Cracking open the Plenary Council: Helpers wanted for Mark Coleridge and the Holy Spirit. Part 2

Sep 24, 2021

Mark Coleridge will be a pivotal figure in the plenary “summit” on reforms in the Australian Catholic Church. But will the support of Pope Francis, many lay Catholics and possibly the Holy Spirit be enough to shift the Pell acolytes?

Mark Coleridge, archbishop of Brisbane and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is ultimately the captain of the Australian church’s vessel that is in seriously troubled waters.

Following the scathing royal commission report he was the key advocate among his brother bishops urging they convene a Plenary Council. Coleridge describes the decision to go ahead with the council as “the work of the Holy Spirit”. That might well be accurate, given the known resistance to the idea of any review forum that went beyond the limits of current episcopal members.

Coleridge has consistently “talked up” the Council as a one-off opportunity and a forum that should not produce “business as usual” outcomes. Refreshingly he starts with the fact that the Australian church faces serious issues and needs to confront its realities.

Such views are clearly at odds with the attitudes of those senior clerics who have been strong acolytes of Cardinal George Pell, and who in most cases owe their positions to the influence of Pell with the Curia and Rome. Coleridge, on the other hand, owes his position as president of the bishops’ conference to the fact that he was seen as an acceptable alternative to the Pell push.

The Australian Catholic Church’s angle of vanishing stability

But Coleridge is not directly in charge of the plenary planning group. That role belongs to the archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe, president of the Plenary Council. One wonders therefore just how comfortable Coleridge is with the published agenda and its lack of focus. Perhaps he views it as the best that could be hoped from a process heavily influenced by traditionalist churchmen, many of whom never wanted such a forum. While Coleridge has been relatively quiet in recent times in the Australian media, internationally his positioning has been quite different.

He has made strong statements to international fora, conducted in recent times via video conferencing, encouraging the view that what is happening in Australia is highly significant for the church internationally. Coleridge has also been especially outspoken in endorsing the synodality approach advocated by Pope Francis — a position that differentiates him from many of his brother bishops.

But Coleridge has gone further by aligning his star with the leader of the German hierarchy, Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The German church is also launching into an exercise like Australia, although in their case the forum is a synod of the German church, somewhat less inhibited by the tightly constrained format of the Australian council.

As befits the home of the Reformation, albeit 500 years later, the agenda for the German synod is a list of hot button issues that has alarmed some in Rome and elsewhere. Coleridge however has endorsed Marx’s approach and indicated that he has full confidence that the German prelate will lead the church through the process without rupture with Rome. Pope Francis has also indicated his support for Marx, much to the chagrin of traditionalists.

So the picture emerges of a rather lame and timid (if not unrealistic) Australian Plenary Council and a highly contentious German synod, with the president of the Australian bishops’ conference backing both to produce meaningful and defining outcomes. Given the extensive and structured lay involvement in the German synod, Coleridge has been surprisingly quiet about the unreasonable sidelining efforts of his Australian colleagues, who show little enthusiasm to engage with or value the input from lay groups, except those that they have been able to control at a more local level.

Coleridge seems to be putting most of his faith in the Holy Spirit. He may be right, but it seems that the Holy Spirit will need some supporters “in the room” if the agenda and the accompanying rigid process are to be teased open.

The format for the Plenary Council has dribbled out during recent months and only recently has it been revealed that the sessions will be conducted in the form of “spiritual conversations” in which the opportunity for interventions on the floor will be tightly controlled. The exclusively virtual format for the October sessions will only serve to make it easier for those wishing to control or shut down discussion.

We know there are some, and potentially more, bishops who want to engage in meaningful discussion that sees real change emerge, at least in an embryonic form.

There is something sad that the leadership of the Australian church is so hesitant and fearful, while lay people have produced high quality input and ideas setting out the “what and how” of meaningful reform. If the bishops were true leaders of faith they would welcome these contributions, work with them and leverage them to energise the People of God, both ordained and non-ordained.

Instead, most of the contributions offered by lay groups have been pushed away or even demeaned. In a recent address to his priests, Anthony Fisher, archbishop of Sydney, commented dismissively: “Just how representative these submissions and papers and discussions were of the concerns and aspirations of ordinary Catholics is debatable…”.

Such attitudes are hardly consistent with the genuine good intent that lies at the heart of pontiff’s synodality. Little wonder that Catholics have felt their views have been tolerated but not taken in.

This starts to outline the demarcation between Coleridge and the hard-line traditionalists and their fearful followers. But it does not tell the whole story or what might be the key to a Plenary Council that delivers meaningful, even if modest, outcomes.

There are two paradoxes in contemporary Australian Catholicism. The first is that the people express hope, while the bishops exude only fear — and the Plenary Council highlights that very clearly.

The second is that on many issues, the bishops are offside with both the Pope and the people. That is the case in relation to being serious about clericalism and the call for a more pastoral and humble church that has distinct cultural relevance.

The Plenary Council should be a forum that resolves these paradoxes and breaks through to align all: Pope Francis, Australia’s bishops and the vast bulk of Australian Catholics. Coleridge’s strong support for Pope Francis, the synodal way and also for Cardinal Marx, whom Francis sees as one of the hopes of the side, suggests he is positioning himself as Francis’ champion in Australia. If that is so, then the plenary Council is the opportunity.

Coleridge has proven himself to be an adept churchman, with good links to the Vatican bureaucracy built on earlier studies there and his leadership of a global liturgical review panel a decade ago. He is well connected. While bishops will insist political manoeuvring does not come into major church decisions, we know it does. Pell acknowledged this recently stating that, although he will not be able to participate in the next papal conclave, he aims to be involved in the discussions that lead-up to the ballots, as is his right. He will be there doing what in any other context is known as lobbying. No doubt he will be running a similar line at the council.

Of course, Coleridge would also deny such motivations. But the bigger picture is in the background.

So, could the outcomes of the Plenary Council be dependent on Mark Coleridge?

Not exclusively, but he and the Holy Spirit, may be a formidable unity ticket. If he is really committed to a church in the vision of Francis, then Australian Catholicism needs him to seize the day. He probably also needs to, otherwise he will be left with just “business as usual” outcomes and empty rhetoric.

Certainly, someone needs to crack open the rigidity of the current agenda and procedures, Mark Coleridge will have allies in the bulk of the people. It might yet be a fair dinkum Plenary.

Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn is presenting ‘Plenary Tracker’ a nightly Zoom bulletin during the Plenary assembly featuring analysis by leading commentators, and panel discussions. Details available soon on

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