CHRIS GERAGHTY. The Plenary Council.

After the Royal Commission in Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, the Irish child abuse commission 2009 on the other side of the world and the resignation of all the bishops in Chile, the Roman Catholic Church as we know it has received the last rites lying in periculo mortis in intensive care and is now on a respirator. The family has been notified, a plot has been purchased and the funeral director is on stand-by. 

In a last-ditch attempt to breathe life into a bloodless body, and with the permission of the Pope in Rome (of course), the bishops of Australia have decided to convoke a Plenary Council to identify and solve all their church’s troubles. 

On Pentecost Sunday just passed, the archbishop of Sydney, Tony Fisher, flashing an impressive list of credentials (DD., BA., LlB, B Theol and D Phil), addressed a letter to his “dear people” informing them that “the purpose of the Plenary Council is not to change Church teaching or discipline”. One might think that if that is not the purpose of what the bishops are planning to do in October 2020 and May 2021, what would be the point of turning up at all? Teaching and discipline are in need of a good clean-out.

The archbishop provided a list of helpful suggestions – the challenges that are “worthy of discussion, discernment and prayer”. At the top of the list is – wait for it –

“How can we combat the virulent secularism in some quarters of our society and the rise of atheism, especially among young people?” 

Let’s set the tone of the meeting and open the game with a negative, defensive manoeuvre. Us against them. The goodies against the baddies. 

But this was the challenge which confronted the First (not the Second) Vatican Council in 1870 when the church was on top of its game – powerful, autocratic and infallible. How about asking how those in charge can better dialogue with the modern world? Or preach a meaningful message to believers? Or plunge a fatal dagger into the heart of clericalism? Or give the women a go to see if they can make as good a mess as the men? 

Fisher OP went on the make a few more marginally relevant suggestions and concluded his list – “And all the other questions on your mind”, ending in an exclamation mark. So here goes.

Some years ago the Archbishop of Sydney (not Tony Fisher, the author of our letter) had the opportunity of becoming a national hero, a man of vision with an international reputation – someone the members of his church could be immensely proud of. The parish of Redfern, under the chaotic guidance of Father Ted Kennedy, had become a centre for the care and support of our indigenous peoples from all around Australia. The parish church, the grubby presbytery and the surrounding buildings had become a place where aborigines could feel welcome and at home, where they could find care and support – a hand-out, a hand-up and a welcoming, non-judgmental reception. 

Redfern offered the real possibility of making a contribution to closing the gap, making a difference by establishing special schools and scholarships, a system of healthcare, of clinics and counselling services – the opportunity to show the nation how this difficult work could be done by those with commitment and energy. Kennedy’s Redfern had attracted volunteers, priests, nuns, brothers and many lay volunteers who were interested in advancing the welfare of our indigenous peoples. When Father Ted finally hit the dust and the challenge was there to be embraced, the episcopal officer in charge of the archdiocese took the soft option, wasted the opportunity and appointed an ultra-reactionary, crazy group of Neo-Cathecumens to divide and destroy the parish. He too could have been a contender – but when it came to the test, he chose to be a spoiler.

The Plenary Council may not decide to return to Redfern, but it could decide to establish and fund a missionary program to service the tragic needs of the nation’s original inhabitants, to consult with them and then to implement a visionary program they devise together. This would be a contribution to the nation and could be a message from the church that it was seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, beginning again and trying to make a real, practical difference.

There are many other services which the Plenary Council might consider. It might come as a surprise to the bishops, but the ordinary man or woman is no longer content with hearing messages being preached from windows on the third floor of the Vatican or listening to vacuous words from the pulpit or the President talking about refugees, or mindless wars, or the horrors of pornography, or about praying for the victims and the families of mass shootings. If the Catholic Church is rich enough to provide mansions for their prelates as it has done in Melbourne, in Wollongong and elsewhere, it can provide refuge for refugees and homes for the homeless. It can devise a program for financing inexpensive housing, low rents, attractive mortgage rates – taking the initiative and leading the nation in closing the gap between the rich and the poor, and not leaving it to government full of Jesuit-trained Catholics to enrich the wealthy and grind the poor into the dirt. 

There are many moves on the board which the participants at a Plenary Council could consider – practical help, consistent lobbying and constant criticism of the nation’s treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus islands; a stable of safe homes for victims of family violence accompanied by practical systems, legal advice and counseling; Sunday meals for struggling families and lonely men and women in every suburb or country town; programs of education and assistance for prisoners while in prison and on release – fully funded rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing crime and giving offenders meaningful, productive lives; using their school facilities and professional expertise to establish in-service training and apprenticeship programs and after-school education for boys and girls in depressed areas. 

The church possesses a large stock of real estate it could sell (many presbyteries and vacant convents, for example) to finance its new programs, to build units for disadvantaged people, perhaps reserving one of the units for the person in charge of the pastoral care in the district; it could establish and fund a free legal service for the poor; appoint a Ombudsman to receive and deal with complaints; engage the services of a creative public relations firm to come up with a few new ideas; a code of conduct for bishops and clergy and a formal policy of transparency, consultation, participation, inclusion and openness. Anything less from a Plenary Council will be seen as a cheap retread for a failed institution.

And of course, the Plenary Council will certainly not be able to avoid the issue of involving women in ministry and in the governance of the church on all levels. The role of women in the institutional church is a ticking bomb which is destined to cause irreparable damage if not defused. Those in authority would have us believe that Jesus was against it, that he established a men’s only club to rule his church, that he excluded women from the top jobs. Pure, self-interested nonsense. 

In the midst of their deliberations, the Plenary Council participants may come to realize that Jesus did not see himself as an institutional man, or as someone with a mission to establish a church or a complicated system of beliefs. The creed Jesus revealed was not twisted or complicated. A God who was a father, an indulgent father who loved and cherished his creatures. A kingdom of the poorer and oppressed. His was to be a religion as preached by the prophets of old – rather than sacrifice and ceremonies, paraphernalia and long formulae he wanted justice, service, honesty, generosity, inclusion, enthusiasm, love and forgiveness. Simple really.

I am hoping the future Plenary Council will forget about dogma for a while, for a century or two, and concentrate on the message of Jesus. Make a few courageous decisions, set off in a completely new direction and take a few risks – nothing to lose and much to gain – a credibility that comes from genuine service in the footsteps of Jesus.

We’ll have to wait to see whether it will be plenary business as usual. It’s been a long time since the Catholic Church was ahead of the game. In the Australian context, it has become an established institution on a par with the Commonwealth Bank or the Liberal-National Coalition which are also struggling to maintain a veneer of relevance. The Vatican organization has long since lost its edge. It’s no longer at the centre of national debate, no longer the burr under the saddle, a light in the darkness, baking powder in soft dough, or a voice crying in the wilderness. The hierarchy and the papacy have insisted that the institution should speak with one monotonous voice. They have put their visionaries and prophets to the sword, imposed a regime of conformity and silence on the troops, allowed the stench of scandal to waft through their palaces and presbyteries and expect a Plenary Council, with a seriously reduced talent pool, to drag them out of the shit. I wish them the best of British luck – but I’m not holding my breath. The pastoral letter of the Most Rev. Anthony Fisher OP, DD., BA., LlB, B Theol., D Phil. is not a propitious sign but despite his many degrees perhaps he still has something to learn.

Chris Geraghty, theologian, former priest and former judge of the District Court of NSW, now living in gentle retirement with too much time on his hands.


Dr Chris Geraghty is a former priest of the archdiocese of Sydney, a retired judge of the District Court of NSW, and the author of a recent publication, Virgins and Jezebels – the Origins of Christian Misogyny.

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9 Responses to CHRIS GERAGHTY. The Plenary Council.

  1. Avatar terence flanagan says:

    Thoughts on the Plenary Council for Australia.

    This week I heard on the ABC that Brazil once the largest Catholic country in the world was projected to have only 50% belonging by 2030, the balance has not fell under the spell of secularism, but have joined the many fundamentalist communities so active there and in all of South America. It would seem to me that such a reversal in such a short time deserves careful study. We need our leaders, lay and clerical to examine their modus vivendi, how it differs from ours and how we can adapt to halt the loss and restore what has been a 400 years of religious practise and tradition.
    Five years ago I travelled extensively in Central America and three years ago I had a short holiday in Brazil and Chile. It was the 7 weeks in Central America that opened my eyes to the successes and failures of our two traditions. The ancient Spanish cities were dotted with large complexes that had housed the great religious orders; some still working with limited staff, most changed into museums or hotels.
    This had been the pattern of most missionary activity, as formerly in Europe, where the non-city population would travel to the centres for trade, festivals and government business and there would be introduced to the new religion. As a footnote it is interesting that many parts of Europe, France, then Gaul, Italy and southern Germany have patron saints who were Irish monks, who introduced them to the faith in the 6th and 7th centuries. Even as far south as Palermo whose Patron is an Irish monk. The same pattern of clustering religious houses in the principal towns and cities in Central America meant little or no presence in the remote rural settlements of priests and worship.
    Then came the American Baptists. I saw village by village small meeting places all the same design all looking as prefabricated in America. During the trip we stayed at a large resort in Honduras, sharing it with us was a large group of indigent Baptist Ministers. I had discussions with them and discovered that each minister was residing in these small villages; Baptist Churches in America adopted these centres, provided the money and materials to build the worship centres and then paid a subsidy towards the living expenses of the minister and his family. These week long gatherings were for Scripture education, fellowship and pastoral planning.
    At first I was saddened by the loss of so many good people who lived and breathed Catholic piety for hundreds of years, and then I said -well now they are getting the Word of God and ministry for their lives.
    Our Leaders, locked as they still are to the city model have left these without shepherds. The rule that only celibate university trained men can provide worship and ministry means that these in their millions have to look to the thousands of Baptist Communities in America to provide what I regard as minimal experience of what our Founder wants to give them.
    Is it worthwhile to abandon these poor people to keep a style of ministry that other parts of the Eastern Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches do not insist on in their practise?

    Already in Australia as the number of university trained celibate priests has declined our Leaders unite parishes, reduce worship to fortnightly or monthly support for God’s People. Should we now alert our Baptist brethren to our need, so where our presence has ceased altogether they can provide a regular Scripture Service for the baptised?
    When we consider that each Bishop and Diocese is still seen as a separate entity as it was in the early church; the potential for independent initiatives about governance, mission and relationships with other faith communities and civil authorities is vast .The major obstacle is the omnipresence of communication, which has enabled a day by day supervision of these independent faith communities and their leaders by the central authority of Rome. Pope Francis has begged national hierarchies to suggest new approaches and even talk about a married clergy maybe on the modal of the Eastern Churches but his appeals are without response.
    The current malaise we as a major faith community face in Australia requires two fundamental reforms. The first is that the National Bishops Conference should have true legislative power, so that when two thirds of the Bishops decide on any issue, all Bishops are obliged to implement those changes in their Dioceses. That will mean a change in the legal independent status they currently enjoy. Together with the National Conference of Bishops there needs to be another National Body that represents our educational sectors, health and welfare services with a Senate style representative group of lay women and men chosen by vote in each State of Australia.
    The lack of such a body as this, I blame for the failure of our Church to exert proper influence on the legislative agenda in our country. Such a National Assembly in union with an effective National Conference of Bishops would mean I believe a better intellectual discussion among many Australians about critical issues that seem to have a path to success on our failure to adapt and be effective.
    Can the defence of a structure of governance; Bishops independent and alone be sufficient reason to throw the baby out with the bath water? The Apostolic Church was not so structured; we read that St. Paul went to consult the Elders of the Community. It is true that the young Timothy exercised leadership in St. Paul’s time, but no scholar would argue or propose that that was separate from the group of Elders.
    There are so many issues needing renewal and reform, however if there is not an effective structure of efficient management and engagement with the total Australian population we will be just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Terence Flanagan,
    Email judyflanagan@hotmail .com

  2. Avatar George Szylkarski says:

    Chris Geraghty’s angry words in his The Plenary Council sounded paradoxically ” powerful, autocratic and infallible.” to use his own words. Not for Chris any doubts as to how the Church must change to be resurrected for the 21st century

    Where Chris is coming from was amazingly foreseen in these prophetic words written by David Bentley Hart in 2003, fifteen years ago, in his essay “Christ and Nothing” (Look it up in Google but warning some of it is very heavy going).

    “we take as given the individual’s right not merely to obey or defy the moral law, but to choose which moral standards to adopt, which values to uphold, which fashion of piety to wear and with what accessories.”

    How could David Bentley Hart, unheard of in Australia, an American Eastern Orthodox theologian, so convincingly analyse in 2003 the disease now destroying Christianity and Catholicism in Europe and here in Australia thus forcing our bishops to launch The Plenary Council lifeboat.

    Had Chris Geraghty read and chosen to accept Hart’s logic his essay on The Plenary Council would have been different.

  3. Avatar John Challis says:

    As usual, Geraghty the master of the massed metaphor : “The Vatican organisation has long since lost its edge. It’s no longer the burr under the saddle, a light in the darkness, baking powder in soft dough, or a voice crying in the wilderness”!!

    I admire your passion, comrade.

  4. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    Anthony Fisher is a product of his mentor and predecessor George Pell. Fisher also used his Easter Sunday homily to lament the current persecution of his Church. How can the Holy Spirit guide the church when it’s leaders are so rigidly opposed to change?
    In contrast Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta used Pentecost to say that what is indisputable is the need for deep institutional change that will restore confidence and trust in the church. “Nothing less than a root-to-branch reform that will align our hearts and minds to the Gospel will do.” In this light who is more suited to the position of Archbishop of Sydney?

  5. Avatar John Scanlon says:

    I agree with everything you say about desired outcomes of the Plenary Council, but I cannot let pass the common mis-statement that Ted Kennedy was immediately succeeded by the Neo=Catechumenate priests at Redfern parish. In fact the Archbishop of the time (Pell) appointed Fr Peter Carroll M.S.C., who had plenty of experience of working with Indigenous people. Unfortunately the Redfern activist parishioners were not prepared to accept him and work with him, essentially because he was not a clone of Ted Kennedy. When he resigned in frustration, Pell grabbed the opportunity to show his contempt for the Redfern parishioners. by appointing the polar opposite to Ted Kennedy. A clear case of “:be careful what you wish for.”

  6. Avatar Patrick Nunan says:

    Chris, my enduring appreciation for the clarity of your suggestions. I have had grave reservations about what is to be the agenda at the Plenary Council and more particularly, who is setting the agenda. Fisher’s directive enhances that reservation. Maybe one thing that should also be discussed is the disgraceful cowardice by the Australian bishops over the treatment of Bill Morris. What happened there mearly reflects the moral decay (unchristian attitude and culture) within the hierarchy of the Australian Catholic church that mirrored the coverup of systemic abuse of children that had been happening for decades.

  7. Avatar Sue Wittenoom says:

    Amen to that. Thank you Chris Geraghty for sharing the questions on your mind in such a compelling and constructive piece.

  8. Richard Butler Richard Butler says:

    Great use of your “gentle retirement” and may you continue to have much more time on your hands. Your characterisation of introverted institutions which have lost touch with their essence has, sadly become a widespread phenomenon. Wonderful that you recalled the extraordinary Ted Kennedy. I remember him well; clarity in his chaos.

  9. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    It’s entirely possible to give progressive answers to Tony Fisher’s first question.

    Eg by challenging the rule of money; so that people have long-term affordable housing and enough to eat.
    by stopping the abuse so prevalent in hierarchical structures and telling the truth about our faults.

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