Speaking to The Tablet [14th October 2017] Archbishop Mark Coleridge claimed that the Church in Australia “is facing the biggest crisis in its history”. This is partly occasioned by the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. One part of the Australian Bishops’ response has been to call a Plenary Council of all the Dioceses in Australia in 2020. But as Archbishop Coleridge said the Plenary Council is meant not only to review the findings of the Royal Commission but also “to undertake a broad review of the Church’s mission, including how to give more responsibility to lay people. One major criticism of the Australian Church has been of the institutionalised clericalism within its ranks. Another topic to be discussed at the plenary council is how to involve women in the running of the Church”.
The Royal Commission was a deeply humbling experience for the church because a large percentage of the allegations investigated by the Commission involved Catholic Institutions. Institutions supposedly run by disciples of Jesus who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Matt 19:14).
In their Final Report the Commissioners made 21 recommendations explicitly about the Catholic Church. Predictably, the media has focussed on the recommendations about voluntary celibacy and the seal of confession, but as Francis Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said in the National Catholic Reporter, “recommendations that deal with broader concerns around church governance and the mutual participation of women. If these recommendations are fully implemented, the ramifications will be far more significant than the suggestions around celibacy and the confessional.”
In Recommendation 16.7, the Commissioners propose, that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference “conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and participation of lay men and women”.
This is also a key goal of the Plenary Council 2020. To learn how to become a synodal church where mission, ministry, leadership and decision making are shared across the whole “faithful, people of God”. We need one another. No longer can one group be set apart and take all the responsibility. That is clearly the lesson of the Royal Commission. It is also theologically sound and the desire of many of the faithful.”
As Pope Francis claimed in his address on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the First Synod, “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).” We are to “journey together”.
In a letter to Cardinal Ouellet (the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America), Pope Francis said, “Let us trust in our People, in their memory and in their ‘sense of smell,’ let us trust that the Holy Spirit acts in and with our people and that this Spirit is not merely the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy.”
The first year of formal consultation and discernment for the Plenary Council will be launched by the Bishops on Pentecost Sunday this year. There will be opportunities for the faithful, including the disaffected and marginalised, to contribute in formal diocesan and parish consultations, but also in less formal gatherings of the interested, of agencies, of school communities, of the poor and marginalised and through the website, social media and surveys.
We are facing, “the biggest crisis in our history”, a crisis clearly spelt out for us by the Royal Commission in Recommendation 16.7. The Plenary Council 2020 can provide the process with Pope Francis providing the theology, the inspiration and the example for serious reform of the church in Australia.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He is also a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and has recently been appointed by the Australian Bishops to the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.