The Vatican's Priorities In Australia


In late September Greg Reynolds, a "rebel" Catholic priest operating outside the Church hierarchy in Melbourne, was laicised (defrocked, dismissed from the priesthood) and excommunicated.

Reynolds is not the only Australian priest to attract the ire of the Vatican in recent years — among others, the former Bishop of Toowoomba William Morris was forced into retirement in 2001 on doctrinal grounds, over his use of an alternative type of confession — but he is the first to be excommunicated by Pope Francis and the first to be defrocked during the operation of the Royal Commission.

He also appears to be the first Australian to be removed under special administrative powers to remove priests, set up by Rome in 2009. Reynolds' case is a litmus test that demonstrates the priorities and applications of Roman power.

While laicisation and excommunication are serious matters inside Roman Catholicism, they are also subject to a legal process like any other censure. Reynolds’ case, seen through letters obtained and translated from Latin by NM and the advice of a canon lawyer, shows that the Church has the ability, legal framework, and will to dismiss priests rapidly and without compromise or appeal, but that its priorities still lie with punishing schism and dissent.

In November 2010, Reynolds preached a homily from the pulpit of his Western Port church on the ordination of women to the priesthood. "I feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to share my position publicly, and yet very reluctantly," he said. He sent a copy to Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, who suspended him from his priestly duties.

One year later, Reynolds held his first mass for a new independent group called Inclusive Catholics. "I take comfort from the words of St Thomas Aquinas: 'I would rather be excommunicated than forced to act outside my conscience'," he preached.

Speaking to New Matilda by phone, Reynolds said that despite his suspension, "there was a need for ministry for those who were disenfranchised … I intended to continue to do it anyway, without [Hart's] permission." He believes that Hart expected Inclusive Catholics to "fade away".

It didn't. During one of their masses almost a year later in August 2012, according to a report in The Age from Barney Zwartz, a "first-time visitor" arrived with a German Shepherd. "When the consecrated bread and wine were passed around, the visitor took some bread and fed it to his dog," Zwartz reported

"Apart from one stifled gasp, those present showed admirable presence of mind — but the dog was not offered the cup!" he continued. It was a colourful, unusual "man bites dog" story. Given that Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is present in the consecrated bread, Zwartz's yarn did double duty. The dog also "bit the man", so to speak.

The story came back to bite Reynolds too. Archbishop Hart sent a letter to The Age, which was not printed, decrying the satirical tone of Zwartz's report. The letter was published on the Church's website and in the Catholic press. "That anyone would feed the Eucharist to a dog is an abomination," Hart wrote.

Hart personally followed up with a show cause to Reynolds four days later, asking for written assurance that he would not honour the terms of his suspension from duty and practice "irregular" forms of the sacraments. He also gave Reynolds a warning: "disassociate yourself from groups which act in defiance of Church authority."

Speaking to New Matilda about the dog incident, Reynolds maintains that he did not encourage it, nor did it see it happen. "No, I didn't know about it until mass was over," he said.

A second letter arrived on 5 September 2012 advising Reynolds that the Archbishop was "beginning the administrative procedure for the dismissal from the clerical state" under a curious power, Special Faculty II, instituted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 as an quicker administrative way to remove priests. It was mainly intended to be used for priests who had broken their vow of celibacy but had catch-all provisions for priests causing scandal.

However, punishment for child abuse offences was not intended to come under this new power; the right to deal with abusers is reserved to the powerful Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith (the CDF), formerly headed by Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The Special Faculty II power dispenses with the need for a trial under canon law. Instead, two "assessors" make a judgment of the evidence and the accused's defence. (Reynolds chose not to give one, nor did he correspond with the Archdiocese except to acknowledge receipt: "I opted not to take up their invitation … I'm glad I didn't.") This report is then passed up the chain via the Congregation for the Clergy to the Pope, who makes a decision. The accused then gets a decree informing them they are laicised.

Reynolds heard nothing for around a year after receiving the two letters. He was then called in to see Reverend John Salvano at St Patrick's Cathedral on Wednesday 18 September. He received a letter in Ecclesiastical Latin from Rome bearing the signature of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect of the CDF. Salvano explained the letter (Reynolds cannot read Latin). He was laicised, but also excommunicated: cut off from the church, unable to receive communion or give confessions.

Zwartz again picked up the story for The Age on 21 September: "Dissident priest Greg Reynolds has been both defrocked and excommunicated over his support for women priests and gays," he wrote, which wasn't strictly true. At the Wednesday meeting, Reynolds told NM, Salvano "specifically and very precisely" asked him about the incident with the German Shepherd.

The letter itself, which New Matilda obtained and translated (read in Latin here, and English here) wasn't referenced in Zwartz's article; it specifically sets out "the automatic excommunication from canon 1367", which deals specifically with desecration of a consecrated host.

A canon lawyer with several decades standing, who did not wish to be named, told NM via email that Reynolds' "dismissal and laicisation" were attributed to "an amalgam of heresy-schism, sacrilege, and speaking against Church teachings at public assemblies or by means of social communication." However, he continued:

"If Reynolds gave Holy Communion to a dog, that would certainly be sacrilege and would certainly warrant excommunication. If he did not do that, and did not know or condone that anyone else did that, he would not be guilty of sacrilege … No doubt, many would find it hard to understand how the CDF would act on newspaper reports / anonymous letters / whatever … and decree the result of excommunication without receiving evidence from Reynolds."

Archbishop Hart was "gobsmacked … shocked, to find out I was excommunicated", Reynolds told NM, adding that he had been told by Salvano that Hart may seek to have the sentence appealed. Reynolds said that Salvano assured him Hart had not continued the laicisation process, and that somebody had gone over his head directly to the Pope.

NM's canon lawyer said this was entirely possible. "Is it reasonable for such self-righteous persons to be listened to without reference to Reynolds?" he wrote. "I suspect that many Australians would feel that such ways of acting are related to kangaroo courts."

The Sunday after Zwartz's story was published on 21 September, I went to mass at St Patrick's Cathedral to listen to the Archbishop explain why the first priest to be excommunicated by the new Pope was in his Archdiocese. Instead the homily was largely about public transport fare evasion. I also pestered the Archdiocese of Melbourne for around two weeks with questions, but got no answers.

Reynolds' case is in some ways typical and in others is an extraordinary admission by Rome.

What is most striking is that the CDF, the same Vatican agency that deals with abusers in the clergy, was content to both laicise and excommunicate a priest, with a one year turnaround, on the basis of a newspaper report. Victims' groups with better evidence have had to campaign for years to get the Church to take note of their allegations. David Marr's latest Quarterly Essay collates examples of how at the local level allegations were dismissed as gossip or hushed up, despite victims' groups being willing to give names and specific incidents of abuse.

The matter should also indicate that the Vatican hierarchy is not some kind of absent power, but takes an active interest in the affairs of the Australian church, especially if they are brought to its attention. Reynolds' case is on trend with the treatment of Bishop Morris, who was a casualty of the so-called "Temple Police" — orthodox Catholics who inform on unorthodox members of the clergy.

Another issue: Reynolds told NM that Hart discontinued the process to have him formally laicised, as was indicated in the letters of 2012. Why start the process but not see it through? New Matilda received no explanation from the Archdiocese, but our canon lawyer thought the result seemed consistent with the process begun by Hart (he also professed no "insider knowledge).

If Hart did back off, then, read together with the emphasis put on the curious incident of the dog in the church by Reynolds' letter from the CDF, it shows how hard it is for a priest to get laicised for freelancing on progressive doctrinal reform issues like women's ordination and gay marriage. Or for that matter, for committing the kind of "liturgical abuses" decried by Pell.

The Australian Bishops were given a much-resented dressing down in 1998 by Rome for the the lax state of worship, faith and morals, but little has changed since then, despite the conservative pull of our only Cardinal.

On this issue, as well as for the crisis of child abuse, the inertia of the Church establishment seems to be broken and stirred to action only by individual moments of crisis — like a beat-up over a first-time parishioner feeding communion to a dog.

How does the Vatican operate in Australia? How does it interact with the vast "submerged state" of Catholic education and welfare? What kind of Church will survive the child abuse inquiry? Over the following months New Matilda will be investigating the application of Catholic power in Australia, the various mechanisms set up by the Church to attempt to deal with the scourge of child abuse, and the work of the Royal Commission.

Tips can be sent to adam [dot]brereton [at]newmatilda [dot]com. Confidentiality and sensitivity guaranteed.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.