Geraldine Doogue – Catholic Church’s council moved by the spirit of progress

Jul 13, 2022
St Mary's Cathedral inside view
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Death-and-resurrection moments might be the most accurate way to describe the scale of what unfolded at a rare high-level Catholic meeting of almost 300 representatives last week in Sydney.

Some speak of it as an historic turning-point. Others, like Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who’s just stepped down as President of the Australian Bishops Conference and who actually called the Plenary Council meeting in 2015, saw it as “a grand disruption of the Holy Spirit”, a “Paschal moment” if ever there was one.

In the space of two days, attitudes by the bishops altered significantly towards recognising the official status and dignity of women and men in the Australian church. On Wednesday, they narrowly voted down two proposals ‘witnessing to the equal dignity’ of women and men, despite the wider assembly, including lay members and those of religious orders, having voted to pass the measures earlier in the day. Then on Friday, after urgent intervention from organisers, including bishops and Religious, amidst some slightly altered wording, they voted strongly in favour.

And most attendees (though not all, The Weekend Australian, Sat 8th, Greg Craven) breathed an incredible sigh of relief. After years of terrible headlines over child abuse, the prospect of further cleavage between the Catholic community’s bishops and lay-people right now was too awful to contemplate. Thousands of people had committed to this dialogue/discernment Plenary process over the last few years in the hope of setting a new path forward.

The media has already covered the shock vote-down but not the reversal, achieved in moves simply never seen before in the Church in this country.

Picture the scene in a hall of the Cathedral School near Hyde Park in Sydney. I wasn’t a member, merely a reporter, catching the vivid  accounts verbally and on-line. When the vote was revealed, there was stunned reaction. There were tears, broken hearts according to one account, because the tone until then had been so collegiate. Despite the diverse membership, there was a sense of real purpose in the exercise of Jesuitical ‘spiritual conversation’, leading to respectful and effective decision-making.

Then came the shock bishops’ vote. Very soon after, more or less spontaneously—even the first movers can’t tell me exactly what motivated them—a group of about 60 people, women, some men, a couple of bishops, simply got up from their chairs and moved towards the back of room to stand, as silent spectres of protest.

Archbishop Coleridge, from another end of the room, gradually realised with horror, what was happening. For there is precious little rehearsal in Catholicism of this type of (mostly) lay-led ‘insurgency’ as it was described by some.

“After the Deliberative vote (of the bishops) the reaction was intense. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told me as part of my Plenary Matters podcast.

“The response was not political, not ideological but just a profoundly distressed moment from which you just can’t look away. Not a demo, which only added to it. I had a very powerful sense that something had to be done.”

This was a moment of “real peril”, he said, requiring the influence of the Holy Spirit—via some urgent re-writing—to navigate, under time pressure, a way towards something better.

“My huge apprehension was that they would not return to their tables. That they’d walk out…these wonderful people, my brothers and sisters? I had a moment of deep anxiety. Then quietly and calmly, after a gentle invitation, they did return. It was a turning-point, one of those moments when anything was possible. I felt once that happened, that the tide began to turn. It was an extraordinary moment.”

Accordingly, the amended motion 4.1 referred to the Council hearing from women of varied experienced in the Church, some joyful, happy and thriving in their service to Christ and the Church. Others experiencing barriers and a lack of support in offering their service to the Gospel. Therefore the Church would commit itself to enhancing the role of women and to overcoming assumptions, culture, practices and language that lead to inequality.

Motion 4.2 committed to women being appropriately represented in decisionmaking structures of Church governance at various levels, in Church agencies and organisations; into 4.3, providing new opportunities for women’s participation with the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life.

And then the big one, 4.5: that should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorise the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends the Australian bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia.

Why is this the big one? Because the issue of female deacons, a recognised role in the early Church, seems to spark considerable anxiety in parts of the global Church. Already there has been one major Vatican enquiry into this possible development, which couldn’t come to a clear decision. Now the Pope has ordered another one, underway now, with no certainty the logjam will be broken.

Yet to many eyes, this is a no-brainer for the Catholic Church, here and elsewhere. Given the acute shortage of priests and the real distress of many communities, especially in our wide, brown land, cut off from regular Eucharist, the inclusion of women to become deacons, pledged to service rather than priesthood, is an obvious move. Women who already conduct this role unofficially in the Australian outback apparently impressed the Plenary members with their accounts.

But: the diaconate contains that explosive word “ordained”. Clearly there is a fear by certain groups that this portends a slippery slope to a campaign for female priesthood. Certainly those aspirations do exist among some. But the ordained status of a deacon is qualitatively different, under Canon Law, to that of an ordained male priest.

Even the Bishops’ earlier documents (“Woman And Man: The Bishops Respond, 2000) acknowledge the newer theological understandings of males and females and the Council’s written material recognised the crucial role played by thousands of women maintaining parishes and outreach right now.

So there is much still to come on this matter in the life of the Church. And while the overall sense on Saturday morning, after a majestic closing Mass at the Cathedral, was surprised but exhausted satisfaction, there were clearly some wounds on display.

“Taking it beyond this week, how is it going to be transformative?” said Archbishop Coleridge. “Vatican Two reached a moment of crisis very early on, which Pope John 23rd intervened to solve. Yes, the ‘wound became a fountain, one of the soldiers pierced his side and immediately there flowed forth blood and water’, the Gospel of John. (The Sydney Plenary) was all very wounding with plenty of blood on the floor but without becoming complacent, I think the wound is becoming a fountain….to take us into the future. Whether it flows into the life of the Church itself depends on implementation.

“But it poses the truth of where we are in the Church in a way we had not seen before.”

Progress then, to my eyes. I have always had a rather blunt assessment of Plenary Council success, amidst my rather demoralised Church. If it changes the laity’s views about its own role in the Church of the future, it can mark itself as successful, whatever the qualifications. I think the verdict is in.

Geraldine Doogue is an ABC broadcaster and journalist who also hosts a podcast called Plenary Matters

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