Despite the fact that an estimated 5 percent of the Australian population is of aboriginal descent, in the two centuries the Catholic Church has been present on the continent, there have been few indigenous vocations to the priesthood.
According to Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher, this presents some similarities with the realities of the Amazon region. Last October, a synod of bishops on this Latin American region asked Pope Francis to consider the possibility of ordaining married men into the priesthood.
Fisher acknowledged that “I am nervous about this, without saying that I absolutely exclude it.”
Fisher spoke with Crux on Friday, sharing his thoughts on possible topics for the next synod of bishops, the role of women in the Church, and his uneasiness regarding the “false expectations” created by the synodal path begun by the German Church and Australia’s plenary council.
What follows is the second part of the interview with Fisher. You can find the first part here.
Crux: You mentioned you are part of the assembly of the synod of bishops. There’s been a lot of talk as of late regarding the document Pope Francis is preparing on the synod on the Amazon region, which took place last October. Have you seen it?
Fisher: No, it’s not ready yet. All the bishops in the world have received a document, that is the summary of what the bishops gave to the pope last October, to prepare for the document, but it’s not the actual apostolic exhortation.
One of the most debated issues, at least from afar, has been the possibility of ordaining the viri probati in the Amazon region, the proposal on the ordination of married deacons into the priesthood. Though different, there’s a similarity in Australia with its indigenous peoples. Do you have a position regarding the ordination of the so-called “men of proven virtue,” which does not mean doing away with celibacy, which Pope Francis has already said is not up for discussion?
I think there are similar issues in Australia. A lot of people would say that, after more than 200 years in Australia, we still don’t have an indigenous presbyterate. In fact, we have only one indigenous priest in Australia, and he is an Anglican convert. There was another, but he has left the priesthood and he’s now a politician and important leader.
We have to ask why is that? What has gone wrong in a country that has 5 percent of its people with some aboriginal heritage, they’re not present in the priesthood? It’s enough a number that you think there should be some aboriginal priests now. We’ve had deacons, and still do, and we have nuns, but we have no priests.
One of the reasons that is given by some is that in traditional aboriginal societies, until you are married and have had a child, you could not lead, be respected as a leader. You prove your manhood by having a child. And so, for those cultures, it’s inconceivable to be a spiritual leader if you are celibate.
What does the Church say to that?
Well, one answer might be that we should just recognize that is the cultural reality and that giving the Eucharist and spiritual leadership to those communities is more important than our celibacy tradition. Another thing might be to ask ourselves, what has gone wrong with the evangelization and catechesis, that after 200 years, it’s still unthinkable in these cultures to be regarded as a real man unless you got married and had a child?
Almost as if sex, or having babies, makes you a real man. And Christianity has to challenge that. I think there’s also sometimes a slightly racist side about this that troubles me. It almost says “natives are incapable of celibacy.”
That was heard during the Amazon synod …
I think that we have to be really wary about these ideas creeping into our way of thinking. And we have to insist that every person, including people of indigenous cultures is as capable of a height of spirituality and virtue as every other person. Not to give up on one group and say we’re going to have a second spirituality and priesthood for you because you are not up to this standard.
That is not, by any means, the whole issue here. I think that there’s also a question about it being possible to have, within a country, a group that can have married priests and all the others can’t. Will that work in the long run?
It’s worked with the clergy that has converted from Anglicanism, or we see it in most of the Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome…
You might say it works with the convert clergy, but it’s a very short-term thing. Once a group of converts has come across, a generation later they have celibate priests. We certainly do have the experience with the Eastern churches.
And they are not second-class priests…
No, but they can’t be bishops. People say that there is still a bit of that, even after a 1,000, 1,500 tradition of married clergy, they still won’t allow for married bishops, so in a way, they are still saying it’s not the full deal, still not as a complete devotion to the Church or to Christ.
I am wary of what happens even in the Eastern churches and it’s happened in the Anglican church and other churches, once you allow married clergy, you very quickly marginalize celibacy to the monasteries. It becomes a monastic practice, not for normal priests but only for people in religious communities often quite isolated, up in a mountain.
I think whatever the failures of some celibate priests at some times and places, it has brought a great energy and spiritual leadership to the Church, in many times in history and places. And to marginalize it to the monasteries as I think could happen in a matter of a few generations or even quicker, would be a big loss to the Church.
I am nervous about this, without saying that I absolutely exclude it.
We’ve spoken about having too high of expectations regarding what the Australian general council can achieve. Do you think this is a possibility?
Yes, I think this is a genuine problem already, and depending on where we go next, it could get worse or better. There was a lot of talk early on when we first started having listening sessions and asking for submissions, people were basically told that everything was up for grabs: “Whatever you are thinking or wanting, whatever your dreams are, throw them in.”
In a sense, you want to say to people “let’s have an open, frank conversation, put it all on the table, we want to hear you, wherever you are coming from.”
But to the extent that that gave the impression that the Church in Australia was not part of something bigger, that it could go its own way; or that the Catholic Church is not subject to a Lord and Master, that we are just a parliament that could make its own laws; or that the Catholic Church is not part of a tradition, but in fact could just go with the spirit of the age …
There would have been ways of saying the same thing that would have created less unrealistic expectations. I think that’s what the organizers wanted us to say, “Of course we are still going to be Catholic, but how can we be a better Church for you and with you.”
But we know that things are often said and thought in soundbites, and the way we got the message across might have given people the impression that if they want to abolish the hierarchy of the Church, it can be done. Or if they want to change some of the articles of the Creed, that could be done by the Church in Australia. But it can’t, it’s part of something bigger.
The Catholic Church moves slower, as a worldwide Church. I think Chesterton said “it’s the most democratic of institutions, because the dead have a vote.” Our tradition has a vote, we are not making it up as we go. That needn’t be a weight around our necks, and it can actually be liberating not to have to reinvent every day what my belief or morals will be. That I too have an identity, a tradition and community I am part of.
But it tells me that in respecting that, there will be things that are not going to change, or are not going to change quickly. I think that a positive approach would have been to think within what is possible, are we doing the best? There might be changes to canon law in the future, and we might help with that. But are we doing the best with what we have already? I don’t think so.
Women in position of leaderships. In many parts of the world, there are very few, even in major advisory boards. Let’s challenge that. We can already talk about women in leadership, and we should be doing it, because if not, half of your talent pool is being ignored when you are hiring people.
I think we should be looking creatively outside the box we use at the moment, the way we’ve always done it, but within what is already possible in our law and customs and theology would be a better starting point than saying, “let’s completely reimagine the Church, unless it’s a sci-fi novel.”