Hayden Ramsay: What was not on the agenda

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Scenes from the Mass which was celebrated in the Byzantine Rite. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Scenes from the Mass which was celebrated in the Byzantine Rite. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

At last week’s Plenary Council there seemed to be two largely distinct groups and – when it came to debate and contributions – two sets of rules

I was a member of last week’s Plenary Council. I didn’t put pen to paper until I’d been to Sunday Mass at a parish far from the Council venue this morning.

The parish church that seats 700 or thereabouts had perhaps 100 for the main Sunday Mass today. The Gospel was the sublime parable of the Good Samaritan. There in a nutshell was the Plenary Council problem: increasing faith, affiliation and practice, and addressing the urgent needs of the poor, were never going to be the focus of this strangely introverted event.

The agenda represented the fairly uniform set of issues sought or argued over through the 30 years I’ve lived in Australia; a few Australia-specific items, but mostly the reform package that has coincided with — and possibly helped cause — the emptying of many Christian churches here and overseas.

“Plenary Councils exist for four reasons only: to help the bishops take steps to increase faith, practice, morality and discipline.”

A couple of brave souls spoke up for the homeless, addicted, prisoners etc., but this was ignored by those in charge of the room. The Archbishop of Sydney and one other spoke of the ‘invisible’ people at risk of abortion or euthanasia and others such as refugees, the trafficked and those with mental health issues but to no avail. It was as if the Assembly were completely cocooned from the pandemic, Ukraine war, economic and geopolitical crises, and collapse in religious belief and practice, that are our real context today.

Evangelising and serving the poor may be priorities for the Pope, but in the Church in Oz we focussed on who would now exercise power going forward.

According to Catholic tradition, law and theology, Plenary Councils exist for four reasons only: to help the bishops take steps to increase faith, practice, morality and discipline. But it was very hard to get up any interest in the question: Can you demonstrate that what you are proposing will increase faith or practice, or will make people more moral or contribute to better Church order? This question had been replaced with ‘discernment’ questions about how we felt and what we heard in the group.

A Plenary Member listens as proceedings unfold on the final day of the Plenary, 8 July 2022. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Don’t get me wrong: there are some really good things in the final document. Several speakers spoke passionately on youth ministry and, wonderfully, there was in the end agreement to add a point on youth and supporting youth ministers. There is also really good material on First Peoples, sacraments, ecology and various other matters.

Undoubtedly, too, other good things happened during the week. We were divided into table groups of about eight and my own table was a delight. The Deputy President of the Council and the daily chairs were highly skilful in their roles; the Secretary of the Council was an incomparable administrator. The many staff and volunteers gave of themselves 150 per cent and must be utterly exhausted. The Archdiocesan team, from decor to catering to cathedral, was magnificent.

Mass in the Ukrainian Rite was deeply moving, given events in the homeland. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders and other First Peoples who prayed with us and for us brought true Christian piety to the room with an authenticity they uniquely command in our land. The Archbishop’s Votive Mass of Our Lady brought a glimpse of the holy and a desperately-needed sense of peace for very tired people.

“The spiritual force was sometimes described as ‘The Holy Spirit’, later ‘the Spirit’, then ‘the spirit in the room’, and finally the spirit of the majority who agreed on a particular view. God is obviously cause of all, so who could deny His Holy Spirit was at work last week.”

After all this the final document will probably seem rather bland to outsiders and they may wonder what all the fuss was about. Most of the faithful will agree with all or most of it, some of it will probably be corrected by the Vatican, and some of it will likely be a dead letter. So why does it matter how we got there? Because the truth matters, and because we need to try from various perspectives to identify that truth. If we don’t, we might sleepwalk into the same mistakes again or worse.

What happens on the floor of any meeting in which so much is invested is often proxy for discussions happening elsewhere, including among those who have control over the event. As the week wore on and people’s confidence grew, facilitators and officials spoke of a spiritual force taking over the room and moving us towards a certain voting position. I appreciate many people present really believed this and I respect that. The spiritual force was sometimes described as ‘The Holy Spirit’, later ‘the Spirit’, then ‘the spirit in the room’, and finally the spirit of the majority who agreed on a particular view. God is obviously cause of all, so who could deny His Holy Spirit was at work last week …

Well, let me give you a glimpse, at least from the perspective of one plenary councillor, of how ‘the spirit in the room’ played out. Each day began with para-liturgies from the same spiritual tradition — what you might call Catholic school liturgy circa 1990. It included pictures and songs and table features like plates of earth and seeds. I think many loved these ‘experiences’. I went to a Scottish state school in the ‘70s and like prayer fairly straight, so I struggled to get what was going on more than those from Catholic schools or religious orders, or perhaps other more creative backgrounds. I certainly wasn’t bold enough to get up and express a contrary view on the topic of the day once the liturgy had helped set things on a particular course.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders brought true Christian piety to the room with an authenticity they uniquely command in our land. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders brought true Christian piety to the room with an authenticity they uniquely command in our land. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

A big feature of each day was an approach called ‘spiritual conversation’ that some associate with Ignatian spirituality. I asked around about this, especially the ‘feelings not thoughts’ bit, the discouragement of speeches, the various mechanisms directing us. It seemed the goal was to encourage certain views to be spoken and to mute others.
One effect of this approach, where you spiritualise everything, is that nothing can be critiqued. When we find that what we feel the spirit saying to us or hear the spirit saying to the group is at odds with other parts of the tradition (Scripture, doctrine, law) or plain fact, we can simply assert we are being spiritual. Accountability to canons of faith and reason or interaction with other perspectives doesn’t apply to us.

I appreciate the need for what people now call ‘a safe space’ if that promotes freer speech — to which I’m utterly committed. But I found myself asking, is this really how we now think through the most important questions facing Church and society in Australia? How on earth can we establish the truth in, for example, anthropology, so as to address questions of gender, if all we do is catalogue a few opinions, share feelings, avoid debate, and then vote?

I suppose what will be remembered as the big moment of the plenary council week will be Wednesday’s disruption protest. The bishops voted not to support the section on the equality of men and women. A group decided to stand together in a crowd along the members’ tables on one side of the room after the tea break. Some told me they joined spontaneously which I’m sure is true. It was intended to be intimidating, and for many in the room it was.

“What was clear was that some of those in control … didn’t want or expect the bishops’ vote and were now determined to reverse it.”

Later there came a speech ‘shaming’ the bishops, and accusing them of some sort of improper collusion and betrayal. The spiritual conversations had ended. Had someone ‘on the other side’ talked that way they would probably have been expelled from the assembly.

But the chair did not stop this ‘intervention’ and no apology to the members was ever forthcoming. What was clear was that some of those in control — and I’m not surmising about identities here: we all signed the Code of Conduct — didn’t want or expect the bishops’ vote and were now determined to reverse it. And it was not just that they thought the bishops should follow the consultative voters: they had already overruled a negative vote from the floor on the introductory section and this was clearly approved by the assembly’s powers that be.

The bishops held a crisis meeting, agreed voluntarily to surrender the option of voting placet iuxta modum (= yes but), and it was agreed that the section on women would be redrafted. In the end it was overwhelmingly approved by us. But how we got there was ugly.

Plenary members protest that the motion they wanted passed was not passed as they wanted. The protest will be remembered as a key moment of the Plenary Council week. But for some, the moment was also intimidating. Photo: Fiona Basile
Plenary members protest that the motion they wanted passed was not passed as they wanted. The protest will be remembered as a key moment of the Plenary Council week. But for some, the moment was also intimidating. Photo: Fiona Basile

In a sense, who cares? The final document was better. The bishops second time round calmly did as they were expected to do and the matter was closed, presumably with the protesters fairly satisfied. There was arguably some grace in all this. But on other matters last week many of us watched the bishops vote against what we believed, and none of us would have dreamed of staging a protest or speaking abusively of the bishops. We were, after all, supposed to be engaging with each other in the spirit of ‘synodality’, walking together and listening to each other respectfully ‘on the way’.

When people behave in such disrespectful, unsynodal ways we sometimes excuse it as passion — and, as I’ve said, the methodology of the event encouraged expressions of feelings over expressions of reason. But what I pondered in church this morning was the issue of power and passion and how they featured this week.

Many at the plenary council believed (passionately) that women were unequal in power. But what does this mean? I don’t believe they have less power than laymen — the powers that be at last week’s meeting would not entertain any mention of laymen even in a section on the equal dignity of women and men. Unordained men are probably the most invisible and voiceless group in the Church today, and this overlaps with social problems around male identity, roles and behaviour, and ecclesial problems including declining vocations to priesthood. But the very existence of laymen was barely evident at the plenary council. So talk of inequality between women and men must mean inequality between women and clergy.

“… Our process tried to exclude mind and so helped set us squabbling as passion and will dominated.”

The issue of women and the clergy can’t remotely be addressed without looking seriously at Scripture, Tradition, magisterium, social and theological anthropology, canon law and more on the question. And, despite the presence of periti (mostly chosen from one pole of the theological spectrum), the Plenary Council had been set up not to do that. So synodality, walking together with all people, past and present, and working it out together, didn’t happen. The past was dismissed, and great swathes of those who live in the present were excluded also.

The centre of human dignity is faith and reason, expressed through a body but as mind, the image of the invisible God. Our process tried to exclude mind and so helped set us squabbling in unseemly ways as passion and will dominated. But mind will always pop right back up because we can’t even express passion and will without it. So next time round, at the sixth plenary council — hopefully many decades from now — can we please have just a serious search for the truth using the best resources for a well-informed mind and a well-formed conscience?

The soprano at Mass this morning sang most beautifully Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. ‘For he has confirmed his mercy upon us, and his truth will stand for ever.’

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