TERRY FEWTRELL Plenary Council – Faith and Hope in Abundance

Catholics are growing restless with their bishops. A Plenary Council process is underway to review the state of the church in Australia. But Catholics are increasingly wary, amid fears attempts are being made to stifle calls for reform from ordinary Catholics.

This comes as Catholics realise, they have been empowered by Pope Francis to be ‘active and assertive’ in church affairs. The pontiff made this very clear in his Letter to the People of God in August 2018, in which he urged ordinary Catholics to speak up and help him reform the church. Curiously, Australian Catholics find themselves empowered by the Pope and at risk of being marginalised by their bishops.

More than 17,000 submissions were made by Catholic groups and individuals to the Plenary Council. Groups of Catholics urging significant reform have been active around the country in making submissions and advocating that only bold thinking can save the church. The submission from Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn is but one example. It calls for action to achieve a church that is transparent, accountable, non-clericalist, inclusive and humble. The Royal Commission made clear recommendations for the first three attributes, and Pope Francis is a strong advocate for the latter three.

Mysteriously all submissions to the Plenary Council have been kept secret, unless disclosed by their authors. Catholics have been assured they have all been read and, in some form, will feed into the next stage of the process, described as ‘communal discernment’. This involves the production of various position papers that are likely to shape the formal proceedings scheduled for October 2020.

Catholics were assured that the groups tasked with writing the position papers will consider “the big questions…raised by the faithful”. But it now appears that this part of the process is being stacked and certain topics are not for discussion. Applications were invited for positions on the writing-groups. Few members of the reform groups were selected. Feedback from the selection process indicated that they were seemingly rated low on the criterion of participating productively in a communal discernment process.

Those selected are largely church employees, ‘known quantities’, and sadly open to the perception that they can be leaned on and intimidated. It seems also that the intimidation is coming from the over-representation of bishops and archbishops on the writing panels. So, a process that we were assured would be open and truly collaborative, is in fact becoming controlled and emasculated by the bishops. An amazing situation when one considers that the bishops already have the numbers in the Plenary Council, by virtue of canon law.

It says much about the inability of the bishops to engage collaboratively and how they instinctively revert to operating in the only way they have learned. For an exercise that must have the removal of clericalism in its sights, this display of brutal clericalism, if not thuggery, is an inauspicious start. It is a measure of the problem, that the bishops don’t seem to realise the impact of what they are doing.

At this stage the overall balance sheet for the Plenary Council has several clear deficits. These are in transparency, fair lay representation and procedural fairness. Given what is happening with the writing groups it seems likely there will also be deficits of courage and innovation. Balancing that, however, the Plenary Council is the best chance for real reform in the Australian church.

While many still practicing Catholics will tell you that they expect little to come of the Plenary Council, those in the reform groups will continue to participate in the process. They continue to have real hope. It is a hope tempered by a faith in the Holy Spirit (how can a church that has become so self-absorbed and strayed so far from gospel values, not be open to serious change?); Pope Francis – who is urging his bishops to face realities and be brave; and the fact that Australian Catholics are awakening. They are becoming organised, active, assertive and they will be persistent

Many times, in recent years, I have said to my wife, Christine, that I wish I could just forget about the Catholic Church. But I can’t. It is a strange and bothersome thing. I have thought at times of The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson’s poem that the Christian Brothers introduced me to about 60 years ago. But in fact, it is not Thompson’s Hound of Heaven that pursues me – it is the Kelpie of Christ. I say that as it is an image with far more resonance to us, the long suffering faithful, of the Australian church. For years we have watched, not as bystanders but part of the active faithful, as our church has become lost in its trappings and its compulsive desire to create little gods on this earth, rather than give authentic expression to the power of the Incarnation in this world and in our land. We in fact have been Christ’s kelpies of the faith in this land. We have been loyal to the gospel and the teachings of Christ.

As Australian Catholics we also carry a special responsibility. The forensic report of the Royal Commission was effectively a statement of requirements for the church in its operations and participation in Australian society. It is a statement made on behalf of the Australian community. We, as Catholics and Australians, have dual responsibilities, to ensure those reforms of transparency, accountability and the removal of clericalism are achieved. We should also recognise that we have 24 million allies, our fellow Australians, who would support those objectives. If needed, we will round up that support, like good kelpies would.

To achieve a church-saving outcome from the Plenary Council will mean there must be robust debate. There will be struggle. Catholics have watched and witnessed as the church has lost virtually three generations – largely all its own work. All this means those urging reform will persist. They are determined to call out hypocrisy, manipulative behaviour, dishonesty, inertia, fudging, dissembling and delay. They will insist on accountability from leaders and a church that always manifests gospel values. They are determined to do this in the steps leading to the Adelaide 2020 sessions and both in, and parallel with, the proceedings of that forum. The issues won’t go away – neither will the advocates of reform. Their faith has sustained them thus far and they have hope in similar abundance.

It is the bishops who are likely to find themselves in a strange place – outflanked by their own flock and Pope Francis.

This is an edited version of a speech by Terry Fewtrell to a meeting of Concerned Catholics Wagga Wagga Diocese last week. Terry Fewtrell is a long-time resident of Canberra and long-term Catholic. Terry led the consultation process initiated by CCCG 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.

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8 Responses to TERRY FEWTRELL Plenary Council – Faith and Hope in Abundance

  1. There was a packed lecture hall at ACU in Melbourne recently for the Wally Silvester memorial lecture given by Archbishop Peter Comonsoli who presented an erudite lecture of his view of Plenary framed by selective references to John Henry Newman rather than the inspiration of a man who defied fascism and nazism refusing to execute survivors after ships were sunk by his U Boat. He was sent on a suicide mission for his bravery but thankfully survived. It was an opportunity to continue the promise of open communication and free debate promised by Mark Coleridge in his Knox Lecture but instead you left feeling like you dealt with by an all knowing headmaster rather than a fellow journey taker in seeking faith. The avoidance of directly answering questions at the end of the evening only added to skepticism along with the second round plenary process of limiting discussion to contribute to discernment groups. It seemed like a management process to tick the boxes rather than engage in genuine debate to fix problems. We seem headed for a schism similar to the split in the Anglican communion between Sydney and all other dioceses which could be avoided. But giving up power and prestige seems too much for some of our bishops compared to their boss who has to achieve the goal Jesus set for us.

  2. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    With respect, seriously, you (Catholics) cannot be empowered by the Pope to be active and assertive in Church affairs. That’s not power; it’s permission.
    It’s advertising.
    On that topic (advertising) see anthropologists the late Drs Catherne & Ronald Berndt. Or ask any feminist of the past century : if you wait to be empowered you’ll die in the attempt – you’ve gotta pick up your brolly and target a few windows.

  3. Michael Furtado says:

    Impacting on Australian Synodal outcomes are various groups, particularly in the United States and such as Church Militant, whose broadcasts are beamed into global living rooms at all hours of the day and night, especially on U-Tube. It mustn’t escape our attention that such groups have lined up forward-thinking Bishops (not many of whom are identified as Australian) as targets in their relentless attack against reform and the re-instatement of a pre-Vatican II Catholicism that, in particular, excoriates homosexuals, privileges canon law over pastoral theology, and preaches hellfire and damnation over God’s unconditional love for all. It should also not escape attention that such groups accuse progressive Bishops of hiding child-abusers, accumulating billions from communist-sourced slush-funds with a conspiracy theory-based agenda to destroy Catholicism from within. Nutty though this is, what it does is to position Catholic Bishops as moderate and wise referees in a political free-for-all in which Left Wing Progressivists and Right Wing Fundamentalists – the latter still waging war against a non-existent communism with the help of the Fatima Revelations – are at each others’ throats. The danger here is to lump all Bishops and Clergy together in the same anti-reformist/clericalist camp. Reformist Catholics should choose our targets with care, remembering that strategic and specific criticism is much more serviceable and necessary than pursuing a policy of making the Bishops the sole focus of an ill-spent, overgeneralised and random policy of anti-clerical target practice.

  4. John Graham says:

    Congratulations Terry on such a thoughtful and perceptive paper. I cannot help but the think of the old ALP belief that ‘the mob will sort you out’. The mob are sorting the bishops out and many are found so wanting, lacking good theology, a commitment to the to the pastoral lives of the faithful. A grassroots momentum is starting and it contains the only hope for Catholicism in Australia. A great paper. . There are green shoots and we need to keep watering them.

  5. terry Fewtrell says:

    Stephen, We don’t know the specific topics of the papers, just that they will relate to each of the six themes. If you go to the website spelt out below, you will be able to look at each of the themes and included for each is the membership of the writing group that has been selected.
    Thanks for your comments.

    https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/themes/about-the-themes/

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    A robust and passionate advocate such as Terry Fewtrell simply must be a part of the official process – reading submissions, writing position papers – and able to report back to the general church bodies/members hoping for all the reforms he has listed here. If not then the church deserves to fail, to wither, to die!

  7. Stephen Anning Jordan says:

    Terry, any chance you could list the position papers to be written based on the submissions? Likewise, can you offer any information on the identity of the people thought to be on these groups tasked with the writing? Obviously you will probably have little first hand info, a bit more second hand info; however, to those of us not across these matters, that will be much better than nothing.

    Thanks for your efforts to date.

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