Philippa Martyr: Unpacking the Plenary’s working document

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Syrian Catholics gather at St Mary’s Cathedral. The diversity of the Church in Australia is one of its strengths. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Syrian Catholics gather at St Mary’s Cathedral. The diversity of the Church in Australia is one of its strengths. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

I’d like to review the Instrumentum Laboris starting with section I, which is called ‘The Story So Far’.

The story so far is not a cheerful one, opening with an admission that “many Catholics, for a variety of reasons, did not engage directly with the Listening and Dialogue and Listening and Discernment process” (5).

I heard from some of these people, who told me they’d been involved in processes like this before. Their consensus? The conclusions are already written by the people who always make the decisions. Church leadership needs to address this major breach of trust if we are to move forward.

The Instrumentum reminds us that “that the People of God, together, have a deep instinct for the truth (the sensus fidei) which protects us, as a community of faith, from falling into fundamental error in matters of belief” (9).

This is of course true. But the Plenary Council process has laid bare a truly dismal ignorance of basic Church teaching, leading to divisions that drill down to parish level. The sensus fidei can’t operate in a vacuum like this.

We’re told that we’ve just had a major historical sexual abuse crisis (33) – but there’s been lots of authority-sharing with the laity in recent decades (34). Unfortunately, this confirms that putting the laity in charge of things didn’t stop or expose clergy sexual abuse.

I absolutely cheered at the section on ‘Cultural Diversity’, which for the first time in ages highlighted a genuine source of Catholic diversity: our different liturgical rites, ordinariates and eparchies. I didn’t cheer at the section on Catholic schools, which I think is disingenuous (41).

“The document speaks very honestly of the absolute poverty of knowledge and belief at grassroots level in the Church in Australia (48). “

The next cheer came at the suggestion of a review of diocesan boundaries (46), which I’ve been asking for. However, I don’t think that restoring the Third Rite of Reconciliation indicates “a desire for a renewed sacramental life” (47). There were documented rampant abuses of the Third Rite, and it’s currently being pushed by people who barely acknowledge the other sacraments.

The document speaks very honestly of the absolute poverty of knowledge and belief at grassroots level in the Church in Australia (48). It notes that Catholic agencies risk being run simply as not-for-profits, rather than “genuine agencies of mission” (49). And it proclaims vividly the miseries endured by demoralised and exhausted clergy (50-51).

There’s a reminder that Church teaching excludes women from the ordained ministry (55) and an honest admission that young people don’t go to Mass because their parents also don’t go to Mass (57).

And – wonder of wonders – a frank admission that we’ve largely failed to accept Church teaching on marriage, sexuality, and the family. Finding new ways to communicate and model this positive and life-affirming teaching is a matter of urgency (59) – and not just because we’ve stopped having children.

So Section I is a pretty good summary of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Do you want to know how the Instrumentum thinks we can climb out? You’ll have to stay tuned till next week.

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