The following was excerpted from a March letter that introduced the conclusions of an Australian bishops' meeting concerning their country's crisis of faith.
Being Catholic brings particular consequences, benefits and challenges. It is not the same thing as being good, because some good people have no faith. So too there are many types of faith and belief; even among Christians many do not believe everything which we believe.
However, there are immense advantages to belonging to a single, worldwide Church, whose basic teachings were given by the Son of God and where the deposit of faith is preserved particularly by the successors of Peter and the other apostles, i.e., the Pope and bishops.
One consequence of this unity is that diocesan bishops are to travel to Rome every five years for the ad limina visit to report to the Holy Father on the health of their dioceses and to confer with the Vatican departments (Congregations) responsible for different areas of Church life….
Australia's Ad Limina Visit
Somewhat unusually, the [Australians'] ad limina visit began in November 1998 with a meeting between senior Vatican cardinals and archbishops and fifteen Australia bishops, the archbishops, presidents and secretaries of key Australian Bishops' Conference committees.
The aim of this meeting was to discuss the religious situation in Australia, compare it with other parts of the world and together make recommendations for the future to grasp our opportunities and face up to the local challenges, many of which are common to every part of the Western world. Every situation is at least somewhat different, even in Australia dioceses.
The Statement of Conclusions, which was endorsed by the Holy Father … merits examination and discussion so that together we can confront any problem areas. The aim of the exercise is “to make the face of God visible today” here in Australia.
The Statement of Conclusions does not avoid any significant challenge and is explicit in a way that is not universal in Vatican documents. Australians understand clear and courteous speech and the document is signed as an accurate record of the discussions by representatives of both sides. It is important to remember that it is a joint statement of Australian bishops and curial bishops. All participants realized that the vast majority of our Churchgoers will support the document and cooperate in its implementation. It is precisely the vitality of the Church in Australia and our capacity for growth which enabled such a frank and optimistic agenda to be set out. Certainly the Holy Father's letter and the joint statement confirm the line we are following in Melbourne. These documents very rightly urge that any errors be corrected, not by blunt use of authority, but by persuasion and dialogue. We must not be like a husband and wife who deny the early signs that their marriage is in trouble; not like a bank manager who will not admit that his branch is losing money and customers.
Faith or Agnosticism?
Two of the most significant changes in Australian religious life during the last 30 or 40 years have been the rise in the number of people who say they do not belong to any religious group (most of whom are not ex-Catholics) and the decline in regular worship by Catholics. In Melbourne this decline is running at the rate of 1% to 2% each year. We hope to change this. On occasion I have described this as the rise of the “R.C.'s” — resting, relaxed or reluctant Catholics.
On this basis the Statement of Conclusions claims that the Church in Australia is part of a worldwide crisis of faith, stronger in the Western world than in many other places. This claim is justified, and we can no longer presume that most people, especially the young and middle-aged, will find that belief in the one true God comes easily. Even in our secondary schools teachers regularly have to give reasons and make a case for the existence of God and the divinity of Christ.
However, we should not underestimate our formidable strengths. We are not Holland, nor Austria, nor Eastern Germany. While we are less religious than the United States (their level of regular worship is almost double ours), Australian society is much less anti-religious than the U.S.A. The Australian temptation is not to crucify Christ, but to trivialize him.
Most people don't object to a person having a faith, believing in God. They acknowledge that many grandparents are quite devout, perhaps regular worshippers, and that people of every age group are believers, just like some youngsters ride skateboards or [are] wind-surfers. God is seen as an optional hobby, because religion is seen as a matter of taste, a personal preference which answers individual needs. Only rarely is God's existence seen to be an extremely important issue of truth or falsehood. Even rarer is the conviction that our quality of life here and now and our existence after death might be heavily influenced by how we respond to the God question, where sincere and genuine seeking are minimum requirements.
The Statement of Conclusions commends Australian society on its tolerance. While this strength can be exaggerated, we do compare well with many societies on this issue. However, every strength comes at some cost and tolerance can generate not only a reluctance to condemn other people (generally a good thing), but even an indifference or inability to acknowledge that what is in dispute is a matter of fact, which also has huge personal consequences, when we say yes or no to God's existence.
Most Australians are not atheists, who deny God's existence. Many more are agnostics, people who are not sure about God or not interested. Some have a great reverence for the mighty forces of nature. This is not Christian Faith either, because the one true God is transcendent and personal, i.e., a Mystery, a Spirit far above the beauties and imperfections of nature, who personally calls us into a personal relationship (and makes particular demands).
Faith represents the central religious problem for the Western world today.
Christ Our Redeemer
Apart from the truths about the existence of God, nothing is as basic as the teachings about the nature and person of Jesus Christ, Son of Mary and Son of God, who redeemed and saved us.
The Statement of Conclusions acknowledged that there is “something of crisis” throughout the world on Christology and that we have not entirely escaped this in Australia. In the early '90s Cardinal O'Connor of New York told me that he was sending a young priest for doctoral studies in Christology, because this was fated to become a crucial issue. The cardinal was right.
So much follows from the nature and status of Christ. If Christ is merely another man, perhaps the holiest and wisest in all history, then his teaching and activity might be important but humans would have every right to try to improve on his teaching.
However, if Christ is truly divine, the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, who took on a human nature from his mother Mary, then his teachings have a unique authority. We cannot improve on them, although we must also try to understand them more deeply and spell out their consequences. It is not incongruous to claim that the Son of God rose from the dead and that through his life, death and resurrection he redeemed us, so that our sins can be forgiven and eternal life be our prize.
The doctrines of the Trinity, especially on the Son and the Spirit, were defined in the fourth and fifth centuries after immense upheavals doctrinally and even politically.
Those doctrines are rooted in Scripture, solemnly defined as adequate indications of the nature of the Godhead and therefore essential to Christian theology.
One cannot and must not eliminate the notions of Father and Son in official prayers. The three persons of the Trinity are not an ancient language game, but offer us the best insight into God's nature available to us; the fruit of special revelation and not just our powers of reasoning.
Neither do we merely worship the mighty, unpredictable and sometimes cruel forces of nature. God is much more than that, while the key point, the cornerstone and axis of all creation is humanity. Only humans are made in God's image. The Second Person of the Trinity became a man, not an angel or a cabbage.
These truths are spelled out clearly in the Creeds, and the possibilities of innocent misunderstandings are legion when we speak of God. This is why home-written creeds are forbidden at Mass, even for home or school Masses.
It is in this context, the context of a wide-spread crisis of faith in our society as a whole, and the related crisis of Christology among the community of believers, that these two very important documents should be read and understood. The Pope's letter and the Statement of Conclusions provide us with a guide as to how we should understand our situation in Australia. It is a diagnosis, which I believe is basically accurate. Together we have to discern how we answer these important challenges.
These documents will reward re-reading, and I commend them to your prayerful reflection and discussion.
Archbishop George Pell is the ordinary of Melbourne, Australia