The Australian Catholic Church is planning a national/plenary synod of the Church in Australia. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane has announced that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has decided to conduct a plenary council/synod in 2020. Few Australian Catholics would be aware that synods have been an integral part of church governance since the time of the Apostles. That’s not surprising as no plenary or provincial (roughly State-wide) synods have been held in Australia since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), despite that Council calling for synods to “flourish with fresh vigour” (Christus Dominus, n.36), and insisting that the laity have an active role in them.
The announcement of a plenary council/synod seems to indicate a commitment by the bishops of Australia to engaging with the people of the Church, and is very welcome. As Peter Wilkinson (an acknowledged expert on the history of synods in Australia) noted in April 2012 in a paper submitted to the ACBC by Catholics for Renewal, many Australian Catholics have felt that their voices have not been heard nor their views properly considered for a long time. In 2012 the ACBC, in response to a carefully considered 28-page proposal for national and diocesan synods from Catholics for Renewal, replied simply that “diocesan synods are a matter for each diocesan bishop and the issue of a national synod is not considered opportune at this time.”
Only five of the 28 Australian diocesan bishops have convened a diocesan synod since Vatican II; the Melbourne archdiocese has not held a synod since 1916 and the Sydney archdiocese since 1951. The announcement of a national synod in Australia is a welcome sign that our bishops recognise the need to talk with all the people of the Church, to gauge the sensus fidelium (the sense of faith of the faithful) as envisaged by Vatican II.
It is heartening that a national synod is now considered ‘opportune’. Synods are “the earliest and traditional forums for collegial discussion, debate and decision-making in the Church” (Wilkinson, 2011). Archbishop Coleridge has stated in the Brisbane Catholic Leader, that the bishops have agreed a plenary council or synod is needed because “we are at a time of profound cultural change . . . in the Church” and pointed to the impact of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Archbishop Coleridge had earlier endorsed the need for change when he told more than 100 priests in New Zealand in 2014 that clericalism “is somehow central to the cultural difficulties, or the cultural phenomena that enabled (clerical child sexual) abuse to happen” and that “somehow, we thought the law doesn’t apply to us.” The necessary change in the Church’s culture requires a truly consultative national synod.
The Catholic Church’s governance is monarchical and autocratic, modelled on the political structures of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, a model which rejects accountability and transparency. That lack of accountability is exacerbated by an all-male clerical culture and dysfunctional governance which rejects transparency, consultation and inclusiveness. A national synod could be a serious Australian contribution to necessary reform of the Church.
Already there are overseas precedents of diocesan synods seeking to achieve reform of the Church’s governance. Detroit in the USA is conducting a synod this year which is attempting “nothing less than a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, or maintenance-focused church, to outward, or mission-focused church.” Earlier this year, Limerick in Ireland held its first synod in over seventy years, “aimed at plotting a way forward for renewal and collaboration in the Church.” And in Minneapolis, the then interim archbishop, Bernard Hebda, conducted a series of listening sessions, rather than a canonical synod, aimed at gathering lay feedback to shape the archdiocese’s future. The Holy See listened to the outcomes and confirmed Hebda as the new archbishop.
The 2020 national synod will hopefully respond to Pope Francis’ challenge in Evangelii Gaudium (n.31), in which he exhorted bishops to “walk with” their people and allow them “to strike out on new paths”, adding:
In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, (the bishop) will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.
The “means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law” include diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods. Diocesan synods are surely essential in preparing for a national synod. Preparation for the national synod with the full involvement of the faithful will be critical as will its agenda and membership. All the 27 dioceses of Australia will need to conduct diocesan synods, with the benefit of diocesan pastoral councils, to lay a necessary foundation informed by local experience. The agenda will need to be open to the issues of concern to all the people of the Church.
A national synod (plenary council), of the Church in Australia will require genuine commitment by the hierarchy to involve the people of the Church. It will require a rejection of the monarchical model of decision making. Such a synod could be the beginning of real collaboration and co-responsibility in the Church with a proper respect for the sensus fidelium (the sense of faith of all the faithful).
Peter Johnstone. President, Catholics for Renewal.