The Plenary Council

May 24, 2018

After the Royal Commission in Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, the Irish child abuse commission 2009 on the other side of the world and the resignation of all the bishops in Chile, the Roman Catholic Church as we know it has received the last rites lying in periculo mortis in intensive care and is now on a respirator. The family has been notified, a plot has been purchased and the funeral director is on stand-by. 

In a last-ditch attempt to breathe life into a bloodless body, and with the permission of the Pope in Rome (of course), the bishops of Australia have decided to convoke a Plenary Council to identify and solve all their church’s troubles. 

On Pentecost Sunday just passed, the archbishop of Sydney, Tony Fisher, flashing an impressive list of credentials (DD., BA., LlB, B Theol and D Phil), addressed a letter to his “dear people” informing them that “the purpose of the Plenary Council is not to change Church teaching or discipline”. One might think that if that is not the purpose of what the bishops are planning to do in October 2020 and May 2021, what would be the point of turning up at all? Teaching and discipline are in need of a good clean-out.

The archbishop provided a list of helpful suggestions – the challenges that are “worthy of discussion, discernment and prayer”. At the top of the list is – wait for it –

“How can we combat the virulent secularism in some quarters of our society and the rise of atheism, especially among young people?” 

Let’s set the tone of the meeting and open the game with a negative, defensive manoeuvre. Us against them. The goodies against the baddies. 

But this was the challenge which confronted the First (not the Second) Vatican Council in 1870 when the church was on top of its game – powerful, autocratic and infallible. How about asking how those in charge can better dialogue with the modern world? Or preach a meaningful message to believers? Or plunge a fatal dagger into the heart of clericalism? Or give the women a go to see if they can make as good a mess as the men? 

Fisher OP went on the make a few more marginally relevant suggestions and concluded his list – “And all the other questions on your mind”, ending in an exclamation mark. So here goes.

Some years ago the Archbishop of Sydney (not Tony Fisher, the author of our letter) had the opportunity of becoming a national hero, a man of vision with an international reputation – someone the members of his church could be immensely proud of. The parish of Redfern, under the chaotic guidance of Father Ted Kennedy, had become a centre for the care and support of our indigenous peoples from all around Australia. The parish church, the grubby presbytery and the surrounding buildings had become a place where aborigines could feel welcome and at home, where they could find care and support – a hand-out, a hand-up and a welcoming, non-judgmental reception. 

Redfern offered the real possibility of making a contribution to closing the gap, making a difference by establishing special schools and scholarships, a system of healthcare, of clinics and counselling services – the opportunity to show the nation how this difficult work could be done by those with commitment and energy. Kennedy’s Redfern had attracted volunteers, priests, nuns, brothers and many lay volunteers who were interested in advancing the welfare of our indigenous peoples. When Father Ted finally hit the dust and the challenge was there to be embraced, the episcopal officer in charge of the archdiocese took the soft option, wasted the opportunity and appointed an ultra-reactionary, crazy group of Neo-Cathecumens to divide and destroy the parish. He too could have been a contender – but when it came to the test, he chose to be a spoiler.

The Plenary Council may not decide to return to Redfern, but it could decide to establish and fund a missionary program to service the tragic needs of the nation’s original inhabitants, to consult with them and then to implement a visionary program they devise together. This would be a contribution to the nation and could be a message from the church that it was seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, beginning again and trying to make a real, practical difference.

There are many other services which the Plenary Council might consider. It might come as a surprise to the bishops, but the ordinary man or woman is no longer content with hearing messages being preached from windows on the third floor of the Vatican or listening to vacuous words from the pulpit or the President talking about refugees, or mindless wars, or the horrors of pornography, or about praying for the victims and the families of mass shootings. If the Catholic Church is rich enough to provide mansions for their prelates as it has done in Melbourne, in Wollongong and elsewhere, it can provide refuge for refugees and homes for the homeless. It can devise a program for financing inexpensive housing, low rents, attractive mortgage rates – taking the initiative and leading the nation in closing the gap between the rich and the poor, and not leaving it to government full of Jesuit-trained Catholics to enrich the wealthy and grind the poor into the dirt. 

There are many moves on the board which the participants at a Plenary Council could consider – practical help, consistent lobbying and constant criticism of the nation’s treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus islands; a stable of safe homes for victims of family violence accompanied by practical systems, legal advice and counseling; Sunday meals for struggling families and lonely men and women in every suburb or country town; programs of education and assistance for prisoners while in prison and on release – fully funded rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing crime and giving offenders meaningful, productive lives; using their school facilities and professional expertise to establish in-service training and apprenticeship programs and after-school education for boys and girls in depressed areas. 

The church possesses a large stock of real estate it could sell (many presbyteries and vacant convents, for example) to finance its new programs, to build units for disadvantaged people, perhaps reserving one of the units for the person in charge of the pastoral care in the district; it could establish and fund a free legal service for the poor; appoint a Ombudsman to receive and deal with complaints; engage the services of a creative public relations firm to come up with a few new ideas; a code of conduct for bishops and clergy and a formal policy of transparency, consultation, participation, inclusion and openness. Anything less from a Plenary Council will be seen as a cheap retread for a failed institution.

And of course, the Plenary Council will certainly not be able to avoid the issue of involving women in ministry and in the governance of the church on all levels. The role of women in the institutional church is a ticking bomb which is destined to cause irreparable damage if not defused. Those in authority would have us believe that Jesus was against it, that he established a men’s only club to rule his church, that he excluded women from the top jobs. Pure, self-interested nonsense. 

In the midst of their deliberations, the Plenary Council participants may come to realize that Jesus did not see himself as an institutional man, or as someone with a mission to establish a church or a complicated system of beliefs. The creed Jesus revealed was not twisted or complicated. A God who was a father, an indulgent father who loved and cherished his creatures. A kingdom of the poorer and oppressed. His was to be a religion as preached by the prophets of old – rather than sacrifice and ceremonies, paraphernalia and long formulae he wanted justice, service, honesty, generosity, inclusion, enthusiasm, love and forgiveness. Simple really.

I am hoping the future Plenary Council will forget about dogma for a while, for a century or two, and concentrate on the message of Jesus. Make a few courageous decisions, set off in a completely new direction and take a few risks – nothing to lose and much to gain – a credibility that comes from genuine service in the footsteps of Jesus.

We’ll have to wait to see whether it will be plenary business as usual. It’s been a long time since the Catholic Church was ahead of the game. In the Australian context, it has become an established institution on a par with the Commonwealth Bank or the Liberal-National Coalition which are also struggling to maintain a veneer of relevance. The Vatican organization has long since lost its edge. It’s no longer at the centre of national debate, no longer the burr under the saddle, a light in the darkness, baking powder in soft dough, or a voice crying in the wilderness. The hierarchy and the papacy have insisted that the institution should speak with one monotonous voice. They have put their visionaries and prophets to the sword, imposed a regime of conformity and silence on the troops, allowed the stench of scandal to waft through their palaces and presbyteries and expect a Plenary Council, with a seriously reduced talent pool, to drag them out of the shit. I wish them the best of British luck – but I’m not holding my breath. The pastoral letter of the Most Rev. Anthony Fisher OP, DD., BA., LlB, B Theol., D Phil. is not a propitious sign but despite his many degrees perhaps he still has something to learn.

Chris Geraghty, theologian, former priest and former judge of the District Court of NSW, now living in gentle retirement with too much time on his hands.

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