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Without change Church’s mission is at risk, Plenary reformers say

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‘This Plenary Council is not about the Bishops, it’s about us.’ – Francis Sullivan, former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

The Catholic Church’s clerical leadership, norms of governance, language and tradition have been raised as areas of potential reform at a significant post-Plenary convocation.

The third convocation of the “Future of Catholicism in Australia” series, held on 18 November, was organised by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (ACCCR) to reflect on the first session of the Plenary Council.

Nine speakers offered assessments ranging in tone from constructive proposals and expressions of hope, to out-and-out opprobrium about the “institutional church”.

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The discussion across the evening focused predominantly on participants’ frustrations that the first Plenary session did not facilitate thorough and concrete proposals for church governance reform which they see as necessary.

This reform was viewed as necessary by participants because the Church’s traditional structures were seen as an impediment to its mission.

Former Royal Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald said that during his tenure at the child abuse Royal Commission “it became clearer to me that perhaps the church, the institutional church, was now at a serious point of actually failing or impeding the ability of people to come to God”.

He described the Plenary process as a struggle against fear, “the great disenabler in life”, which he attributed to a “bloc” of conservatives acting “from an ideological position, who wish to resist change”.

The Plenary risked becoming a squandered opportunity and the Church a “laggard” if reform was not grasped, Fitzgerald added.

A similar view was put by Francis Sullivan, Chair of Catholic Social Services Australia and former CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

“We were supposed to be a deep listening Church. This Plenary Council is not about the Bishops, it’s about us,” Sullivan said.

“And yet on the very first morning we have two Archbishops – one from Sydney, one from Hobart – who make interventions almost drawing a line in the sand about what we should be talking about and what we shouldn’t be.”

The Light From the Southern Cross Report

Speakers also agreed that, regarding reform of the Church’s structures, the first Plenary session started “too far behind” because it did not examine existing proposals and documents in a concrete way.

The May 2020 Light From The Southern Cross report, commissioned by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia, was singled out as the document that ought to have been considered more concretely at the Plenary’s first session.

That report recommended a range of wide-reaching reforms to Church structures including more rigorous involvement of lay people in the selection of Bishops and placement of parish priests.

“It would be a shame if, in reinventing the wheel, we took years to come to an endpoint which we could do within a year, within six months, within the second assembly.”

The Light From the Southern Cross also recommended greater women’s involvement in church governance, with women “especially” promoted as judges on ecclesiastical tribunals and as having a “critical role” in the selection and formation of seminarians.

The report also called for publication of discussions and decisions around Ad Limina visits, quinquennial reports and the operations of the ACBC, alongside a slate of other proposals to increase transparency and lay power in the church.

“Let’s work through those [proposals] in a strategic way, making sure we have a fit for purpose second assembly so that, as well as walking together in a synodal way, we will end up with some concrete outcomes,” said Emeritus Professor John Warhurst.

“It would be a shame if, in reinventing the wheel, we took years to come to an endpoint which we could do within a year, within six months, within the second assembly.”

Warhurst warned against pigeon-holing The Light From the Southern Cross as a “government’s report”, instead saying it was the practical expression of theological synodality.

“Once you start to get practical, there are some [empty] shells within the church that can be filled up with co-responsibility and synodality,” he said.

Adjunct Professor Susan Pascoe, a member of the Commission on Methodology for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, remarked that “If you look at that report what you’ll see is a real attempt to translate ecclesial norms and civil norms and show there is a high degree of congruency between the two”.

The ACBC, in its response to The Light From the Southern Cross, said the report “reflects serious concerns, provides important insights and makes significant recommendations that will underpin reforms in Church practice in the years ahead”.

It also acknowledged “other important sources for renewal of Church governance in accord with our particular nature and character as the Catholic Church” including the Holy Scriptures, Tradition and canon law.

“Catholics believe that there are certain “givens” about the Church – such as its hierarchical structure – that are of divine origin and not simply the work of the present generation,” the ACBC’s response stated.

The Church must become inclusive to fulfil its mission

However, participants at the convocation broadly agreed that the Church needed to be more accountable to secular society both in terms of governance and culture.

An increase in “inclusivity” would be the major sign that the church was fulfilling its mission in contemporary society.

This was particularly the case for women, divorced Catholics and LGBT “rainbow people”.

Eleanor Flynn, founder of Women’s Wisdom in the Church, said the “institutional church has disconnected from us … They’re not really interested at all in women, they’re frightened, they don’t know what to do, so they’re just back-pedalling.”

She called on Catholics to emulate the women-led Bristol Synod, also called the “Root and Branch” Synod, by starting “DIY synods” to discuss and advocate for religious reform on issues like women deacons.

Melbourne Catholic writer Dr Nimmi Candappa said single women suffered from being a “forgotten” vocation in the Church.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth, who is also President of the Plenary, concelebrates the official Opening Mass of the Plenary Council. Photo: Jamie O’Brien

“We pray for priests, we pray for families – but nobody prays for us. It’s also a tough vocation,” she said. “I struggle a little bit as well because I see it as a male place … I think we suffer from not including women.”

Views on liberalising church structures were mirrored by similar views on Church culture, with many speakers saying that major changes were necessary to restore the Church’s credibility in the eyes of the broader Australian community.

Declining rates of attendance at liturgical services prompted speakers to call for a redefinition of Catholic identity.

All concurred that Mass-going was not the only, or even the most important part, of being Catholic.

ABC journalist and convocation host Ellen Fanning proposed “maybe moving to a model of Christian service as a key identifying element of what it means to be Catholic”, which elicited agreement from panelists.

“Now if some of us will go along on Sunday to celebrate that [mission] in a liturgical celebration, that’s fine. But we’re a tiny minority of all the people who are actually living it,” said Kevin Liston, from South Australian Catholics for an Evolving Church.

Claire Victory, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and Virginia Bourke, Pro-Chancellor designate, Australian Catholic University, said working or volunteering for Catholic agencies is the core experience of faith for many Catholics who may not regularly attend Mass.

“We pray for priests, we pray for families – but nobody prays for Single women.”

“For a lot of people, the agency, the organisation in which they’re involved, the Catholic school community they’re part of – that is Church to them, and that is the truest and most authentic expression and reality of their Catholic faith,” Victory said.

“I think we [Catholic agencies] need to really reclaim and be proud of our Catholic identity and of being the Church to so many people.

“This is being Catholic, this is being Church, this is where so many people find Church because they don’t feel welcome in the pews on a Sunday … Catholic agencies need to proudly proclaim we are Church. We are Church to so many people.”

Bourke agreed, saying it was true of those “at board and management level as well”.

“In the ministries I’m a part of we consider ourselves very much a part of the church.”

The Convocation anticipates an ACCCR “lay-led synodal process” in May next year in preparation for the second session of the Plenary Council.

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