Within Australia, the most important event for the Catholic Church in recent times has been the Plenary Council, which concluded in July 2022. While the outcomes were widely viewed as mixed at best, there were some important decisions made. The Sense of the Faithful has in train a program of work to monitor the implementation of these decisions by dioceses and parishes across Australia.
As initial outcomes of this work, we publish here two articles:
Richard Curtain for the Sense of the Faithful Editorial Committee
The Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church concluded with the Second Assembly in Sydney on 3–9 July 2022. It was clearly an historic event in the life of the Australian Church, although the full implications will take time to emerge. Those implications will, of course, depend much on actions taken by many within the fabric of the faithful.
Since the conclusion of the Second Assembly, we have been blessed with a wide range of comments and reflections on, and responses to, the work of the Assembly. To help us all to understand what has happened, and to think about where we go now, we have collected here 15 published responses to the Council – six from Council members, including three Archbishops, two from Council periti, five from other observers within Australia and two from international observers.
Episcopal PC Members
Other PC members
Observers – Australian
Observers – International
While aiming to be reasonably reflective of different views, we do not claim that this is either a representative selection of, or a complete collection of, the available responses. They should be read in the context of many other responses and in particular of the short but powerful reflections on their experience of the Council by 58 Council members. These are available on the Plenary Council website at https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/member-reflections/
In introducing these responses, we draw attention to the following seven points.
1. Towards a new way of being the Church in Australia
One striking feature of almost all responses is that the practice of the Second Assembly was transformational and may usher in a new way of being the Church in Australia. In spite of a far from transparent preparatory process, most members celebrated an openness, relatively free debate and a sense of equality between bishops and laity in the Assembly. There was a shared spirituality and an awareness of a common cause, guided by the Spirit, to find the best outcomes for Australia. Many members commented that the Assembly gave them a new sense of what ‘synodality’ can mean, and that processes within the Australian Church will never be the same.
2. The dramatic shift mid-week
This new sense of openness seems to have been substantially driven by the events of Wednesday 6 July 2022, which were seen by many as a dramatic Spirit-driven disruption of the established process. There was much distress, not only about failure to recognise the position of women but also about the future of the Council itself. As the Secretary to the Council noted (David Ranson (5)), after this disruption the processes of the Assembly were changed to make them ‘far more participative, far more engaging’. Why it took this disruption to adopt truly participatory processes is unclear.
What is clear is that these events changed the views of many of the participants, both episcopal and lay. While the changes to the wording of the motions in relation to the position of women can only be described as minor, the views of many members changed sharply. For example, the original motion 4.6, on new opportunities for women in ministry, achieved only 39.6% support in the consultative vote and 62.8% in the deliberative vote on 6 July 2022. In the final vote on Friday 8 July on a slightly edited version of this motion (now 4.3) support levels of 87.6% and 97.7% for the two types of votes respectively were achieved.
3. Addressing divergent views through creative tension
Pope Francis has long argued that it is vital not only to recognize divergent views within the Church but to address them directly rather than avoiding them. The resulting ‘creative tension’ can be both painful and highly productive in enabling a new shared position to be achieved. There seems to have been evidence of this process at work in the events at the Council from Wednesday 6 July on. Many members and observers saw a process of creative tension at work in the Australian Church for the first time at the Plenary Council and see this as the beginnings of a new synodality that can help shape a better future.
4. Some important motions passed – now to implementation
It is clear that in a number of areas, important motions have been passed at the Council. These include
the recognition of the spirituality of indigenous peoples and support for a Voice in the Constitution,
action on the environment and on Laudato Si’,
the establishment of Diocesan Pastoral Councils and other synodal processes,
the development of new opportunities for women in ministry, and
progress on the use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation, the reform of the language used in the liturgy and the ordination of women as deacons.
This raises critical issues of implementation, in two aspects. The first concerns the implementation of these and other specific directions agreed to by the Council. Given that very few if any of the Council’s decisions will be legislated, will they actually be put into practice or will they be largely ignored, as the follow-up reverts to individual dioceses and parishes? The second is the continuation of new, truly participatory processes emerging from the Council. It seems likely that these two issues will be closely linked, and that further development of ongoing synodal processes will be necessary if the decisions of the Fifth Plenary Council are to be truly implemented.
5. Only a beginning – many major issues not addressed
Many members and observers of the Plenary Council, ranging from Archbishop Fisher (2) to Paul Collins (9) and Bill Uren (12), have stressed that many crucial issues were not addressed. While emphases differ, common items include
Lack of any serious analysis of the needs of the Australian community, and indeed the global community, which the Church exists to serve
As a result, little attention was paid to the roles of lay Catholics (including religious) whose primary mission is to that broader community
Many questions about clericalism, the decline of vocations to the ordained priesthood and changes to the criteria for ordination (e.g., married male and female priests) that might increase the supply of priests were side-stepped
Largely ignoring the poor and the marginalised
Failing to address questions of gender and sexuality, areas in which the Church’s perceived stance is most at odds with the conscience of many Catholics and other Australians, and
Ignoring the ongoing collapse of the existing parish model and the need for urgent changes to that model.
6. Different views on mission
Some observers (eg Therese D’Orsa (10)) have noted that few of the conclusions of the Council flowed from a clear and shared understanding of the Church’s mission. Indeed, there seem to be two strands in understanding mission emerging from the Council. One strand stresses evangelization in the sense of numbers of converts to Christ and argues for new programs to rebuild the numbers of active faithful. The other strand places primary emphasis on Church reform and renewal, with a broader sense of Christ’s mission to the suffering world, and sees this as central to rebuilding participation, especially of the young and the disaffected, in the life of the Church.
7. Renewing the scriptural basis of change
One notable feature of the Council documents, and especially of the Motions put before the Second Assembly, is the very limited reliance on the Word of God to guide our adaptation to the ‘new epoch’ identified by Pope Francis. To highlight that limitation, and to illustrate the potential benefits of contemporary scriptural understanding to our ongoing synodal processes, we include at (8) a short paper prepared by Fr Frank Moloney as background to the discussion of Theme 4.