Catholic leaders should not fear ‘doing a new thing’

Dec 12, 2021
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The disregard shown to the hopes of lay people at the first general assembly of the Catholic Church’s Fifth Plenary Council should not be repeated. 

After three years of intense preparations, the Catholic Church’s Fifth Plenary Council of Australia is now well under way. The first general assembly, conducted online across five time zones on October 3-10, has concluded and Catholics are rightly asking: What did it achieve? Is God doing a “new thing” for the Church in Australia? What were the Australian bishops intending the council to achieve?

In 2016, Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge said a council would have to address the fallout from the royal commission into child sexual abuse and the drastic decline in Mass attendance and sacramental participation. More generally, he said, it would have to bring on a “change of culture” and make “bold decisions about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia”

In 2016, Bishop Vincent Long of the Parramatta diocese said the council would have to address the underlying causes of the Church’s existential crisis, triggered by what he called a “systematic betrayal of the Gospel” by the bishops in the sexual abuse catastrophe.

At the outset, the bishops committed to an inclusive national consultation with the whole Catholic community “in its breadth and diversity”. The community responded through 17,500 individual and group submissions, indicating clearly their priorities for culture change and bold decisions for the future.

A lengthy process followed which distilled the content of the submissions into discernment papers, an “instrumentum laboris” and finally an agenda. Catholics for Renewal regarded the agenda as not fit for purpose because it failed to fully embody the priorities of the Australian faithful. Plenary Council member Professor John Warhurst said the 17,500 submissions had not been adequately respected and represented in the council agenda.

The process for the first general assembly was designed to ensure it would be “open to the Spirit” with all 277 members “listening to each other” in the form of “spiritual conversations”. However, council member Francis Sullivan states that this spirit of openness was undermined on the first day by Archbishops Anthony Fisher and Julian Porteous with a pre-emptive assertion that the Church’s woes were due to secularisation and a “crisis of faith”, and that the council must move the Church into “counter-cultural” mode, establish a national program of remedial catechesis and return it to pious devotional practices.

Not far below the surface in both the preparatory stage and the first assembly has been the question of trust in the bishops. Warhurst has spoken of the broken trust and shattered expectations of Australian Catholics over recent years, especially when their 17,500 submissions were “disregarded by the Plenary Council authorities in the preparation of both the working document and the subsequent agenda questions”. He contends they won’t be treated like this again.

Bishop Bill Morris also spoke of the lack of trust in bishops, admitting “we bishops have let people down and we need to give people a voice. We have been good at power, good at dictating the way people act. But we have not been good at relationships. We have protected our power and destroyed our relationships.”

The poet W.H. Auden counselled that we should “approach the future as a friend without a wardrobe of excuses”. In the wake of the abuse scandal that engulfed their church, the French bishops immediately sought, without excuses, to re-establish right relationships with their people through a formal and solemn ritual of repentance and collective conversion, something our Australian bishops have yet to do.

Insight into assembly proceedings

During the six working days of the first assembly, the Catholic community had only limited insight into the plenary sessions. To provide more, Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, Garratt Publishing, and other renewal groups auspiced the daily online plenary tracker and several council members wrote daily blogs.

On the plenary tracker, council members Claire Victory (St Vincent de Paul), Warhurst, and Francis Sullivan (Catholic Social Services) highlighted the “unfinished business” on child sexual abuse, insisting that a minimalist approach of simply legislating safeguarding processes and procedures was totally inadequate. The council had to address church culture, as well as the governance policies and structures that facilitated the abuse and allowed the cover-up.

At the recent third national convocation of Catholics organised by the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, several council members expressed disappointment with the process of the first assembly and urged the organisers of the second assembly to learn from the deficiencies. The members said it should not be conducted like a directed retreat but as a gathering of all the dioceses where the key issues for reform and renewal, especially around church culture and governance, were properly addressed and acted on.

ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue dreams of a Church built on a new, more mature set of relationships emerging out of the demoralisation of the last decade: “Catholic lay people will need to discern how to reconfigure their rights and responsibilities as believers. Their consecrated sisters and brothers will also need to commit themselves willingly to that same process, to different relationships. It may well be the journey of their lives for both groups, ‘a graced moment’.”

Speaking through his prophet Isaiah, God told his people Israel: “Do not be afraid. See, I am doing a new thing” (43: 1, 19). As the decision-making second assembly approaches in July 2022, Catholics for Renewal believes it is incumbent on council members to put their fears aside and open themselves to God who wants to do a “new thing” for the Church in Australia. They should also remember that Jesus told Simon Peter to “put out into the deeper water and pay out your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).

The acts (record of proceedings) of the first general assembly are still being finalised but, when approved, will be made public. During December and January the council’s steering committee, drafting committee, and periti will draft thematic documents that collate and capture the proposals and propositions from the first assembly.

According to the published timeline for the council, the “draft documents [for the second general assembly will be] released for study, discernment and feedback” from February 7 to March 25. The impression here is that they will be released to all the people of God for their study, discernment and feedback. But we are now told there will be no consultation with the people on the draft propositions. It will be restricted to members only. All that the people of God will be able do is read, reflect on, and pray with the “revised propositions” when they are released at Easter in April.

Catholics for Renewal finds this unacceptable. We request the council organisers revise their plan and invite the whole Catholic community to offer feedback on the draft propositions between February 7 and March 25.

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