Catholic renewal coalition discusses Plenary Council with Archbishops

Mar 24, 2021

Catholics, priests and laity, are increasingly wanting renewal and reform of their Church to overcome dysfunctional governance and leadership failures, particularly reflected in the scandals of clerical child sexual abuse and its cover-ups. Recently the co-conveners of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR),Peter Johnston and Andrea Dean, met with Archbishop Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Archbishop Costelloe, President of the Plenary Council, accompanied by Lana Turvey Collins, Plenary Council Facilitator.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss concerns about the inclusiveness of the Council, a matter raised by renewal groups over a long period. The Plenary Council, starting in October this year, is an opportunity for all the people of the Church to face our Church’s needs, but that will demand an inclusive approach, requiring careful listening and discernment.

Key issues discussed included the role of women in the Church, the appointment of a woman as vice president of the Plenary Council, the establishment of diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods or assemblies, and a series of ‘virtual’ Convocations of Catholics being planned by the Coalition.

It is a substantial challenge to represent the aspirations of the ACCCR and of so many Catholics seeking reform of their Church whose issues are considerable and their hopes high.

Five questions were developed by ACCCR to provide a framework for the discussion.

  1. Given that Pope Francis promotes synodality, a more decentralized and subsidiary approach to decision-making and power structures, what is holding back the appointment of a woman as deputy President for the Plenary Council?

The Bishops stated that no specific provision exists within Canon Law for a deputy President, and they would appoint women amongst the sessional Chairs. The Coalition has received canonical advice that appointment of a Deputy President is possible and expressed the view that such an appointment would ensure a more gender-balanced approach at the Council and be an important signal of their commitment to the equality of women in the Church. The response was inconclusive and disappointing, particularly as Pope Francis has encouraged National Bishops Conferences to take decisions relevant to their context. All the bishops need do is to stretch themselves beyond conservative interpretations of Canon Law and start creating a truly Catholic Church.

  1. While many believe clerical control is at the root of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and that greater lay involvement in the Church is a necessary remediation, why is there such resistance amongst Australian bishops to diocesan pastoral councils?

Both Archbishops, from Brisbane and Perth, expressed the view that there was no resistance to diocesan pastoral councils amongst the Australian Bishops. Yet very few Australian dioceses, including Perth and Brisbane, have a diocesan pastoral council despite the fact that Canon law (c.511) actually prescribes that: “In each diocese, in so far as pastoral circumstances suggest, a pastoral council is to be established . . .” (my bolding). The bishops did not suggest any pastoral circumstances that preclude such a council but alluded to vague ‘unsatisfactory’ experiences in the distant past with diocesan pastoral councils. ACCCR representatives suggested that perhaps any difficulties could relate to the lack of experience with inclusion amongst our bishops, an issue that needs to be addressed in formation and selection.

One wonders at the power that vague ‘unsatisfactory’ experiences have over the bishops. Would that the Australian Bishops had responded with such concern when reports of ‘unsatisfactory’ clergy conduct appeared on their desks over the years.

Frankly, the laity of Australia believe that unless lay involvement is formalised at parish, diocesan and national level, that essential belief ‘we are the church‘ as well as accountability and transparency in episcopal decision making, will remain an illusion.

Across Australia, every Catholic School has a school board or community council, every Diocesan education system has Diocesan Education Board, and every state has a Catholic Education Commission.

How hard can it be to establish and maintain effective diocesan pastoral or mission councils? If there was a will, there would be a way.

  1. Inclusion, according to the plenary submissions and the feedback from our members, is a key issue for Australian Catholics. On behalf of the coalition of reform groups, what guarantees can you provide that LGBTI people will experience greater inclusion in and because of the Plenary Process?

Archbishop Coleridge cautioned that no guarantees are possible in the Plenary Process but Coleridge, Costelloe and Turvey-Collins spoke of deliberate efforts to engage with and to listen to the concerns of this LGBTQI community. Archbishop Costelloe hoped that there would be some representation from the LGBTQI community amongst members and that this could be influential.

It is not reasonable to rely on the possible presence of some gay Catholics at the Council to ensure their adequate inclusion in Council deliberations. The LGBTQI community has experiences of exclusion and fear of judgement in the Church, an arena where many LGBTI people have been traumatised. A more active approach of inclusion is needed within the Council but that seems unlikely in the light of recent Church pronouncements in Australia and the Vatican referring to homosexuality as ‘objectively disordered’ and gay relationships as sinful.

  1. As the key processes for the Plenary Council have presumed diocesan cooperation and local opportunities for consultation, many people have not heard anything about the Plenary for months if at all. Are there any reasons why you could not cooperate with the three planned Convocations of the Laity as an alternative pathway of engagement in the coming twelve months?

Archbishops Coleridge and Costelloe expressed cautious support for these Convocations of Catholics which will be held by Zoom in May, August, and November 2021. Although not all members of the reform groups see any alliance with the bishops as positive, a hand of cooperation has been extended and Archbishop Coleridge or Costelloe has been invited to give an official welcome at the beginning of the first convocation.

As the guest for the first convocation is Sr Joan Chittister, an internationally recognised spiritual leader in the Church and recently ‘uninvited’ from an event in Melbourne, this is great progress. Joan’s persuasive and enthusiastic call to live the essence of the gospel is timeless and motivating.

As the coalition of reform groups is seeking cooperative arrangements with Catholic organisations, businesses and institutions, the support of Archbishops Coleridge and Costelloe should allow these Catholic groups to offer their support without fear of obstruction from individual bishops.

  1. We understand that Discernment will be the basis for the two formal Plenary Council sessions. Also, we believe that the practice of discernment is foreign to many Australian Catholics. What steps are being taken to move the focus of those called to the Plenary Council, bishops and average Australian Catholics, from agenda items and voting to the powerful freedom and conversion that results from genuine group discernment?

Unfortunately, this question was not addressed due to a lack of time. Many Australian Catholics are anxious about the Plenary Council’s capacity to discern the signs of the times regarding Church renewal and effective evangelisation.  Many Australian Catholics draw on their experiences of decision making in other contexts to try and understand what is happening and will happen.

We raised separately, in correspondence with the presidents, a concern that Plenary Council deliberative decisions which are made by the bishops alone are not required by the Statutes and Regulatory Norms for the Plenary Council to have regard to the consultative vote. These norms were approved by the bishops without consultation; there is even a general norm of canon law (c. 127) that precludes superiors exercising a deliberative vote contrary to the consultative vote without ‘an overriding reason’. Inclusion, accountability and transparency demand that bishops articulate for the faithful any ‘overriding reason’ for disregarding a consultative vote by the non-bishop members of the Plenary Council.

I hope that this meeting has provided the Catholic bishops of Australia with a better understanding of the hopes, aspirations and expectations of the Plenary Council amongst Catholics seeking renewal of their Church.


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