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With two colleagues, Peter Carpenter and Michael Costigan, I recently wrote an article which was published in Footprints – Journal of the Melbourne Historical Commission. Titled ‘Major Research Projects Undertaken by the Catholic Church in Australia: Engagement of the Church in the Modern World’, the article was our small contribution to the 50 year anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

The inspiration for the article was the challenge in Blessed Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council that the Church needs ‘to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living, for these have opened up entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate’.

My co-authors and I had each been involved in Church activities which gave us some insights into Blessed Pope John XXIII’s exhortation. 

Emeritus Professor Peter Carpenter was foundation Dean of Arts and Sciences at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and chaired the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia project of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). Dr Michael Costigan, currently Adjunct Professor of ACU, was Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace for 17 years, and made leading contributions to the Bishops’ inquiries into the distribution of wealth in Australia and into the participation of women in the Church.  I had had similar involvement in projects for the Bishops and ACU.

In our study we undertook the task of assessing one type of engagement by the Church, namely major research projects undertaken by the ACBC as a means by which the Church has entered into public debate about pressing social issues.

Specifically, we focused on Common Wealth for the Common Good (1992) and Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus (1999), two documents emerging from such research and published with the approval of the Bishops’ conference. Both projects started with a problem to be investigated, couched that problem in conceptual terms, translated it into a research program, carried out an investigation, and then produced a report of the findings.

A key feature of the consultation on wealth distribution and poverty was the Bishops’ invitation to the community to make submissions to the inquiry and later to respond to the draft statement, Common Wealth and Common Good.

This invitation was taken up by individuals, organisations, parishes and dioceses leading to over 1,300 submissions. The Bishops subsequently evaluated the project and received 330 responses, the insights of which informed future projects.

One clear message was that the conclusions of the inquiry should be disseminated to the Catholic community and the Common Wealth for the Common Good report was commercially published and over the years informed the work of a range of Church agencies. A shorter version was also issued in an illustrated magazine format, similar to the style used for annual ACBC social justice statements, and sold more extensively.

In the post-Vatican II era, various issues relating to women in the Catholic Church had been raised with the Australian Catholic Bishops.

In response the Bishops initiated the project, The Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia, and requested the Bishops Committee for Justice, Development and Peace (BCJDP) to implement the study, which was subsequently conducted by ACU, the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes and the BCJDP.

To achieve the aim of the project, namely to gather data on the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia, the research project addressed four questions:

What are the various ways in which women participate in the Catholic Church in Australia? What assistance and support are currently offered to women to participate in the Church? What are barriers to women’s participation in the Church? What are some ways in which women’s participation in the Church can be increased?

These questions were designed to give coherence to all aspects of the research investigation. A range of research methods was employed to gather data nationally.

Thus, the report to the Bishops was informed by 2,500 submissions, the Catholic Church Life Survey completed by 4,500 Church attendees covering 28 dioceses, 22 public hearings, 50 targeted focus groups, a survey of 79 Catholic organisations and theological institutions, and contextual studies of the history of women’s participation in the Catholic Church in Australia, of the wider involvement of women in the Christian churches, and of the role of women in Australian society.

This project led to the establishment of what are now titled the Council for Australian Catholic Women and the Office for the Participation of Women.

In these two ACBC projects the Church immersed itself in Australian society and made ‘the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties’ of the individuals and communities consulted those ‘of the followers of Christ’ (Gaudium et Spes, n.1).

These projects demonstrate, that through professionally conducted research studies incorporating wide public consultation, the Church and its agencies in Australia rightly seeks to place in the public arena its views on current social issues.

The first of these ACBC consultations was described as follows:

‘The method has been called a new way of teaching which safeguards the role of the laity in the formulation of Church teaching and the role of the bishops as teachers within the Church and in society more broadly conceived. In other words, the bishops in this educational process are both teaching and learning.’ [Common Wealth for the Common Good, x).

These challenging times for the Australian church are, significantly, leading to new forms of engagement, such as the Truth, Justice and Healing Council established by the Church to oversee its engagement with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, and public juridic persons as contemporary models of sponsorship for religious institute ministries to ensure their continuation as works of the Catholic Church. 

It will be critical that such developments continue to be informed through consultations and research so that the Church remains ‘both teaching and learning’.

Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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