False fruits: What hope now for the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church?

Feb 17, 2022
Australian Catholic Plenary Council
That same commitment to reflection, prayer, conversation and discernment was stated repeatedly and properly before the First Assembly as critical. Instead, we have been presented with a distorted outcome. (Image: plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au)

The expectations and hopes that many Catholics had after the First Assembly of the Plenary Council are fading fast.The manipulative approach adopted shows scant respect for either the Pope or the people.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has released a report entitled  ‘First Assembly Proposals from Small Groups and Individual Membersdescribed as the ‘fruits’ of the first of two Plenary Council assemblies. These published ‘proposals’ of the First Assembly of the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church are neither ‘assembly proposals’ nor ‘fruits’ of the assembly.

The ‘proposals’ include reports from small groups and verbatim ideas from anonymous individual members of the Plenary Council. These ‘proposals’ were not even considered by the full Plenary Council assembly whose members had been appointed under canon law to identify the ‘sense of faith’ of Australian Catholics, provided in contributions from the whole Australian Church over three and a half years of preparation. Some ‘proposals’ are contrary to concerns frequently stated in those contributions, without explanation. Some major contributions with substantial support are not even mentioned. Some proposals seem ill-informed. Some are inconsistent and mutually contradictory. And none have been adopted, let alone considered, by the Plenary Council assembly.

It seems that many of the anonymous individual proposals, mostly conservative and even reactionary, were generated by some conservative members of the Plenary Council well informed of the process to be adopted – simply moved, seconded and submitted via a ‘submission form’, or extracted from untested ‘interventions by members’. These anonymous proposals have been published to influence the Second Assembly in a particular direction as if they have the authority of the First Assembly. Worse, it seems that some Plenary Council members were not aware that such proposals could be or were being submitted in this subversive manner (without the consideration or support of the full Assembly) and that such proposals would become key to the development of the legislative Agenda for the Second and final Assembly.

These proposals are now guiding preparations for the Second Assembly 2022. Writing groups have been selected by the bishops, but not as representatives of properly appointed Plenary Council members, to work on the ‘fruits’ report as the primary source in identifying “thematic focuses for propositions that might be developed for consideration by the Second Assembly in July 2022.” This process is blatantly improper, cynical, and contrary to the principles of canon law, good governance, synodality and Vatican II, and completely contrary to the spiritual discernment promised by our bishops, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Plenary Council process of discernment has been manipulated and gravely compromised.

The Plenary Council has failed its own statutes which state that the Council ‘seeks to gather the People of God in Australia in a process of listening and dialogue in order to discern the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit concerning the mission of the church in Australia in the 21st Century’ 

The Statutes also note that the Plenary Council assembly “has power of governance, especially legislative power”. And the processes “shall include prayer, listening, dialogue, analysis, discernment and synthesis, in accordance with methods of pastoral research and practices of discernment drawn from Catholic tradition.”

The Plenary Council organisers have excluded the critical role of the People of God and the Plenary Council’s power of governance. They have implicitly rejected spiritual discernment and the sense of faith of the faithful. So much for synodality and Christian leadership!

In its Media Blog (9 December 2021), the ACBC has claimed that the so-called ‘fruits’ document contains ‘great richness’ and ‘reveals the directions of the small groups discernment and offers them as a basis for the ongoing preparation for the second assembly.’ The ACBC further states: ‘Final versions of the propositions, which will form the agenda for the second assembly, are expected to be published in June. Reflection, prayer and conversation will precede final discernment and voting at the second assembly.’

That same commitment to reflection, prayer, conversation and discernment was stated repeatedly and properly before the First Assembly as critical. Instead, we have been presented with a distorted outcome of the First Assembly that lacks spiritual discernment and will improperly bias the final Assembly. It was always seen as a difficult task to achieve agreement on the necessarily wide-ranging agenda in a very tight one-week assembly, but whatever was achieved was to be the position adopted by a properly constituted assembly, even if preliminary and tentative – not the idiosyncratic views of anonymous individuals and small groups appointed by the organisers.

Before the First Assembly, the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform published its considered responses to the 16-question agenda (‘A Church for All’, Garratt Pub.). Complimentary copies were provided to all PC members. We know that there are many Council members who supported many of those and other responses and would have gladly put them forward as propositions for proper consideration had they been properly informed.

The Australian bishops must now ask themselves whether the Vatican will be prepared to endorse the outcomes of the Australian Plenary Council if it now proceeds based on a fundamentally flawed report. Regrettably, the Church’s dysfunctional governance, exposed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the major catalyst for the Plenary Council), has been exposed again in the management of this Council.

Further, the manipulative approach adopted flies in the face of Pope Francis’ current Synod on Synodality, a means of reforming the Church’s governance through a genuine process of listening to the people of the Church – an acceptance of accountability, transparency and inclusion lacking in this Council process. The manipulative approach adopted in the Plenary Council shows scant respect for either the Pope or the people.

The ‘fruits’ report, First Assembly Proposals from Small Groups and Individual Members’, must be withdrawn as it lacks any validity or credibility in claiming to present authorised proposals from the First Assembly of the Plenary Council. All Plenary Council members must now be given the opportunity to prepare proposals, properly signed and seconded, for consideration by the Second Assembly. That assembly will need more than the mere week that has been scheduled if it is to ensure serious consideration of all proposals by the appointed Plenary Council members.


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