Over the past year in particular, Australian Catholics have become convinced that their bishops, with some exceptions, are playing games with them in the lead up to the national Plenary Council which is now scheduled to start in October 2021. Some believe, not unreasonably, that important stages in the process have been closely micro managed and that the outcomes of the Plenary may have been determined already.
Australian Catholics have also expressed concern that their measured, but serious and theologically sound calls for systemic reform and renewal in the Church have been dumbed down, trivialized and even ignored. As time passes, they are becoming convinced that their bishops have not really listened to them, that they are being given the run around, and that they are not being taken seriously.
So far, few bishops have spoken publicly, clearly, and in detail about what kind of substantive reform and renewal they want the Plenary Council to achieve. One obvious reason is because they are hopelessly divided. They show no united leadership, and little by way of common vision, except to maintain ‘business as usual’. Collectively, Australia’s bishops, like the institution they have been appointed to lead, are drifting, with little real sense of mission. You could even say they have lost their way. Furthermore, according to the Bishops Conference president Mark Coleridge, their credibility has been ‘shot to pieces’.
Plenary councils are also called ‘synods’, from the ancient Greek syn-odos signifying a group of people, united and travelling down the same road with a common purpose and collective goal. Indeed, the word ‘odos (‘road’, ‘way’,‘track’) is one of the earliest descriptive terms used for the Jesus movement.
Pope Francis, quoting the 5th century bishop of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, said “Church and synod are synonymous”. In 2015, Archbishop Coleridge cited Pope Francis’s own pithy definition of synodality: “Not some of the bishops some of the time, but all of the people all of the time”.
Why is there then this considerable resistance to the inclusion, transparency, and collaboration that synodality demands? Francis Sullivan explains: “The Church is adept at playing ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. It is a power play. The laity are brought into the fold [only] when it suits.” This kind of behaviour is utterly confusing when Archbishop Costelloe, the Plenary Council President states on behalf of the bishops, “We invite all Australians to engage in an open and inclusive process of listening, dialogue and discernment about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. Your voice is needed – join in. Speak boldly and with passion, listen with an open and humble heart. With faith and guided by God’s Holy Spirit, we journey together, toward the future.” ”
But this welcome to an inclusive plenary process as a listening, dialogue and discerment event has been neutralised by official inertia. The Australian bishops’ fear of change has produced two deafening responses, both silent: the first is their silence on what the Catholic faithful actually asked of them in their 17,547 submissions to the Council organizers; the second is their silence on the raft of institutional reforms recommended by the Royal Commission, including how those reforms should be included in the Plenary Council’s agenda and then legislated.
The Archbishop of Sydney, in his 2018 Pentecost pastoral letter, made it plain that “the purpose of the Plenary Council is not to change Church teaching or discipline”. Yet this is precisely what synods and councils not only do but are called to do as they read the signs of the times and address the challenges in the light of the Gospel. It is precisely in the dynamic, human interaction within the synodal process that doctrine and discipline shift, develop and change. This is what happened at Vatican II and, more recently, at the 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome. The documents from these councils and synods show real doctrinal evolution, and it is this evolution that threatens many bishops and especially young clergy-dependent conservative Catholics, including, for they are terrified of further threats to their securities
It is this same underlying fear, that the Australian Plenary Council will generate a similar kind of development and effect systemic change in the Church here, which is increasingly evident in The Catholic Weekly. Only recently, it published an appallingly ill-informed article dismissing the Plenary Council as an expensive, powerless, and cosmetic exercise. No disclaimers or counter balances were offered.
The Catholic Weekly indicates little interest in Pope Francis’ call for synodality, to an open plenary council, and to the call for reform and renewal. While it has a stable of in-house and guest writers who keep generating fog, its main promoter and stalwart is the right wing American Catholic author and commentator, George Weigel.
Weigel is the leading disciple of and apologist for the late Pope John Paul II and one of the original members of an elite boutique salon of right wing US nationalists and socio-political neo-conservatives who gathered around the late Fr Richard Neuhaus, a convert from the fundamentalist Lutheran Missouri Synod. Weigel is a lead writer for First Things, which self-promotes as ‘America’s most influential Journal of Religion and Public Life’ and is renowned for branding ‘liberal Catholics’ as ‘Catholic Lite’. That stunt worked well until John Allen Jnr tagged him in the National Catholic Reporter as a ‘Taliban Catholic’.
Weigel, like most ideologues, uses religion both as a leverage tool and a blunt instrument. His hero, Pope John Paul II, was totally conned by the infamous Mexican paedophile priest and founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Marciel Degollado, whom he lauded in 1994 as “an efficacious guide to youth”. But when Marciel was finally exposed as a paedophile and drug addict, Weigel covered himself in denialism, and self-justification.
Since the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, he has engaged in a ceaseless campaign of barely disguised passive aggression and simmering hostility toward Pope Francis. In his latest book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, Weigel insists that the qualities of the ‘next pope’ must not be those of Francis. In the interests of balance, perhaps The Catholic Weekly will run Michael Sean Winters’ review of Weigel’s book published in the National Catholic Reporter.
The Catholic Weekly has reached an agreement of ‘collaboration’ with First Things and The Catholic Herald UK to publish Weigel’s articles under his own name as well as under the nom de plume of Xavier Rynne II. The original Xavier Rynne was the legendary part time journalist and commentator who covered the proceedings at the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-65). In the absence of disclaimers and/or counter balancing opinion, it is reasonable to assume that the editorial board of The Catholic Weekly will continue to endorse Weigel’s attacks on Pope Francis, the Synods of Bishops he has convened, and the several Apostolic Letters that have followed them.
At some stage between now and the October 2021 opening of the Council, it would be good if some of the bishops who do not agree with the The Catholic Weekly’s campaign were to speak up. Otherwise, the perception by the thinking Catholics who want a balanced approach to the Council, will be that all are complicit in its negativity.
It might also be well to remember Professor Patrick Parkinson’s comment on the appalling morally ambiguous behaviour of the Australian bishops in relation to the treatment of abuse victims: “One lesson of this amongst many, is that one cannot talk like Mother Teresa and behave like Machiavelli, for the end result will be worse than if nothing had been said at all.”