How will the Second Assembly succeed?

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP preaches during the Mass to mark the end of the Plenary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP preaches during the Mass to mark the end of the Plenary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Although the first assembly of the Plenary Council is well and truly in the rear-view mirror, this week saw the conclusion of an important bridging stage between the two assemblies.

Arguably the most important period of the entire Council now begins.

During January four writing groups, convened by members of the central drafting committee, attempted to “distil” down the material from the First Assembly Proposals from Small Groups and Individual Members documents, also called the Fruits of the First Assembly.

The aim was for each of the four groups to draft propositions to be voted on at the second assembly, as well as compose some theological background statements and possibilities for “further work” after the close of the Council.

Take, for instance, the work of Writing Group B, whose focus was ministry and servant leadership. Its four topics were Leadership, Structures, Seminaries and Vocations.

“The second assembly will have 16 topic headings to consider during its 4-9 July sitting days. Bishop Bird anticipates each topic will be dealt with in only a few hours.”

Underneath each of these four topics a staggering amount of material from the first assembly is gathered. For instance, Vocations includes, among other items, the possibility of a “ministry of preaching” to allow lay people to preach at Mass, the ordination of married men to the priesthood and the ordination of women to the diaconate.

Under Structures the group considered the technical, big-ticket items of church governance, synodality and the redistribution of resources from larger, wealthier urban dioceses.

Each of these subjects could be the topic of a Plenary Council of its own, but instead will be boiled down to one or two propositions to be put to a vote at the second assembly.

The writing groups’ work has just concluded, and the central drafting committee now takes over. Committee chair Bishop Paul Bird CSSR of Ballarat spoke with The Catholic Weekly about how this “distillation” – his preferred term – is taking place.

The second assembly will have 16 topic headings to consider during its 4-9 July sitting days. Bishop Bird anticipates each topics, with its corresponding propositions put to the assembly for voting, will be dealt with in only a few hours. The writing groups and drafting committee have to work with this limitation in mind.

The Plenary Council will be an historic and decisive moment for the Church in Australia. Photo: CNS, Giovanni Portelli

“I don’t see there will be even time for extensive discussion,” he said. “You might have one session in the morning, and that’s when we look at that topic. That’s pretty much the time limit that we have to address that, if we are to address the other 15 topics.

“It’s a big challenge for us all! That’s the task, in a way, we’ve set ourselves.”

The process from here, Bishop Bird said, is to “try to put [the propositions] in a form and then, in the coming months I think, I’m expecting there will be a further distilling—when we have comments from the steering committee, and the broader members of the church community, and the members of the council themselves”.

No doubt the drafting and steering committees have their work cut out for them. But three challenges in particular stand out. First, the material from the first assembly is split into group reports and individual proposals, and it’s not quite clear how these are to be weighed against each other.

The group reports are the products of open-ended spiritual conversations. They are wide-ranging, more progressive and in some cases read like meeting minutes or wish-lists.

“Bishop Bird said the drafting process was not trying to capture, necessarily, the majority view, but rather sought to formulate proposals that would get “general consensus” at the second assembly.”

The individual proposals tend to be more actionable, more specific, conservative, and capture the desire of a section of delegates to reinvigorate or reinforce traditional practices.

Which are to be given more prominence? Individuals, or groups?

Furthermore, when incompatible positions on individual issues arise – such as positions for and against a controversial issue like women’s ordination to the diaconate – how does “distillation” work to reconcile them? Bishop Bird said the drafting process was not trying to capture, necessarily, the majority view, but rather sought to formulate proposals that would get “general consensus” at the second assembly.

“Our task is to try to anticipate, finding words we believe will be expressing what, so far, we sense the Plenary Council wishes to say,” he said.

“Somehow or other I believe we need to get the sounding of the mind of the Council … There’s not much point in putting forward proposals that don’t have much widespread support.”

However, of the 78 propositions from the First Assembly “distilled” down to 16 or so by the writing process, Bishop Bird said “we really don’t know what has a lot of support and what maybe only a couple of people support”.

This means the time left before the second assembly must involve, variously, judging which issues matter to the delegates, predicting which formulations are likely to succeed and redrafting the propositions and other material accordingly.

An immense amount of responsibility for discerning (if not explicitly shaping) the mind of the Council, balancing competing positions and building support for the final propositions lies in the hands of the drafting committee, Plenary steering committee and expert advisors – notwithstanding public invitations for comment on the proposed texts.

The second major challenge: without time to discuss, unpack and debate the propositions on the floor of the second assembly, delegates will need extensive preparation, formation and a clear set of expectations about how much can actually be achieved.

The risk that high hopes come crashing down in July is very real. The small group proposals, in particular, suggest a desire for Church reform far broader and further-reaching than can be encompassed in 16 propositions considered over four or five working days.

“Some issues that cannot be definitively decided by vote might be referred on to specialists after the Council for further research.”

“That’s why it’s important that as much work is done beforehand, so people are certainly familiar with it,” Bishop Bird said.

Some issues that cannot be definitively decided by vote might be referred on to specialists after the Council for further research, he added.

It could also be the case that certain propositions, such as the call for regular diocesan pastoral councils, could be “a specific way of meeting a general desire for more engagement of more people in governance”.

The third challenge concerns the Plenary’s theological method and how the Catholic Church in Australia understands the Holy Father’s emphasis on “synodality”.

The Plenary was, after all, Australia’s response to Pope Francis’ call for a more synodal church.

Plenary Council 2020 Logo. Image: Supplied
Plenary Council 2020 Logo. Image: Supplied

The propositions from the first assembly have been “distilled” by the writing groups, and now pass up the chain to the drafting committee. They will soon go to the steering committee, which has the final say on the texts, according to Bishop Bird.

However, despite being responsible for finalising the propositions, it is not the steering committee that then “puts” them to the Council to be voted on.

Instead, Bishop Bird said, “A text under each heading will be put to the Council. If you will, it’s the Council putting it to itself.”

The Council discerns the mind of the Church, puts motions to itself, and then votes on them; this approach is completely consistent with the Plenary’s methodology of “communal discernment”, which has preferred “deep listening” over debate.

The risk is that by the time propositions reach the second assembly, the sheer weight of discernment may well mean there is no good theological justification for a delegate to vote non placet – no thanks.

“However, despite being responsible for finalising the propositions, it is not the steering committee that then “puts” them to the Council to be voted on.”

Put a different way: the propositions are the Council putting, to itself, what it believes is the will of the Holy Spirit acting through the accumulated efforts of the last few years.

The propositions represent something more than simple positions delegates might reasonably agree or disagree on.

So wouldn’t non placet indicate that a delegate did not just disagree with the proposition as drafted, but also with the process of discernment that led to it?

Keeping this in mind, how the Council manages discord at the second assembly and afterwards ought to be watched closely, especially as an indication about how a more synodal Church may do the same.

After all, the ultimate metric for the success of the Plenary will be whether the Church grows in its understanding of synodality—such that we can move beyond the buzzwords.

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