We can’t be frightened of having different opinions

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A candle symbolising the Plenary Council stands in St Mary’s Cathedral as Archbishop Anthony Fisher and clergy process out of the cathedral following the commissioning ceremony. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
A candle symbolising the Plenary Council stands in St Mary’s Cathedral as Archbishop Anthony Fisher and clergy process out of the cathedral following the commissioning ceremony. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia begins this Sunday, 3 October.

Over the past three weeks, The Catholic Weekly has been speaking to Plenary Council members regarding their hopes for the first assembly.

This week, we speak to another two members on their hopes for the Plenary Council.

PROFESSOR HAYDEN RAMSAY,
MEMBER FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF SYDNEY

Older folk often complain about the collapse of social standards. Usually, this is really my collapse which I’d rather attribute to society.

Occasionally, however, things do take a real turn for the worse. Five years ago it was almost impossible to have a respectful public disagreement about a serious issue; today, it is impossible or at least very dangerous.

Speaking against the reigning power group will harm yourself. When I was a boy, the power group was upper-class and wealthy; today it is professional-class and ideological.

Although we cannot safely disagree in our society, we can in our Church. The Church is a true home for respectful disagreement.

This is precisely why we have clear authority structures to teach definitively on serious matters (‘doctrine and morals’) from revelation (‘Scripture and Tradition’). Authority isn’t there to stifle disagreement: it’s there so that when disputants are unclear on a very serious matter, they know where to turn for the answer.

That’s why the current Plenary Council can work. There must and will be disagreement; all views should be fully and respectfully aired and explored.

Professor Hayden Ramsay Sydney Plenary Delegate Photo by Giovanni Portelli
Professor Hayden Ramsay, Sydney Plenary Member. Photo by Giovanni Portelli

No silencing out of fear of professional elites and ideologues here. And when we need an answer on one of those serious matters, we know where to turn. The bishops cannot ignore their role in this, even if they wanted to.

But if the bishops cannot gainsay their role, neither can the rest of us. That role requires prayer, research, reflection, debate and, yes, disagreement.

I’ve attended a number of sessions in preparation for the Council. Some have been really useful; others have (un)subtly attempted to portray disagreement as a sort of disloyalty to the process, a spiritual affront against fellow interlocutors, even a lack of trust in God and the Holy Spirit. We can’t let anyone pull ecclesial debate and disagreement back into the dangerous model of ‘no disagreement allowed’ that ideologues in our society embrace.

Why has this happened? I think some of the preliminary material has implied it’s not a Plenary Council of the Catholic Church as canon law explains this but a sort of social forum that will utilise majority voting to decide questions of Church politics and structures. It isn’t of course, and it can’t.

And I think it’s a great pity this impression hasn’t been corrected—no one is helped by believing we’re heading into an anything-goes forum. They will simply be frustrated.

What can we do about this? Of course Church councils must be places where disagreement is voiced. The methodology should clearly allow people to speak fully and in deep conscience; and particularly to speak against the dominant voice of any power group.

“I think some of the preliminary material has implied it’s … a sort of social forum that will utilise majority voting to decide questions of Church politics and structures. It isn’t of course, and it can’t.”

Respectful disagreement should be identified as necessary and normal. But we should also be helped to see that our Council’s competence is to contribute towards pastoral responses for a renewal of faith throughout the Church and then society.

Too much self-reflection by Catholics on questions of Church structures and politics will appear introverted; head in the sand at a time in which faith and the life of faith is said to be declining rapidly in Australia.

The causes of decline in faith are vastly complicated and try as you might, you cannot reverse these by continuing the focus on Church structures and politics, even if these are important questions to discuss. Everywhere that has happened decline continues.

The most powerful comments I heard in the prep sessions for this Council came from a school teacher and a dedicated pastoral associate from opposite sides of the nation.

They could not have been further from a power-group mentality and for a short time I prayed, please God, help us all to follow their deep faith and their blazing desire to reconvert this land.

Courteous debate with space for disagreement may bring us yet to the will of God for Australia, as these gifted lay-workers in the Church powerfully conveyed to me.

Monica Doumit
Monica Doumit at the March for Life in Washington DC. PHOTO: Gelina Montierro

MONICA DOUMIT,
MEMBER FOR THE MARONITE EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA AND OCEANIA

This Plenary Council comes at a crucial time for the Church in Australia. While we won’t know the results of the most recent Australian Census for some time, if recent trends continue, we can expect two things: those who profess ‘no religion’ will remain the largest ‘religious’ group in Australia and those who profess a Christian faith will slip below 50 per cent of the population for the first time since the National Census began.

With this diminishing Christian culture in the broader Australian society, many people will not hear the Gospel proclaimed unless they hear it from us. We proclaim Christ with the witness of our lives, but also within our parish communities, schools, universities, hospitals, aged care facilities and welfare organisations.

However, there are many forces that seek to undermine or diminish the Catholic identity of our institutions. Some of these are external to the Church, such as those seeking to amend laws in a way that will make it difficult to maintain the Catholic ethos of our institutions.

“We can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church.”

Some of these forces come from within our institutions, from those who believe we make ourselves more attractive to the world by retreating from – rather than embracing – our Catholic identity.

As much as I understand this view, I don’t agree with it.

In the first Mass he celebrated as Pope, Pope Francis said that “we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church.”

My great hope is that the Plenary Council is to find practical ways to affirm and increase the Catholic ‘culture’ and identity of our parishes and our institutions because Australian society does not need more compassionate NGOs, it needs Christ.

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