Paul Collins was a Catholic priest for many years, and today is a renowned theologian and religious commentator who has just written a book on the history of the papacy called Absolute Power, Julie Houghton writes.
What made you enter the priesthood?
I think I’d experienced something deeply transcendent in the Church’s liturgy—I’d been an altar server at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne as an adolescent. But there was also an element of the status of the Catholic priesthood in the 1950s and that was attractive for a shopkeeper’s son.
What were the joys and frustrations of being a Catholic priest?
It was wonderful to be involved in people’s joys and sorrows, in baptisms, weddings, sickness (I was a relief chaplain in one of Sydney’s largest public hospitals) and funerals. I also loved preaching from the Scriptures, which became a form of prayer for me. Frustrations? Parish administration! Raising money!
Why did you decide to study at Harvard?
After 10 years’ ministry I felt I needed to broaden my education. Where better for a Catholic to go than a great divinity school in the broad Protestant tradition?
What was being Head of the ABC Religious Department like for you?
Being in the ABC Religious Department in those days (1988–1998) was an education in ecumenism. It was a chance to get to know the whole religious scene in Australia. It deepened my faith, while simultaneously teaching me to be objective and to see belief from the perspective of the broader culture.
How do you feel about the church’s role today?
I’m a historian as well as a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic and I’m determined to involve the Church in dialogue with the wider culture and community. With the election of Pope Francis, I’ve got a new lease of life. He is open to the world and his whole approach is Christlike and pastoral.
How did your clash with the Vatican lead to you leaving your religious order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart?
In 1997 I published a book called Papal Power. It was critical of the Vatican and Pope John Paul II but was theologically unremarkable. Everything in it had been said before—by myself and others. But someone reported it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Roman Inquisition, which proceeded to get its knickers in a knot regarding the book’s orthodoxy.
After protracted negotiations it was made clear that the book would be condemned unless I backed down and accepted their criticisms. I could see that my religious order was going to get caught in the crossfire and I didn’t want that, so resigned from the active ministry after 33 years service.
Have you stayed within the church as a layman?
I’m a Catholic who has absolutely no intention of leaving.
What inspired you to write Absolute Power and did you enjoy the process?
I’ve been fascinated by power and how it is used for good and evil. The modern papacy exercises a lot of soft power and influence and I wanted to see how that had come about. I love writing—in fact, I’m addicted to it!
Who do you think will enjoy reading Absolute Power?
It’s written for a broad audience. I think we need to make theology and the Church accessible to people—believers or non-believers. I’m also interested in how, as Christians, we use institutional power. It’s a history of how the papacy became so influential, so history buffs will like it.
What is your hope for the church of the future?
I long for a Church in which all believers are equal, all are given a chance to use their Spirit-given gifts to serve others, and in which we are all disciples.