Catholic Bishops cannot govern their dioceses without pastoral councils

Feb 14, 2021

Only seven of the 28 Australian Catholic dioceses have pastoral councils. It seems that protecting the independence of ecclesiastical fiefdoms is more important than promoting the common good of the Church in this country.

Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope Paul VI was asked to consider establishing a permanent consultative group of bishops, with a rotating membership, to assist him and future Popes with the day to day governance of the Church. Pope Francis has adopted a modified form of this with an inner cabinet of Cardinals who now advise him on a regular basis.

Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that Synodality, or collaborative leadership, should be re-integrated permanently into all Church governance structures and without exception.

Synodality has become a key theme of his papacy that is supported by Vatican II’s Christus Dominus, 27: ‘it is highly desirable” that in each diocese a pastoral council be established as a consultative body that advises the bishop on challenges facing the diocese, on pastoral activity and forward planning. Canon 511 is equally clear that, “in each diocese, in so far as pastoral circumstances suggest, a pastoral council is to be established.” However, it is the conditionals in both documents that provide the bishops with convenient escape clauses.

Pope Francis could not be any clearer on the fundamental importance for all Catholics to accept the authority of the Second Vatican Council. After being effectively shelved for decades under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Vatican II has been reinstated as the essential blueprint for authentic reform and renewal. In a January 30 address to the Italian Bishops Conference, Francis insisted that:

“The Council is the Magisterium (highest teaching office) of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you don’t follow the Council or you interpret it in your own away, as you desire, you do not stand with the Church. The Council must not be negotiated… No: the Council is what it is.

The message is not just for the Italian bishops.

What many have been regarding as optional pastoral guidelines is what Canon Law requires of them. It is not at all surprising then, that currently only seven of the 28 Australian dioceses have pastoral councils. It seems that protecting the independence of ecclesiastical fiefdoms is more important than promoting the common good of the Church in this country.

At a meeting with pastoral workers in Assisi on October 4, 2013, Pope Francis stated that the Church functions most effectively when its leadership embraces the culture and structures of inclusion and co-responsibility:

How needed pastoral councils are! A bishop cannot guide a diocese without pastoral councils. A parish priest cannot guide the parish without the parish council.

Furthermore, the Church affirms that synodality is ‘an indispensable precondition’ for its mission and involves ‘the entire People of God’. On a local level, a diocesan synod is the instrument par excellence for assisting the bishop to govern his diocese.” (Directory for Bishops 2004, n. 67).

However, in a move that risks scuttling the synodal process from the outset, the bishops have already signalled they will not accept Recommendation 50 of The Light from the Southern Cross – that diocesan councils be made mandatory. This is stonewalling which they may come to regret bitterly.

If there is no re-think by October 2021, then moral and procedural pressure should be brought to bear on the bishops by all the consultative members to make Diocesan Councils mandatory. Canon 117 requires that bishops may not act against a consultative vote unless they provide detailed and compelling reasons for their action. There are none.

Synods have been a way of life from the Church’s beginnings (Acts 15: 1-32). They are its life blood. According to John Chrysostom, the 4th-5th century Bishop of Constantinople, synod is another name for the Church. This is the kind of Church that Australian Catholics want restored and they have articulated this so clearly in the “prominent issues” listed in the diocesan reports on consultations ahead of the Plenary Council. The priorities identified in these “prominent issues” should constitute the heart of the Plenary’s agenda but a lot of work needs to be done before that happens.

An enduring scandal in the Church in Australia is the appalling disunity in the episcopal conference precisely over the Plenary Council. About half of the bishops still do not demonstrate much or any support for the Synod after it was announced by Archbishop Coleridge back in August 2016.

The re-introduction of synodality into the everyday governance of the Church is clearly ‘disruptive’, especially for those bishops who cling to monarchical rule. The history of disruption shows that the ‘disrupted’ are slow and unwilling to ditch their incumbent structures and investment in them, and even slower to re-structure – even if it is in their own and the Church’s long-term interests.

Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the US Catholic bishops conference, has unmasked the arrogant clericalism of many Bishops and priests who find refuge in the claims, trotted out by a few bishops at the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse, that “the councils were more hindrance than help, that laypeople simply don’t understand the complexities of diocesan and parish governance. Shaw protests the ­circularity of this line of reasoning: People are excluded because they don’t understand and don’t understand because they are excluded.”

While official media releases constantly refer to the Plenary Council as ‘the work of the Holy Spirit’, some bishops have maintained a stony silence about it. It is plausible now to interpret this as indicative either of a form of passive aggression or that particular kind of apathy that Fordham University theologian Bradford Hinze describes as ‘frozen violence’.

Acceptance of diocesan and parish pastoral councils is now shaping up as a test case of whether or not the Australian bishops have received the teaching of Vatican II (1962-65) and are prepared to believe their own propaganda about a more open, listening and participative Church. If not, it’s business as usual.

Diocesan financial committees, diocesan curias, high salaried policy advisors, personal assistants, and focus groups or similar cannot fulfil the role of a Diocesan Pastoral Council. Such Councils are the ecclesial bodies that authentically express the Faithful’s ‘instinct for the faith’ (sensus fidei fidelium) in the local diocese.

Bishops are deluding themselves if they believe otherwise.

“A bishop cannot guide his diocese without a Pastoral Council.”

It is precisely in the dynamics of synodality that important relationships are forged, genuine discernment, collective insight, and trust are deepened, and consensus is achieved.

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