Catholica Editorial: The Wilkinson Report

First published at www.catholica, 1st March 2011. Republished here with the necessary permissions.

Report by Peter Wilkinson, DMiss.(PUG), BEd. who is a missiologist and former Columban missionary priest. He has worked as Director of the Clearing House on Migration Issues (CHOMI) at the Ecumenical Migration Centre, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, and Guest Lecturer in Missiology at Yarra Theological Union. He is married and now retired.

It is our pleasure today to bring you a report, The Wilkinson Report, that is also simultaneously being released in the mainstream media examining the serious crisis the Catholic Church is facing in Australia in providing the sacraments and pastoral care to its core constituency of baptised Catholics. We present both the report, a couple of brief summaries of the full report, as well as our own editorial comment on the report’s conclusions.

The looming disaster of not enough priests…

The Report commissioned by Catholics for Ministry, funded by Women and the Australian Church, and compiled by Peter J Wilkinson and published today is one of the most comprehensive assessments of the looming not just crisis, but disaster, the Catholic Church is facing across the island continent of Australia in delivering the core sacraments and pastoral care to the continually increasing Catholic population of the nation.

The harsh reality facing many Catholics alive in Australia right now is that when they die in the next 10, 20 or 30 years time, their families will simply not be able to find a priest to provide them with the last rites. There will not be enough priests available across large parts of the continent, or they will be so stretched providing the last rites or pastoral care to others, that the families will have to ‘make do’ with the services provided inhouse by funeral directors or they will increasingly have to rely on government licensed funeral and marriage celebrants. Regular participation in the other core sacraments, including the Eucharist, particularly in the remote and regional dioceses will become a rarer and rarer event.

The only “saving grace” to the situation is that fewer and fewer of the baptised seem to bother enough to participate. That however can scarcely be put forward by any bishop as an excuse as to why they have failed in their primary responsibility of not only maintaining participation rates but fulfiling the core mission of Jesus to “bring the Good News to all people”. The “bottom line” — as many bishops already know — is that the nation is simply running out of priests. The Church is no longer recruiting enough new priests and the prospect of importing them from other countries looks dimmer and dimmer whichever way you look at the projected statistics 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years into the future.

The report is broken into fifteen sections of what basically amounts to a comprehensive statistical analysis of the State of the Catholic Church as it appears now, as it has appeared in the past, and based on population, recruiting and participation trends what the situation will be at various points in the future. These are the section headings:

Dioceses & Bishops
Catholic Population
Migrant Chaplains
Priests recruited from overseas
Permanent Deacons
Religious Sisters Lay Pastoral Associates/Pastoral Workers
Religious Brothers
Mass Attendance
Parish Schools
Priests in parish ministry: 2010-2025

The report then concludes with three sections:

A short essay entitled “Parish Ministry Disaster?” which explores the core doctrinal and pastoral understandings the institutional Church has developed down through the centuries of the central role of the priest and his role as leader and spiritual guide to his parish community and how it is going to be increasingly difficult to meet these given the growth in population and the decreasing number of priests and pastoral associates.

A five-part section examining various “Options for Action” under the following headings: Recruiting autochthonous or local priests; Recruiting overseas priests; Doing Nothing; Rethinking parish ministry; and Rethinking the identity of priest.

The Wilkinson Report Conclusion…

The Report then finishes with the following Conclusion which we present here in full:

To the question ‘Is parish ministry facing a disaster?’ the evidence, at an institutional level, suggests the affirmative. It also suggests that the bishops seem unsure of how to deal with it.

The rebuilding of a strong and vibrant autochthonous presbyterate in the short-term appears impossible, with new local priests insufficient to replace those retiring over the next 15 years. As if in despair, the bishops have attempted to ‘hold the parish ministry fort’ with a short-term strategy of recruiting overseas priests, a program of merging existing parishes, and putting a heavy brake on establishing new parishes. The result is parish ministry in retreat at the very time when the Catholic population is growing rapidly.

Nevertheless, signs of hope are present. The permanent deaconate has been revived, there is an increasing presence of lay pastoral associates and community leaders in parish ministry, and Catholic schools, now overwhelmingly in the hands of laypersons, are well-placed to stimulate the faith of young people and play a significant role in inculturation. But if the disaster is to be averted, more is needed. It is not enough to treat the symptoms of the crisis; the causes must also be addressed. The vision of Vatican II must be totally unshackled, full co-responsibility implemented in every facet of ministry and church life, proper consultative processes with transparency and accountability put in place, the priestly ministry opened up to married persons, and the essential role of women in ministry properly recognized. The misuse of power must cease and the paradigm of service prevail.

The on-going priest shortage cannot be solved simply by recruiting priests from overseas on short-term contracts. Only long-term and broader policies can rebuild a vibrant autochthonous presbyterate. These will have to deal courageously with the current ‘priestly package’ of male, celibate, life-long and full-time. In this Australia’s bishops will need to show leadership and initiative, and a willingness to discuss with their people all the options, including the ordination of married men and the role of women in ministry.

Vatican II stated that ‘the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel’ (Gaudium et Spes, n.3-4).

The times are always changing, as are human environments, and all organisms which exist in these environments must also change and adapt if they are to survive and thrive. The Church is an organism in this changing world and it too, if it is to survive and thrive, has no choice but to adapt. Guided by the Spirit and holding fast to the Gospel, it can.

The purpose of Vatican II was ‘aggiornamento’, ensuring continual renewal of the Church, making it relevant to today’s world, and adapting it to its new environment. The Church, universal and local, is always in need of boosts of renewal. Now is surely the time for one in Australian Catholicism.

Catholica editorial response… Readers of Catholica will feel greatly indebted to Catholics for Ministry (CfM), Women and The Australian Church (WATAC) and Peter Wilkinson for the effort and expense that has gone into the compilation of this report. Much of what is presented and discussed in the report is ‘common fare’ for many of our conversations on Catholica. This report provides solid statistical evidence that will prove valuable over time for our discussions.

At an editorial level here at Catholica we are far more pessimistic than the sponsors and author of The Wilkinson Report that anything much is going to change in the institutional Church. The culture and experience of the past forty years suggests there will be no more positive reception to this report from the Bishops than there was to the Petition that Catholics for Ministry presented some years ago. At the highest levels of the institution the entire thrust of the institution today is geared to undoing almost everything that was discerned by the majority of Bishops who assembled at the Second Vatican Council. The forces of reaction, which were led at the Council by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani have won. The forces in the human psyche of the element who have seized control of the institutional Church are simply too powerful to overcome. The institution today is no longer recruiting from “the best and brightest” in its elite schools and the attrition rate of men and women from religious life has been a further massive drain on the leadership ranks as it has tended to be men and women of stronger character who were able to make the difficult decision to chart a radically new course in their lives to the one they had originally felt called to make. Virtually all factors that one can think of are aligned against the sorts of radical re-thinking that would be necessary for this looming crisis to be overcome. Our honest prediction is that Pope Benedict will see his dream fulfilled of a “smaller, purer Church” although we have deep doubts that its purity will be capable of achieving “salvation” for any person.

A double tragedy…

It is disheartening, indeed a tragedy, to have to write the foregoing. It is however the harsh reality as we presently see the situation. The tragedy is compounded because as we have pointed out the Church in this country is actually in a superb condition from many other points of view. It could achieve so much. It does have the largest, most professionally qualified — and in the realms of religion, spirituality and theology, the most theologically qualified — workforce it has ever had and one that is not matched on a per capita basis by any other single national church on the entire planet. The institution is in perhaps the best condition it has ever been in from a financial point of view and in the quality and maintenance of all of its physical assets. The two principal problems it has is that the vast majority of the baptised have ceased listening and participating and the recruiting of quality priests and spiritual guides has virtually come to a standstill. (In passing it might be noted that the report makes no evaluation of the actual quality of the candidates that are presenting for seminary and ordination today. Many mature lay Catholics today who have contact with some of the young men who are presenting themselves really do have raised eyebrows about the quality of new priests coming into ministry. They are often arrogant, very often filled with zeal but also with this sense that they alone have all the answers to life’s problems. Mature people find some of them very green behind the ears and hold grave fears for the future of the institution simply on the basis of the quality of priests presently being recruited. From the feedback we get through our own adult children who sometimes come into contact with these men we know they are not earning significant respect in the wider population.) Intelligent Catholics want far more than “Mass sayers” today. The sense most mature but now disenchanted Catholics we come into contact with today is that they simply do not believe the pathway to paradise is travelled by some “magic” dispensed through the sacraments. It is discerned by learning to think, feel and act in the ways modelled and taught by Jesus Christ. Our bishops, and more especially our leaders in Rome, present a theology to us that presents Jesus to us more as the magician rather than as the teacher and model for how any person can think, feel and act their way through life and into everlasting life.

We frankly see absolutely zero prospects of Rome adopting a new attitude and actually having concern for the 86% of the baptised who have drifted away and their spiritual, social and temporal welfare. The constant message coming from Rome is it’s all “their fault” — those who have drifted away. If they want to be part of our private little church “they” (the ones who have drifted away) have to adopt the taliban attitudes of the remnant that we believe are the only “true Catholics” whom the Almighty directs us to serve.

The one faint hope…

The one faint hope — and again we are particularly indebted to Catholics for Ministry and in particular Dr Paul Collins for this — is if one, or a small group of bishops, took it upon themselves to defy Rome and actually chart a new course: one that is actually directed to discerning the needs of the great majority of the baptised; who would take on and confront — or even better still, educate and catechise — the taliban element on behalf of us all rather than constantly appease them; and who would attempt to rebuild the structure — the actual “Corpus Christi” — in their local environment. As Dr Collins has pointed out, historically this is often how change has occurred in the Church — some local bishop or group of people adopt a new style or theological outlook and over time this is adopted by more and more people and then centuries later Rome finally gives its stamp of approval to whatever the innovation happened to be. The question is: is there any bishop, or group of bishops, willing to “step up to the mark” and provide real leadership to their flock? As I jokingly suggested in the Catholica Forum a couple of days ago, there’s a great seat awaiting someone in heaven who bites the bullet and provides a solution to the crisis the institution is facing in this country. Their actions may well turn out to be a model for the entire nation, or even the entire Western world. To achieve such a turn-around for the institution would surely earn more plaudits both in the here and now and in the hereafter than all these other pathetic games we have had to put up with for the past forty years and more? It would be a far more worthy life and vocational goal than chasing after a cardinal’s temporal power and prestige or some other place of temporal honour in this rapidly disintegrating ship. It is actually helping “build the kingdom” — not being a participant in its gradual emasculation and destruction.

“Losing faith” — not in God but in our bishops and spiritual leaders…

Finally, by way of caution, could we say: the fundamental problems confronting the Church, particularly in Australia today, are not actually to do with money, the lack of resources or personnel to do anything, nor the lack of physical infrastructure. The key problems are principally theological and, linked into that, our actual ecclesiology and understanding of the nature and role of priesthood. It is a rank fallacy to suggest that all of the 86% who have left regular sacramental participation have been beguiled by relativism and consumerism and the “ways of the world”. That may have happened to some, even 50% of those who have left. Many, particularly amongst the more educated and thoughtful have left for reasons to do with actually believing our Holy Bishops have been leading us up the garden path and away from authentic Catholic belief and thinking. Most of the educated reflective faithful who haven’t charged off in the direction of even more fundamentalist denominations and sects, have simply ceased to believe key parts of the theology that the taliban element in the Church and their bishop patrons are constantly trying to force down our necks. We have also “lost faith” in the model of priesthood and church community that is being presented to us. We have “lost faith” that the pathway that our spiritual superiors offer to us in the Church actually leads to salvation and resurrection. We have “lost faith” in our bishops and priests — that is testified to by the massive drift away from sacramental participation. We have NOT “lost faith” in Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Father, or the Trinitarian God. Those of us old enough to remember the sense of vibrancy and excitement that infected the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council sincerely do believe the vast majority of bishops at that Council were “guided by the Holy Spirit” and had begun to discern at least some of the answers to these questions of deep theology, Christology, ecclesiology and the role of the priest as leader and guide of our local communities.

LINKS: Full Text of The Wilkinson Report:

Catholics for Ministry website:

Women And The Australian Church website:

Brian Coyne, Editor and Publisher, 01 March 2011 What are your thoughts on this editorial? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.