A LANDMARK Australian Catholic conference could fail to support a push for married priests because of a potential "stacked deck" of delegates opposed to genuine reform, and after Pope Francis's recent "disappointing" failure to confront the issue, said the head of the National Council of Priests.
"There's a nervousness about this issue," said Father Paddy Sykes after the National Council of Priests supported lifting mandatory celibacy to allow mature married men to become priests in Australia, including former Catholic priests who left the priesthood to marry.
The proposal formed part of the council's submission to the Australian Catholic Plenary Council in October, which was announced in 2018 as part of the church's response to the child sexual abuse royal commission, and is billed as the most significant Australian Catholic gathering for more than 50 years.
But Pope Francis's failure to back married mature priests in his statement last week, Querida Amazonia, was "deflating" and "disappointing" after hopes were raised during a similar South American conference in 2019, Father Sykes said.
"Deflating? Francis's document? I would say yes. It looked like it might have been a goer," he said.
Pope Francis had shown strong support for "listening to the people down below, and the people down below had said to him this is what we want - married priests", Father Sykes said.
Instead the Pope asked Catholics to pray for more men to take up vocations to address a serious shortage of priests in the Amazon region, and did not mention married priests or celibacy.
I'm one of the people who's disappointed those issues haven't been confronted a little more meaningfully. My concern is Australian Catholic Church issues that have been raised for the Plenary Council will end up in the same basket.National Council of Priests chair Father Paddy Sykes.
"I'm one of the people who's disappointed those issues haven't been confronted a little more meaningfully. My concern is Australian Catholic Church issues that have been raised for the Plenary Council will end up in the same basket. The issues are the same," Father Sykes said.
He made the comments a day after Hunter child sexual abuse survivor Peter Gogarty said the Plenary Council risked being a "talkfest" with no genuine reforms under a structure where bishops appear to retain a majority "deliberative" vote.
While Catholic reform groups hope the Plenary Council supports recommendations from the child sexual abuse royal commission, including making celibacy voluntary and changing the governance structure of the Australian church to put lay people, including women, into decision-making roles, Mr Gogarty said the silence of Australia's bishops after a recent damning report shows "nothing has changed for the men with real power" in the Australian church.
Father Sykes said the Plenary Council structure did appear to be "a bit of a stacked deck", but Australia's bishops were also a "split deck" between those who support some reforms and conservative bishops who don't.
"It's an interesting place we're in at the moment," he said.
The Plenary Council is where Australian Catholics should have "a reckoning with the recommendations of the royal commission", he said.
"There was so much damage to the Catholic brand, so much horror at some of the details revealed, that if the church is going to survive in the future, if it doesn't attend to the recommendations in a very meaningful way, there will be more damage to the brand and people will just walk away," Father Sykes said.
"I personally am very grateful for what the royal commission forced the Catholic Church to address. The Catholic Church was never going to face any of these issues by itself. The Royal Commission forced it to."
Father Sykes said he shared people's concern about the selection of lay delegates to the Plenary Council after committed and articulate Catholics he knew were recently advised "their names haven't been moved forward to the next phase".
"The question is, whose names have been moved forward? There are some people very interested in the Plenary Council process and they're a little concerned about who's making decisions."
Father Sykes said there were some Australian areas where priests were not available to perform Mass each week, and even city dioceses had been forced to amalgamate parishes because of too-few priests who were left "running around madly on a Sunday" to say Mass at multiple parishes.
While the National Council did not support lifting the discipline of celibacy to allow current priests to marry, the Catholic Church already had married Anglican priests who converted to become Catholic priests, orthodox married priests and widower Catholic priests with children within the fold, Father Sykes said.
"The reality is we can have Catholic priests who are married because we've already got them, but they're trying to rein in any moves to take it further," he said.
In its Plenary Council submission the National Council of Priests supported "greater transparency and accountability in terms of how the church is run and decisions are made"; supervision of priests to help them cope with the emotional demands of the job and a greater role for women, although the council of priests stopped short of supporting women priests.
Father Sykes said the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's recent decision to "fold up and put away" the Office for the Participation of Women after 20 years "doesn't look good".
Some of the cultural issues within the church that contributed to the child sexual abuse tragedy "are still very much there", he said.