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A help to the world: the 1937 Plenary Council



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

A black and white flashback to the last Plenary Council in 1937 (Archbishop Mannix, Archbishop Kelly, Apostolic Delegate, Panico).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 the streets.

This was articulated during the commencement Mass on Sunday 5 September, where the homilist reminded the congregation that the council was intended to 'give yourselves an opportunity to decide on the policy which will most favour the preservation and propagation of the faith in these lands'. This was a clear case of local decision-making for local circumstances.

Moreover, this encouragement came from the top. The homilist was Archbishop Joannes Panico, the Apostolic Legate. Thus, with the Pope's representative articulating what Catholic Social Teaching calls subsidiarity, the last Australasian Plenary Council began.

Australian Catholics gathered in the wake of a time of great hardship, and in Christ's name sought the common good. Aware of continuity with the Apostles, the bishops recognised that the church changed through history. It was both progressive and conservative in parts, but not regressive.

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.



Nick BrodieNick Brodie is a historian and author. His recent works include The Vandemonian War (2017) and 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia's Beginnings (2016). He appears regularly on ABC24's Matter of Fact with Stan Grant.

Topic tags: Nick Brodie, Plenary Council, St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

I look at that photo of the clergy in their ostentatiouos attire and I think, "Where is Jesus in this?" just as I do when I see Catholic Bishops today with their royal robes and their golden staffs. I'm sure this Pleanary Council would have done some good, but having an all make clergy and a clericalism that led to the child sexual abuse scandal makes me wonder whether the Catholic Church really has a future unless there is radical change in its governance. Hopefully this will happen after the 2020 Plenary Council, but if it doesn't our Church will continue to decline. Just look at the ageing congregations at the average Catholic Mass! Come Holy Spirit, fall afresh on all the members of the Catholc Church that claims to follow in the footsteps of Jesus!

Grant Allen | 11 September 2018  

An interesting and insightful article Nick. I would also have to endorse the comments of Grant Allen.

John Whitehead | 11 September 2018  

My maternal grandfather was an Anglican who married a Catholic Irish woman who gave birth to my mother. We lived in the same suburb and he was cared for by the local Parish Priest through their recent location in Burwood. After the death of his wife, he stayed in our house until he died. During those two years he was supported by the same Parish Priest until his death. We, family; parish supporters and friends requested to the Archdiocese and Dan Mannix to grant a permit to attend his Anglican Funeral. It was refused. The Parish was very upset; over half attended the service in the Chapel, less than half attended by standing outside on Lennox St Richmond. How in order of the 1937 Plenary Council and how much a total failure for the family, the parishioners and even the parish priest. I, at the age of 12, cannot understand that situation. All my Great Grandfathers married Catholic Irish Women and their children all became Catholics except for that one.

John Morkham | 12 September 2018  

I feel we are in the first phase of a turning point for the Church in Australia. I am preparing to facilitate listening and dialogues sessions in our parish. I refuse to lament what has happened up to now and will stop blaming only the clerics as we as lay people have allowed this to happen to our church of which we are part. Now is the time of the laity, of people power in the church. We can make a change! THE TIME OF THE LAITY IS NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gerald Searle | 08 November 2018  

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