Priorities for the Plenary Council agenda
The Catholic Church in Australia is currently in a huge existential crisis. It is drifting, ‘off mission’, and no longer a credible sign of the Kingdom of God. The evidence, beyond the shame of sexual abuse, is powerful: Mass attendance below 12 per cent across the nation, an ever diminishing use of the sacraments, an unhealthy reliance on priests from churches outside Australia, a continuing lack of transparency and accountability in governance, and discrimination against women.
As preparations for the Plenary Council proceed and the bishops prepare to set the Council agenda, Catholics for Renewal believes it is appropriate to ask the question: What should the agenda priorities be?
In May 2018 Council organisers invited Australia’s Catholics – and others – to reflect on and respond to the question: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia today? The primary purpose of the Listening and Dialogue phase was “to listen to the voice of God speaking through the voices of the people, in order to gain a ‘sense of the faith‘(sensus fidei)“ of Christ’s faithful in this nation.
Australian adult Catholics are among the best educated and informed in the world. Over 20 per cent have tertiary degrees, including many in theology. Their inquiring minds as well as their love and concern for their Church led over 200,000, from every diocese in Australia, to respond to the question. In 12,758 individual and 4,699 group submissions they raised 119 issues they believed important for the Plenary Council to address. Those issues provide the best contemporary evidence and insight into what Australia’s Catholics believe (sensus fidei) and think about their church and its role in making the Kingdom of God a reality.
Themes for Discernment
In the next Listening and Discernment phase of the preparatory process, the 119 identified issues led to 6 National Themes for Discernment. Writing and Discernment groups are using these to prepare working documents to guide the formulation of the Council agenda.
Until recently, however, there was no indication as to which of the 119 issues were the ‘most prominent’ and ‘most widely discussed’. This changed with the March 2020 publication of 28 Diocesan Reports containing the hitherto unpublished texts of submissions from each diocese and more detailed analysis by the National Centre for Pastoral Research.
In new research on these, Catholics for Renewal President, Dr Peter Wilkinson, has found a clear hierarchy of issues in the submissions and identified those which were the ‘most widely discussed’ by respondents within and across dioceses. The top ten are:
1 – Greater inclusion for all (discussed in 28 dioceses)
2 – Greater involvement of the laity (in 27 dioceses)
3 – Remaining faithful to Church teaching (in 26 dioceses)
4 – Greater role for women (in 26 dioceses)
5 – Ending compulsory celibacy and allowing priests to marry (in 26 dioceses)
6 – Ordination of women (in 26 dioceses)
7 – Care of neighbour (in 25 dioceses)
8 – Greater trust, faith and hope in God (in 24 dioceses)
9 – Greater focus on Jesus Christ (24 dioceses)
10 – Better faith formation (in 24 dioceses).
The # 1 issue‘most widely discussed’ within and across all 28 dioceses was ‘Greater inclusion for all’, which, for respondents, meant greater inclusion for persons of all sexual preferences and genders, for marginalized persons, refugees, migrants, disabled persons, and poor persons, as well as a rethinking of church attitudes to relationships (e.g. same-sex) and moral issues (e.g. contraception, premarital sex, divorce). The other nine are self-explanatory.
Pope Francis has reminded us that “in all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work” and that “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith (sensus fidei) which helps them to discern what is truly of God” (EG, n. 119).
Catholics for Renewal calls on the bishops to set an agenda which is fully open to debating the priority issues raised by Christ’s faithful. We also urge the bishops to ensure that the Council agenda is set by the Church in Australia, not Rome. It must first read the ‘signs of the times’ in this nation, but not ignore the global signs.
We call on the bishops to set an agenda which looks outwards (ad extra) with a missionary focus, as well as inwards (ad intra) by implementing structural and pastoral reforms. The internal reforms will be paramount if the Church is to once again become a credible sign of God’s Kingdom.
Of course, the Council must have clear pastoral objectives - increasing faith, and providing clear moral guidance, unified church discipline, and coordinated pastoral action – and achieved through a synodal process. It is a graced opportunity for personal holiness to find common ground with institutional accountability and responsibility, and structural integrity.
Above all, the Council will be a ‘sacred’ gathering where all the particular churches, in full communion, open their hearts and minds to the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). This will call for all Christ’s faithful in Australia to embrace a new openness to cultural and spiritual transformation, to undertake a radical conversion (metanoia), with repentance for past sins, a change of heart and a change of life (Mark 1:1-8; Ezekiel 18:30-31).
Women and ministry in the Church
The profound misogyny in the Catholic Church, embedded in both its culture and practice, is a sexual scandal of another kind. It is a main reason for an underlying despair among many of Christ’s faithful and the cause of widespread and declining participation.
The ‘specialness’ and ‘feminine genius’ often emphasized by popes (EG, 103-104), while appearing as an acknowledgement, can, in fact, be a strategy to differentiate women as ‘other’. There can be no doubt that women within the Catholic Church are not fully acknowledged for who they are, and even diminished: when they speak they are not listened to, and when they act their work is considered merely ancillary to the great projects of the ordained. Catholic women may serve, but they only lead to the degree permitted by the male hierarchy.
An examination of the top ten issues raised by some 200,000 Catholic respondents to the question What do you think God is asking of us in Australia today? (see Editorial above) shows that 5 of the top 6 issues relate to women, and 3 directly call for women to have a greater role in church ministry and governance. Christ’s faithful in Australia have expressed an emphatic view that the way female members of the Catholic Church have been and continue to be regarded and treated is misogynistic. Men alone determine the nature and doctrine of the Church.
A clear ‘sign of the times’ which the
Council must address is the chasm that has opened up between the
expectations of many lay men and women and the mindset of the Church’s clerical
leaders on ‘Women and Ministry’. We
refer readers to our Summary document on Women and Ministry
Catholics for Renewal calls on all those called as participants to the Plenary Council to courageously challenge the ‘business as usual’ mindset on women and ministry, with its fixed restrictions, limitations, and structures, and dare to launch out (Duc in altum) into the ecclesial deep.
Image: From the cover of Getting Back on Mission, He Qi's painting 'After Resurrection' depicts women who were first to see and be empowered by Jesus at Easter dawn.