How is Power used in the Catholic Church? A Case Study of a group of Male Religious in the Archdiocese of Melbourne

Peter William Dowling, Australian Catholic University



While there is much talk of an emerging interest in spirituality in Australia, there is evidence of a declining affiliation with the established Churches. The impact of mainstream Christianity in these circumstances would appear to be waning. The continued attention given to the Church in the wake of these realities and that of the Church’s dealing with situations of sexual abuse has often focussed around the way in which the Church has used its power and influence. While undoubtedly there is much evidence of the Church’s service and care for its members and those most in need, more questions are being asked about the accountability of those who minister within the boundaries of Catholic Church structures, and the healthiness of those very structures for helping the Church to live out its mission with integrity. Further questioning has often been around the perceived intent of Church authorities, as seen by many, to return the Church to times prior to the Second Vatican Council when clerical authority was unquestioned. There are divergent viewpoints as to whether the call of the Council for wider involvement of lay people in Church decision-making and structures is in the process of being reversed.

The researcher, coming from his experience as a member of a Catholic Religious Congregation of Men, is interested in looking broadly at the issue of how power is used in the Catholic Church, with a particular focus on a case study of one Group of Male Religious in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. The aim of the study is to provide further insight into use of power in the Catholic Church, and to offer some recommendations for future use of that power in a healthy and constructive way for the benefit of the Church and, ultimately, all of society.


A Literature Review was carried out to investigate the broader issues of how power may be defined. A multitude of answers emerged, resulting in a rich understanding of power and some specific related factors: gender, hegemony, patriarchy, authority, leadership, empowerment and networks. Following these explorations around how use of power may be understood, examination of issues relating to abuse of power took place. Given this background, attention was then given to issues of power in relation to Church structures.

With these learnings, the researcher conducted five focus groups of people who had relevant knowledge of the male Religious Congregation in Melbourne, which was the specific case study for this research. The groups included current members of the Congregation, former members, staff members in schools run by the Congregation, former students and a women’s group. The study was restricted to one specific Congregation, the ‘Brothers of St Charles’ [fictitious name], in Melbourne, in order to provide a particular and manageable focus. While limited in scope, the study provides an analysis of the focus groups and a linking between this analysis and the Literature Review.


The study finishes with some reflections by the researcher on the learnings of the study and recommendations arising from the study. Central place is given to the quality of relationships of those engaged in ministry on behalf of the Catholic Church. An interplay of personal and Church/Congregational factors is proposed in order to provide some qualitative assessment of the effectiveness of such relationships.

In order for ministers to take up and use their power in an enriching way for themselves and particularly for those to whom they are called in service, recommendations are made around the need for learning about use of power as part of formation for Church personnel, around encouraging ongoing personal growth in those in Church ministry, around the importance of engaging in processes of healing where people have been hurt by past inappropriate use of power, and around the need to continually critique and challenge existing Church structures where there is injustice through lack of inclusivity.