PRIESTS EVICT “ROME SPIES” from services, said a surprising headline recently in The Brisbane Courier Mail.

Throughout Australia the secular press is reporting the very public brawling between conservatives and liberals within the Roman Catholic Church. Ostensibly, the issue is the widespread use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation (general confession and general absolution) instead of the First Rite and Second Rite, the forms which retain the traditional element of individual confession in the presence of a priest.

It is not surprising, that the issue of the Third Rite of Reconciliation should become something of a symbol in the struggle between conservatives and liberals. Throughout Australia, but especially in the liberal Roman Catholic Dioceses of Brisbane and Adelaide, the vast majority of people who go to Confession in holy seasons do so by attending the Third Rite.

After their visit to the Pope last year, the Australian bishops and Vatican officials signed a joint declaration referring to “weaknesses” in the Australian church, and urging bishops not to tolerate “error in matters of doctrine and morals or church discipline”. This includes the illicit use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, The Most Rev’d John Battersby has been quoted as saying that he was “hurt, bothered, distressed, depressed, and above all, angry” at what he saw as the Pope’s “strong rebuke” of Australian practices. He was also angry at having been “dobbed in by people who mightn’t have a very broad vision of what the Church is about.” He was referring to the activities of Sydney barrister Paul Brazier, of the “?Australian Catholic Advocacy Centre”, who has “hundreds of consultants” out around the country to ensure that the “widespread, virtually institutionalised disobedience” of Canon Law would be stopped.

According to Brazier, these consultants visit churches taking “a contemporaneous note, which is taken discreetly and privately and usually fits within a prayer book. It’s not a case of people standing up with clipboards and torches.” He went on to explain that abuse of Canon Law would be reported to the local bishops, and would only go further (to the Vatican) if the bishops did not take action.

However, in a widely reported incident, Father Gary Russell of Loganholme near Brisbane ejected one such lay monitor from his church, calling him a “spy” and referring to the Advocacy Centre as having a “vigilante attitude”. “In the Holy Father’s house are many mansions” quipped well-known Sydney historian Ken Cable in a lecture on Newman back in 1979. This continues to be true of the Australian Roman Catholic Church. Until recently, however, it seemed that the liberals were getting their way. And they have been quite unashamedly brazen about it. I remember a meeting of the Ballarat Diocesan Joint Anglican Roman Catholic Commission in early 1995, in which we were discussing renewal in the Church. The Roman Catholic Co-Chairman (who was also the Vicar General of their Diocese at the time) joked: “All we really need for renewal in the church is a Turk who can shoot straight”!

As in Ireland and North America, the Australian Roman Catholic Church has been plagued with paedophilia scandals over the last few years, and the esteem in which the clergy is held has plummeted to an all-time low. Many parish communities have become politically correct and totally feminised. Some even have liturgy committees meeting each week to idiosyncratically remove every trace of male language from the readings and responsorial psalms for the forthcoming Sunday. In one nearby parish, “Son of Man” recently became “the human one”.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Some years ago, Bishop Brennan of the tiny rural Diocese of Wagga Wagga decided to build his own Seminary. Until then his ordinands would go to seminary in Sydney. Brennan was criticised at the national level for some time. But Wagga Wagga has come alive. Bishop Brennan has young vocations to the priesthood, and young religious around him. Archbishop Hickey of Perth, and most recently Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne have also made great gains for orthodoxy. Pell has restructured his Diocesan seminary, and has gathered around himself a remarkable team of godly and gifted supporters. He knows that in a place a big as Melbourne, the process of renewal in the authentic Faith of the Church will take a long time. But it has started!

Many conservative Australian Roman Catholics are fundamentalists who would even aggressively argue for “creation science” – a literal six day creation view of Genesis. They tend to be on the far edge of the political right. In some respects their concerns are ours, but they don’t really represent the mind of the Church as set expressed in the documents of Vatican II. Also, they fail to come across as people who care for the poor and marginalised, or who want to see society changed for the better through the influence of gospel values lived out in the life of the Church.

For a long time it has been difficult to find clusters of “mainstream Vatican II”? priests in Australia. Over the last twenty years the agenda of the Council was hijacked by the kind of liberals with whom we have had to battle in Anglican structures. They gained control of most diocesan Catholic Education Offices, and determined the direction of religious teaching in the schools as well as the faith formation programmes in parishes.

The 1996 appointment of George Pell as Archbishop of Melbourne represents a real turning point. Pell is a friend of Catholic Anglicans. He understands us, having been a close friend of Bishop John Hazlewood, and one-time Roman Catholic Chairman of the Ballarat Join Diocesan Commission. He is a Vatican II man, but one who stands firmly in the mainstream. He does not automatically support the conservative side of every argument, and is known for his ability to think through complex issues in an original way. Even in his text on faith and morals written for secondary school students, he presents the Church’s teachings in a firmly orthodox and uncompromising way, but not without demonstrating an openness to the genuine insights of modern scholarship and the culture of our day. He expresses the Church’s moral teaching in the gentlest and most understanding way possible. He is a good man, spiritually minded, and possessed with a strong but humble sense of vocation that comes through even in media interviews.

To Australian Anglicans the Roman Catholic Church always seems to be teeming with people. But things are not always as they appear. The liberals in that Church are beginning to panic about the dropout rate of young people, and about their inability to inspire young men with vocations to the priesthood. On the other hand, where the Faith is taught and prayed, vocations are emerging, and people like Pell speak confidently about turning the situation around by the grace of God.

The real point of Pope John Paul’s approach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Australian context is to force Catholics to confront their sinfulness. In Anglican circles we have had 450 years of practice with general confessions and absolutions, and can tell others how much more effective for our healing journey is the special encounter with Jesus and his Church that the First Rite of Reconciliation facilitates – and how important it is to maintain an objectivity in thinking about our sinfulness.

The virtual ban on the Third Rite of Reconciliation in Australia is seen by mainstream Vatican II Catholics as part of the Pope’s campaign against post-modernism and the belief that one “truth” is as good as any other – the campaign heralded last year by the release of the encyclical Faith and Reason. I think they are right.

David Chislett SSC is Parish Priest of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace in the diocese of Brisbane