PETER WILKINSON. Catholic Church 2020 Plenary Council: bishops must tap into the grassroots without delay

The Catholic Church in Australia is in the midst of a massive and existential crisis, the greatest in its history. The Catholic bishops have responded by proposing a Plenary Council in 2020. They say it will no longer be “business as usual” and have promised to consult the whole Church. But no changes to business as usual and no consultation plans have been announced, and no guarantees given that every bishop will buy in.  The consultation must begin without delay and start at the grassroots.

If Pope Francis approves, around 260-300 Catholic men and women, but mainly bishops and other clerics, will gather in a cathedral some day in 2020 to begin the 5th Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia.

This Council is coming after years of vacillating by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. They chose a plenary (national) council because this is the traditional forum for Church leaders to wrestle with contemporary issues in the light of the Gospel and respond in terms of faith, morals, governance, discipline and worship.

Australia’s bishops have largely eschewed synods and councils, especially since the 2nd Vatican Council, which insisted on laypersons being included as members. Although they can convene a plenary council whenever they believe one is necessary or useful (so long as the Pope approves), the last one was 80 years ago in 1937. Moreover, since 1965 only 5 bishops have held a diocesan synod. The Australian bishops’ record for synodality and sharing responsibility with Christ’s faithful is certainly not a proud one.

This decision to hold a plenary council in 2020 is undoubtedly a result of the 2013 Betrayal of Trust report of the Victorian Parliamentary Committee and the findings of the current Royal Commission into the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who chairs the Bishops Commission responsible for organizing the 2020 Plenary Council, has admitted that “the Royal Commission has made it abundantly clear that … the [Church’s] culture has to change, and that bishops and others will have to make bold decisions about the future. There has been a recognition that we [bishops] can no longer put up a sign saying ‘Business as usual’”.  But if the “new business” means anything, it has to include synodality, co-responsibility and subsidiarity, and a complete reform of church governance. And the “new business” cannot wait until 2020. It has to be in action in the preparations for the 2020 Plenary Council.

Plenary Council members

The 260-300 members of the 2020 Council will consist of two groups: a larger one (two thirds of members) composed of those who “must be called”; and a smaller one (one third) composed of those who “can be called”.  The “must be called”, predominantly clerics, will include all active bishops (currently 43), all vicars general ( 34), all Episcopal vicars (33), some major superiors of religious institutes and some rectors of major seminaries (numbers to be decided), all rectors of Catholic universities (4), and all deans of faculties of theology and canon law (14).  The “can be called” will include titular and retired bishops living in Australia (currently 28), other priests, and other female and male religious and lay persons (numbers to be decided). Since numbers in the second group cannot exceed half the total number in the first group – a strategy designed to prevent pressure groups from taking over the council – lay members will likely make up around 20 per cent of total membership.  Of all council members, only the bishops, active and retired, (possibly 70) will have a deliberative vote; all others will have a consultative vote only.  Together they will enact laws which, subject to approval by the Holy See, will bind Catholics throughout Australia.

However, when the members meet for the first time, they will have an agenda before them decided on by the Bishops Commission overseeing the Council’s preparations. How that agenda is drawn up, and what is on it, will be key to the Council’s relevance and success.

Listening to all the voices

 Since becoming Pope in 2013, Francis has constantly called for synodality, more participatory processes, and better forms of pastoral dialogue to listen to everyone. In response, Australia’s bishops have determined that for the 2020 Council “the scope of the consultation and discernment processes will be inclusive of the whole Catholic community in its breadth and diversity” and its agenda “generated by genuine consultation with the whole Church”.

However, as yet, no consultation plans have been announced, no guarantees given that every diocesan bishop will consult, and no assurances offered that all bishops will buy into the consultative processes proposed by the Bishops Commission.

Catholics in Australia currently number around 5.5 million and reside in 1,385 parishes belonging to 35 separate dioceses or equivalent. Each diocesan bishop is supreme in his own jurisdiction and cannot be forced to consult, or to follow the agreed consultative processes. Each bishop can choose not to consult, or to consult as he wishes, although refusing to consult would be irresponsible and contrary to the Conference’s promise.  Even to consult in a manner other than that agreed would demonstrate a lack of collegiality and solidarity, and above all a weakness in the communion between the various dioceses of the nation, of which a plenary council is the highest expression.

A grassroots approach

 There is no question that consultation must begin at the grassroots, at assemblies in the local parishes where Catholics are most at ease and feel the greatest sense of belonging and community. It is here that every diocesan bishop must commit to engage with his people, and there should be no delay in getting it underway, preferably close to Easter 2018.

To facilitate these assemblies, to which all parishioners should be invited, a simple uncomplicated questionnaire or SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis document, prepared by the Bishops Commission, will be helpful. More importantly, for these assemblies to be effective, each diocesan bishop must be open with his people, informing them of the true state of the diocese with a concise and accurate report of its current and projected pastoral, sacramental, educational, financial, etc. position, and sharing with them his own personal evaluation of the situation. Unless the faithful of each diocese know exactly what they are dealing with, they cannot discuss the issues co-responsibly. Poor governance was at the centre of this crisis; now accountability and transparency must be at the core of the solution.

Throughout the consultation process, free speech must be encouraged and safeguarded, along with mutual respect and the value of diversity. There can be no intimidation, and no restraints on the free, but respectful, expression of ideas.  And bishops must, above all, listen.

The consultation will only be effective if there is a continuous and open feedback loop. All consultation participants must be kept informed of what others across the nation are thinking and saying. Secrecy will be toxic. The Bishops Commission will do well to set up a dedicated Plenary Council website to make all feedback and suggestions publicly and freely accessible. The Commission should also call for submissions, and commission research on issues most likely to be on the Council agenda.

For the initial parish engagement Australia’s Catholics might be asked three questions: 1) what are the ‘signs of the times’; 2) what do these signs mean for your personal faith life and for the life of the Church; and 3) in light of these signs, how should the Church respond to give an authentic and credible witness to Christ and his Gospel. Out of their responses to these questions, and out of their personal and communal sense of the faith (sensus fidei fidelium), should emerge the draft agenda and the pointers for reform.

In larger dioceses, the initial parish consultations might be followed by deanery or regional assemblies, building on the insights from the parishes.

The next level of engagement should be at diocesan assemblies (preferable to restrictive canonical synods) where lay, religious and clerical representatives of each parish of the diocese can distil the parish input and prioritize the issues for the Plenary Council agenda.  Many dioceses will prioritize common issues, but if the grassroots consultations have been effective, there will be diversity, which must be respected and embraced.

Another level might be provincial (or State) assemblies (preferable to canonical councils) to address issues shared by several dioceses. Again, lay, religious and clerical representatives of each diocese must be present to vote or seek consensus on those items they want on the Plenary Council agenda.

An informed agenda

 After the consultations, but well before the opening of the 2020 Plenary Council, the Plenary Council Bishops Commission must state the aim(s) of the Council, announce its agenda, and determine which questions are to be treated.

If all bishops commit to accountability and transparency, and the Bishops Commission actively seeks to mine the wisdom, knowledge and understanding gifted to all the baptized and confirmed by the Holy Spirit, and fully engages with the sensus fidei fidelium, then there can be real hope that the 5th Plenary Council will be well-informed and ready to renew the Church in Australia.

Peter Wilkinson is a member of Catholics for Renewal. He authored a 2011 report Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster?  and a 2011 study Catholic Synods in Australia: 1844-2011.  He is a missiologist and former Columban missionary priest.



John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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16 Responses to PETER WILKINSON. Catholic Church 2020 Plenary Council: bishops must tap into the grassroots without delay

  1. Avatar Patricia - concerned Parent says:

    I am sure Grant Allen’s comment and concerns are duplicated in Catholic parishes around Australia.

    The Cairns Dioceses does not have a pastoral council.

    Our Bishop selects members for the Board of Governance for Education’.
    There are no elections, only Bishop selections.
    The majority of Board of Education members are Church employees.

    Most concerning is the Chairman of the Board of Governance for Education is the Church Retained Lawyer.

    The Catholic Diocese Church Retained Lawyer is the Chair of the Board of Governance for Education.

    The Chairman, his legal partners and law firm have acted against employees, whistle-blowers and witnesses to victims of clergy abuse.

    The Chairman of the Board of Governance for Education Chair has a serious legal conflict of interest.

    This conflict has not worried the Diocesan Bishop, the other appointed members of the Board of Governance for Education, the State or Federal Law Society, the Non State School Accreditation Board (NSSAB) for Education, Queensland Independent and Catholic School Boards of Education, Commissions or State or Federal Governments, the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission (ACNC), Queensland Catholic Education Commission (QCEC), the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) and the Australian Bishops Conference and many others.

    It seems good governance standards are not required to be adhered to by the Catholic Church Education System in Queensland, even though it is a recipient of billions of dollars of Federal and State government funding.

    Even in the midst of a Royal Commision into Institutional Response to Child Abuse, our Diocesan Bishop did not believe he should remove his personal Church lawyer and partner in the Church retained law firm from the position of Chairman of the Board of Governance for Education.

    Parents and guardians of children in Catholic Schools and Tax Payers are responsible for demanding politician put in place legal requirements to KEEP CHILDREN SAFE.

    While Bishops remain under oath from the Vatican to conceal clergy abuse (where the civil law requires it), children have limited protection from clergy abuse in Queensland Catholic Schools.

    Five years after the Royal Commission, there’s been little cultural changes and limited governance changes in the Catholic Church.

    Australia’s Catholic Church governance remains under the autocratic and undemocratic leadership of Bishops, fails to be transparent or accountable and continues to create a divided and demoralised community.

    ‘It is business as usual in our Diocese’.

  2. Avatar Noel McMaster says:

    Came across this last week. It’s relevant to Plenary Council, I think, even triggering a contrary argument to the value of a predominantly ‘top down’ Council, in order to develop an Australian-wide attention to orthopraxis.



    “The [sad] alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing [assembled like pinnacles] in the silence of an unquestioned routine,” Mr Ang said.

    From CathNews Home » Church in danger of becoming a godless NGO
    Church in danger of becoming a godless NGO
    By Robert Hiini November 3, 2017

    Mr Ang said, “The Church will be in danger of becoming little more than an areligious non-government organisation if Catholics don’t urgently rediscover a call to mission, the priests of the Archdiocese of Sydney heard last week at their annual clergy conference.

    Daniel Ang, the Director of the Office for Evangelisation in the Diocese of Broken Bay, delivered a sobering assessment of the state of Australian parishes in front of around 180 priests before providing a roadmap out of the malaise.
    A former pastoral planner in the Diocese of Parramatta, Mr Ang affirmed, along with the Pontiff and Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, that the future of the Church relied on the vitality of parishes.
    Parishes in Australia, however, had failed to attend to the changing culture and conditions around them.
    Instead they continued to offer programs that sacramentalised people without first “discipling” them into a relationship with Jesus and His Church, often simply as a means of providing parents with a pathway into the local Catholic school.
    On the outreach side, research among the ‘nones’ – the increasing number of people who identify as having no religion – was revealing the folly of programs that were more often than not targeted at reactivating non-practising Catholics.
    “While scandal and poor experiences of Church and parish can be a part of the story, realistically some have shed the Catholic ‘brand’ as they have come to the plain and simple conclusion that their lives simply no longer reflect the religion they inherited …” Mr Ang said.
    “(The) ‘nones’ are not saying, ‘If only you had a better version of Church I would go to it’. They are not interested in ‘Church’ at all, so our new coffee and contemporary Church music is not what they are looking for.”

    The Director of Broken Bay Diocese’s Office for Evangelisation, Daniel Ang. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli
    Evangelisation demanded that we “adjust our eyes and lengthen our arms to reach increasingly secular people where our relationships with them, rather than religious upgrades, will take priority”.
    There were three areas in which the Church could begin to turn things around: in taking pre-evangelisation seriously (relationship building, Christian witness and dialogue); in the recovery of discipleship as the fundamental basis of parish life and mission; and in setting a parish vision for motivating growth and change.
    Using St Paul as a guide, Mr Ang said that pre-evangelisation preceded catechesis (teaching) and began with first desiring the good of the other. (“Without that desire, not much is possible.”)
    It meant responding to questions people were asking rather than providing uninvited answers and finding common ground in shared convictions.
    Returning to discipleship as the Church’s primary reason for being meant resituating the sacraments in their proper context, as indispensible aids in an ongoing relationship with God and His people, the Church.
    “A pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take place …
    “Bearing fruit is an essential demand of life in Christ and life in the Church (to quote St John Paul II). The person who does not bear fruit does not remain in communion …”
    The process of arriving at and pursuing a parish vision is essential for responding to and communicating God in a specific place and time.
    “The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine,” Mr Ang said.
    Vicar-General Fr Gerald Gleeson said he was delighted with the presentation, and that it echoed a key aspiration of Parish 2020 – the need to develop a more missionary mindset as the basis for renewing and revitalising parishes.
    “The danger in the Catholic form of life is that we can rely too much on the sacraments just as a formality, rather than being a celebration of discipleship of Christian living,” Fr Gleeson said.
    “So there are many people coming to Mass every week, but in a sense they may not think of themselves as disciples, which is a much more active engagement with their faith and with Christ. And that’s what we’re looking for.

    ”I [Noel] think the ‘church’ will be stuck with its schools, hospitals etc as NGOs into the foreseeable future, not altogether godless, but certainly not the real church which will have to be reborn from those alert to the gospel image of leaven, of leavening; and some of these will be from those NGOs. With others they might work towards Gospel values that can direct individuals from a variety of commitments to those gatherings of disciples whose ritualising, as in Eucharist, will reflect the values of what Christians do (orthopraxis). Out of such gatherings sacramental life could be (re-)developed, but such sacramental life is not an end in itself; it reflects and reinforces what is being done in the spirit of Jesus (orthopraxis).

  3. Avatar Joan Seymour says:

    Remember the consultation promoted by the Vatican a couple of years ago, prior to the Synod on the Family? (I think). Pope Francis listed a number of issues and asked for those issues to be discussed as widely as possible. Of course it was up to the individual Ordinary to decide how this was done in his own diocese. How many Catholics do you know who had never heard of the consultation? How many had heard of it, troubled themselves to find it on the diocesan website, but couldn’t understand the complex language used, because the Bishop hadn’t troubled to rewrite it for his own flock? How many were only aware because of the activities of lay renewal groups (thank you, Peter Johnstone)! To put it briefly, you’re quite right, the problem is immediate and pressing. But the Australian Bishops couldn’t organize a chook raffle. This process is beyond them, unless they marshal their human resources and consult people who actually can.

  4. Avatar Dr John Carmody says:

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposed Council (and whether it was conceived in good-will or not), an essential agenda item (because it was a major factor in the profound decline in Catholic adherence and practice which several have mentioned here)
    would HAVE to be a repudiation of Paul VI’s catastrophic Encyclical of 1968, “Humanae vitae” which — with exceedingly doubtful legality — placed the ban on the “Contraceptive Pill”.

    Without that item, the Bishops stand irrefutably accused of bad faith and humbug.

  5. Avatar Julian says:

    Perhaps I am missing something here Peter, but it seems to me that given the historical inability of bishops to act wholly on behalf of their congregations, and in a timely manner, a totally new approach is required throughout Australia.
    So why don’t the ordinary shareholders in Church. Inc hold their own meetings, conventions and so on, to which any bishop may be invited in an advisory capacity only, and if they don’t come then whatever said bishops may decide in future (either as individuals or collectively) can be ignored. In other words, if all current Australian bishops represent the Board of Management of Church. Inc, then it would appear necessary to turf out that Board and elect a new one.
    Maybe its time to take the new Pope at his word about seeking renewal and resurgence at a local level.

  6. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    Peter Wilkinson’s article excellently outlines the minimum action that must be followed to give the 2020 National Synod any credibility but as part of the planning a few other points come to mind.
    The use of parishes alone is not enough – out of the 5.5 Catholics in Australia only about 125 attend Mass while an even smaller number are involved in parish activity. The institution that has the largest participation is the Catholic education system – the parents and those involved in this area must also be utilised in the initial consultation process.
    The next questions that comes to mind relate to the laity who will be allowed to participated in the Synod – how will they be chosen ? Who will make the choices ? Will the participating laity reflect the gender, age demography and ethnic/cultural nature of Australia? Will there be a genuine effort made to include those who still “believe” but do not “participate” in the life of the Church – this group’s participation is vitally important as they will also reflect an important aspect of the negative nature of Church activity

    • Nick, I think your question/observation is critical to the future of the Church: “Will there be a genuine effort made to include those who still “believe” but do not “participate” in the life of the Church”?
      So many thoughtful people, particularly young people, have been alienated from the Church as institution because it has failed to reflect the Church’s faith. We need to hear from these people and honour their legitimate conscience-based rejection of the institutional Church’s hypocrisy. The Plenary Council must be founded in humility as it listens to the people of God.

    • Avatar John Edwards says:

      Nick Agocs asks how lay representatives to the 2020 National Synod will be chosen. An excellent question! For the 1998 Australian Constitutional Convention on the Republic comprising delegates from all of the states and territories of Australia, those not appointed by the Federal Government were elected by a voluntary postal vote. Given the success of the recent voluntary postal vote on Marriage Equality perhaps a similar postal (or electronic) vote of Australian Catholics could occur. The vote could occur diocese by diocese or State by State, representatives could nominate for the ballot and interested Catholics enroll to vote. If all of this were to be done online then the task would be simpler. What a profound step forward this would be and there’s time aplenty to achieve this.

  7. Avatar Paul McCabe says:

    What’s to stop every parish council submitting to their bishop four issues from those raised in their parishes for discussion at a diocesan synod in preparation for the 2020 Plenary Council ?

    • Avatar Grant Allen says:

      An excellent idea if your parish has a parish pastoral council. Our parish priest has so far refused to have a parish pastoral council. Our archbishop, Mark Coleridge, has unwsely not made it mandatory for our archdiocesan parishes to have parish pastoral councils. The result is we have autocratic parish leadership and a divided and demoralised community. How are we going to give input to the 2020 Plenary Council? Please pray for us! We need a miracle!

  8. Avatar Brian Coyne says:

    Peter, thanks for this commentary. I think you are wise to be cautious about the commitment of the bishops to this exercise. I pick up the sense that it was given as some kind of sop to Mark Coleridge with a sentiment along the lines of “well, if you’re so keen about this, Mark, you go off and organise it”. It was not an exercise embraced universally by all of the leaders of the Church in this country.

    The bigger problem I see is that 90% of the baptised in this country have essentially “given up” on the institution and its leaders. And most of those leaders couldn’t care less what the 90% think, or believe today. All the effort by the leaders seems to go into keeping the insecure in their trees who have a very simple set of theological beliefs and primarily see “God” as this supernatural and powerful man-in-the-sky who created the world, responds to our prayers, and is essentially envisioned as some kind of air traffic controller in the sky directing the course of everything under the Sun.

    As I see it today there has emerged two views of the entire numinous, divine, spiritual and supernatural dimension to life that are essentially mutually exclusive. They cannot both be accurate descriptions at the same time. In such a situation it is futile to believe that you can find “common ground” or a “consensus of views or beliefs”. Many in the 90% appear to have simply given up trying to think about it all believing it all to be “too hard”. There is a substantial body of thinking people though who have developed a far more sophisticated appreciation that there is a spiritual realm to life but it is far more nuanced and complex than the simple theology that we learned at school and in the traditions of the Church. It’s going to be interesting to see if this sector of the population is allowed to have a seat, and voice, at this Pastoral Assembly? I am frankly not optimistic that they will. There are still too many bishops schooled in the “finger in the wind” style of theology trying to read what is the thinking in Rome and the mind of Pope Francis, and aware that Francis will not be there for too much longer and the forces that are aligning to ensure no new Francis is elected to replace him might mean that any “renewal” of the Church is going to be short-lived.

  9. Eric Hodgens Eric Hodgens says:

    The beliefs and organization of the Church grew up over time and in a variety of changing cultural, linguistic and sociological settings. The growth was dynamic – evolutionary. Factions existed from the start and called their opponents heretics. By 500 AD beliefs and structures had firmed up – but only as a base from which further development has continued to grow right up till now. History puts the lie to the saying that the Church is always the same and cannot change.

    One way to fortify structures is to make them sacred. Review and adjustment is then open to being labelled sacrilege.

    The power structure of the Church became concentrated in the clergy. Clericalism is a powerful institution confront or review. But sacralise that clericalism and the buttresses are rock solid. The social structure that results gets attributed to God.

    The hierarchy runs the Church. Peter’s outline of the rules for consultation show this. Clericalism needs to be de-sacralised and dismantled before genuine consultation is possible.

    The ball is in Mark Coleridge’s court as he tries to get the synod off the launching pad. The first step should be to bypass clerical standing orders, get a bright, faithful representative group together to work out how to make wide consultation possible.

  10. Avatar Mathieu Delarue says:

    An existential crisis? How strange for the Catholic Church to be riven by such a thing when the existentialists disappeared five decades or so ago.

    • Avatar KAYTHEGARDENER says:

      Perhaps what is meant in the colloquial English by existential crisis = “life or death turning point” for the Church…
      Or it will fade into a small irrelevant club in the lives of most people.

  11. Avatar Mary Tehan says:

    Sadly, I don’t hold any hope for this enlightened approach Peter. All I’ve ever experienced when expressing a perspective is that it is taken up without any reference to its source) and assimilated into existing systems and structures through existing voices who have the power to enact it … not the source/s from whence it came. It is another way of silencing faith-filled people that leaves no room for the light to shine through the cracks.

    Bless you for all your good work … may you be blessed in abundance as your life and work unfolds.

  12. Avatar Rosemary Breen says:

    Peter Johnstone’s article should be compulsory reading from pulpits around the country. The Vatcan’s Synod on the Family went largely unnoticed in this country and there was little or no encouragement for lay participation. Some months ago I wrote to Archbishop Coleridge on behalf of a group that meets weekly asking him what was being organised so that there could be true consultation from the parishes. To date there has not even been an acknowledgement of my letter. Now at least we have some clear ideas of a practical direction the bishops could follow if they truly want a grassroots consultation.

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