PETER JOHNSTONE. An ill-informed plenary council for the Catholic Church.

Only those in blind denial could fail to realise that the Catholic Church in Australia is now in the midst of a massive and existential crisis. It is, above all, a crisis of governance. The Catholic bishops’ main response to this crisis in Australia has been to propose a ‘Plenary Council’ for 2020. Archbishop Coleridge, appointed by his fellow bishops to guide the preparation for the council, has recently said that the Church is facing “the biggest crisis in its history”. Yet the planning for this plenary council is already suffering from the poor governance that it is supposed to address eventually in 2020. The bishops of Australia are not consulting the people of their own dioceses on the issues. Not surprisingly many Catholics continue to desert the Church as they witness the substantial problems of the Church being kicked down the road to 2020 with little prospect of solution.

The bishops in Australia are “circling the wagons” in a defensive response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse rather than responsibly accepting the damning evidence of the dysfunctional governance of the Church. The Commission has condemned the criminal sexual rampaging among two generations of priests and predominantly male religious who abused thousands of innocent and unprotected children, and the criminal cover-up by two generations of Catholic bishops and religious superiors, leading to further children being sexually abused.

The Royal Commission has exposed the Church’s dysfunctional governance and its lack of public accountability (a concept foreign to the governance of the Catholic Church), and a lack of the related qualities of transparency and inclusion of all the people of God, especially women. These failures have been normalized in today’s Catholic Church, yet fly in the face of Christian teaching and the Second Vatican Council which called for synodality, co-responsibility and subsidiarity.  There has been an effective rejection of the Council’s vision in these areas, reflecting a preference for autocratic control over inclusive and accountable leadership.

Vatican II explicitly called for synods “to flourish with new vigour.” Yet, in the 52 years since, the Australian bishops have not convened a single provincial or plenary council/synod, and only five bishops have held a diocesan synod.  Rather, the bishops have overwhelmingly preferred to govern autocratically.

Meanwhile, the numbers of those who self-identify as Catholic continue to decline (down a further 2.7% on Census Day 2016 despite increases from immigration) and there is historically low Mass attendance, an ongoing shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, widespread amalgamation of parishes, and an increasing reliance of overseas-recruited priests.

The Australian bishops see the proposed national plenary council/synod in 2020 (the first in 83 years) as an adequate means of addressing the critical need for reform, some three years after the Royal Commission reports. That confidence is misplaced. Deferring necessary and known immediate needs for governance reform to 2020 is simply not responsible, and a plenary council without the informed views of the people of each and every diocese will be ill-informed.

Planning for the plenary council to date is excessively centralised, an approach inconsistent with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Francis, and which continues to deny accountability to the people of the Church and collegiality and subsidiarity in structure and process. The ACBC’s appointment of an executive committee (based on a confidential process of consultation) to prepare for the plenary council is helpful, but part of a top-down process; few bishops are consulting the grassroots of their own dioceses.

Diocesan synods have been an integral part of church governance since the time of the apostles. Amazingly, no plenary or provincial synods have been held in Australia since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) called for synods to “flourish with fresh vigour” and insisted that the laity have an active role in them; the Church’s canon law reinforces this need for synods. Some few bishops have at times convened less formal assemblies, an appropriate alternative to the more constrained canonical synod.

Proper planning for the plenary council demands preliminary consultation with the many Australian dioceses that experience the daily challenges of Christian life. Blessed John Henry Newman, the 19th-century’s most important English-speaking Catholic theologian said: “In order to know the tradition of the apostles we must have recourse to the faithful … Their voice then is the voice of tradition.”

This sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of faith of the faithful) is critical to the teaching of the Church. The Holy See has reinforced that teaching in the International Theological Commission report, ‘Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church’ (2014), referring to the Vatican II document on Revelation, which stated that : “The faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false”.

That instinct is particularly important at a time when the Church’s hierarchy has been found to have failed abysmally in the protection of children.

Australian bishops generally are reluctant to engage with the faithful. It may be, as inferred in a recent article in ‘Melbourne Catholic’ (Nov. 2017, published by the Archbishop of Melbourne), that the bishops have been affected by organisational trauma brought on by the shocking public revelation of institutional failure to protect children from clerical child sexual abuse. That article described the defining characteristics of organisational trauma as “patterns of dysfunction, despair and hopelessness”: “The organisation becomes isolated. There’s an over-reliance on internal relationships for safety and support and a suspicion towards outsiders.”

The article notes that “the emotional tenor of the community is affected” and observes that: “People need to be able to talk about their experiences, and what the crisis means for them and their faith in the institution”.

The preparation and planning for the 2020 plenary council lacks a shared commitment by the bishops to consult the faithful, particularly within their own dioceses and parishes. How can the voices of Catholics throughout the country inform the considerations of the plenary council if their own bishops do not listen to those voices?

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has described  the plenary council as:

“put(ting) into practice pastoral plans with the help of the people of God to prepare for the future. It also carries forward the call of Pope Francis for the Church to become truly synodal in its engagement with the whole Catholic community.” (Bolding added.)

The preparations for the plenary council do not meet this rhetoric. The processes in place do not ‘carry forward’ Pope Francis’ call for “engagement with the whole Catholic community”, which requires engagement by diocesan bishops with their people.

It seems that the plenary council may become no more than further “circling the wagons” and business as usual. Some bishops may be hoping that the prospect of a strongly marketed plenary council will be sufficient to silence the critics until 2020, by which time the impact of the Royal Commission might no longer be front-of-mind and compelling.

Archbishop Coleridge, appointed by his fellow bishops to guide the preparation for the 2020 plenary council, has made many insightful statements about the challenges facing the Church exposed by the Royal Commission. Coleridge has stated that the Plenary Council 2020 is a recognition that “we can no longer put up a sign saying Business as usual”, that there would have to be genuine and thorough responses to all that had come to light in the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, that he expected there would be consideration of other issues in the public gaze, and that he hoped the agenda will be generated by genuine consultation of the whole Church between now and 2020. These aspirations are not being realised and some reform cannot wait until 2020. It is time for the bishops to walk the talk.

Given the widespread lack of a commitment by bishops to establish structures and processes to consult within their own dioceses and parishes, the rhetoric regarding the plenary council is empty. Any genuine consultation of the whole Church must be driven by diocesan bishops, each of whom has individual and full responsibility for his diocese and is required by canon law to “show himself concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to his care” (Can. 383 §1).

It is the proper function of a diocesan bishop to ensure that the plenary council is informed by the views of his people; without that input, the 2020 plenary council will be ill-informed and contribute little to the necessary renewal of the Church. The plenary council may, however, succeed in kicking the failings of the Church down the road for a few years, to the further detriment of the Church.

Peter Johnstone is President of Catholics for Renewal, an organisation with many supporters who are committed Catholics determined to seek reform of the dysfunctional governance of the Catholic Church institution. He has qualifications in governance and theology, and appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a member of a Governance panel in the Commission’s wrap-up hearings on the Catholic Church in February 2017.


Peter Johnstone consults in good governance practices and is committed to renewal of the Catholic Church.

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8 Responses to PETER JOHNSTONE. An ill-informed plenary council for the Catholic Church.

  1. Avatar Rosemary Breen says:

    Peter, your article was timely and to the point. Some months ago I wrote to Archbishop Coleridge on behalf of a small but active parish group saying that we had heard nothing about the 2020 Synod in our parish even though our local bishop was said to be on the steering committee. We had understood that input from the laity would be encouraged but so far there was no indication of how this could be achieved. Certainly we have heard nothing in our parish! The months are passing and nothing seems to be happening on the local level – there has not even been an acknowledgment of my letter. It seems as if it is going to be a repeat of the Synod of the Family which we only heard about when it was too late to put in a submission.

  2. The problems Catholics for Renewal seek to address are of their own making and the greater acceptance they can acknowledge of that matter the more potent for change they will be.
    The problems are not scriptural nor theological despite evasive efforts to drag matters back into dogmatic distractions. The problems are those of abuse of power and the search for organizational structures and culture befitting a spiritual organization today.
    But the constant blaming of the hierarchy and the clergy is as irresponsible as it is pathetic, almost cowardly. This is the behavior of hostile dependency. Unless you still believe in the divine right of kings the hierarchy has no more power than that given them by the laity. The abuse of that power has sexual, administrative, bullying and superstitious expressions. And manys the time the laity covered up for them unethically.
    So now when the secular authorities of the land place the hierarchy in stocks in the public marketplace, belatedly the laity turn up and pitch a few cabbages of their own.
    I see this as a cowardly attempt at distancing themselves from the accused to whom they gave the power to abuse. Prior to this how many have so much as walked out of an insulting sermon? The laity could take a leadership role by apologizing to the clergy for their slavish donation of boundless and unaccountable authority.
    What organization would seek to reappoint managers who had brought the organization to its knees? Had they been competent and ethical the malaise would at least be less. So why now expect those failures in appointment, or wisdom or courage to be able to replace the bung in the sinking barque and get it back on course?
    Change is not going to come from the center, there are too many vested interests. The Pope knows that and needs help for reform. Why not take a dose of courage and sack current bishops and priests whose performance is below 40%? Why not give the Pope a list of people to appoint to manage the Australian church? Why not encourage those remaining to learn how to meditate from the tried and true traditions surrounding Australia?
    After Vatican ii the nuns realized they needed to study theology and scripture. Mostly they did it professionally. Why are the laity still so ignorantly fundamentalist?
    Seriously, the raw material for Catholics for Renewal will be found in humbly, responsibly and courageously inquiring into organizational theory and political science.

    • Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

      Michael, I’m somewhat perplexed at your analysis of the behaviour and motivations of Catholics for Renewal. Some of your comments are simply wrong and others seem strange, perhaps needing further exposition. I’ll respond to one which probably is sufficiently typical, i.e. “. . . when the secular authorities of the land place the hierarchy in stocks in the public marketplace, belatedly the laity turn up and pitch a few cabbages of their own.” Unlike your own apparent feelings, Catholics for Renewal is not interested in throwing cabbages at or otherwise condemning the bishops as a group, rather we have been on the record for some time saying that all the faithful must accept responsibility for the state of the Church, and that is what we are doing, while recognising that the bishops have authority which can delay or expedite reform. As for turning up “belatedly”, Catholics for Renewal drew the Royal Commission’s attention to the dysfunctional governance of the Church in the early stages of the Commission’s work after our representations had been dismissed by the hierarchy. We would share your observations about Pope Francis who however is of course not perfect and strangely shows some lack of understanding of clerical child sexual abuse and the importance of gender equity. We would agree that “organizational theory and political science” are central to the reform of the institutional Church and critical to the institution effectively representing the faith to which we are committed. We would certainly appreciate your support if you share that faith.

  3. Avatar John N Collins says:

    Well done once again, Peter. Yes, now is the time to protest the closed shop as we can only – it seems – sit back and wait for the 2020 conference to happen. If consultation does not open up now, any start after Easter 2018 will be too late. Is there any advice around, however, about how to start talking to people who seem not to want to listen?
    And do these non-clerical members of the executive committee have a brief to get out among us others and report our concerns and recommendations? Or, with their appointment. – need I ask? – did the blanket of enforced silence fall upon them (to ensure ‘confidentiality’)?
    Regarding agenda, do we not need to broaden our explicit concerns beyond the responses to the Royal Commission and lay representation in governance?
    To my mind an overarching requirement is for all matters to be considered within a new theological context, in particular within a new evaluation of what kind of ‘ministry’ we need to help us all become effective disciples.

    • Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

      John, I agree that the key question in achieving reform in the Church is: “how to start talking to people who seem not to want to listen?” This of course goes to the heart of the problem, viz. the dysfunctional governance of which the major facilitator is the curse of clericalism. The lack of accountability reinforces the clericalist notion that bishops don’t need to listen.

  4. Avatar Peter Ryan says:

    I endorse every ideal expressed in this article.

    The Church today lives in biblical times: The prophet, the Risen Christ, Sender of the Spirit, speaks through Francis, Bishop Rome, Peter Johnstone and others, for the glory of the Father; the chief priests and the pharisees can’t find their spiritual security in the Word of God: they need laws, laws and more laws; throughout the world they shout out to Francis: “Crucify him, Crucify him”, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”.

    Come Holy Spirit!

    The +Legalists want the People of God to be carted off to Rome as slaves of legalism, clericalism and triumphalism.

    The Church has replaced the Kingdom of God as the central concept of conservatives.

  5. Avatar Julian says:

    Peter I admire your persistence and that of other like-minded souls in your endeavors to have the Church answerable in some way to your legitimate aspirations. I wish you well but at the same time I am aware of the advice of an American acquaintance who believes that every so often it is necessary to “kick some butt”.

  6. Avatar Brian Coyne says:

    Fr Michael Kelly in La Croix International has an article also worth reading about the challenge facing Catholics in Australia: “Not just George Pell is on trial: It’s a story that would do the best Greek tragedians proud.” (See link below.)

    Graham English on catholica has draw attention to a new game being played by Church bureaucrats changing the name of “Religious Education”: See “Gilding the Lily” at the link below.

    I’ve written in response:

    What explains what is going on in society at the moment?

    Sandro Magister’s regular columns which clammer brings to our attention on catholica illustrate why things have “gone to pot” — and are never likely to be revived. Jesus said it all 2,000 years ago. Ya can’t argue with the Pharisees. Even the bishops — who are supposed to be the “chief teachers” in the Church — have fallen silent in the face of the pharisees. Even Pope Francis refuses to answer them as he’s worked out how futile it is.

    Religious Education teachers in Catholic schools are “between a rock and a hard place” today when it comes to trying to enthuse any young people about Catholicism. It is little wonder this game of “gilding the lily” has broken out and they’re “playing games” about changing the name of what they’re supposed to be doing. George Orwell wrote about that about 70 or 80 years ago in Animal Farm and 1984. Who are the “animals” “ruling the roost” in society today — political society and religious society? Various variants of the Pharisees, the modern day equivalent of the taliban in Islam, who know all the rules and laws with more confidence and certitude than anybody else on the planet — and even more than this One we label as “God” or “Allah”. Ya can’t argue with any of them. And ya can’t even have an intelligent conversation with any of them. It is I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E! They don’t read or listen to anything or anyone. They believe they “just know the truth” (about everything).

    I find it not surprising that even bishops, cardinals and even the pope have “given up” and “fallen silent” in the face of this small gaggle in society. The world is not only falling apart in the religious sphere, the news at the moment regularly conveys the political unrest across the first world: in the United States, Britain, Australia, Spain and many other countries we could name.

    What explains what is going on in society at the moment? I think the answer comes down to a single word, FEAR. A lot of people are scared. From this they search for symbols of certitude. That’s what feeds the rise of the Trumps, Abbotts, Hansons and similar in our world.

    While the insecure pharisee element in society would seem to be a minority, the evidence emerging is that they are a sizeable minority — somewhere between 10 and 30% of any population — but they have come to realise they are powerful enough to “shut everybody else down” and sway elections, and even the direction in which the oldest institution in the world thinks and acts.

    Does the world need another Saviour who will “speak up” and “stand up” against these people? We all know what happened to the last one who attempted to do that!

    Michael Kelly:
    Graham English:

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