Australia: Distances, Demographics and Disaffection Underlie Tales of Three Resigned Bishops

By Zagano, Phyllis | National Catholic Reporter, July 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Australia: Distances, Demographics and Disaffection Underlie Tales of Three Resigned Bishops


Zagano, Phyllis, National Catholic Reporter


Distances and demographics combine to tell the story.

Three-quarters the size of the United States, Australia is mainly uninhabited except along its coastline. While the U.S. shelters close to 313 million people, latest Australian census statistics report only 22 million persons on the continent's nearly 3 million square miles.

Australia's Christians--mainly descendants of 18th-century British settlers and Irish convicts, and of later emigres from Germany and Italy--comprise 61 percent of the population. Australia's newest immigrants continue arriving from the United Kingdom and Italy, but also from New Zealand, China, India, Vietnam and the Phillippines.

The numbers are impressive: 5.4 million Catholics (25.3 percent of the population) in 33 dioceses and eparchies grouped into five provinces; 175 orders and institutes of men and women religious. Approximately 3,000 priests and 118 deacons join nearly 6,000 religious ministering in 1,369 parishes, hundreds of hospitals, schools, nursing homes and social service agencies.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited the land named by Europeans as Terra Australis de Spiritu Sancto for World Youth Day in Sydney, and welcomed Australians to Rome for the 2010 canonization of St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

It would seem that Christianity and Catholicism have good footing in Australia.

In fact, the 2011 census found the largest "religious" grouping after Catholics is the 29 percent of the Australian population reporting "no religion," newly edging out Anglicans and members of the Uniting church, an Australian union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalists created in 1977. And the largest growth among religious groups is among Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

Many Australian Catholics who remain who have not shifted to "no religion"--are disaffected and are speaking out. Catholics for Renewal, Catholics for Ministry, Australian Reforming Catholics, and Catalyst for Renewal are among the more active groups, with other pockets of upset operating around the country.

Fewer than 200 Australian men are studying for the priesthood, and statisticians contend that within 10 years more than half the priests will be foreign-born--perhaps not much different when Irish and Scots clergy followed their countrymen, except the new foreign-born are not native speakers of English.

Against this backdrop--more non-Christians, disaffected Catholics, fewer priests and religious--play out the stories of three resigned bishops: Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson (born 1937), Toowoomba Bishop William Morris (born 1943), and Canberra Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Power (born 1942) All three wanted to talk about the elephants in the episcopal palaces All three found it rough going All three resigned, more or quite less voluntarily.

Their issues are not peculiar to Australia, and resonate around the world. Each bishop wants them openly discussed. Yet the Vatican's response to suggestions of even discussing married priests, human sexuality, and the ordination of women is automatic. When combined with suggestions about causes of priestly pederasty, or the necessity of general absolution because of sheer distances and numbers, the Vatican's response seems even faster.

Robinson was the first to go. A canon lawyer who chaired both the Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board and the Australian Catholic Education Commission of New South Wales, for most of his career Robinson was chief justice of the Sydney Archdiocese Marriage Tribunal. He was secretary and then president of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.

Named an auxiliary bishop in 1984, in 2002 Pope John Paul II asked Robinson to chair a church-wide study on sex abuse. Within two years the task took its toll, and Robinson retired. Since then, Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Liturgical Press, 2008) was called "a brave exposition" by fellow bishop Power, even as the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference warned against its conclusions. …

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