The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia - a turning point?
Sixty years ago, on 11 October 1962, Pope John XXIII opened Vatican Council II calling for a re-examination of the Church’s original
sources (resourcement) and a new vision with which to engage the modern
Three years later the vision was unveiled. It called for a more synodal and listening church, with shared and co-responsible governance, and a full recognition of its missionary nature. The Council saw an evolving - not static - humanity facing new problems and needing new analysis and synthesis which a servant Church constantly reading the ‘signs of the times’ could offer from its Gospel origins.
For 50 years, however, the vision remained largely dormant. Bishops
baulked at embracing it, and Australia’s bishops were exemplary: procrastinating,
finding excuses, putting up barriers, and generally preferring ‘business as
usual’. Since 1965 of the 128 bishops who have governed Australia’s 28 dioceses,
only 6 convened a diocesan synod and just 46 established a diocesan pastoral
council. Co-responsible governance,
especially involving women, was off the agenda, and listening to the faithful -
considered dream stuff.
When the Royal Commission exposed the bishops’ cover-up of child
sexual abuse and simultaneously shone a light on their resistance to the Vatican
II vision, they finally decided to convene a plenary council, the first in 80
During the preparatory stage of the Council over 200,000 Australian Catholics in 17,500 submissions voiced their hopes and concerns and prioritised their issues (cf. Table below).
Following 2 General Assemblies - the first online on 3-10 October 2021 and the second in Sydney on 3-9 July 2022 - 10 Decrees were enacted. The question is: did they match the hopes and concerns of the Australian faithful?
Concerns and Decrees
Australian Catholics had not prioritised an apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or a commitment to working with them towards recognition, reconciliation and justice. The Council did and endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart. (Decree 1).
Surprisingly, Australian Catholics had not prioritised an apology to the victims of sexual abuse or a search for healing. The Council committed to a just and compassionate response and the development of new rituals (Decree 2). Unfortunately, the Assembly’s Ritual of Lament was not shared publicly.
Australian Catholics placed ‘greater inclusion for all’ as their highest priority. The Council did plead for solidarity, welcoming and compassion for those hurt and marginalised, especially First Peoples, women, refugees, divorced and remarried persons, and LGBTIQ+ persons. It also called for ecumenical and inter-faith outreach. But practical decisions were dispersed to dioceses and national church bodies (Decree 3).
Australian Catholics were desperate for the Council to address the inequality of women and men in the Church, and it became the most contentious issue at the Sydney Assembly. It was resolved with commitments to giving women decision-making roles in church bodies, to publicly recognise and value their contribution, and to overcome assumptions, culture, practices and language that lead to inequality. Practical decisions were, however, dispersed to the dioceses. The Council also recommended that bishops give women the diaconal ministry should Rome authorise the female diaconate (Decree 4).
Australian Catholics placed significant emphasis on prayer, the Eucharist and other sacraments, the liturgy of the Word, and faith formation through catechesis. They also wanted an end to compulsory celibacy and permission for priests to marry. Restoring the 3rd Rite of Penance was not a high priority. The Council reaffirmed the pre-eminence of liturgical worship, the family as the primary faith formator of children, the need for parish communities to be involved in the initiation and faith formation of adult catechumens, and renewed catechesis on marriage. The Council dispersed practical actions to the local dioceses and a review of lay preaching and better catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance to the ACBC. It said nothing on celibacy and married priests (Decree 5).
Leadership and formation, especially of clergy, was a major concern of Australian Catholics. They wanted better leadership from bishops and priests, an end to clericalism, and stronger parish communities. The Council dispersed the task of finding practical solutions to the diocesan bishops and to two national working groups yet to be established (Decree 6).
Reform of church governance, especially with greater lay participation, had a very high priority for the Australian faithful. The Council affirmed the need for synodal reform, legislated for parish pastoral councils and a national Synodal Life Roundtable, but did not mandate diocesan pastoral councils or diocesan synods. Local synods will have much to decide (Decree 7).
Australian Catholics prioritised integral ecology and action
of climate change. The Council strongly endorsed their concern, but dispersed
the practical decisions to the dioceses, parishes and educational institutions
Decree 9 is to ensure the effectiveness and accountability of the Council’s Decrees with interim reports in 2023 and 2025 and a final report in 2027. Decree 10 will recycle a small number of still useful laws of the 1937 4th Plenary Council through the proposed diocesan synods.
After almost 60 years of unwillingness by Australia’s bishops to fully embrace the vision of Vatican II, Catholics for Renewal believes that the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia marks a turning point on the journey to renewal.
The Council did consider most of the concerns and hopes voiced by Australian
Catholics, though not all. It also mirrored many of their priorities, though
not always in the same order.
Though the Council had the authority to make national laws
for the pastoral needs of the Australian faithful (c. 445), in accord with the
‘principle of subsidiarity’ it chose to disperse most of the legislative decisions to the local
dioceses and eparchies, to certain Bishops Commissions and to some national
bodies yet to be established.
Key to the implementation of the Council’s Decrees are local diocesan synods which the bishops have committed to convening within 5 years of the close of the Council
While the Holy See is yet to approve the Council’s decrees, Catholics for Renewal would urge every diocesan bishop in Australia not to delay, but to immediately begin planning for these synods. As Pope Francis insists, ‘synod and church are synonymous’ and synodality is the very nature of the Church.
The Fifth Plenary Council has given the Church in Australia a credible roadmap to renewal. Diocesan bishops must now give their local faithful full co-responsible participation in how the journey follows.
Table: Top 20 ‘most prominent’ or ‘most widely discussed’ issues in 17,500 submissions:
within and across Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses - HERE
Image: Holy Spirit, Jessie Kohn, Austria, Creative Commons license.