Catholics for Renewal


Editorial February 2021

Synodality – the inclusive element

Synodality was the way the nascent church governed itself: local communities overseen by groups of elders, some 120 ‘brothers’ choosing Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot[1], and apostles and elders gathered in council at Jerusalem deciding whether baptised Gentiles need be circumcised.  In the early centuries, synods and councils ensured inclusive church governance.

However, synodal governance was made more difficult when in 313 CE Emperor Constantine conferred on the Church the status of an institution of the Empire, and synodality was virtually suppressed by the centralisation of power in the Popes by Vatican I (1869-70) in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-99). Historian, Paul Collins reminds us, 'it is only since the early nineteenth century that all the usual limitations on papal power in the Church have been eliminated or disappeared'.[2]


Vatican II sought to restore synodality by calling for ‘the venerable institution of synods and councils to flourish with new vigour’ (Christus Dominus, 36), and insisted that laypersons fully participate in them with voting rights, breaking with the previous millennium where the laity was totally excluded - an exclusive form of governance, based purely on ordination. 

Vatican II also stated that ‘it is highly desirable that in each diocese a pastoral council be established to investigate and weigh matters which bear on pastoral activity, and to formulate practical conclusions’ (Christus Dominus, 27).  Canon law states that ‘in each diocese, in so far as pastoral circumstances suggest, a pastoral council is to be established’ (c. 511).

With these calls for synodality, Australian Catholics might have expected their bishops to welcome the opportunity for more participatory and co-responsible governance. But, since Vatican II, both calls have been largely ignored: only 7 of over 100 Australian diocesan bishops have convened a diocesan synod, the first plenary council in 84 years is yet to open,[3] and at 1 January 2021 only 7 diocesan pastoral councils existed in 28 territorial dioceses.[4]

The Royal Commission identified two characteristics of Australia’s bishops: a determination to retain as much as possible of what they perceive as their divinely derived ‘monarchical power’, and a resolve to draw a firm line on how much co-responsible governance they are prepared to share with Christ’s faithful.

Diocesan pastoral councils and diocesan synods are models of synodality. In 2013 Pope Francis affirmed that for the Church to function most effectively, synodality must be embedded throughout its governance structures, and that “a bishop cannot guide a diocese without pastoral councils.”  Two weeks ago he told the Italian bishops that Vatican II “is the magisterium of the Church. If you don't follow the Council or you interpret it in your own away, as you desire, you do not stand with the Church. The Council must not be negotiated.”[5]  He virtually insisted they initiate a plenary council process.

For many of Australia’s bishops ‘synodality’ appears to be a far too inclusive model of governance which they are determined to resist and push against. This is most evident in the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s (ACBC) response to Recommendation 50 of The Light from the Southern Cross (LSC), the report of the governance review recommended by the Royal Commission.


The Recommendation calls for ‘... the Plenary Council ... to make particular law requiring each diocese to have a diocesan pastoral council, or close equivalent, established and facilitated with reference to their local context and circumstances’ (Rec. 50), and further recommends that these councils have a diverse membership of lay faithful (Recs. 51-52).  The ACBC has rejected Recommendation 50, saying it is only prepared to offer a ‘reference group to study the theological foundations and role of diocesan pastoral councils, to identify what may be learned from existing or past diocesan pastoral councils, and to set forth a vision for the contribution of the pastoral council to planning the life and mission of the diocese’.  The push-back went even further, suggesting that it might be better left to post-Plenary diocesan synods to determine the value or need for diocesan pastoral councils.[6]

This resistance comes from a deeply ingrained ‘clericalist’ mind-set, the sort Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, referred to when he said that many bishops have rationalised the view that “the councils were more hindrance than help, that laypeople simply don’t understand the complexities of diocesan and parish governance”. It is a circular argument, of course: “people are excluded because they don’t understand and don’t understand because they are excluded”. [7] 

Catholics for Renewal sees this push-back against the synodality implicit in diocesan pastoral councils as yet another attempt to continue with ‘business as usual’ and not to accept Vatican II’s magisterium. It derives from the same Church leadership mind-set that has been the cause of too many past failures. If the Plenary Council is to bring true reform and renewal to the Church in Australia, it has to insert synodality into every aspect of church governance as part of a new inclusion of the faithful.

Image 1: Inclusion - Wikiversity. Each person counts. Each forms part of the whole.

Image 2: Synodal and Inclusive. Synod on Young People, 2018

[1]  The term ‘brothers’ means Christians, usually the laity as distinct from apostles and elders  (Jerusalem Bible).

[2]  Collins, Paul, Papal Power, HarperCollins Religious, Melbourne, Vic., 1997, p. 10

[3]  During the 56 years since Vatican II there have been over 100 diocesan bishops in Australia who could have convened a diocesan council. The synods were: Broken Bay (2011-2012), Brisbane (2003), Bunbury (2019), Cairns (2002-2015), Canberra & Goulburn (1989, 2004), and Maitland-Newcastle (1992-1993).  The last plenary council was in 1937.

[4]  The council in Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese was established in late-2020.  Five dioceses have new bishops. It is possible that 2 new councils will be established in 2021.

[6]  ACBC, Response of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to The Light from the Southern Cross: Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia, December 2020, p.17