PETER DONNAN. The Plenary Council: Searching for Australian Catholics

Approximately 8% to 10% of those who identify as Catholics are regular mass attenders and almost a third of these are between 60 and 74; decline in mass attendance has been occurring since the 1950s, according to the National Centre for Pastoral Research. Many Catholics have fled the pews, following an era of sexual abuse of children and the shame of the Church’s response. Cardinal Pell, the senior cleric in Australia, is in jail, awaiting a judgement by the High Court on a leave to appeal. Is this time the dark night of the soul for practising Catholics in Australia?

When I consider my life as a Catholic over seventy years, I am fortunate to have been a member of vibrant christian parish communities and that remains the case today. In no small measure has that been because of wonderful parish priests. So I am a remainder. Nevertheless, I see the upcoming Plenary Council in 2020 as an opportunity for radical change, rather than softly-softly. Other contributors to this site, such as Michael Sainsbury, have stated the dilemma in more urgent terms – ‘Reform or die.’

The case for substantial reform is compelling. We have in Francis a pontiff who seeks to focus Catholics on encountering Christ; he quips about prelates with funny hats, whether birettas or with feathers; he seeks to remove fraud in the Vatican by bringing in specialist finance consultants such as KPMG; his consistories lead to more non-European cardinals; he has led a trend away from hard-edged traditional dogma (the way the Church treats divorcees etc) to a more pastoral orientation. With bishops from nine Amazon nations in Rome in October 2019, ten of the twelve groups are considering as part of their agenda, married priests – perhaps a sign of the future.

Reform is challenging and there are many opponents. Charles Lamb [The Tablet, 20Sep19] argues that “The most serious threats to the unity of the Church are forces – found largely in the Roman Curia and among well-funded groups in the United States and traditionalist networks across the world – intent on undermining Pope Francis’ reforms.” Bishops at the Plenary Council possess powerful voting rights and their initial appointments, Episcopal networks and Ad Limina visits promote an orientation to the Church of Rome.

Sometimes the fierce loyalty of faithful, conservative Catholics resists change. In a time of Israel Folau, Trump, Hillsong and evangelical born-again Christians, with a prosperity gospel, fundamentalism, linked with a literal interpretation of scripture, becomes a major obstacle to reform.

Opposition is also associated with small numbers of conservative cardinals and their followers. Cardinal Raymond Burke has clashed with Pope Francis about relaxing attitudes towards gay people, and Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the church. Another is Cardinal Gerhard Muller whose theology envisages eternal damnation to Hell for those who die in mortal sin; rejects divorcees receiving the Eucharist; defends priestly celibacy in terms of ‘self-giving in the service of Christ; bridles about the term ‘clericalism’; excludes women from the diaconate and priesthood; and believes attempts to change Humane Vitae are a ‘crime against the Church’. Catholics attracted to Muller are older people, educated, definite about sin and damnation, with an interest in theology.

Differences in theological emphasis and models of church underpin many of these conflicts. Perhaps it began with Constantine in 381AD when the Church imported its hierarchical structure from Roman governance. In early Christian communities disciples possessed different charisma and talents but they were not defined by gradation and status. Spirituality or holiness is an inner disposition, a metanoia or change of heart, and is evident in the love Christians have, one for another, but hierarchy is often the antithesis of gospel values and the beatitudes. Paul Collins has argued in Pearls and Irritations that hierarchism “is a stranded asset, unsellable anywhere, least of all to anyone trying to follow Jesus. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is about power and how bishops are initiated into it through papal appointment and ordination. In the process, baptism is forgotten and equality in the Christian community is lost.”

For many Catholic parishioners, the broader institutional Church in Rome has become irrelevant. Some believe it will be a great day for the Church when the Curia converts to Christianity. Few Catholics at the grassroots levels, are preoccupied with the importance of the Magisterium or clamour for more Canon Law; nor do they yearn for the lovely logic of Thomas Aquinas; nor for the dogmatic teaching of the Church regarding Humane Vitae. Most recognise the unequal roles of women in the Church and are far more impressed with a lived spirituality than a rigid predilection for doctrine.

The Final Report for the Plenary Council Phase 1: Listening and Dialogue [NCPR, on Plenary has distilled issues and themes for discussion. A few brief clips illustrate lines of division:

  • One of the most frequent themes raised was priestly celibacy. There was a strong consensus that this should end and priests be given the opportunity to marry if they wished.
  • Rosary and Benediction, Eucharistic Adoration and First Friday and Saturday devotions to combat modernism and other secular practices. A few asked for more traditional practices such as Baptism by full immersion and head coverings for women.
  • It is critical to open up opportunities for women priests, deacons and acolytes, not simply use them as support staff – as readers, catechists, flower arrangers, vestment launderers and church cleaners….The only Australian saint is a woman who had to fight the hierarchy to provide for children and the poor. Consequently, she was excommunicated for ‘disobedience’ to threatened power-bearers.
  • A significant aspect of the topic Bringing the Church into the 21st century was modernising Church teachings. There were six key issues raised relating to modernising Church teaching:
    1. Contraception and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF),
    2. Same-sex marriage,
    3. Abortion and euthanasia issues,
    4. The concept of sin,
    5. Liturgy and sacraments and
    6. Outdoor marriage celebrations.

Any reform of traditional Catholic teaching, culture and practice is likely to be divisive. What can be particularly difficult are devotional practices and traditional piety that have been embedded in Catholic life. Take, for instance, the words of the Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long, in his evidence at the Royal Commission in 2017: “People still address me, especially the faithful Catholics, as ‘Your Lordship’, and I sort of cringe at that. Or when they come to see me, or they come to meet me, they kiss my ring. I’m not very comfortable with those sorts of practices because they encourage a certain infantilisation of the laity and that creation of the power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained, and I think we have to look at these things seriously.” Or again, consider the words of Paul Collins when he wrote on this site that bishops should “jettison their silly outfits like mitres, skull caps and other hang-overs from history.”

These two examples are confronting because they are in the guise of personal attacks on genuine pious practice. Their supporting arguments are important: Bishop Long advocates a church where there is much greater equality between all Catholics; Paul Collins states that “abandoning paraphernalia symbolises a deeper change to make pastoral care rather than power, a bishop’s primary priority. The church is here to serve, not to promote an ideology of gender, sex, reproduction, or end-of-life issues” and he also relates it to the pharisees wearing ‘wider phylacteries and longer tassels’ (Matthew 23:5) which makes it more pointed.

The Plenary Council phase 2, Listening and Discernment, is now occurring across Australia. It is likely to be a time of anguish for many loyal Catholics, a time of searching, of letting go, of clinging on, of doubt and confusion. Even at the First Council of Jerusalem, Peter and Paul had different views and to some extent conflict has frequently occurred under the Catholic umbrella. Recommendations and resolutions will be principally determined by the bishops who have a deliberative vote. There will also be some bishops who will dismiss certain views because they are perceived as fashionable, or misguided or not what they believe God wants of the Church here and now. Archbishop Fisher, for instance, has concerns: “What [Synodal Fathers are] wary of, I think, is the way synods might be manipulated today, swept up by the fashions of the age.” There is much at stake for the future of the Church in Australia, there is still much to unfold and a successful Plenary Council will promote a sense of unity about the way forward for the Catholic Church in Australia.

Peter Donnan is a retiree: he taught in Public and Catholic high schools and worked in two Australian universities.


Now retired, Peter spent forty-three years in education, teaching in NSW State and Catholic high schools for seventeen years. He then worked in academic staff development at two Australian universities – Charles Sturt University [Wagga Wagga] and The University of Canberra. He attends meetings of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and is particularly interested in how Catholic media can support reform agendas.

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7 Responses to PETER DONNAN. The Plenary Council: Searching for Australian Catholics

  1. Avatar John Graham says:

    Peter, this is a very good discussion about the big issues that are confronting Australian Catholics. It is very painful for committed Catholics to see the polarised mess that the Church has become. This conversation needs to continue in a prayerful and scholarly manner. I consider that we are essentially dealing with the question of Catholic culture change, unity of mission expressed in a pastoral plan for this new era, a commitment to be a church that lives under the Word of God and being guided by God’s Holy Spirit. Thank you for keeping the flame alive.

  2. Avatar Michael Furtado says:

    Peter, I have to say that, my having just participated in the General Assembly of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, my hopes for its outcomes as a precursor to next year’s Council or Synod remain dismal. How to bridge this gap? What should be generally known (but isn’t) to all Australians (not just Catholics, but ALL!) is that we now have a Snapshot Report, to be discussed and presumably voted upon (Yes; what’s wrong with democracy, which the Anglicans and Unitings employ to more honest, open and sometimes better effect than we do?) at forthcoming ‘Deanery Discernment’ meetings throughout November. The Snapshot Reports for our diocese contain a list of topics in alphabetical order that still offer some hope for the reform that many in these columns endorse. However, what’s missing still appears to be the will to prioritise these, as well as some decisions about how this is to be done, so that the Plenary Council’s agenda will not collapse under the weight of its own enormous contradictions. To some extent what reformists like you and I want is already encapsulated in the Snapshot Report. Our task now is to outline a method relating to HOW this can be achieved. I suspect the Holy Spirit will spit the dummy if its left up to Her to do this, as a consequence of which we can hardly berate the bishops who may end up having to endorse the agenda of fundamentalists who see in a return to the pious pre-Vatican II practices of First Fridays, Humanae Vitae, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Hour after Mass, while reflect an undoubted rejection of and coup against an elderly but reformist pontiff, as the only way ahead for Catholicism at this critical juncture.

  3. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you Peter for an excellent and fair report on Catholics ( ACT ?) in a changing Church. We could focus on the parish community : look out for a meeting on 28.11.19 at the ACCC in Barton. The Spirit may be calling us to follow Jesus and his teachings and to become detached from structures of the past that keep us from compassion for all.

  4. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    Postscript: at an initial meeting on Thursday evening [24 October] of 200 Concerned Catholics, the opposition of conservative-right Catholics to reform in the Q&A session was visceral, hostile and orchestrated. The point was also made by third speaker Terry Fewtrell that if the raw comments of so many respondents in the first phase of the Plenary Council have been withheld, muffled or presented in a wholesome light, then this, too, is a form of opposition to genuine reform

    • Avatar Peter Donnan says:

      The meeting referred to above occurred, Michael [Flynn], in Wagga Wagga. I left out that important point. It was a very successful meeting, appreciated by the majority of the large audience, until the Q&A session where the reform agenda was met with hostility.

      John Graham referred to a ‘prayerful and scholarly manner’ which I endorse but the opposition and hostility to reform at the meeting in Wagga Wagga was the antithesis of what you value. Many conservative Catholics value the present status quo in the Church and will strongly resist change, especially in areas of Church teaching.

      Michael Furtado’s hopes for reform at the Plenary Council in 2020 remain ‘dismal’. Terry Fewtrell stated publicly that a sense of frustration led him to join Concerned Catholics Canberra/Goulburn but his overall position is similar to yours, Michael. I think your view about opposition to change from fundamentalists Catholics constitute one of the main challenges for those who seek reform at the Plenary Council. The need to prioritise reform items is a point well made.

      You refer, Rosemary, to positive achievements of the Church in areas such as medical/nursing, teaching, aid-to-the-poor etc and note that these apostolates are often led by the laity. The potential of the laity to improve in other mission-critical areas is there at the moment and these issues will surface at the Plenary Council but the outcomes are far from clear at this stage.

  5. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    When the Curia converts to Christianity! And what a great thing that would be if it were of the order of a Jesus of Compassion/associate of the tax-gatherers and “harlots”/cleanser of The Temple from its money-lending and business intrusions! My mind is racing with the possibilities!

  6. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Excellent ‘read’ Peter, thank-you.
    I’m struck by the notion that, given the unique power/position of a global institution governed by committment to hierarchical authority, obedience, a culture of anti-materialism (don’t laugh – in theory at least) what is amazing about the RC Church is that it has delivered such poor performance.
    Overwhelmingly, what is admirable about Catholicism is the medical/nursing, teaching, and aid-to-the-poor (et al) conducted by the laity – or by non-clerics – by religious in community… Actually, this is a failed corporation.

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