Anticipating the Plenary Council 

By Michael McVeigh, 20 March 2021
A participant at the inaugural Diocese of Parramatta Forum. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


There’s great anticipation in the Catholic Church around the upcoming Plenary Council. Just what might we hope for from the gathering, after a long and involved consultation process?

The Catholic Church in Australia may be divided along many lines, but few would disagree that it’s facing a moment of crisis.

The Church is struggling for credibility and credence. The Royal Commission exposed its disastrous responses to abuse in its midst. Congregations continue to age while younger Catholics drift away from spaces they don’t feel welcome in. Fewer and fewer people listen to the Church even on issues around social justice and poverty, let alone on issues related to human sexuality and the dignity of life.

What can be done to address this situation? Many people’s hopes are on the upcoming Plenary Council. It was first scheduled to begin in October last year, following a long and broad process of consultation and discernment. Beginning in 2018, around 222,000 people have participated in the process so far, providing input as individuals and groups.

This process has set up a great deal of expectation around possible outcomes – and the anticipation has only increased since the commencement of the council was postponed. It’s due to start later this year, but the conversation around it has begun in earnest already.

Questions abound

Already there are questions about the make-up of the Council, with canon law restricting the number of lay participants, and as one consequence, the number of female voices in the room.

As yet there has been no response to proposals for a bicameral model – involving a ‘lower house’ with stronger lay participation and an ‘upper house’ in line with canonical restrictions – nor to calls for a woman to be appointed co-chair.

Meanwhile, individual bishops themselves have been mostly quiet about their own discernment and the sorts of reforms they want the Plenary Council to achieve. How much will they be informed by the voices of the rest of the Catholic population?

Many in the Catholic community fear that a disappointing outcome might further alienate those already drifting away from the faith.

Addressing issues

A taste of the issues that need to be addressed, and how discussions may proceed, came late last year.

The Royal Commission prompted a review of Church governance by the Church’s Implementation Advisory Group (IAG). ‘The Light from the Southern Cross’ was published in August last year, and the bishops published their own response to it in December.

The review put forward 86 recommendations, including the need to establish diocesan pastoral councils and parish councils were they are not currently in place, to publish annual diocesan reports to increase transparency, and to convene diocesan synods and assemblies to ensure more Catholics have a voice.

In their response to the report, the bishops acknowledged the need for more accountability, more transparency, more meaningful consultation and more participation at both diocesan and parish levels. However they also noted that in certain areas, their hands are tied by canon law, and that many of the recommendations may be better handled by a local bishop or province rather than the national level.

“Reforms of Church governance in Australia may have been too slow for some and too radical for others”, the bishops wrote. “In all cases, it must be organic evolution rather than political revolution, in continuity with all that is best in our Catholic faith and history rather than adopting a hermeneutic of radical discontinuity, and inspired by Catholic spirituality rather than the ideologies of the age.”

Evolution or revolution

Looking at the issues and proposals raised in discernment papers produced by the Plenary Council, one can see different categories emerging, much as with the governance report.

Many of the proposals don’t require a Plenary Council mandate to be realised – they can, and indeed many should, already be on the agenda in dioceses and grass-roots communities. These include things like placing greater priority on lay formation for ministry, and encouraging the participation of a more diverse range of people in aspects of Church life. Other proposals may engender some debate, but ultimately will be the responsibility of the broader Catholic Church to address.

In what ways, then, might the Catholic Church see evolution, if not revolution, from the Plenary Council process?

Governance is one aspect of Church life that can be addressed – including issues raised in the IAG report. One would expect to also see safeguarding – and related issues such as priestly and lay formation – high on the agenda.

Another topic for discussion might be how the Church can provide spaces to promote and encourage women’s participation in Church life, particularly following the closure of the Catholic Bishops Conference office that was focused on that area.

These things might allow new energy to be unleashed in the Church, but they’re not likely to solve the broader issues the Church faces. While many might be hoping for revolution, what’s more likely is the much slower process of evolution.

One thing the Plenary Council can do is to provide greater access to the conversations and discussions as they take place, modelling the inclusive Church that many are calling for. This would, at the very least, allow Catholics around the country to see that not only were they invited to participate at the outset, but their voices and concerns are very much alive in the discussions.

The saving power

In a letter to the New York Times last year, Pope Francis wrote about how the crisis of COVID-19 was also an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities. His words also apply to the Church facing its multiple crises here. Quoting German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin, he said, “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

“There’s always a way to escape destruction. Where humankind has to act is precisely there, in the threat itself; that’s where the door opens. This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.”

More than 250 delegates have been appointed to the Plenary Council. Add to them the 220,000 people who participated in the process and what you have is an enormous well of creativity, imagination and energy that can be harnessed in service of God’s mission.

Whatever else the delegates might bring to the discussions, we can only pray that they bring with them an openness to what the Holy Spirit might be calling for, and – in light of Pope Francis’ words – the hope and confidence that no matter the crises the Church faces today, there is also a way to escape destruction.

Michael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics.

Reproduced with permission from Australian Catholics, a publication of Jesuit Communications Australia.


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