Integration needed to avoid overlap and better target church ministry

09 Sep 2021

By Contributor

By Ali Biddiscombe

Fr Brian Lucus is the author of Governance in the Roman Catholic Church (2019). Photo: ACBC.

Governance and Structure were raised to the forefront of Church discussion in the findings of the Royal Commission (2017), and both are now key agenda items on the upcoming fifth Plenary Council of Australia in October 2021.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women. This review should draw from the approaches to governance of Catholic health, community services and education agencies (Royal Commission 2017: 51, recommendation 16.7).

Father Brian Lucas, National Director of Catholic Mission in New South Wales, and author of Governance in the Roman Catholic Church (2019) is a respected commentator in both areas.

“The Royal Commission raised questions about the governance of the church, and failures in governance at the level of dioceses may have been responsible for some of the ways church leaders dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse,” Fr Lucas said.

“It praised the governance of health, welfare and education structures and suggested dioceses and parishes might learn from that.”

Fr Lucas suggests this is a simplistic analysis and it prompted his critical examination of the issues and challengers around the construct of governance in his 2019 paper which includes a response to the recommendation.

“One might read into this the suggestion that ‘approaches to governance of Catholic health, community services and education agencies’ are good and to be drawn on to fix defects in ‘the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes.” (Abstract).

Fr Lucas’s article critically examines this suggestion and provides a hypothetical case study drawing on his 30 years of experience of church administration and the complex matter of how governance is structured and implemented.

“I am not suggesting that a review of governance is not important more that any review should deal with the way in which governance is exercised rather than its structure,” he said.

He suggests a distinction between structures and governance within the framework of a hierarchical church and the way in which those responsible for governance exercise that responsibility.

“It is important to acknowledge the role of religious organisations which have a certain autonomy with respect to their governance and activities and because the way they are governed varies considerably,” he said.

On the release of the Plenary Council Agenda in August this year, Council President Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB spoke about the upcoming assembly, which took three years and several layers of prayer, listening, dialogue and discernment, and opens on 3 October this year. Photo: Supplied.

The Plenary Council separates these areas of governance and structure in the agenda items to be discussed in October.

Fr Lucas’s responses to the questions around structure suggest better coordination of parish activity and encouragement of parishioners to fulfil baptismal callings by becoming more engaged with parish work.

“This requires pastors who have skills in leadership who can inspire their people.  We need our leaders to actively engage with parishioners in this discussion and to treat them with care,” he said.

In relation to how the Church in Australia be better structured for mission across all areas of the Church, Father Lucas suggests a more imaginative approach and discussion on how the infrastructure of the parish be better used.  

“We need better integration not only to avoid overlap but also to better target church ministry.  “Further, service delivery areas of the church need to understand their role in the fundamental role of evangelisation,” he said.

The Plenary Council has put forward two questions around the Churches approach to governance across the Church of Australia.

Father Lucas said leaders responsible for the administration have a responsibility to engage with those who are affected by their decision making.

“There needs to be a better use of consultative bodies such as parish and diocesan pastoral councils, so leaders get a broader view of needs and strategies.

“The spirit of synodality suggests an openness on the part of both clergy and laypeople too harmonious cooperation.”

He said it was important that Catholic social services agencies in health and aged care understand that they are part of the way in which the church serves the community and that they are an integral part of the church.

“It should also be fundamental in those agencies that there is on site Catholic pastoral care and ready access to the sacraments.”

The Australian Catholic bishops welcomed a report into Catholic Church governance practices and possible reforms, entitled Light of the Southern Cross in May 2020. Image: Sourced.

Father Lucas said there were also a variety of lay movements that contribute to the life of the church, and it was important that there is discussion on how they be integrated into the life of the church and not as separate entities.

He also said the catechist is particularly important in remote parishes without a resident priest.

“In Australia, the catechist has tended to be the person who engages in instruction in religious formation in non-government schools. In the broader context of what Pope Francis has instituted as the ministry of catechist there are opportunities for true lay leadership,” Father Lucas concluded.