Catholic Bishops playing the Plenary with questionable spirit

Jun 30, 2022
One healthy outcome would be for those bishops who have progressive views, more aligned to Francis. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s Catholic bishops seem to think they own the franchise of the Holy Spirit and are prepared to manipulate the Plenary process to back their foolish claim.

A Plenary Council is an archaic form of church assembly, locked into antiquated procedural rules, controlled by the hierarchy with very limited lay representation. The Australian church’s experiment in conscripting this antiquated form of meeting into a forum to adequately address the very real issues of a church in the 21st century, is approaching its moment of the Big Reveal.

While we should at this point properly withhold judgement as to its likely success or otherwise, there have been numerous failings and inadequacies in the procedures to date. These have been well documented and come in the form of documentation intended to confuse rather than illuminate, the washing out of the key points distilled from early lay input and agendas that are clearly unfit for purpose and deceitful in their intent to run some issues out into the long grass. These inadequacies didn’t just happen. Clearly, they were contrived – seemingly in some cases to appease competing views among bishops. In fact, the notion of using a Plenary Council for the current review was probably a condition demanded by conservatives, in preference to the more contemporary and adaptable model of a Synod.

It seems desperate efforts are now being made to badge outcomes as being endorsed by the Holy Spirit. Sadly, this is itself a concoction by those, principally the bishops, who are determined to control both process and outputs. In simple terms much of the process of the Plenary has been deceitful and the Holy Spirit does not abide in deceit.

I am both typical and atypical of ordinary Catholics who have participated in this process. As someone who lived through the years and output of Vatican II, I have longed for the day that the church would return to this seminal source, with the courage to venture forth and create a church of its vision. It has only been since the Francis pontificate that such a direction has emerged. Pope Francis has repeatedly pointed the church to the stalled implementation of that ecumenical council, the church’s highest teaching authority.

Australia’s bishops have been as uncomfortable with the Francis pontificate as they were complicit in the work of his two predecessors, in asserting their own authority over that of the Vatican Council. They have been loyal acolytes in winding back the vision, theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Australian Plenary Council, with its obscure and confounding papers and agendas, has been rather like having to re-prosecute the findings and outcomes of the Council of 60 years ago. The resistance has been obvious and the intent to not want to even consider certain issues, clearly revealed a church leadership unable to imagine a reformed church and to the extent they could, it frightens them.

The faith and hope that I invested in the early stages of this process and the encouragement that I gave others to accept its promise of good faith, was misplaced. I didn’t want to reach that point but I did, back at the stage when the first assembly ended in confusion and inadequate opportunities for discussion, which was then followed by a contrived and blatantly distorted statement of outcomes – all passed-off arrogantly as the work of the Holy Spirit.

It was at that point that I, along with many others, felt that this game was rigged by those who simply have power and do not want to lose it. It was at that point that the claim to speak for the Holy Spirit was being made by a group of men who have been asserting such a claim for the last 40+ years, when the wind back of Vatican II began. By implication they have sought to share blame for the church’s current lamentable state with an improbable partner.

It seems this group of mitred men simply believe that they own the franchise of the Holy Spirit and are prepared to manipulate any process to ensure that they can continue to make such a foolish claim. I say foolish because the church is bigger than this and the People of God are educated, perceptive and better competent at straddling the intersection of theology with the exigencies of human life.

What Francis has been calling for is a form of listening and collaboration with the full People of God, to discern the most appropriate way forward. There is very little basis for thinking that the processes of the Plenary in any serious way model the synodality that Francis is drawing us to.

Discussion of critical issues, such as the role of women in ministry and leadership and the benefit of having married clergy and dispensing with the requirement of celibacy, have been pushed away as matters that can only be determined by Rome. This juvenile response places Australia at odds with many other countries who are prepared to discuss such matters maturely, then refer them to higher authorities with views that are theologically and culturally enriched.

It seems likely there will be some agreement around matters where a common disposition exists in the broader community, such as the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the development of an authentically Aboriginal spirituality. Some movement towards transparent and accountable governance arrangements is also, hopefully, to be ticked off, not out of enthusiastic endorsement but because there is little chance of holding out completely.

It is unlikely there will be decisive and vigorous action on important issues such as removing clericalism, as its treatment throughout the whole process has been insipid, based on an inadequate and anodyne definition of a problem that Pope Francis has termed an ‘evil’ that must be eradicated. To date there has been an almost total failure to confront the challenges involved in addressing the entrenched culture of clericalist attitudes and behaviours.

In many areas there will likely be a ‘get out’ clause in resolutions, in the form of leaving recommended initiatives to the discretion of individual bishops. History shows that this is a ‘go slow/do nothing’ convenience. This is unlikely to change even though there is encouraging talk of some form of on-going reporting mechanism, with thresholds in the out-years.

The other rationale for invoking diocesan discretion in the adoption of initiatives is that it masks and papers over the real differences known to exist among the bishops. This is no surprise and could be seen as a healthy antidote to the current silly and immature contrivance of a shared, unified position on virtually everything. It is something of a dirty secret that some bishops, who have expressed more progressive views, find themselves subjected to sometimes brutal and unconscionable bullying from more conservative colleagues.

One healthy outcome would be for those bishops who have progressive views, more aligned to Francis, to be able to speak out and champion such initiatives. The idea of ‘group think’ backed by bullying has no place in a church named Christian. A clear measure that will signal the prospects for hope in the future would be progress in establishing some form of effective on-going representative architecture for meaningful engagement and consultation among the whole of the People of God in Australia. In other words, a forum for real consultation and ultimately collaboration between bishops, religious and the bulk of the church – ordinary Catholics.

Pope Francis has made significant recent reforms to Canon Law and the structure and role of the Curia. These initiatives effectively remove the monopoly of the ordained to positions of power and authority. This needs to be reflected in any form of truly representative consultative forum – the processes of which should not be in the hands of the bishops. If the Plenary process has proven anything it is that the reservations Australian Catholics had about the integrity of their bishops was and remains justified.

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