapted to modern life.

For the first time in such a forum, the Church ventured, in the Council’s Inter Mirifica decree, proposals about how the Church might better manage its internal and external communications. Among the principles advocated, was the primary role of the Catholic press in “supporting and advancing public opinion” in the Catholic community. The innocent phrase “public opinion” referenced a discourse during the preceding decade which proposed an open, two-way dialogue in the Church, promoted by people such as Jesuit theologians Karl Rahner (in his “Free Speech in the Church“) and John Courtney Murray (adviser to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council) – and even by a pope. Pius XII told Catholic newspaper editors in 1950 that enabling the expression of public opinion was fundamental to the role of a Catholic newspaper.

Contemporary with the Council, and no doubt inspired by it, a smaller movement arose within the Catholic press in Australia and the United States in particular. Certain editors began to push for a more open dialogue in their publications and for more independence in the making of editorial decisions. While undeniably loyal to the Church, these editors were ready to challenge any Church authorities who wished to censor information to which they felt readers entitled. They resisted attempts by those authorities to limit their efforts to stimulate open conversations in their newspapers. They argued that this was the Catholic press’s very role and that the changing times made the argument for a more liberal Catholic press the more compelling. Their readers needed to know about the new ideas that were challenging old orthodoxies. The liberal editors had no blueprint for this new approach – and certainly no official mandate – but the outlines of a “liberal project” in the Catholic press were clearly discernible.

History shows that the attempt by these editors to make their journals “real newspapers” was short-lived. Nevertheless, for a short time the liberal project could be seen in sharp relief in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The associate-editor of The Advocate, the long-running Catholic weekly there, was a diocesan priest, Michael Costigan. Appointed as de-facto editor late in 1961, Costigan began to open up the pages of his newspaper to a broader discussion on the issues which were then troubling Catholics. The discussion was too broad for the Church hierarchy and Costigan soon found himself in conflict with Church authorities.

The Vietnam War and birth control

In the 1960s, two topics in particular drove discussion and argument among Catholics, one with wide social implications – the Vietnam War – and the other of particular interest to Church members – birth control. In these years, Australia’s and the Catholic Church’s support of the Vietnam War were in lock-step. News and opinion about the war would occupy many columns in The Advocate, but editorials were consistently behind the war effort. Anxiety about the conflict was increasing, however, especially over the sending of Australian conscripts to fight in Vietnam, and leaders of other Christian Churches were speaking out against the war.

Nevertheless, the Catholic bishops’ absolute conviction about the justness of the cause of defeating communism in Vietnam did not appear to allow for any meaningful discussion of the justness of the means. But the decision by Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1966 to send conscripts to Vietnam saw The Advocate break with the Church party-line. The Advocate’s declaration in March 1966 that the Prime Minister had no right to send conscripts to Vietnam brought an immediate condemnation of that view by the Church hierarchy and the conservative, Catholic-backed Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Costigan became a prime target of attack by the dominant conservative side of Church politics. Costigan said later: “I think if we published an article denying the truth of the Blessed Trinity no one would take any notice, but if we deviate from the DLP line then all hell breaks loose.” The Advocate had challenged Church doctrine on the war but, in some minds, it had committed a greater sin by suggesting that the role of a Catholic paper might be more than to merely represent the “official” view of Church authorities.

A topic with even greater impact on the lives of ordinary Catholics was birth control. Traditional Catholic teaching held that no artificial means of contraception was allowed. But the pope who proposed the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII, had established a small commission of theologians to look at the issue. For a long time there had been ambiguity about the Church’s position, and the new birth control pill had just made that position more ambiguous. As The Advocate drew fire over Vietnam, it incurred the further ire of Church authorities by publishing views suggesting the Church’s teaching on birth control might be relaxed.

One such expression of opinion had the backing of a member of the Pope’s birth control commission, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Julius Döpfner. Döpfner’s archdiocese had released a statement suggesting there might well be circumstances justifying Catholics’ use of the pill – such as the case of young couples who “after only a few years of marriage easily find themselves in the distressing situation in which it would be irresponsible to have another child”. This was a revolutionary statement from a Catholic cardinal, and the Advocate’s report was instantly picked up by the local press.

The Advocate was condemned by Church officials for carrying such a controversial statement, notwithstanding it was by a Catholic cardinal. Costigan said some of his fellow priests “were ready to tear me limb from limb for printing the Döpfner statement”. Döpfner, under pressure himself, later backed away from his statement. For Catholics, however, discussion about the continuing dilemmas and difficulties raised by the birth control pill could not be easily hosed down by the backtracking of a cardinal or the affirmation of traditional doctrine by an archbishop’s secretary. In the event, Pope Paul VI did not move on the Church’s traditional teaching on artificial contraception, when he issued his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae virtually banning the pill. It was a moment of disillusionment. The Church’s credibility in the eyes of many Catholics was irreversibly damaged and many made a break with the institution in these years.

Costigan resigned as editor in 1969, but not before further Church condemnation of the Advocate’s support of the peace movement (“communist-influenced”, said Melbourne Church officials) and dialogue with communists (“naïve capitulation”). Immediately following Costigan’s resignation, the then Archbishop, James Knox, appointed an editorial board to keep watch over the Advocate’seditorial direction, and the paper’s declining years would see the appointment of a succession of mostly conservative editors. Costigan was not alone in his fight for more editorial freedom, nor in his failure to convince authorities of its necessity. As the 1960s drew to a close, doors were closing on the liberal project wherever it had been attempted in Catholic newspapers around the world.

Tighter editorial control

Proprietors of Catholic newspapers – namely, the bishops in charge of dioceses – began to exercise a much tighter rein on the editors of diocesan newspapers in the decades following the Vatican Council. They were encouraged to do so under a new conservative pope, John Paul II. “Fake news” had not become a watchword in those year, but it might be said that this is what readers were getting when they turned to the Catholic press for information about the Catholic Church. Should any readers wish to complain about selective information, they were unlikely to get a hearing in their Catholic newspaper.

After John Paul II decreed, in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that women could not be ordained priests, the editor of the conservative Sydney Catholic Weekly, Phil Pearman, was directed by the Weekly’s editorial board to announce that the newspaper would publish no further letters on the subject. A few Catholic editors repudiated this censorship, the Australian Catholic Press Association issuing this plea in June that year: “As a general principle, the credibility of the Catholic press depends on its freedom to discuss the issues that are important to its readers. [This credibility] is under serious threat if its readers know some of their letters will be censored.”

The Catholic Weekly defended its stance on the grounds that the Weekly was “an official organ of the church”. This became the default position of most of the bishop-proprietors of Catholic diocesan newspapers in Australia. By this time, it was universally understood, inside and outside the Church, that no more was to be expected from a Catholic diocesan newspaper than from a house organ.

The campaign of the liberal editors had not been simply about Catholic newspapers. Their cause was fundamentally about the health and credibility of the Church community itself. While their editorial battle was fought and lost, the legacy of that defeat echoes loudly in the Catholic Church today, as its leaders stand charged with a gross failure of accountability. What redeeming light might have been shone in dark places, far earlier, were the liberal project to have prospered? What better scrutiny of Church governance might there have been if the Catholic press had held up a more “truthful mirror” to itself – as the second pope of the Council, Paul VI, proposed in 1964?

It is not too late for a reform of the clerical culture that has enforced censorship in the Catholic press over recent decades – but can we expect to see a new encouragement of dialogue by Church leaders and an invitation to scrutinise Church governance, any time soon? Will there be a sincere attempt to root out the deeply-ingrained clericalism that allows Church leaders to be unaccountable? The signs are not promising.

Despite the court cases, Pell still casts a long shadow in the Australian Catholic Church. His brand of Catholicism, which he continues to promote, is one of rigid conformity to Church doctrine and obedience to Church authorities. For him, the doctrine that Catholics might be free in their conscience appears to be anathema. Over the past decades, Pell used his influence to ensure the appointment of bishops in his image to the highest places in the Catholic Church in Australia. The archbishops in the largest Australian capitals – Anthony Fisher in Sydney and Peter Comensoli in Melbourne – are both protégés of Pell, and Pell was influential in their appointments. A long reign is expected for Comensoli, appointed Archbishop of Melbourne in 2018 at only 54 years of age.

On the eve of his first anniversary as Archbishop, Comensoli appeared to see a threat from a visit to Melbourne of an American Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, who had been expecting an invitation to speak later this year at a National Catholic Education conference in Melbourne. Chittister has been a long-term advocate of church reform and for the greater role of women in the Church. Comensoli apparently vetoed the invitation, requesting the organisers to consider other keynote speakers. Many Melbourne Catholics were alarmed that the new Archbishop did not seem to welcome the kind of dialogue this widely published 85-year-old Catholic author promotes.

The failure of the liberal project in the Australian Catholic press, at the very least, left a culture wherein the Church was less accountable to its people and less able to respond transparently to institutional problems. It is a moot point whether the lessons have yet been learnt.

Sources for this article come from Robert Carey’s 2019 PhD thesis: “Freedom in the Catholic press: a case study of the Melbourne Advocate in the 1960s”, published by Monash University, Melbourne.


Photo at top: Cardinal George Pell. Photo: © Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk/Flickr.com

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