PAT POWER. Quo Vadis? The Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia

The Plenary Council planned for 2020-21 gives rise to great hopes and some anxiety as the Catholic Church in Australia and indeed worldwide faces the greatest challenge of the modern era. As a church “always in need of reform” we are continually confronted by the need to “read the signs of the times” and to respond in the light of the Gospel.

Listening must be a key part of the whole Plenary Council preparation. It was heartening to hear of Archbishop Timothy Costelloe’s encouragement to all Catholics, whether devout or disillusioned, fervent or frustrated, to give voice to what is on their minds and in their hearts.

I must say that I was somewhat taken aback by the emphasis placed on Pope Francis’ approval of the Plenary Council. It was even stated in the Australian Bishops’ commentary that the delay in the Vatican’s approval was that they needed to see the agenda to assess what topics would be addressed.

What I have learned from Pope Francis’ five years as a truly Holy Father has been his willingness to listen and to reach out to all kinds people in every situation he encounters. He is prepared to meet people “where they are at”.

I have sympathy for those planning the Plenary Council if they feel so bound by constraints of traditional theology and canon law that they are inhibited in fully listening to the voices of the faithful in the way that Archbishop Costelloe is inviting them to respond. But if the Council is to begin to succeed, there must be a genuine willingness to listen to and confront the hard questions which are facing the Church in Australia today.

Archbishop Costelloe is putting it mildly when he suggests that some Catholics may be frustrated or disillusioned. There is a whole body of loyal and dedicated Catholics who have left the Church in the past fifty years. Many of them tell me “I have not abandoned the Church, the Church has abandoned me.”

Much of the disenchantment has come from a failure to carry forward the hopes and vision provided by the Second Vatican Council. The hopes for Vatican II began to fade in 1968, a few years after the close of the Council with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control. Pope Paul went against the majority report of his own commission in responding as he did. It is said that he feared that to have followed the advice of his expert advisers, he would have undermined the authority of papal teaching by going against the 1930 papal decree Casti Connubii. In fact, Pope Paul’s decision, which I understand caused him great pain, effectively undermined much of papal authority because it was never truly received by the body of the faithful. Loyal Catholics rightly began to recognise the primacy of conscience in seeking to live out their marital love in a joyful and fruitful manner. Sadly, many married people in varying degrees felt they could no longer be part of the Church. Many good priests felt unable to uphold the papal edict and resigned from active ministry.

It is interesting that the two things explicitly excluded from discussion at the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul were birth control and compulsory celibacy of the clergy. Refusal to re-examine these crucial issues by successive Popes has caused great harm to the mission and credibility of the Catholic Church. It is said that Pope Paul was so unsettled by the aftermath of Humanae Vitae that he never wrote another encyclical.

Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate was a mixed blessing. His charismatic leadership and engaging personality touched many people well beyond the Catholic Church. His role in the downfall of totalitarian communism guarantees him an important part in modern world history. His appeal to young people especially at World Youth Day events made a real impact on those participating. He was a “father” of Vatican II, but I would argue that much of its implementation was steered off course under his time as Pope. Certainly, here in Australia, bishops and male clergy felt intimidated in giving effective leadership for fear of being branded “disloyal to Rome”. I have to say that for most of my time as an “active” bishop from 1986 to 2012, I was in trouble with the Vatican for giving voice to what I believed were the concerns of loyal Catholics. My fate was mild in comparison with that suffered by Bishops Bill Morris and Geoff Robinson who gave such prophetic leadership to the Australian Church.

The many questions arising out of the Royal Commission are basic to the reform needed in the Catholic Church today. So much of the culture which has been male and clerically dominated must be fundamentally challenged. So many good Catholics are saying that the Australian Church would not be in its present parlous position if women had been in effective decision- making roles at all levels of the Church in its recent history. Pope John Paul’s 1993 ban on the discussion of the ordination of women should not prevent the issue being further examined. The unique gifts of women need to be brought to the fore in every aspect of the life and mission of the Church.

The Australian bishops have done much to encourage the participation of young people in the life of the Church. The young people’s joy, enthusiasm and active role in so many areas are a source of great heart at a time when such a boost is sorely needed. It would be a pity if their outreach did not extend to the many other young people who are caught up in drug abuse, suffering mental illness, homelessness, family and sexual violence, and those who do not find much joy in living. Where does Jesus fit into all those scenarios?

Sadly, much of the Church’s teaching on sexuality over the years has been overly negative.  I believe that in the light of the same-sex marriage debate and referendum, the Plenary Council must be open to serious listening in this whole area, a listening that involves gay people themselves, their families and those who are expert in this very complex area. Again, the input of women will be vital.

These reflections are written on the fifth anniversary of the inauguration of Pope Francis. I am sure that confident leadership from every part of the Australian Church in the lead-up to the Plenary Council will give support and validation to all that Pope Francis is seeking to achieve in encouraging open dialogue.

Pat Power was formerly Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. 

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20 Responses to PAT POWER. Quo Vadis? The Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Another man tells ‘the Catholic Church’ what it (whatever ‘It’ is) ought to be doing to renew itself. Is there nothing new under the sun?

    Naturally, one must feel some respect – if that’s the word – perhaps not ‘quite’ the mot juste in my estimation – for individuals who dedicate their talents to trying to improve the world. That is not my assessment of what is happening here. Mealy-mouthed rearguard action are words which spring unbidden… I suppose this is what Julie Moran’s youthful acquaintance might call ‘crap detectors’. It’s a little Chaucerian but I think it’s where the money is about to be – apologies to Martin Buber.

  2. Well done Pat. While most are enjoying retirement you keep at it coming up with gems like this telling it how it is.
    I can’t help but notice how the excitement and energy of the late seventies and early eighties with much focus on lay involvement in the Church was slowly but effectively stifled in the years since.
    At this time of Easter I think it appropriate to be reminded that the Church is based on death AND resurrection. It is becoming increasingly clear that the established Church as we know it needs to endure a fair bit more dying yet in the belief that resurrection will follow.

  3. Bill McMahon says:

    It seems to me that the Plenary Council is shaping up to be a Bishops Party! Surely the leadership can be arrived at in a consensual manner! I suspect some people may want the Council minutes written in advance. They want to control the agenda and the outcome!
    If this opportunity is missed to open up the windows and rejuvenate the Church than another generation will become “outsiders” .

  4. Julie Moran says:

    Many thanks Pat for some incredibly wise words.
    I will confess I am quite terrified that it is just going to be another echo-chamber in which the hierarchy get to reflect on their own thoughts, and affirm themselves. As someone born after the Second Vatican Council I seem to have grown up with a very different understanding of Church than many of our leaders. For so many it seems a total fear of losing power. I am constantly watching people of all ages walk away. Just last week I was stunned to meet a woman casually who told me she earned a Masters in Theology but felt so unaccepted she has not been to a Catholic church in several years. Excuse my language, but the lack of integrity is so evident, that several young people have told me that their “crap detectors” do not allow them to remain.

  5. Roby Ryan says:

    Well said Bishop Pat. The church is heading away from where it should be. It should not be so staid and set in it’s way that is not how The Lord and St Peter wanted. That’s how I see it. Thank you for your foresight.

  6. Michael Flynn says:

    Many thanks Bishop Pat for your wise and inspiring words. I hope in Canberra Goulburn we have in 2018 an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council with a lay Chair and our Archbishop as a welcome member. All members should attend the plenary council in 2020. This action would work in Sydney too. Vatican II gave us mandatory finance councils but declined to make pastoral councils mandatory but to be encouraged. It is tine !

  7. Joan Seymour says:

    Even with regard to the issue of preventing child sex abuse, which our leaders claim is a top priority, they will investigate any possible contributing factor as long as it isn’t the imbalance between the authority of male and female in the Church. Is it homosexuality that’s the problem? Celibacy? Satan? We’ll look into all that but never address the elephant in the room…

  8. Peter Mansour-Nahra says:

    “…the Church abandoned them” is not a cliche. Interpersonally, it is to give up all concern and interest in someone and their needs. For many, the hard face of ecclesiastical power is a reality. An example is the attitude to ex-priests; their names are expunged from most church public records, like the Australian Catholic directory. If one searches “ordination dates”, as I have done, the name of any ex-priest is not there alongside the ones he was ordained with. But the names of at least 3 convicted pedophiles could still be found there the last time I looked. Makes one ask which is the greater crime! Read Bishop Bill Morris’s book “Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three” for a picture of the sheer brutal use of power by the Vatican. Can a Council turn around the hardline exercise of power that has prevailed for centuries? One suspects the best it can do is put a velvet glove on the iron fist. But then, maybe a candle is better than the dark.

  9. Peter Maher says:

    It is important to understand how a Plenary Council is set up. According to Canon Law I believe there will be the clergy/bishops who have a casting vote and 80 others who have a consultative vote. The big questionis who will the 80 others be – will they be chosen from the already powerful party line? And what will happen at the Council – more open division, interest group debates? And the final vote – it will be whatever the bishops/clergy think will advance their cause/career. The process itself must at least be transparent and expalined clearly so we know what we are up against and how to maybe at least get the normally silenced voices on the agenda – that would be a start.
    I doubt it is wise to get our hopes too high but we could work to give it a go till we know its no longer worth trying to have silenced, edited out voices included.

  10. Mike Jones says:

    The Plenary Council planned for 2020-21 is an opportunity for the whole Church, not just that minute one percent who are the clergy, to have their say in the future planning of the Australian Church. There will be issues raised such as compulsory celibacy and the role of women in the Church however these issues while important, should not be allowed to monopolise the agenda. This is a time to look at the broader Church and to consider why it is more and more irrelevant in the lives of the majority of Australians. It is time to examine carefully the role of the elite clerical hierarchy of the Church, to acknowledge the failures of the past and to resolve to go forward into the future with a Church with a less rigid hierarchy, a listening heart and a determination to live out the Gospel values of Jesus Christ. Anything less than this will be seen as a failure in the broader community and will be yet another nail in the coffin of the Australian Church.

  11. Trish Martin says:

    The Catholic archbishops admitted to the Royal Commission the catastrophic failure of governance. What is necessary is to return to the values of the founder Jesus Christ who nominated discipleship as the ground of Christian belonging. Peter’s role was to teach gospel values through relationship and the practice of self-emptying love. The faithful have lost hope in their church because love is not evident in its leaders, thus is why as an organization the church has failed to evolve.
    Evident in narratives of Jesus’ life and teachings is the more emphatic requirement to bring about life through relationship with the Father. Change can only come through self-awareness of relationship with Jesus who is the Way and Truth. To follow each other’s ecclesial tradition will not do, because the inability to appreciate the uniquely sacred status of childhood can only be attributed to ignorance of Scripture. Only transparent and honest self-searching and the practice of humility, integrity, courage and service can undo the wrongs of the past.

    • Margaret T. Newman says:

      Congratulations Trish. Perhaps, in a culture lacking greater depthing and surfacing of such ‘nominated discipleship as the ground of Christian belonging’, love has not been able to be evidenced in the Church. Courage!

  12. peter Robert Wilkinson says:

    Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party

  13. Mary Tehan says:

    Bishop Pat, thank you for your reflection on this important topic. How true that so many wonderful, life-affirming, committed people feel that the Church has abandoned them. Until the Institutional Church appreciates the fact that it is mainly women who do the heavy-lifting in society (and in the Church – parish life etc) … in raising children to be responsible adults … in being the day-to-day voice of our times – and acting on it in the hard slog of everyday life – of being deeply aware that we are living on an over-populated, distressed planet in the midst of its 6th mass extinction, it will not be sufficient to say that “the input of women will be vital”. The prophets have never been accepted in their own country as leaders … only those who already have the power, might and perceived authority get to speak for us all. Jesus knew this and tried to bring change to these lop-sided power structures – with Mary Magdalene as the first Apostle & witness – the one who saw and witnessed the resurrection. He did not want men to be silenced … but he did want women to have their rightful place in the shaping and guiding of a life-affirming, generative world. That place is openly and wonderfully alongside men … not, as in patriarchy, underneath men … or copying men to be accepted by the conventions of the day. I don’t accept the idea of “input” … I accept the idea of “shared responsibility”, with all the ‘rights’ that go with that responsibility. Until then, it is still a lop-sided view and expression of what Jesus meant in his understanding of “the fullness of life”. Euthanasia is one such expression of this imbalance.

    • Margaret T. Newman says:

      Oh yes. The input of women is essential at every level of responsibility and decision-making in the Church. What Pat Power has omitted here, so it seems to me, is the more fleshed out sentence option. Something more along the lines: Again, in this forum, the responsible voice of women in decision-making is essential, vital.

      The issue is so sensitive it does require unremitting attention to detailed amd mannered clarity, with a grasp of the concepts ‘fair and reasonable’ and ‘there are standards of behaviour’, suchlike, to the fore.

      And there is here the need to openly note and discourse the balances in the male-female roles in societal child formation. As an exemplar: Physical affections between mothers and children are easeful and generally fully accepted (while surely some are intrusive, collusive, overbearing and smothering); amd people still remark the physically affectionate father, the father in full care of his children.

      Balance proportion and individual responses require discursive negotiation.

  14. Garry Everett says:

    Thanks Pat for trying to stimulate interest in the proposed Council. Here in Brisbane it has been impossible to obtain any information on the planning and progress to date. This despite the Atchbishops assurances that the whole process would be open and transparent.
    The overarching issue is the culture of today’s Church and how to change it. Addressing piecemeal and popular single issues is a recipie for more of the same

    • Margaret T. Newman says:

      Yes. The Article is stabilizing and its content useful, as it gathers the lulled brain’s hocks and haunches, in revision of these states and statuses of the actions of Popes in the ex cathedra and encyclical in the Church recently.

      I would put forward that: A woman is a unique gift to humanity. And that the Being of woman needs to be brought to the fore in every aspect … Considering the sentence: ‘The unique gifts of women … .’

      ‘Respect Existence. Or Expect Resistance’ was a poster present in an International Women’s Day rally 2018. It behoves women not to forget their international standing from within or without the (global) Church.

  15. John Giacon says:

    Thanks Pat.

    At the Concerned Catholics’ meeting in Canberra on March 22 comment was made about the censoring of diocesan newspapers by clerics. One change which would indicate a willingness to listen and discuss would be for diocesan papers to stop this censoring, to actively promote a diversity of views and to have a letters to the editor section.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      Remember the days when the Bishops’ own CathNews would publish articles and allow us to comment on them? The editor did a great job of maintaining civility and rational conversation, but the Bishops insisted on a change. Now we can still read the articles, but our opinions are not wanted. The children mustn’t talk among themselves, apparently – pray, pay and obey is alive and well.

      • Margaret T. Newman says:

        Thank you I enjoyed the Article.

        It will take an energetic editor indeed to respond from within such an initiative with the currency of cultural norms and the emotive expression and discharge – that is actually necessary to, part and parcel of determined change; and here, we are truly committed to evidently direly needed change; well – even if it were only the recommended changes from entrenched traditions. Change!

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