The Catholic Plenary Council: A suggested preamble

Jun 12, 2022
Church building - illustration

Convoking a Plenary Council as an instrument for Church renewal and reform in Australia has both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are manifest. There is a prescribed membership and a prescribed process for a Plenary Council. These are all canonically regulated and easily monitored by the relevant authorities. The authorities also have a hand in drafting the agenda and in editing the Council’s final recommendations. This will ensure that there will be no dissonance between how the Council proceeds and concludes and the official teachings and traditions of the Church. It is thus highly unlikely that the conclusions of the Council will prove unacceptable to Rome. This, it will be argued, is a significant advantage in convoking a Church assembly according to canonical norms.

The disadvantages, however, are also manifest. There is only limited participation by the laity in the Council. So many clerics are included in the membership ex officio – bishops, clerical diocesan officials, rectors of seminaries, some superiors of male religious orders – that only a third of the participants at most can be members of the laity.

Many of the concerns of the laity, too, are excluded from the prescribed agenda as being at odds with official Church teaching, eg, the ordination of women, the blessing of same-sex relationships.

And ultimately it will only be the bishops who will have the final definitive vote on the recommendations that will go to Rome.

Granted these limitations, and even recognising the advantages, one might well ask why the Australian bishops opted for a Plenary Council to address renewal and reform rather than a less constrained and more representative form of assembly. Perhaps, it has been suggested, a Plenary Council was all some bishops were willing to engage with in terms of renewal and reform. Anything less regulated and monitored might have opened a veritable Pandora’s box of clerical and episcopal incompetence and lay alienation. In the ongoing aftermath of the Royal Commission, a root and branch investigation of the state of the Australian Catholic Church in a no-holds-barred assembly of clerics and laity might only have led to disaster and disintegration. Further, whatever recommendations emerged from such an assembly were unlikely to be endorsed by the Roman authorities. Better, then, to aim low within the confines of a Plenary Council rather than to aim higher in a non-canonical assembly and risk both secular and ecclesiastical loss of credibility.

The German Church, however, has chosen such a non-canonical assembly, the so-called “Synodal Way”, to address renewal and reform there. The group of 230 includes every German bishop, representatives from religious orders, and members of the laity from dioceses, parishes and universities, and even some consultants from other Churches.

There were four fields under discussion: the power and separation of powers in the Church; relationships and sexuality; priestly ministry, including conversations about celibacy; women in ministries and offices in the Church.

There are virtually equal numbers of clergy and laity in the German synod, and both clergy and laity will vote on the final recommendations. But, since canon law does not allow the laity to impose a decision on a bishop, it will then be up to each bishop to decide whether to implement the Synod’s recommendations in his own diocese. It will be a brave bishop, however, who refuses to implement the recommendations after such a long consultative process. As, one of the experts in the process reflected: “Legally it is not binding, morally it is.”  We will see. Some bishops are very brave, especially when it is defending the traditional order.

Is it possible for the Australian Plenary Council to include some of the features of the German Synodal Way in its ongoing deliberations? A remark by one of the Council’s members (who was also a member of the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse), Dr Robert Fitzgerald, may help to focus this question.

At a recent online forum Dr Fitzgerald reminded viewers that the Plenary Council represented an opportunity for the Australian Catholic Church to attempt to re-establish its credibility in the eyes of the Australian public. He suggested that this should be its major concern rather than confining its agenda to drafting recommendations that might be acceptable to Rome.

It is then in line with this suggestion that I conclude by outlining five areas in particular where it is necessary for the Australian Church to attempt to make amends and thus restore some degree of credibility with the Australian community. Perhaps these concerns could be included in a preamble to whatever recommendations the bishops might finally submit to Rome.

Firstly, – yet again – there must be an absolutely sincere and contrite apology for the Church’s involvement in the sexual abuse of children. Although both clergy and laity have been criminally responsible in this obscenity, perhaps this is one apology where the clerical members of the Council should be front and centre. The sexual abuse of children is abhorrent in itself, but when it has been perpetrated by clergy and covered-up by clerical authority, the gravity of the initial offence has been compounded beyond belief. Episcopal and clerical members of the Council, even apart from their lay colleagues, must speak for all members of the Australian clergy in an abject apology to the Australian community. They should also outline – and not by way of mitigation – the steps the Church has taken over the last twenty years, and is committed to continue to take, both to compensate survivors and to ensure that these crimes are not tolerated. They must demonstrate with blinding clarity that the Church’s response is now both absolutely transparent and in accord with the community’s legal standards

Secondly, there should be an equally sincere and abject apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander community for the Church’s complicity not only in the “Stolen Generations” programme but also in the manifold ways in which the First Nations community has been dispossessed and its dignity compromised. While the Church’s involvement might have been well-intentioned , it was certainly ignorant and grossly insensitive. Significant harm has been done. An apology and appropriate compensation are again in order.

Thirdly, there should be an apology to the LGBTIQA+ community for the way in which they have been vilified by Church authorities and excluded from participation in the Church community. The Council should – explicitly – reject the “intrinsically disordered” mantra of the Catholic Catechism and recommend strongly that other associated canons and teaching be critically edited. In addition to an apology, a warm and generous welcome should be extended to all currently disenfranchised LGBTIQA+ Catholics, along with a commitment to exploring ways in which barriers to their full participation in the sacramental life of the Church may be overcome.

And fourthly, of course, there should be an apology to women. That they have so often been ignored; that they have not been listened to; that even when they have been listened to, their opinions have been undervalued and treated dismissively by Church authorities; that specifically in issues affecting women’s health and sexuality, eg, contraception, IVF, abortion even, they have not been consulted; that their sexuality traditionally within the Church has been treated as inferior and “second-best’; that on other women’s issues, eg, women’s ordination, even discussion has been summarily interdicted by Church authorities. It is a long and shameful tale of patriarchy, chauvinism and misogyny.

Finally, there should be an apology to the laity. It is now 164 years since John Henry Newman – no radical theologian – published his essay: “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”. He contrasted the fidelity of the laity in the early Church with the presumption of the clerics.

We still have so much to learn of the ways of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps these apologies, by way of a preamble to the Council’s final recommendations, might indicate that the Australian Catholic Church is at least trying, willing to learn.

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