A dissenting opinion on a key Discernment Paper for the National Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia 2021-2022

Jul 8, 2020

It is not so much what the paper says; it is what the paper omits, that has attracted initial criticism.

This has been my reaction to the paper on Conversion, Reform and Renewal, prepared for the Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia. I was part of the writing team for most of the sessions that produced the version published online recently. However, I hold an individual dissenting opinion

The phrase “to dissent,” means to sense differently. Some would interpret “differently” as contrary, or in disagreement, which I feel is unfortunate, as it immediately establishes some form of opposition. A more accurate rendering of “differently” is “proposing alternatives.” Note also that the word “sense” connotes intellect and feeling, which is a more comprehensive appreciation of what is involved in sensing.

The following 7 points layout a set of proposals which are alternative to the proposals in the official paper.

1. It is useful to note, that of the four Royal Commissions recently operative in Australia (sex abuse; banking; aged care and disability), each uncovered major problems in what is commonly called “the culture of the organisation”. Culture is a broad term that includes at least structures and processes. The Church can, and should, learn valuable lessons from these Commissions. One lesson is to address urgently and seriously, the need for cultural change.

2. Part of that lesson should be that there has been insufficient transparency, accountability and inclusion in the Church. In terms of structures and processes, the Church should meet contemporary standards associated with best practice. Clearly, the Church has not done so for many years.

3. One way to correct this decline and embrace best practice would be to establish a national structure charged with producing evidenced-based, desired, improvements resulting from the decisions of the Plenary Council. Obviously one of those decisions needs to be the creation of such a national structure.

4. The proposed structure could be new or could be a modification of an existing structure currently of service to all dioceses (and parishes) in Australia. It is the functions of such a structure, within its underlying pastoral and theological visions, that will shape responsibilities, powers, staffing, name, and its accountabilities.

5. The two major functions of such a structure should be: (a) to require from every diocese an annual plan for how that diocese will implement the decisions of the Council, on an annual basis as well as over a longer-term e.g 5 years; and (b) require of every diocese an annual report providing evidence of achievements for the year.

6. Criteria for evidence-based reports should be developed by the proposed structure through appropriate consultative processes. In addition, the new structure could assist dioceses with planning and strategic issues.

7. Staffing for the proposed structure will be a key element in its formation, and the whole Church should be actively and comprehensively engaged in developing a robust selection process.

The above 7 points provide the briefest of overviews to what I consider is missing from the proposals for change, from a paper focussed on Conversion, Renewal and Reform. This was the only paper charged with considering the essence of what constitutes genuine conversion, renewal and reform. It missed the target.

Whilst the paper has addressed a few aspects of mission, ministry and culture, it has not really successfully addressed what evidence we would accept, that would allow us to know, measure, and demonstrate, in the future, that the church is effectively achieving its mission

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