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The lacunas of the Plenary

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Members water plants placed on tables by organisers in a symbolic gesture at the Plenary Council in Sydney in July. Photo: GIOVANNI PORTELLI

Contrary to a lot of commentary – some in this paper – there was a lot of good stuff which came out of the Plenary Council.

My hat goes off to the delegates for the decrees on deepening our relationship with and understanding of our indigenous brothers and sisters, on sexual abuse (where we can never do too much), on ecology (how do we love God without an attentive love of his creation?), and proposing a serious program of education of our young people, in the light of the Gospel, to counteract the evidently dysfunctional anthropology that currently abounds – just look at the stats – on marriage and family.

This is not to say that there weren’t some big problems either. A surprising absence amongst the actual decrees is that there is almost no explicit statement on the whole point of the Church: facilitating people’s personal encounter with, and their total gift of self to, Jesus Christ.

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One thing is for sure : changing all kinds of things without having as the fundamental goal of helping people give themselves totally to Christ and his teaching will attract few and haemorrhage many – as the last 50 years have dramatically illustrated, and our censuses continue to do: “for without me, you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5)

Another lacuna was a failure to look at our vast and costly Church bureaucracies: why do we have them again? Bureaucracy is not of itself bad: the Church needs not only the Pauline dimension – ground-up initiatives breathed into life by the Holy Spirit – but also the Petrine dimension – the apostolic hierarchy instituted by Jesus, and the complex bureaucracy which, in a fallen world, tends to necessarily have to some extent support that hierarchy.

But Pope Francis has had a lot to say, and has been doing a lot about, reforming Church bureaucracy. What is surprising for a Council following the Holy Father is that not only was the question of our Catholic bureaucracies not addressed, there was no examination of how fruitful or otherwise they have been in helping people give themselves totally to Christ, nor were any measures there put forward against which the value of their work can be measured.

Instead, the key principal change the Council proposed to the way we do things was the addition of (is it 16?) new quangos on top of what is already there. So, not so much reform (changing the bureaucracies) but rather more of the same – adding many additional layers of bureaucracy. All of this raises serious questions.

A third pity is that after the expense (for a council about transparency, it’s surprising the cost remains hidden) the Council really struggled to connect with the basic and fundamental concerns of our people.

The encouragement of the participation of women in Church life and direction … and of the deployment of their gifts in Church life are essential for a fruitful and full Church life for all of us.”

Faced with the radical disappearance of young people – especially young men – from Church life, crises in identity, security, well-being and a sense of a meaning of life, the ugly and empty destructiveness of atheism, a ravaging pandemic of alcohol/drug/sex/porn/gambling/screen addictions and the systemisation of the putting to death of young children and older folk, on what hill did the delegates choose to have a fight? Shifting around the deckchairs of power seemed to be the answer.

What made this doubly unfortunate is how the cause of women in the Church was pushed back by the protesters. The encouragement of the participation of women in Church life and direction (approximately 77 per cent of current Church employees) and of the deployment of their gifts in Church life are essential for a fruitful and full Church life for all of us. The fact that, for example, I as a priest can have a pastoral supervisor who is a woman is a valuable help to me as a pastor of souls.

It is regrettable that at the Council the cause of women was advanced by means of emotional reaction, shaming (to applause), protest, and (according to some reports) the implied threat of a walkout, instead of fraternal communion, respect of others, due process and reasoned discussion because it raised serious questions about the credibility of some of the proposed elements of the project.

Hopefully in future such a case can be established and advanced on the grounds of sound argument, based in scripture and tradition, on the non-negotiable bedrock of cooperative fraternal love.

Related:

Catholic Women’s Network aims at strengthening women in faith together

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