Light from the south

DAN BAIRD takes heart from a ground breaking report on the need for comprehensive reform of church governance.

There have been a number of Church-related reports this year and it is to be hoped that The Light from the Southern Cross (LSC) will not be lost from sight among them. This report, commissioned for the Church in Australia, is of considerable relevance for the Catholic Church throughout the world. 

The 208-page report owes its existence to the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017), which  stressed that there had been  decades of major failures in the Church’s leadership in protecting children from abuse. The Commission recommended that Australia’s bishops conduct a thorough review of their governance structures. 

The subsequent report was produced by a group of clergy and lay people and submitted to the bishops in May 2020. It was leaked to La Croix International which published it in June.  Theologian Massimo Faggioli,  one of its authors, has predicted that LSC will be studied for many years  to come by theologians, church historians, canon lawyers, and all those with an interest in connecting spiritual and institutional  reform in the Catholic Church. 

The link between the institutional and the spiritual is established when the report states:  ‘Since the primary responsibility of all governing bodies in the Church is to nourish and serve the mission of the whole community, those who exercise authority in the Church must always be open to a deeper conversion to the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Similarly, the practice of governance and management of the Church must continue to reflect the spirituality and the theology that are central to the entire ecclesial community’.

That this is not the case is shown in the questions that LSC set out to address:  Does the Church have the capacity for self-reform and can its own resources regenerate its reform?  How can the imperatives of co-responsibility, collaboration, and genuine consultation between Church leaders (bishops and others) and the lay faithful be realised in a synodal church for the benefit of all the People of God?  How can the governance and management structures and culture be reformed to facilitate the re-earning of the trust of the faithful and the wider community so the Church can fulfil its mission?  



After a valuable section – based on Scripture and the teaching of Vatican II – on  the theological foundations of the Church, ecclesiology and the Church’s foundations and life, LSC examines, and makes recommendations on, a wide range of aspects of the Church. Its authors believe that ‘Contemporary standards of good governance require that the Church’s structures and practices of governance are more accountable, more transparent, more meaningfully consultative and more participatory, including at the diocesan and parish level. 

‘[N]ot all parishes and dioceses meaningfully involve parishioners … [which] represents a lost opportunity to engage and draw in lay women and men and to use their talents.  … [there should be] an elevated level of involvement of lay people in diocesan and parish decision-making and advisory bodies.’ 

This is to recommend subsidiarity in Church affairs.  Subsidiarity – vesting involvement and decision-making as close as possible to those impacted by the decision – is an important element in Catholic Social Teaching but is less evident in the Church’s internal arrangements.  Pope Francis in 2018 addressed the entire Church on the sexual abuse crisis. Speaking  of the need for means to ensure the  safety and protection of the integrity of children and vulnerable adults,  he said that ‘every one of the baptised should feel involved in the ecclesial and social  change that we so greatly need . It is impossible to think of the conversion of our activity as a church that does not include the active participation of all God’s people ‘.

The report greets that papal call to action as an example of subsidiarity in action and an exhortation to subsidiarity.  It recommends that ‘The global sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church should encourage the People of God to consider how ‘subsidiarity’ might be defined in the ecclesial context and how it might contribute to ‘decentralisation’ of church governance’. 

Iplicit in the Pope’s words was his approval for synodality, described by the report as involving the ‘active participation of all members of the Church in its processes of discernment, consultation and  cooperation  at every level of decision-making and mission,  the best means by which all the Church’s members are actively involved in discerning the will of God and forming decisions’ . Theologian Massimo Faggioli suggests that the steps Pope Francis has taken towards a synodal Church constitute the most important institutional reform of his pontificate and that it is ‘in many ways the heart of Francis’s reform’.



The enemy of synodality, though, is clericalism.  The report notes that the culture of clericalism has been seen by many observers as an underlying factor in the failure of the Church to respond to allegations of sexual abuse.  Clericalism, says the Report, ‘is about power and its misuse.  … an authoritarian style of ministerial leadership, a rigidly hierarchical worldview, and a virtual identification of the holiness and grace of the Church with the clerical state and, thereby, with the cleric himself.’ 

Behaviour is deemed to be clerical’, it continues, ‘when it rests on a claim to special religious expertise or ecclesiastical authority, based on role or status in the Church. It fails to reflect the equality of all the disciples of Christ, an equality that the New Testament underscores’. Pope Francis  has called  clericalism ‘a perversion of the Church’.  

Dealing with clericalism has to start with the selection and training of candidates for the priesthood.  The Royal Commission concluded that the inadequacies of selection, screening and initial formation contributed to the incidence of child sexual abuse.  LSC recommends that lay people – and particularly women – be involved in the discernment that is required before a candidate is put forward for ordination.  Lay people should have a role in ‘the selection and formation of seminarians and evaluation of their suitability for ordination’.  The priest in formation today, suggests the report, should be prepared for working with the laity in a collaborative way in the synodal church called for by Pope Francis.

The explicit mention of women in this regard reinforces what the report says more generally about the ‘failure of the Church to enable the fuller participation of women’, who  ‘still experience the detrimental effects of a prevailing culture of ‘clericalism’ that elevates the male ordained above religious and the  laity’.  The Church’s teaching on the inherent dignity of each person ‘underpins the rationale of equal participation in decision-making of women and men… Women and men, religious, lay and clerical, working together will ensure the wisdom, talent and professional expertise and commitment to the Gospel needed to animate the mission of the Church in the 21st century’.

But such cooperation requires structural support.  It’s worth noting the comments of the Royal Commission that ‘The governance of the Catholic Church is hierarchical.  The powers of governance held by individual diocesan bishops and provincials are not subject to adequate checks and balances …[and bishops] have not been sufficiently accountable to any other body for decision-making in their handling of allegations of child sexual abuse or alleged perpetrators’.

Among the report’s  major recommendations on the episcopate are reshaping the process for appointing bishops to ‘embrace genuine discernment that includes clergy and a larger number of lay people’, including women, in diocesan senior decision-making bodies, and mandating that all reports of alleged clerical  abuse or cover-up  by bishops be evaluated by independent experts.

The report  states that regular discussion is needed between dioceses and parishes, the parish being important as ‘the place where the People of God first learn to live as disciples of the Lord and experience and witness  discipleship being lived out in a variety of ways, vocations, charisms and ministries’. Consultation between parish and diocese can be regularised where both have pastoral councils and LSC recommends that the establishment of such councils be mandatory.

When The Light from the Southern Cross was submitted to the Australian bishops, they decided to delay its general release for six months while they studied its recommendations. It will be interesting to see their eventual response.  La Croix International, when publishing its leaked copy, described the Report as ‘a potentially ground-breaking document’, one that would never have existed without the mandate of a Royal Commission.


Role of the laity

Despite its Australian genesis and focus, LSC has considerable relevance for the wider Church.  For instance, it recommends a greater role for the laity and perhaps, in Scotland, there should be serious discussion on how this could be given institutional expression.  

Werner Jeanrond, formerly Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University, said that he was shocked by the absence of an organised laity in Britain compared with the situation in other European countries.  The existence of structured and recognised channels of communication and forums for lay discussion could facilitate and encourage lay participation in church affairs.  Such an experience of consultation and open discussion might better equip the Church to deal with wider society.

Some years ago, the Irish theologian Gabriel Daly linked the church’s difficulty in participating in civil society to the absence of a culture of internal discussion and free debate.  He wrote that a Church which has a strong internal tradition of public debate in forums such as synods and general assemblies will be better fitted to take part in public secular debate than a church which is organised in a predominantly hierarchical manner in which leaders meet in secrecy and there are no channels of communication  between its different levels. This criticism is implicit in Light from the Southern Cross, which urges the necessity of dialogue, participation and consultation. 

Before the coming of the Coronavirus, some Scottish parishes had organised meetings and discussion on Divine Renovation, Fr James Mallon’s book on parish renewal. These seem to have been well and enthusiastically attended.  Perhaps, in the near future, there could be similar meetings on The  Light from the Southern Cross, a Report which, based to a large extent on Scripture and the theology of Vatican II, shares Pope Francis’s vision of a synodal Church. 


Dan Baird is a retired teacher and member of the Newman Association.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.