Plenary Council progress without transparency or inclusion for lay Catholics 

Feb 21, 2021

Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn last August challenged the President of the forthcoming Fifth Plenary Council of Australia (PC), Archbishop Tim Costelloe of Perth, to avoid a breach of faith with the Australian Catholic community. It called on him to open the process of formulating the Instrumentum Laboris, the PC working document, to public scrutiny prior to its completion. 

This gesture towards transparency did not eventuate despite several requests to Archbishop Costelloe, notably also from the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR), representing 19 reform groups.  The moment has passed. Last August he announced that the process would include consideration by the Australian bishops followed by reference to the Vatican. The working document has now been completed and was sent to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican last week. It will be sent to delegates and revealed to the public before the end of the month. The final step has been taken before the PC Assembly in October.

The working document is among the issues to be discussed on March 5 when Andrea Dean and Peter Johnstone, co-conveners of ACCCR, will meet with Archbishop Costelloe, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the President of the Bishops Conference, and Lana Turvey-Collins from the PC Facilitation Team.

This long-awaited meeting, at the initiative of ACCCR, is a further constructive and pleasing engagement between the bishops and the church reform movement. The ACCCR agenda set out for the bishops draws on long-standing reform issues, such as the proposal that a woman PC delegate committed to renewal be appointed as co-chair or deputy-chair, and the request that all diocesan bishops urgently establish diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods or assemblies with gender balanced membership as essential preparation for the Plenary Council.

The agenda also draws on newer issues which have arisen since last August. These emerging issues include the disappointingly cautious response by the bishops to the governance reforms outlined in The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia, the independent report which they had requested following the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Last December the official response to the report from the bishops failed to back the key recommendation for mandatory Diocesan Pastoral Councils, designating such participatory mechanisms as a voluntary option only and leaving it to diocesan bishops rather than taking a national stand. Only a quarter of regular Australian dioceses, and none of the major archdioceses, have such pastoral councils despite them being a default requirement in Canon Law and essential to a synodal church.

Further progress with the PC itself has been the issuing of the Statutes and Regulatory Norms, which were sent to delegates late last year without any prior consultation. The document makes no mention of Canon 127 which precludes bishops in deliberative voting (restricted to bishops alone) from acting contrary to a consultative vote without what is in their judgement ‘an over-riding reason’. Further explanation of the implications of these statutes and norms for the consultative vote and free and open discussion must await the orientation and training for delegates which will take place in June-July this year.

It has also been decided that instead of a face-to-face PC Assembly in Adelaide in October the first assembly will be a mixed-mode event, combining Zoom sessions with delegates meeting face-to-face only on a diocesan or provincial level. This decision was taken because of uncertainty surrounding travel within Australia and accommodation requirements in any central venue. Further details as to how this will work in practice are awaited, but reasonable fears for any reform impetus emerging from the much-touted event are inevitable.

Lay Catholics remain seriously under-represented in the official forum. To encourage greater lay involvement in discussions of the future of the church in Australia, the business of the Plenary Council, ACCCR, on behalf of the reform movement, will hold a series of three national convocations this year, in May, August and November. The first will be addressed by Sister Joan Chittister, the American Benedictine nun renowned for her vision of the future of Catholicism. She was notoriously precluded by the Archbishop of Melbourne from addressing a national conference of Catholic educators in Melbourne.

The purpose of these convocations is not to be obstructive but co-responsible with the official church. Andrea Dean, also President of Women and the Australian Church, has said that regardless of past rebuffs, “the Coalition is committed to working alongside the bishops in respectful but assertive ways”.

As the days of reckoning approach pressure continues to grow on the Australian bishops to conduct the Plenary Council in open, inclusive and progressive ways, hearing the voices of lay Catholics and recognising their lived experience in modern-day Australia. Reasonable doubts persist within the renewal movement that this will be the case. If not a precious opportunity will have been lost and the future of the church in Australia will have been compromised.

Professor John Warhurst is Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a Plenary Council delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn.

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