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Church democracy and the 2020 Plenary Council

  • 11 September 2017


There is a lot of big talk by Australian Catholic church leaders about the forthcoming 2020 Plenary Council, but remarkable vagueness about its likely shape.

Now that the first of the consultation sessions about the council has occurred in Sydney, resolving the nature of the event becomes a matter of some urgency. Otherwise the council runs the risk of eventually becoming a huge disappointment, dashing the expectations of the organisers and the wider Catholic community alike.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the chair of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council, speaks of the council as a crucial moment for the future of the church, a moment so grand that business as usual will not do. Recently he has made some key announcements, firstly of an executive committee and secondly of a facilitation team. We have also been told there will be three phases, preparation, celebration and implementation.

This notion of 'celebration' gives an indication of why there is some confusion. The term has a special ecclesial meaning in this context that is not shared within the general community. The church often talks a different language when it describes internal consultation and discussion of the way forward.

There is some overlap in terminology of course. Words like council and assembly, which are used within the church, have a secular mainstream usage too. We have city and town councils and state and territory legislative assemblies, which are formed from the community after general elections. Crucially they have decision-making powers and areas of responsibility within constitutional limitations. Above all they are driven by a democratic ethos.

The church, while playing around with similar language, shies away from any such impulse. It explicitly rejects the notion of a church parliament while still wanting to stake a claim to democratic processes and outcomes. Coleridge rightfully expresses concern about the council becoming just another talk-fest, the implication being that substantive decisions must be made which can be implemented locally. He wants all voices to be heard, including the disaffected as well as the actively engaged.

The problem lies in the fact that such processes and values are not embedded in the Australian church. As Fr Noel Connolly, a Columban priest who is a member of the facilitation team, has pointed out, the building blocks are missing. There is little parish or diocesan democracy on which a comparable national event can be built. Nor do the likely clerical and lay participants have