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Best of 2021: The careful choreography of plenary



The First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council held few surprises. The program made sure of it. Proceedings were carefully choreographed and the agenda was deliberately anodyne. It took several days before participants found their feet. The ‘deep listening’ process of scripture reflection and sharing in small groups did engender a spirit of collegiality. At the same time, it constrained free flowing discussion and overwhelmed any effective canvassing of the issues confronting the Church. The upshot was a week devoid of strategic focus.

Given that so much time was spent on prayerful reflection, not enough was available to the task at hand. The Catholic community had supplied 17,500 submissions in an initial consultation phase. Yet the Plenary was not presented with any report on what those submissions contained, nor was it presented with any draft resolutions from the submissions. It can only be assumed that the Bishops Steering Group deemed the submissions to be of insignificant value to the Assembly. The expert theologians, scripture scholars, canonists and public policy advisors were kept at a distance. It was if the participants were meant to start from scratch.

What did emerge was the diversity of views over the role and purpose of the Church. Again, no surprise there! Though more important was the lack of clarity over the actual starting point for the conversation. Participants were constantly reminded that Pope Francis was calling for a Church motivated by a ‘missionary impulse’. It seemed fair to assume therefore that the task was to imagine what that looks like for the Church now and into the future. Yet the daily feedback from the working groups roamed far and wide from personal devotional practices all the way to cutting edge pastoral outreach. Again, no surprises when you give Catholics free rein!

The situation would be less distressing if there had been an overt recognition of the crisis the Church faces. A crisis that is both of its own making and one that prompts questions about religious belief in our world today. This crisis needs to be addressed by the Plenary Council in two fundamental areas: internal organisation and pastoral disposition. On the first, the organisational life of the Church has already been the subject of intense scrutiny by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. One of the seventeen volumes of the Final Report dealt specifically with the Catholic Church. It contained clear recommendations for governance and culture. Following this, the bishops and religious leaders commissioned a two-year study that produced The Light From the Southern Cross report into governance and cultural issues. These two reports outline a similar roadmap for change. But the elephant in the room is the authority of bishops.


'Building trust is a two-way street. Being trusted to act in an ethical manner, both in its business and organisational dealings and in the dealings with people, in and out of the Church, is non-negotiable.'


Almost before the ink dried on the reports some bishops dismissed their recommendations as an attack on episcopal authority. Some even went as far to say that the reports would make the Catholic Church too ‘Anglican’! Talk of shared governance models and expanding the influential role of the laity, especially women, was a bridge too far for those content with ‘business as usual’. This despite the evidence that most indicators the Church was going backwards. Calls for Church leaders to introduce measures enhancing best practice accountability and transparency, vital to regaining the public trust lost after the abuse scandal and cover ups, continue to be met with shrill warnings about erosion of episcopal control.

This issue must be faced head on. Whether the Church can embark on a new missionary strategy is dependent on getting its own house in order. That is, demonstrating that the culture to conceal and deal in the dark is over. That best practice governance is commonplace. That transparency in how decisions are made and by whom is the norm. That the laity, especially more women, are effectively involved in and jointly accountable for the life and future direction of the Church. These are the obvious indicators of a changed culture and structure. One that has some chance of being believed when they say ‘trust us’!

On the issue of the pastoral disposition of the Church the way forward is more fraught. The mindset and culture of our Church is still based on an outmoded understanding of personhood. Our Christian anthropology has not kept pace with the insights of the human sciences and contemporary understandings of personal development, including around sexuality, gender identity and its diversity. This is a fundamental disconnect for the Church in the Western world. It puts at risk the effectiveness of its mission. This is particularly the case for the Church’s relevance to young people exploring their place in the world; or in bridging the chasm with the LGBTIQA+ people in their full participation in the life of the Church; or in embracing divorced and remarried Catholics, including their reception of the Eucharist. A more nuanced theology of personhood would better inform our pastoral practice and deliver a genuinely inclusive, compassionate missionary outreach.

This is what the Plenary Council must address. Building trust is a two-way street. Being trusted to act in an ethical manner, both in its business and organisational dealings and in the dealings with people, in and out of the Church, is non-negotiable. Reaching out with compassion, affirming people, being for others, goes to the heart of a ‘missionary impulse’. Doing it without conditions goes to the heart of the Gospel. Anything less looks like ‘business as usual’.



Francis Sullivan AO is Chair of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Mater Group of hospitals. He was previously CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Topic tags: Francis Sullivan, plenary, Catholic Church, bishops, LGBTIQA+



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A superb article from someone who really knows what he is talking about. Thank you, Francis. Years ago the late Sir Frank Woods, then Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, asked his geriatric counterpart, Daniel Mannix, how the latter could cope at his age. A true answer would have been 'Very badly'. Mannix, like most of our current hierarchy, was a man from a previous age and unable to cope with contemporary Australia in the 1960s. He set the authoritarian mode for the current generation. As far as the Church becoming 'too Anglican' goes, I do not think it would be too bad a way to go. Because most Anglican clergy were traditionally married, their hierarchs gained a far more realistic understanding of human sexuality, which is a thoroughly good thing. Catholic documents on this matter are far too weighty and ponderous for the punters in the pews. They need simple, direct guidance. Pope Francis provides that: he is not a pompous fart obsessed with his own self-importance. This is a lesson all Australian Catholic clergy need to take on board, Christ worked with the people. Bishops are supposed to be 'fathers in Christ' not ecclesiastical bureaucrats. They need to get among the people. Real people who live in places like Logan Shire to see their real problems. Good families are the basis of a decent, thriving society. Their atrocious 'lead' on child sex abuse makes me doubt they can do that. I hope they prove me wrong.

Edward Fido | 31 December 2021  
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Dear Edward, As one whom I am glad to welcome into our Church, and with a welcome stream of ecumenical Anglicanism with which to enrich us, you need to be aware that Mannix' genius and undoubted obduracy were the product of a prior history that has shaped Australian Catholicism as we know it.

Mannix was an Irishman, and a nationalist at that, who had as many misgivings about the Rome of his times as he had about the enforced and indeed brutal British occupation of his country. In that sense he was a breath of fresh air when appointed to Melbourne, ensuring that the Catholic people of this country would kow-tow to nobody, as much to a Protestantism that vigorously imposed its theocratic and Anglophile hegemony on a newly emerging Australian national consciousness as he was suspicious of a Rome that was prepared to 'do deals' with the Imperial Crown.

For all his nepotistic tendencies in engineering the appointment of his friends to episcopal Australian positions, he was not just loved but heroically regarded by the rank and file of Australian Catholics, most of them with deep Irish sympathies and, justifiably for the times, long memories of persecution and oppression.

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

“Pope Francis was calling for a Church motivated by a ‘missionary impulse’. It seemed fair to assume therefore that the task was to imagine what that looks like for the Church now and into the future”…..True so what is more beautiful than an open honest embrace/acknowledgment of one’s own failings before God and the faithful as this is beauty in action and it is called humility, which is ‘immediately’ recognized/’reflected’ within the hearts of young and old alike.

So can the Church under Pope Francis and his Bishops embrace humility and reflect this recognizable innate instinct within the hearts of mankind which has been given by God to all and in doing so reclaim the laity/faithful in giving the Church relevance that is based on Truth in the world today.#
The proclaiming of The Word (Words without action are just a distraction) is not enough the laity/faithful must see the true intent (that defines the action) within the hearts of those who lead us. While ever the true Divine Mercy Image is kept hidden away, we clearly see the truth (Intent) of the present situation which can be summed up in these words

‘We lead we do as we please, we just appease’

The Church has been given the means by Our Lord Himself via the true DM Image one of Broken Man the means to immediately shift the culture of Clericalism globally in a way that cannot be misunderstood by mankind while at the same time creating a genuine atmosphere of sorrow for the culture of cover-up within the whole church. While this image would remain as a visual reminder to All to serve the Truth first before any institution or individual man/woman as only an honest church one seen to be based on humility can recapture the hearts of mankind especially in the West today.

A Church for the poor is not enough (although good in itself) as it sidesteps the full spectrum of Truth which confronts evil on both the spiritual plain and worldly plain. And this is what I am advocating Humility (Truth) as the basis for cohesion and inclusivity within the Church. Creating a Church (Field Hospital) that is truly universal where no one (Baptised Christian) is barred from partaking of the bread of life especially those who cannot receive absolution who by openly (Publicly) acknowledge (Confesses) their need for God’s Divine Mercy just prior to receiving the Bread of Life should not be turned away. This would ensure spiritual growth for all her children no matter in what state, place, or time that she encounters them at the crossroads (difficulties) of life.

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kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 02 January 2022  

excellent summary Francis Sullivan --problem that needs to be spelled out is how and when to convince the bishops to listen and actually do something to share the responsibility of developing a new Church

BERNARD TRESTON | 03 January 2022  

Oh Francis what a beam of light you shed! Your view of the process is no surprise to me at all and it is so well articulated. As a recovering Catholic,or lapsed long ago,it still saddens me to see church governance as a mirror image of right wing and almost fascist government. I am glad you have the energy for the battle against entrenched clerical powermongering and wish you well in your crusade. It sounds as if more action is needed.
I do wonder what will happen to the Catholic church given the disenchantment of so many laity and the decline in vocations from the first world. Godspeed if there is a God.

Henri | 04 January 2022  

Here's a simple take on the range of apparently irresolvable issues - episcopal authority, women in charge, the anthropology of personhood, sexuality, gender, divorse-remarriage-eucharist and much more. I remember going to bed one night in the 60s knowing that I would go to hell if I ate meat on Friday. When I woke in the morning I could eat meat on Fridays without consequence for my status in eternity. Why is it harder to get relevant in the C21 than it was in the C20?

Paul Smith | 04 January 2022  

Thank you Francis for capturing the essence of those two critical challenges which need be addressed by Plenary Council if Catholic Church in Australia is to survive. Before Christmas I read Plenary No 42 and the attached report of 1st Assembly outcomes. It was breathtaking in its emptiness and missed opportunity to recognise The substance of those 17,500 submissions to which you referred. Two nights ago my wife and I watched the new Netflix movie “Mary Magdalen”. At the very end St Peter dismisses Mary - and by implication all women - as ‘weakening the mission of the (all male) apostles. 2000 years later we’re still dismissing, not only the women, but all non-ordained Catholics who are different by gender, sexuality, social status etc.. Thank you Francis for ‘hanging in there’ and keeping us informed.

Dr Francis Donovan OAM | 04 January 2022  

Well said, Francis!

Its impossible to understand not just how the Bishops, while ignoring the 17,500 views already garnered, despite being invited and duly received, should not only set these aside but also sideline the views of Pope Francis on these matters.

While Pope Francis has said that he cannot overturn the closure placed on discussion of the question of women's ordination by his two predecessors, he has made a number of statements on GLBTIQ matters as well as on the issue of the Eucharistic inclusion of divorced people that the Bishops are surely under obligation to address.

In a sense, and as a saving measure for the principle and practice of synodality, the tripartite agenda for the Global Synod in 2023 appears to throw the Bishops a lifeline through reference to the themes of Communion, Participation and Mission.

It seems to me that both progressives and conservatives share common ground on all three aspects.

'Communion' offers an opportunity not just for a renewal of Catholic reverence for and reception of the Eucharist, but also for a discussion of various theologies, well-developed since Vatican II, about 'Participation' in the Church, as well as an exploration of 'Mission' as yet unexplored.

Michael Furtado | 04 January 2022  

Paul Smith. Like you, I too woke up one day in late 1964 to be told that to eat meat on Fridays was not a grave sin. I have wondered whether all those poor buggers who ended up in hell up until that day of liberation were let out and admitted through the pearly gates. I also removed the St Christopher medal which had been protecting me while driving when we were told that he, "The Christ Bearer", did not exist and was simply made up - just like Santa Claus. When I was told of the non existence of Santa Clause I was greatly disillusioned and disappointed and didn't believe anymore. Somehow, I didn't lose belief completely when Vatican II revealed all that was untrue in our belief system. I often wonder why!!!

john frawley | 09 January 2022  
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Isn't this as it should be, John Frawley?

Mightn't it show that Vatican II marked the beginnings of a tricky but adult path for all of us to follow, learning how to grow into a faith that is developmental, requiring, among other things, our personal conscientious engagement and assent in full knowledge of the context in which the major issues in our lives unfold?

While its a pity that such growing up can only be achieved by an easing off in reliance on the rule book, we surely do this in other aspects of our lives, when, for instance, Nanny isn't always there to sneak up on us and smack our botties for disobedience.

I can't speak for Paul Smith, but my sense is he'd feel the same. What about you, Dr John? Would you rather, nearly sixty years since the Council began, wearing shorts and cuddling up to a Nanny that smacks?

After all, when you played 'Doctors & Nurses' as a little boy, my guess is that the only instrument you'd have used would've been a stethoscope: an item that would have been of only partial use in the complex quandaries confronting the medical administrator that you became.

Michael Furtado | 14 January 2022  


If we must trip off into a wonderland of metaphors, the Church is Mother, not Nanny, or, in more scriptural terms, shepherd, not hired hand. To confuse Mother with Nanny is, I suppose, par for the course when the agenda these days is to say that both adults in a sexually irregular domestic relationship are the true parents of a trophy child and, thus, to obscure the concept of parent.

Mothers are mothers to whom disciplinary obligations are owed and nannies are nannies who have no intrinsic authority in themselves, acting for the mother. The easing of the meatless rule is similar to the expected easing, in due course, of the rule that one should wear a mask on Fridays and any other day when out and about, unless one is an anti-masker at odds with a supposedly nanny state (or perhaps that should be a matron state). To criticise the meatless rule without considering why it was originally imposed is to be a spiritual anti-masker.

roy chen yee | 17 January 2022  

‘our personal conscientious engagement’

Our personal engagement with conscience is our personal engagement with Conscience because opinion is not necessarily Conscience.

‘assent in full knowledge of the context in which the major issues in our lives unfold’

Assent per se is only emotion, not truth, unless it complies with the full knowledge that is Conscience. And, given that it is the Magisterium which decides whether where the truth lies is infallibly known or, for the moment, subject to competitive prudential reasoning, personal opinion has to align with the Magisterium in order to begin to search for Conscience.

roy chen yee | 17 January 2022  

John -your trio of explanation marks used instead of the expected question mark would suggest you already possess a satisfying answer to your own question.

Bill Burke | 14 January 2022  

Sweetly and parsimoniously said, Bill Burke; while tip-toeing your way carefully around the 'No Man's Land' mine-field responding to mine and preceding your comment. Thanks ever so 'muchly' ;)

Michael Furtado | 19 January 2022  

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