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Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
I was born into a Church that felt
supremely self-confident. It knew where it
was going and seemed to have the answer
to ever y question. It had its enemies, but
believed that 100 % of the fault lay with
them. On Sundays the churches were full,
and there seemed to be every r eason
Over my lifetime I have seen a consistent
downward trend in most marker s of the
Church's activity. Only 15% of Catholics
now regularly attend Mass on Sundays,
compared with about 50 % when
I was born.
Why have so many fallen away? I believe
we need to look both at factors within the
Church and factor s outside it.
Within the Church the most obvious and
public factor has been the scandal of sexual
abuse of minors and the even greater
scandal of the poor manner in which it has
There has also been clericalism, that is , the
patriarchal and patronising manner in which
too many bishops and priests have acted.
All too many women find that their dignity
is not respected and there is no real place
Ther e is still too much of the angry God
and fear of hell. Mor ality is still based too
much on obeying rules rather than thinking
The Church's teaching on sex fails to speak
to most Catholics.
Sunday Ma ss still consists of thousands of
words poured over a pa ssive congregation.
The wealth of the Chur ch deter s many.
The fancy dress of cardinals and bishops
and their archaic titles do
not speak to the modern world.
Teaching on subjects such a s contr aception,
divorce and homosexuality does not seem
to reflect a loving God.
The Christian life can be reduced to a for m
of stoicism where people are driven by
duty r ather than drawn by delight.
Faith can still be seen too much as
intellectual assent to creeds and not
enough as a response of love to God's call
One could go on, but I hope I have made
the point that there are many things within
the Church that repel rather than attract.
And yet, even all of these things taken
together do not explain all that has
happened, for ther e are also powerful
factor s coming from outside the Church
and influencing all religious belief.
The nineteenth centur y saw the spectacular
rise of science and a developing conflict
between science and religion. In that
conflict science largely won the all-
impor tant battle for the imagination
It also gr adually created a mindset in which
the material was the most impor tant
reality and many people moved away from
things they could not prove. Belief in an
afterlife began to diminish.
Those who still looked to the spiritual
between religion and spirituality.
Religion is essentially about community and
will always be battling up a steep hill in a
world where individualism reigns supreme.
Individualism puts 'me' at the centre of my
existence, and it is impossible to have two
centres -- God and me.
Even the most devout of Catholics have
absorbed many values from the secular
world around them. The media then
creates a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and
impressions from this secular world that
powerfully influences people.
There are so many uncer tainties in today's
world, and this has created a fear of
For two thousand years a parish church
was not just a religious centre, but also a
social centr e; the place where people met
and found much of their social life. Within
my lifetime the car has made people
mobile, television enter tains them at
home and the telephone enables them to
socialise in totally new ways. Suddenly the
parish faces the daunting task of seeking to
be a spiritual centre without the benefit of
being a social centre.
For a number of people in Australia,
affluence has taken away any felt need
The greatest threat to the Church is not so
much extinction as irrelevance.
Is there any way to reverse this trend?
I suggest three steps.
The first is that the Church must absolutely
confront sexual abuse head-on and
r uthlessly take all steps necessary to abolish
it. If this is not done, nothing else will help,
for no one would be listening. Equally, it
must confront all other negatives within
it, other wise groups such a s women, the
divorced, homosexuals and many other s
will not be listening.
The second step is that the best thing the
Church ha s going for it is the per son and
story of Jesus Christ; the wor st thing is
those who r epresent him (and the higher
they ar e up the ladder, the more they
become a problem). So the task is to get
the Church out of the way as much as
possible and let Jesus himself shine through.
There has been far too much emphasis on
Church and the per son of Jesus has been
hidden and distor ted in the process.
The third step is to embrace such truths
as -- grow th is more impor tant than
obedience, the Church must listen to
its saints more than its bishops, and we
must move from a religion in which beliefs ,
moral r ules, worship and membership of
an institution hold fir st place to a religion
in which a love relationship with God and
neighbour holds fir st place.
Bishop Geoffrey will be speaking in
Newcastle on Friday 19 September and
Morpeth on Saturday 20 September,
under the auspices of the Social Justice
Council. See page 21 for details.
Annulments QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
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BY BISHOP GEOFFREY ROBINSON
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