The outcomes of the Catholic church’s recent Plenary Council (PC) can fairly be described as modest and qualified. The process however was a disgrace and unworthy of a Pope Francis inspired synodal church.
Apart from endorsing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the practical application of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si encyclical, few concrete outcomes emerged. Motions passed by the Council are aspirational, with very little hard commitment to reform initiatives. The finally agreed motion on the role of women in the church is notable, not for what it says ought to be done, but as a seemingly shared platform for future discussion and consideration.
The focus of this assessment, however, is on the processes of the Plenary, which extend from the very first call for submissions from all Catholics to each of the intermediate stages leading to the two assemblies. Why a significant church review, coming in the wake of the disastrous the sexual abuse scandals, failed to produce major change can be found in the highly manipulated process.
Writing in his blog for the critical Wednesday of assembly 2, when the crisis on the role of women emerged, Bishop Richard Umbers stated: “Synodality in the Church in Australia began that day”. While this is an encouraging reference, indicating the day’s synodal experience was significant and foreshadowing its continuance, it is also a clear, if unintended, recognition that the process that had preceeded that day was certainly not synodality in practice. Ironically this is an assessment consistent with the analyses and critiques that various Catholics groups had painstakingly offered throughout the whole Plenary process. These previously ignored commentaries have now been vindicated.
Frank Brennan SJ referred to the critical Wednesday’s proceedings as a moment when “the bishops were forced to stop and listen to the cry of the people in the room”, in what was “an example of a Church seeking to overcome the mentality of clericalism”. There is certainly much evidence of clericalism being systemic throughout earlier stages of the Plenary, during which much of the original input from the people ‘not in the room’ was washed away or ignored. That input remains the deposit of faith wisdom that the Australian bishops do not want to acknowledge. Having been ignored it will now become a volatile factor in the efforts of the Australian church to ‘sell’ the outcomes from the Plenary.
It is salutary to look back on the original document of this process, the report on the input contained in the 17,000+ submissions lodged by faithful earnest Catholics. On reflection this was probably the only truly honest document produced in the lead-up to the Plenary assemblies. The input from lay Catholics came through strongly and consistently advocating for meaningful reform in the official summary document, Listening to what the Spirit said. The title of this report proved to be a cynical hoax as most of what was put by ordinary Catholics was subsequently ignored.
Key issues identified included clericalism, celibacy – the shortage of priests, and the lack of leadership from the bishops. These topics never made it to the business end of the assemblies and in most cases the other preliminary documents at the Discernment and Instrumentum Laboris stages were often blatant, if not deceitful, in sweeping them off to the peripheries. Certainly, the artificial and tightly controlled process ensured the formal motions of the final assembly did not address these topics.
Secretary of the PC for the later stages and the lead into assembly 2, Fr. David Ransom observed that it would have been better to “allow that much more active engagement and participation so that people have the sense of actually shaping something in the moment, rather than simply being passive recipients of something…”.He noted that “the last couple of days was (sic) really energising because people did have the sense they were actually shaping what was being said”. He added: “There are a lot of other things that didn’t see the light of day, that we will need to consider in a different kind of forum”
All agree it was the Wednesday ‘stand-off’ that prompted the abrupt change from running an agenda with only ‘cleared and blessed’ motions, to one that leveraged the real passions, skills and commitment of those attending. It is now commonly represented as a moment of intervention by the Holy Spirit. But Catholics should pause to reflect before accepting this narrative.
During his recent trip to Canada, Pope Francis told his fellow Canadian Jesuits: “When one says ‘synodal Church’ the expression is redundant: the Church is either synodal or it is not Church”. So, the issues raised by Australian Catholics, but manipulated out of the Plenary process, become a real challenge for Australia’s bishops – not just the issues, but how they are treated. Pope Francis is quite clear that censoring or preselecting material, is not synodal, but there were repeated and blatant examples of this occurring throughout the process.
Discernment and the working of the Holy Spirit were much overused, confused and conflated terms throughout this whole process. The input from the People of God at the submission stage, was badged as the product of the Spirit, but it became input that seemingly could be put aside. In other instances, the inspiration of the Spirit was invoked for documents that, by any objective, professional and fair analysis, were a poor reflection on the intelligence, theological awareness and honesty of those who participated in the process – poorly written and confused in structure and sequence.
This remained a disturbing feature of the whole Plenary process – the inability to produce documents that spoke clearly and honestly. Rather than illuminating and clarifying, they were mired in confusion and double speak. The Instrumentum Laboris that was meant to point the way to meaningful agendas was dense, at times inscrutable, repetitive verbiage. There is a clear institutional failure to express both theological and procedural thoughts with what could reasonably be expected – an Australian straightforward directness. If synodality is to be meaningful in the Australian context it is essential that this problem is fixed.
What is being passed off as the Spirit’s blessing invoked to rescue a moment – the Wednesday incident – ought not and would not have been necessary, had fair and reasonable practice applied. The work of the Holy Spirit is about more than saving the reputations of a group of implacable bishops who don’t want to hear what they had decided they didn’t want to hear. The poignancy and pain witnessed by women in the church was set out in the original document summarising input from ordinary Catholics. If that had been truly valued the circumstances of the Wednesday would have been very different. If the Holy Spirit truly was at work, the logic is that the message was one for the bishops.
That message would be consistent with what Pope Francis told the group of Jesuits in Canada recently: synodality is not about “a pre-selection of material” or censoring things that some “did not consider appropriate”. It was just these types of characteristics that shaped the framing, processes and formulations of the Plenary. It makes one ponder what might have been possible if the strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the agenda for assembly 1 had prompted a similar stand-off by members at the start of the assembly processes. All this points to the need for very clear and transparent procedures for the foreshadowed synodal roundtable that is to take this process forward.
Plenary member, Claire Victory, has written of her hopes that the Wednesday events “will encourage our bishops to be more open and honest with the people of the Church…that they will seek our counsel more and include us in discussions and decision-making, both informally and through structural changes”. She went on to urge that at least some bishops gain “the moral authority and the sense of solidarity that they need to resist the powerful minority within their own ranks” to speak out on issues.
This will clearly be an indicator of the future good intentions of the bishops. There needs to be an end to the immature code of ‘group think’ among the bishops which prevents individuals from expressing publicly their own authentic opinions on church issues. The Australia Catholic community wants mature discussions, not childish avoidance.
The Australian Catholic laity are at the very same point as they were when this process started – presented with aspirational statements that bishops say they support, but no concrete evidence to demonstrate that things will be different. And little to engender real confidence that Australia’s bishops are any more reliable and worthy of confidence This was no Pentecost. If you were not drafting the motions your views counted for little at the input stage and at the end of the process. The challenge will be for those who were ‘in the room’ to ensure it all leads somewhere.