Plenary Council Motions: no match for the Church’s crisis
At Pentecost 2018, just months after the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had exposed the gross failings of the Catholic Church in this nation, Australia’s bishops launched the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia to address the Church’s huge and existential crisis: identify the underlying problems, propose solutions, and provide hope for new life.
Four years on, at Pentecost 2022, after a lengthy process of prayer, discernment, listening to the sensus fidei of Christ’s faithful, a General Assembly in October 2021, and 8 months of further discernment, a set of 30 Motions has been presented to the almost 280 Council Members from Australia’s 36 dioceses, eparchies, and ordinariates, as the proposed solutions to the crisis. The Members will meet at Sydney in July for the Second General Assembly and vote to accept them, amended or unamended. From the accepted Motions will come the Council decrees which, if approved by Rome, will be the new laws for the Church throughout Australia.
Catholics for Renewal believes that the Motions are too tentative in their definition of the crisis, too timid in what they propose as solutions and, despite our confidence in the Spirit, offer insufficient hope for the needed renewal. They are no match for the Church’s crisis.
Our first concern is the timidity of the Motions on the role of women in the Church. This is the priority ecclesial issue of the 21st century with baptismal equality the theological basis. Throughout the whole Council process the call for all positions in the Church – in governance, mission, and ministry – to be open to women has been at the forefront. All positions should be expanded within a concept of ministry fit for our times, together with formation, funding, recognition, and official commissioning. And while we commend openness to what might emerge from Pope Francis’ commission examining the ordination of women as deacons (FfM, 54, d, e), we want Council Members to read the signs of our times on this question, not the signs of past times. Since the dramatic evolution of women's rights in secular society is an undeniable sign of the Spirit working in our world, it would be sinful to resist that evolution within the Church itself. Women already carry the majority share of pastoral ministry, so any resistance to their rights will have the most far-reaching consequences for resolving the Church's crisis. Ironically, the Framework's timidity on the role of women is paralleled by its silence on celibacy for Latin Rite priests.
Our second concern, related to the inclusion of women, is the far too timid Motions on governance. Clericalism cannot be seriously addressed if the participation of lay men and women in governance structures is optional. To merely support the establishment of diocesan and parish pastoral councils (FfM, 44, e) is unacceptable. They must be mandated for real reform. Unless diocesan annual reports are also mandated, there will be scant transparency and accountability.
Our third concern is the Framework’s failure to acknowledge clerical sexual abuse as a systemic problem. The Royal Commission attributed the abuse to ‘clericalism’. The Framework assigns blame to individual categories of people. The apology for the criminal acts of church personnel rings very hollow when church authorities are congratulated on the – highly flawed – measures so far taken to address the abuse, and when the same authorities persist in using legal strategies to delay and minimize the claims of abuse victims seeking just redress and, worse still, continue to entrust reception, investigation, adjudication and redress of complaints to bodies – irrespective of the integrity of their members - controlled by the church. Such strategies raise suspicion that they function as distractions from the deeper causal issues.
Our fourth concern is with how the Framework fails marginalised groups. The analysis is inadequate, the apology glib, and the solutions - hospitable evangelisation and better catechesis – fake. Divorced/remarried and LGBTQI persons are rejected for one reason alone: the rigidity of Church doctrine. These persons seek inclusion and acceptance because they are well evangelised and catechised. The Framework’s (FfM, 11) calling for the Church to attend to “examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” implies that it is the doctrine that must be reviewed, not current methods of teaching and enforcing it.
Our fifth concern is the way the function of Catholic educational institutions is treated as identical with the function of the Church itself: evangelisation and catechesis. This ignores the autonomy of secular pursuits of humanity – of which education is one (Gaudium et Spes, Ch. 2). The autonomy of the classroom is impugned when it is used for evangelising and catechising in any religious doctrines; that autonomy is respected when the classroom is used as a forum for critical scrutiny of the truth claims of all disciplines. The best contribution that the religious education classroom can make to the evangelising/catechising function of the school is to equip students to understand and critically appraise religious doctrines, not to strive to convince them of their truth. PC members should recognise that more authentic witness to gospel values is borne when Catholic educational institutions confine their evangelising efforts to voluntary activities.
concern is the meek approach on building relationships with other Christian and
non-Christian faith communities, and persons with no faith or religious
affiliation. Limiting the ways of promoting openness only to those 'that are
practical and appropriate for the diocese' (FfM, 48) is misguided. It is
not practicalities that mandate such relationships, but the reality that God speaks
to others besides Catholics. We close our ears to them at the risk of closing
our ears to God's word.
Our seventh concern is the timid proposals to address the crisis in the sacramental life of church communities. While the proposal to allow lay people to preach is laudable, the proposals on the sacrament of Penance merely maintain the status quo. Do Council Members really believe that Australian Catholics' abandonment of the First and Second Rites of Reconciliation is due to bad catechesis on their meaning? If not, they are obliged to read the signs of the times which indicate that Australian Catholics no longer see the theology of sin or of God's forgiveness as they once did: their enthusiasm for the Third Rite of Penance – before its ban – demands an acknowledgment not granted in the Framework (72).
Our plea to Members
All Members have
been called to the Council in the spirit of synodality to express their personal
conscientious discernment of what God is saying to the Church in Australia in this
time. Pope Francis would counsel them not merely to balance the views expressed
within the Council, but to support
those views that reflect the impetus of Vatican II.
In our view, the current Motions are no match
for the Church’s crisis. But we, with
others calling for a better response to the crisis, have drafted a raft of proposed amendments to the Motions which we believe
will improve them. We would ask all Members to give them serious consideration
Sadly, the Second Assembly provides only limited time for Members to discuss and vote on the Motions. Many may also feel pressure to vote in particular ways. While Catholics for Renewal would have wished for a Third Assembly, we plead with all Members to see their role in the Second Assembly as being to implement the mandate of Vatican II: 'scrutinise the signs of the times' and plan the Gospel path to Church renewal in the light of those signs. Only those Motions passing this test can be counted as movements of the Spirit.