Vatican II’s call for synods and councils
and the Australian response
During Vatican II (1962-65) 27 Australian diocesan
bishops participated in the deliberations that produced the Decree on the Bishops’
Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus) which states: “this
sacred synod earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and
councils flourish with vigour” (n. 36).
On returning home, not one of those bishops convened a
diocesan synod. And of the 127 diocesan bishops who have governed
Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses since 1965, only 7 (5.5%) have convened a diocesan
bishops of five dioceses have never convened a diocesan synod, those in 5 dioceses have not convened one
for over 100 years, and those in 12 dioceses have not convened one for over 60
Why the poor response?
Prior to Vatican II synods and particular councils were entirely clerical affairs. Canon law made no provision for lay persons to participate. But that changed in 1983 when canon law enabled lay persons, including women, to be called to participate with a consultative vote. It was a monumental reform, giving all the faithful a share in decision-making on important church matters. Diocesan and parish pastoral and financial councils were also introduced. All these gave the laity a new role of co-responsibility in church governance.
For some bishops, however, especially those who preferred autocratic governance, this presented a challenge, for they would lose the full control they were accustomed to and be obliged to accept co-responsible governance.
As a college, the Australian bishops also preferred the episcopal conference to a plenary council. While a conference is ‘a kind of council’, it was never intended to take the place of a plenary council. A conference expresses the ‘collegiality’ of the bishops only, who meet alone and in private. A plenary council is a public gathering of all the faithful – bishops, priests, deacons, religious, laity - of all the churches in Australia – dioceses, eparchies, ordinariates - and gives witness to the ‘communio’ of these churches. A conference has scant authority over individual bishops, whereas a plenary council has legislative power over all bishops in Australia. None can ‘opt out’ from the decrees of a plenary council.
Even as a college, the Australian bishops were reluctant to convene another plenary council. The last one was in 1937, 84 years ago, and when the 5th Plenary Council was proposed in 2016, one in six (17%) of the bishops voted against it.
Fifth Plenary Council: progress so far
When the 5th Plenary Council was launched at Pentecost 2018, all Christ’s faithful in Australia were invited to respond to the question: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time? Over 220,000 persons responded in 17,547 written submissions, almost 4 per cent of all Australian Catholics.
An analysis of the responses contained in the Diocesan Reports showed 10 very prominent
issues needing reform: greater inclusion of all (in 28 dioceses), greater
involvement of the laity (27 dioceses), fidelity to church teaching (26), a greater
role for women (26), ending compulsory celibacy for priests (26), the ordination
of women (26), care of neighbour (25), greater trust, faith and hope in God (24),
greater focus on Jesus Christ (24) and better faith formation (24).
The 6 Thematic
Papers (with 159 recommendations) published in 2020 showed similar priorities: new governance changes (20 mentions), humble leadership and changes
to the priesthood (17), promotion of mission and evangelisation (8), a more
open and inclusive church (7), personal faith formation (7), promotion of the role
of women in the Church (7), focus on the poor and marginalised (6), building
stronger parishes (6), making the liturgy more relevant (6), recognition and
support for Indigenous Australians (4).
However, the Fruits document of December 2021, published as the official ‘outcome’ of the First General Assembly, retained some of the original priorities, but omitted others. Retained were ‘formation’ (163 mentions), ‘governance’ (71), lay involvement (67) especially of women (56), focus on Jesus (27) and ‘inclusion’ (14) especially of Indigenous Australians, LGBTIQ+ and disabled persons. But there was no mention of celibacy or married priests, nor of ‘trust in God’, and the ordination of women deacons (3) was contentious. Also, 78 proposals from individual Members contained in the document had not been presented to the First Assembly for its consideration.
Delegates and Members
The process for selecting so-called ‘delegates’ was also concerning. Catholics for Renewal had suggested that each bishop, prior to the First Assembly, convene a diocesan synod or assembly to seek guidance on selecting representatives for the diocese. Instead, many chose an opaque process which resulted in a significant percentage of the lay men (48%) and lay women (62%) selected being employees of the diocese or other Catholic entities. Some bishops also ‘commissioned’ their delegates, giving the impression that their authority was derived from the bishop by ‘delegation’. But there are no delegates of bishops. There are only ‘Members’, whose authority to speak and vote in the Assemblies comes from the ‘call’ of the Council President, whose election by his fellow bishops was confirmed by the Pope.
Where to from here?
Following the Fruits
document, another titled Towards the Second Assembly was published
on 28 February 2022. But sadly, its circulation was restricted to Members only.
Their – and only their - feedback has helped prepare the ‘Draft Propositions’ which
will be circulated to Members – but not clear if to the general public - in
late May, together with the Second Assembly Program.
The official timeline indicates that Members and the wider community will not be able to engage in a proposed ‘contemplative dialogue’ on the ‘Final Propositions’ until an unspecified date in June. The Second Assembly opens in Sydney on 4 July 2022.
Recently, the Council Secretary indicated that any changes emerging from the Second Assembly will likely be modest. He suggested, therefore, that ordinary Catholics should ‘tailor their expectations in anticipation of inevitable disappointment and disillusionment”.
Catholics for Renewal disagrees strongly with this suggestion. When the Council was originally proposed, Australian Catholics were told that “we can no longer put up a sign saying ‘business as usual’, the culture has to change, and the bishops and others will have to make bold decisions about the future”
In their 17,547 submissions, Australian Catholics made it abundantly clear that they wanted and expected bold decisions and culture change. So, we say to our Catholic brothers and sisters: ‘maintain your high expectations for this Plenary Council and, if necessary, raise them even higher’. And should the outcome of the Council fail your expectations and produce nothing but ‘modest changes’, that will be time to speak out more strongly and openly – with parrhesia – to obtain the substantive changes and bold decisions that are so desperately needed.
 These bishops were: Francis Carroll (Canberra & Goulburn: 1989, 2004), Michael Malone (Maitland-Newcastle: 1992-92), John Bathersby (Brisbane, 2003), David Walker (Broken Bay: 2011-12), James Foley (Cairns, 2008-19), Gerard Holohan (Bunbury, 2019), and William Wright (Maitland-Newcastle: 2019-21).
 The dioceses are Broome, Darwin, Geraldton, Parramatta and Wollongong.
 Diocesan and parish financial councils were mandated. The pastoral councils were not.
 Particular councils include both provincial and plenary. Cf. cc. 439-446
 Christus Dominus, n. 38.1
Painting: Calls and Response 6, seanmichaelgettysart.com, June Stoddard, shoeboxarts