Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


A help to the world: the 1937 Plenary Council

  • 11 September 2018


On the surface, the Australian Catholic Church's last Plenary Council (1937) seemed focused on dos and don'ts.

From ensuring priests steer clear of horse and dog racing (decree 54), to insisting that women dress modestly (decree 295), to addressing the quantity of beeswax in paschal candles (decree 545), it covered a variety of subjects, not all of which have stood the test of time.

I'm unsure when I last heard a priest preach on the evils of bad reading and cinema (decree 294), but theoretically they should all be doing so twice a year.

Unsurprisingly, not quite every letter of the 1937 Plenary still gets obeyed. After all, it passed 685 decrees, with 18 appendices. That's a lot of words, mostly in Latin. Let's hope the next one is moved with a spirit of brevity.

Being in English, the Joint Pastoral Letter is still accessible and interesting for its social justice bent, clearly inspired by the very recent circumstances of the Great Depression. It condemned communism and promoted Catholic education, peace, human welfare, and domestic holiness.

The bishops styled unemployment as 'a serious blot on our social system on account of the suffering it entails on the poor'. They spoke of 'the duty of governments and employers to remove as far as possible the cause of unrest, discontent and revolt among wage-earners by giving them the fullest measure of justice.' Those are strong words. Still relevant, still resonant.

The bishops enthusiastically advocated support for the St Vincent de Paul Society. While also suggesting abstinence pledges and temperance societies, these boozy and various below-the-belt issues were dealt with in six sentences, worked into a wider structural discourse about what we could call the common good. The focus of the pastoral was societal, not individualist.


"For all its 685 dos and don'ts, the 1937 Plenary Council revealed the Church not as a sanctuary from the world, but as a help to it."


This concern with the common good reflected the way the council began. Members of the wider community were invited to the opening celebrations, especially representatives of government, the judiciary, and scholars.

This was a recognition that the council spoke to and in a wider world. While there are obvious gaps — women, for instance — this was nonetheless a step towards a historical moment of growing inclusivity.

And while some pomp and processions were notable, the organisers seemed to recognise that the Plenary had to go beyond Catholic flag-waving in