The Plenary Council planned for 2020-21 gives rise to great hopes and some anxiety as the Catholic Church in Australia and indeed worldwide faces the greatest challenge of the modern era. As a church “always in need of reform” we are continually confronted by the need to “read the signs of the times” and to respond in the light of the Gospel.
Listening must be a key part of the whole Plenary Council preparation. It was heartening to hear of Archbishop Timothy Costelloe’s encouragement to all Catholics, whether devout or disillusioned, fervent or frustrated, to give voice to what is on their minds and in their hearts.
I must say that I was somewhat taken aback by the emphasis placed on Pope Francis’ approval of the Plenary Council. It was even stated in the Australian Bishops’ commentary that the delay in the Vatican’s approval was that they needed to see the agenda to assess what topics would be addressed.
What I have learned from Pope Francis’ five years as a truly Holy Father has been his willingness to listen and to reach out to all kinds people in every situation he encounters. He is prepared to meet people “where they are at”.
I have sympathy for those planning the Plenary Council if they feel so bound by constraints of traditional theology and canon law that they are inhibited in fully listening to the voices of the faithful in the way that Archbishop Costelloe is inviting them to respond. But if the Council is to begin to succeed, there must be a genuine willingness to listen to and confront the hard questions which are facing the Church in Australia today.
Archbishop Costelloe is putting it mildly when he suggests that some Catholics may be frustrated or disillusioned. There is a whole body of loyal and dedicated Catholics who have left the Church in the past fifty years. Many of them tell me “I have not abandoned the Church, the Church has abandoned me.”
Much of the disenchantment has come from a failure to carry forward the hopes and vision provided by the Second Vatican Council. The hopes for Vatican II began to fade in 1968, a few years after the close of the Council with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control. Pope Paul went against the majority report of his own commission in responding as he did. It is said that he feared that to have followed the advice of his expert advisers, he would have undermined the authority of papal teaching by going against the 1930 papal decree Casti Connubii. In fact, Pope Paul’s decision, which I understand caused him great pain, effectively undermined much of papal authority because it was never truly received by the body of the faithful. Loyal Catholics rightly began to recognise the primacy of conscience in seeking to live out their marital love in a joyful and fruitful manner. Sadly, many married people in varying degrees felt they could no longer be part of the Church. Many good priests felt unable to uphold the papal edict and resigned from active ministry.
It is interesting that the two things explicitly excluded from discussion at the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul were birth control and compulsory celibacy of the clergy. Refusal to re-examine these crucial issues by successive Popes has caused great harm to the mission and credibility of the Catholic Church. It is said that Pope Paul was so unsettled by the aftermath of Humanae Vitae that he never wrote another encyclical.
Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate was a mixed blessing. His charismatic leadership and engaging personality touched many people well beyond the Catholic Church. His role in the downfall of totalitarian communism guarantees him an important part in modern world history. His appeal to young people especially at World Youth Day events made a real impact on those participating. He was a “father” of Vatican II, but I would argue that much of its implementation was steered off course under his time as Pope. Certainly, here in Australia, bishops and male clergy felt intimidated in giving effective leadership for fear of being branded “disloyal to Rome”. I have to say that for most of my time as an “active” bishop from 1986 to 2012, I was in trouble with the Vatican for giving voice to what I believed were the concerns of loyal Catholics. My fate was mild in comparison with that suffered by Bishops Bill Morris and Geoff Robinson who gave such prophetic leadership to the Australian Church.
The many questions arising out of the Royal Commission are basic to the reform needed in the Catholic Church today. So much of the culture which has been male and clerically dominated must be fundamentally challenged. So many good Catholics are saying that the Australian Church would not be in its present parlous position if women had been in effective decision- making roles at all levels of the Church in its recent history. Pope John Paul’s 1993 ban on the discussion of the ordination of women should not prevent the issue being further examined. The unique gifts of women need to be brought to the fore in every aspect of the life and mission of the Church.
The Australian bishops have done much to encourage the participation of young people in the life of the Church. The young people’s joy, enthusiasm and active role in so many areas are a source of great heart at a time when such a boost is sorely needed. It would be a pity if their outreach did not extend to the many other young people who are caught up in drug abuse, suffering mental illness, homelessness, family and sexual violence, and those who do not find much joy in living. Where does Jesus fit into all those scenarios?
Sadly, much of the Church’s teaching on sexuality over the years has been overly negative. I believe that in the light of the same-sex marriage debate and referendum, the Plenary Council must be open to serious listening in this whole area, a listening that involves gay people themselves, their families and those who are expert in this very complex area. Again, the input of women will be vital.
These reflections are written on the fifth anniversary of the inauguration of Pope Francis. I am sure that confident leadership from every part of the Australian Church in the lead-up to the Plenary Council will give support and validation to all that Pope Francis is seeking to achieve in encouraging open dialogue.
Pat Power was formerly Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.