Will Catholics get what they want from the Plenary Council?

Oct 6, 2021
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Will the bishops take their leadership role seriously? We cannot go on with business as usual.

On the eve of the Plenary Council, an event that has not occurred in the Catholic Church since 1937. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference told the ABC’s Andrew West that the most important topic for the council’s deliberations is “mission”.

The “mission” of the Catholic church is to bring Christ’s gospel message of love and justice to the world now. In the 21st century this mission calls for an inclusive and welcoming church, a church that is humble and fit for purpose, one that engages past, present and future generations who yearn for an inclusive, relevant practice of faith.

In the interview Coleridge also noted that women’s participation and place will be absolutely fundamental and central to discernment in the council’s deliberations. This is what we would expect as women’s participation and equality was the key issue expressed that emerged out of the 17,500 submissions to the Plenary Council from the Catholic community, though it hardly gets a mention in the agenda.

Women make up 60 per cent of churchgoers and hold a similar percentage of leadership positions in Catholic education, health and welfare institutions.

But they are excluded from the decision-making on doctrine and teaching that impact dramatically on their relationships and lives. Examples are reproductive health, birth control, sexuality, divorced and remarried relationships and marriage equality, to mention a few. Women want action now.

Catholic Plenary awakens hope despite women’s fading trust in the hierarchy

Importantly the third issue Coleridge raised was the shedding of “monarchical power” by bishops, though he made a distinction between monarchical power and episcopal power. He noted that the issue of sharing power is a sensitive one with some bishops.

However, sharing power is central to both full equality and the synodality that Pope Francis is calling our bishops to adopt as the basis for the future church. Full equality will require changes to existing canon law which informs our governance structures.

When the Plenary Council was announced I saw it as an avenue to progress the much-needed reform for full equality in the Catholic church which I, along with many Catholic women and men, including sisters and priests, have been pursuing for years nationally and internationally.

However, the process of the council to date, as many have already said, has not been heartening. The voting process itself gives little hope. A process in which the votes that count (the deliberative votes) are those of the 45 bishops, all men, with the remainder of the 280 attendees granted only a consultative vote.

Coleridge in his interview said this may have to change, but he also emphasised that he was hoping and confident that the discernment process would ensure the consultative vote would influence the deliberative voters. I have to say that will not be enough!

I have great faith in discernment and the Holy Spirit. Effective marriages and partnerships work through discernment, but all involved would say such discernment can’t go on forever. There is a time to act and the laity, LGBTIQUI+ and women in particular would say that the time is now for full equality and synodality.

One of the promising aspects of the Plenary Council process is that it is set in a spiritual context of listening and discernment that calls the Holy Spirit to be present. Many Catholics believe that discernment and the Holy Spirit graced the election of Pope Francis in 2013. Many of us were in Rome at that time and did all in our power in the media and on our knees for the election of the kind of pope our church needed.

But the Plenary Council has now been in discernment mode for few years and runs the risk of sounding like Greta Thunberg, “It’s all just blah, blah, blah” unless we have commitment by the end of this week to equality and synodality, which will be converted into concrete actions and progressed between now and the July 2022 Plenary Council meeting in which the bishops’ deliberative votes are taken.

Pope Francis’ call for synodality requires our bishops to listen and discern and for us as the Catholic community to recognise the power of our baptism and accept co-responsibility to live and spread the gospel message.

The other positive in the Plenary Council process is that there are many excellent lay women and men and very experienced religious women and priests, attending as delegates. Also, Coleridge himself is known as a man of scholarship and influence who is held in high regard in Rome, a man who, has acknowledged his own personal growth in recent years and recognises the need for the radical reform Pope Francis signals.

The Plenary Council is an opportunity for him not only to ensure reform in Australia, but also to lead the kind of reform that is critical for the universal Catholic church as it confronts clericalism, inequality, poverty, the environmental crisis, the refugee crisis, racism and peace in our world.

Coleridge has a clear understanding of the challenges the PC will have to discern and act on. He is well equipped for his leadership task. It will take, as Sr Joan Chittister has said uncommon courage, patience and skill, but we expect him and the other bishops as our leaders to use their episcopal power and to work with the Holy Spirit for the future of our Catholic church.

The renewal movement, made-up of faith-filled, committed and skilled laity have already demonstrated ability to mobilise, sacrificing time and money, informing and explaining the complexities of the PC to the Catholic community.

And we are here to work in partnership with the bishops even if it means taking our concerns to Rome. We cannot go on with business as usual; we agree with Coleridge, the time is now.

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