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Catholicism: where to now?


Paul Collins, UNSW Press, $34.95. Foreword by Geraldine Doogue.

Reviewed by Br Brian Grenier CFC

AMID the euphoria that accompanied the World Youth Day in Sydney, even the prophets of doom among us might have responded positively, if unreflectively, to the question that forms the subtitle of Paul Collins’s latest book.

He himself is hopeful and optimistic; but he is also conscious of the considerable obstacles that can jeopardise the future of Catholic Christianity in this country and impede the mission which is its raison d’être.

Forestalling the criticism of those who scan his books only with a view to finding texts to sustain a prejudice, Paul Collins begins by identifying what is right and highly commendable in contemporary Australian Catholicism.

As he clearly demonstrates, the Catholic Church here has much to be thankful for, to rejoice in and to be proud of. It continues to be an influential force for good in the wider society.

In his sober and objective analysis of the present state of Australian Catholicism, supported by research findings and statistics, the writer identifies the problems the Church faces here and now and questions the facile attribution of its shortcomings to the prevailing secular culture that treats matters religious with indifference or hostility.

Many of our troubles are, he asserts, of our own making, as indeed their remedies must also be.

Among these problems Paul Collins includes: a lack of effective pastoral leadership, the decline in Mass attendance, the fallout from sexual abuse scandals, the persistence of clericalism even among some newly ordained, and the “completely self-inflicted” shortage of priests (something that would have been, in Schillebeeckx’s words, an “ecclesiastical impossibility” in the early Church).

Not willing to succumb to the “compliant paralysis” of those who lack his passion for renewal and reform in the Church he has served all his life, the author makes a number of recommendations whereby the present situation might be improved.

He sees the need to overhaul leadership structures (including the way in which bishops are appointed), to reaffirm the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity in the relationship between local bishops and the Roman authorities, to welcome back to the active priestly ministry those who have left the clerical state to marry, to revise the mandatory celibacy requirement for ordination, and to reconsider the exclusion of women (76 per cent of pastoral work is already carried out by them) from the ordained ministry.

He also emphasises the need to focus the Church’s teaching, proclamation and evangelisation on Jesus and the Scriptures, especially the New Testament.

The fundamental change that Paul Collins advocates will not occur “through spectacular events, but only through deep reflection, careful planning and a willingness to tackle deep-seated problems”.

Believers makes a significant contribution to this process.

A serious, responsible and honest work, it is mercifully free of the self-serving polemics and the banal twittering that characterise the progressives versus conservatives games. I recommend it strongly.

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