National Plenary Council Discernment Reports.

The purpose of the Discernment reports is, seemingly, to inform the development of an agenda for the formal sessions of the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church. The documents are important in determining the success or otherwise of the PC. However, the six papers fail to bring together a coherent picture of the real issues confronting the Australian church and provide little confidence that an incisive and meaningful agenda will emerge.

The papers acknowledge the very strong desire of Australian Catholics for major reform of the church, but either through timidity or intent, fail to translate or marshal those reform ideas into initiatives and frameworks that the Plenary Council could consider. They bring forward a collection of ideas that could be categorised as ‘slightly different business as usual’.

They lack the courage to break open key issues to enable honest consideration of meaningful reform ideas. They lack imagination, relevance, urgency and cohesion.

The only positive exception is a strong recognition and support for governance reforms, summarised by calls for transparency and accountability and appropriate support frameworks. The report, The Light from the Southern Cross should reinforce this momentum and provide a vehicle to drive these reforms.

In other major reform areas, the papers are less than supportive and unlikely to facilitate a meaningful agenda that would ensure relevant discussion and productive outcomes. They fail significantly in relation to women, clericalism, opening of priesthood to married men and women and seminary reform. In some cases, there are blatant attempts to park issues to the side.

On other cultural related issues, such as a humble church which manifests a servant leadership approach, there is scant evidence of interest to seriously address these topics.


The Papers reveal a failure to imagine a church that is faithful to its origins and relevant to its time and place. The People can but the bishops cannot. It seems this is the stage of the PC process where the nuggets of real value offered by the People are ground down and milled out of the process. A meaningful agenda is unlikely to result.

Reform advocates need to consider how best to respond to this situation. In overall terms we need to call-out the bishops on this process, highlight the contrast with the rich lode of thinking offered by the People and alert the broader Catholic community to the risks of what is obvious manipulation and a rejection, in bad faith, of the earnest expectations of the People.

Their report was presented at a ZOOM conference of Catholic Reform groups on 18 June 2020


Terry Fewtrell is a long-time resident of Canberra and long-term Catholic. Terry led the consultation process initiated by C0ncerned Ccatholics of Canberra Goulburn and was lead author of its submission to the Plenary Council. He has written various articles and opinion pieces on church reform and other topics for the Canberra Times and other journals. His book, George, Elise and a mandarin – Identity in early Australia, was shortlisted and highly commended in the 2018 ACT Literary Awards

Andrew Phelan AM was the Chief Executive & Principal Registrar of the High Court of Australia from 2007 until 2018. From 1986 he held a number of senior government law enforcement, legal, international and general management positions. Andrew served as a Councillor, and remains a member, of the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration. He was the Secretary of the Council of Chief Justices of Australia and NZ from 2007 until 2018. Andrew has degrees in Arts, Laws and Business and was admitted as a solicitor in 1978. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders.

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