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Church democracy and the 2020 Plenary Council



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.

Raised handsNow 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 any experience of operating within the church according to such an ethos. Their experience is of an old-fashioned hierarchical church in which communication and decision-making is top-down.


"If the 2020 Plenary Council is not a fully representative assembly of Australian Catholic voices it will prove to be a monumental waste of time and energy."


At the heart of the church's problem is the misuse of the term parliament. It is rejected in church circles because of a narrow and misguided view of parliamentary democracy which concentrates on the role of parliament as a supreme law-making body with ultimate authority. Canon Law doesn't allow for any such role. But such a law-making role for parliament is just one among its several roles, and even that is not untrammelled but limited by the constitution. The other equally important roles of the parliament are to be an assembly and a representative body.

An assembly is a formal community gathering at which the urgent issues of the day are given a full airing. Such an assembly creates its own agenda and doesn't just accept one handed down from above. It allows time for a full discussion of alternative views and for conclusions to be reached on the evidence, not on church authority. An assembly conducts votes in order to weigh the balance of opinion in the community.

A parliament must also be a representative body. Church law prevents the plenary council from being a body of representatives in that parliamentary sense, but that should not be confused with the idea of constructing a body which is representative of the full range of circumstances, views and opinions within the church. The 2020 council must be inclusive to be respected.

The ethos of parliamentary democracy should not be discarded because of some misplaced conclusion that that it is unsuitable for use within the church. If the 2020 Plenary Council is not a fully representative assembly of Australian Catholic voices it will prove to be a monumental waste of time and energy.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, 2020 Plenary Council, Catholic chuch



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Existing comments

Some things simply can’t be abolished. The bicameral Queensland Parliament of 1922 abolished its upper house but the lower house cannot abolish itself, notwithstanding the fact that the state’s constitution can be changed by a simple majority of the remaining chamber. The House of Commons cannot abolish itself even though there is no written constitution to say what it can or can’t do. However, it can abolish the Lords or the Monarchy. I suppose the theory is that although the People are the supreme legislative authority, they cannot act except through a mechanism. So, even without a written constitution, the one mechanism the People need in order to govern themselves cannot be made extinct or the People themselves would be rendered powerless. Given that the Magisterium is what gives the Catholic Church its spiritual and temporal life, not the Laity as some ecclesiastical version of ‘the People’, nothing can abolish or change it, not even representative bodies, especially when calls to be ‘representative’ mean calls to represent interests that want to encroach upon the field of authority of the Magisterium, eg., female priesthood, sanctioning of homosexuality as a licit state of life, general use of the third rite of reconciliation.

Roy Chen Yee | 11 September 2017  

In my view it is the entire governance structure and doctrinaire nature of the Catholic Church that is the problem. And that includes the Papacy as currently conceived. It lacks the accountability deemed necessary in the modern world. And it lacks the practical charity that is the mark of the truly Christian. To claim that that structure is God given, the product of the Holy Spirit's guidance over the centuries is a delusion, because, as we have seen, it leads to great evil. A few mea culpa just won't do. One reading of John's article leads to the conclusion that there is no hope for the reform necessary for the Catholic Church to survival.

Lee Boldeman | 12 September 2017  

The Vatican Council was announced on 25 Jan. 1959 and started on 11 Oct 1962. How come we need that long to prepare? Implementation? How about implementing chapter 6 of the first document the Council signed off on back in 1963? Preparation? That will largely consist of hosing down our expectations so the Plenary Council does not greatly disappoint us.

Jim Jones | 12 September 2017  

With all due respect to Lee Boldeman, the "modern world" ain't much chop. The modern world elected Trump, but had someone as execrable as Hilary left on the shelf. The current state of the Australian parliament and media landscape is part of the "modern" world.

Tom White | 12 September 2017  

I would have thought Roy that there are plenty of examples of 'divine-right monarchies' being replaced by more participative arrangements. The rise of the power of the House of Commons is surely one example? And of course there have been movements back the other way, e.g. Franco's Spain.

Ginger Meggs | 12 September 2017  

Thinking of the grand promises made by the Archbishops (especially Archbishop Coleridge) at the Royal Commission, and the fact that nothing at all appears to have come of these promises, gives me very little hope for the Plenary Council. My real fear (because this is so often what happens at parish level) is that it will involve token laity who will say and do the right things. Then everyone can congratulate themselves and one another and go home.Nothing will change and we will all no doubt foot the enormous bill. Our Church is the Jerusalem over which Jesus weeps today.

Margaret | 12 September 2017  

Can't recall in my reading of scripture, particularly the New Testament, that Christ urged those who followed his teachings to form a party that could change his teachings by democratic process. Amongst other traits, Christ was a touch doctrinaire, Lee, and was accountable to his Father in heaven alone. I take his delegation of responsibiity for his Church to his ordained priests to be his intention. Can find no evidence that has been changed, despite the many who these days aspire to Christ's divinity and seem to think that they are delegated to an administrative role in Christ's Church.

john frawley | 12 September 2017  

If the Catholic Church does not survive, Christianity will not cease upon the Earth. The Holy Spirit has other irons in the fire not to mention the Orthodox and Reformed Churches. Perhaps there is something to learn from them?

Peter | 12 September 2017  

Excellent article. The Church really does need to democratise its structures. For too long it has tried to influence concrete realities by standing apart and making judgements on them. But that has only led to fragmentation and stultified aspirations in religion and society. The Plenary is an opportunity to turn things round. It needs to accommodate those Catholics who have been wrestling with their faith ‘in the world’. That struggle has resulted in liberal and progressive Catholics practising democratic ideals in their small communities and in facilitatory and participatory supervision on Catholica. Thus, the Plenary would be well served to include those that, to date, have been marginalised. They at least have some rudimentary experience of how a democratic Plenary could be run. In contrast, without these Catholics, the Plenary will just be another tiresome talk-fest.

Jane Anderson | 12 September 2017  

Thinking of the following story (attributed to Erasmus though I can't trace it): Jesus returns to heaven after His time on earth. The angels gather around Him to learn what l happened during His days on earth. Jesus tells them of the miracles, His teachings, His death on the cross, and His resurrection. When He finishes his story, Michael the Archangel asks Jesus, “But what happens now?” Jesus answers, “I have left behind eleven faithful disciples and a handful of men and women who have faithfully followed me. They will declare My message and express My love. These faithful people will build My church.” “But,” responds Michael, “What if these people fail? What then is Your other plan?” And Jesus answers, “I have no other plan!”

Margaret | 12 September 2017  

It's my understanding that a synod's sole concern is collegial governance within the Church, as an assembly of bishops with the Bishop of Rome. The synod is called to deal with pressing local issues, but the last such national assembly in Australia was held in 1937. The tragedy of child violation by clergy has been denied and unquestioned for decades because bishops failed to head the teachings of Jesus in Scripture (Mt.18:2-6; Luke 18:16). Instead they used Rome as their point of reference. The scandal in the Church is not just a moral weakness of individuals but culpable ignorance on the part of Church Leaders. Let the synod be a time for bishops to engage in honest self-searching and reflection. In search of new self-awareness in relationship rather than governing in a closed social system. Its time for a language that makes sense to the reality of this world.

Trish Martin | 12 September 2017  

Please keep making your contributions, John.

Alan | 12 September 2017  

Tom says that the modern world disappoints. And it often does. But we are not burning witches or heretics and my children did not get bashed in a Catholic School on a daily basis as I did l in the name of God.

Lee Boldeman | 12 September 2017  

The problem with john frawley's thesis is that he presumes that Jesus' approach is what we have had. The Gospel interpretation is disputed. The Church we have is very Roman and Constantinian, and precious little to do with the primitive Way

smk | 12 September 2017  

Some of the responses here suggest that their posters regard governance in the Catholic Church simply as a matter of bishops and priests rubber stamping the will of 'the People'. The hierarchical structure of the Church isn't simply a social construct determined by popular will. Vatican II is very clear on this,

John | 12 September 2017  

We have two churches, one the hierarchical/clerical church and the other the church of the people of God. The former was set up by Jesus with St. Peter as its leader and the other by Jesus who says that the Father seeks true worshippers those who will worship Him in sprit and truth. If Anyone asks the Father to come and abide within them the Father will come and make His abode within them. The People of God have a subservient role in the church when their role should be one of priority in living and promoting the enduring presence of God. They should be engaged in the church of the People of God jointly, and in harmony, with the hierarchical/clerical church.

John Xact | 12 September 2017  

To my mind, one of the greatest faults in our church is the structure of most parishes, with the perhaps unwanted power of theParish priest.Opportunity for Respectful dialogue seems to be missing in many parishes. To listen to others, even with a different viewpoint is paramount in following Christ. Hopefully those involved in this much needed Council will share every step with all parishioner s at at inclusive level, at welcoming parish gatherings. So far nothing!!!

Bernie Introna | 13 September 2017  

I remember a rather unpleasant Anglo-Catholic cleric, who was extremely lucky his parish didn't implode, saying, at a particular crisis point: 'The Anglican Church is not a Congregational one'. The Roman Catholic Church, like Anglicanism, does not have a congregational governance mode. As Father Bob Maguire said, it is the last absolute monarchy. It has survived the Fall of Communism. I imagine its style of governance will continue. What the current Pope is doing is, with God's help, making the dry bones live. 'The Church' is not merely an administrative organisation, although, in Australia, one might be forgiven thinking so. If you want my 'take' on what the purpose of the Christian Church is, I cannot go further than to quote the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who said Jesus did not come to found an institution, but to change the world. I suspect this changing the world, sometimes unseen and unheard by those without the faculties to apprehend appropriately, will continue apace. What will the 2020 Plenary Council achieve? I suspect very little. Christianity will continue in its own quiet way.

Edward Fido | 13 September 2017  

Democracy - literally 'people power' - is not the model proposed by the Christian Scriptures for governance of the Church, but rather, active participation by all in the context of giftedness and the exercise of particular responsibilities. One of the findings of thirty years of considertate discussion by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) is that each Christian community has something to learn from others. Rather than focusing on a single 'big event' - a not atypical Roman Catholic approach - A mose sustainable and fruitful approach might be to draw on the long experience of the Anglican Communion with respect to Synodal governance. That experience has demonstrated that, while it is by no means an easy process, it can promote sustained participation, recognise giftedness and guide the exercise of episcopal and pastoral responsibilities.

Richard Hallett | 13 September 2017  

In today's world where politicians can talk about "clean coal" with a straight face I hesitate to start a quibble about words. I believe a disruptive way of looking at the church in the Anglo-Saxon world began with Wycliffe's translation in the 15th century of "ecclesia" in Ephesians 5:23 as "church". The spiritual genesis of Christianity from Judaism where the Jews saw themselves as "the Chosen People" was diluted. It became identified with a physical and administrative structure. So we ended up with a Papal Emperor, Cardinal Princes, Lordly Bishops and Paternal Priests. Despite the hopes of John XXIII and the aspirations contained in Vatican 2 Dogmatic Constitution on the CHURCH (approved by 2151 votes to 5 on 21st November 1964) nothing much has changed. Yes in my parish we do have a married deacon and a Parish Pastoral Council but there is little that fosters the roles of the faithful as priestly, prophetical and royal. That word "royal" might be the problem.

Uncle Pat | 13 September 2017  

'Democracy - literally 'people power' - is not the model proposed by the Christian Scriptures for governance of the Church'. I suspect, Robert, that at the time the scriptures were being written democracy was not the model being proposed for the governance of any group. Could it be the the model adopted by the church actually reflects then contemporary practice rather than anything peculiar to the Christian scriptures? In other words, it was a model for those times, not necessarily for ever.

Ginger Meggs | 13 September 2017  

With the Fall of the Western Roman Empire I doubt the Church there would have survived without gradually evolving into the vast, transcontinental, thoroughly bureaucratic organisation it is today. One of the things we Anglophones don't understand is the Latin, specifically Italian, mindset of Catholicism summed up in that phrase 'la bella figura'. What that means, in practice, is that, when the Church speaks, it is listened to respectfully. There appears no demur whilst the statement is made. Once the statement is made people go off and do their own thing. In Australia we inherited a Church mentality from the early Irish Catholics who suffered all sorts of social, economic and political disadvantages under the Ascendancy. The Church was often their only bulwark against this Ascendancy. Hence people like the late Archbishop Mannix became real spokespersons for Catholic aspirations whilst maintaining iron discipline within the organisation. Under people like Cardinal Pell that discipline continued. The current hierarchy, like Archbishop Hart, may be gentler but they have to follow Vatican guidelines. There are many structural changes some more liberal Catholics here want, such as a change in Church teachings on homosexuality or the possible ordination of women. These will not happen. The adoption of the 'la bella figura' attitude may save them considerable anguish and allow them to proceed peacefully with their own lives.

Edward Fido | 14 September 2017  

"'Celebration' ... the term has a special ecclesial meaning..." which is a pity, because if it took on the mainstream sense of what we mean when we speak of celebration (e.g. think of big birthday or anniversary gathering of family and friends) we might have a whole lot more celebratory - and happier - Church!

Richard | 14 September 2017  

Edward Fido, "la bella figura" really means "keeping up a beautiful appearance, like Hyacinth in the BBC series "Keeping up appearances", sort of. It doesn't mean "Rome has spoken, the matter is finished". Sure, Italians listen respectfully to the Church. But inplementing the Curia's diections? On that issue, Italians make up their own minds. John Frawley, no thanks for the red herring that "Can't recall...., that Christ urged those who followed his teachings to form a party that could change his teachings by democratic process." There's nothing in the plans of the Plenary Council to change Christ's teachings. One big problem with calling reps to the Council is that groups like Opus Dei will almost certainly try to stack it with like minded conservatives. Certain bishops who are very partial to Opus Dei will of course like that! Given that at least 85% of mainstream ordinary Catholics no longer regularly attend Mass, it will be difficult to get a balanced group of lay people at the Synod.

Bruce Stafford | 14 September 2017  

I think, Bruce Stafford, that Italians, as a whole, are not the deeply religious people some misguided foreigners think they are, although there are deeply religious Italians. 'La bella figura' is, indeed, a matter of appearances, but more in the mode of the latest fashion from Milan than the sort of stolid English middle class 'naiceness' of Hyacinth Bouquet. Hence Italians listen to the latest Papal pronouncements with excellent form but then go on to do what they please with nary a second thought. They do not feel this is in the least bit hypocritical because they do not suffer the Anglo-Saxon guilt complex inherited from Protestantism nor do they indulge in the sort of nitpicking critique circa Melbourne University Union 1960. They get on with life with gusto. I was attempting to persuade those hoping that something - anything - of substantial worth might, just might, come out of the forthcoming 2020 Plenary Council that they need to, basically, ignore it and get on with life as the Italians do.

Edward Fido | 14 September 2017  

It has become obvious that God's Providence is for everything to evolve. One great obstacle to this is the bonding (bondage) we all make to what we were taught as children. But new Insights into Reality suggest different truths. It was not the person of Jesus that inspired Christianity, but his teachings, none of which originated with him. The first community were a Jewish cult known as Followers of the Way. When they were persecuted by the Jewish Establishment, they fled to live among the Greeks, who embraced 'The Way', and it was THEY who were the first to become called Christians. Also it was they who wrote the Gospels, inserting into them the 'birth stories' and the 'miracles' taken from their earlier 'pagan' religions. In turn, when Romans embraced 'The Way', they inserted their own practices from their 'Mithra' (Sun-God) religion, and adding, (under Constantine), a Trinitarian formula, Sunday as a 'holy day' (explicitly to honour Mithra), and replacing Mithra's birthday,( the day after the Solstice), by that of Jesus, whose birthday was, and still is, unknown. Evolution has continued since then, despite attempt to prevent it, and will certainly continue into the future.

Robert Liddy | 14 September 2017  

Thank you, Robert Liddy, for your Toynbee-like précis of early Christianity. Churchill I've been told used Arnold Toynbee to provide him with a one page summary of the previous day's intelligence reports on how WW2 was going. A similar practice continues to this day where national intelligence agencies e.g CIA, brief their national leaders first thing every morning on what happened of significance overnight. I believe President Trump may have discontinued this practice. He apparently watches TV News. Tweets his views. Then draws up a list of questions for the CIA Director - if he bothers to see him.(This might be fake news but I write it in good faith,) The point I would like to make is that people like Mr Liddy are unlikely to be invited/chosen/elected to the 2020 Plenary Council. I for one who love to hear what he thinks about the outcomes of Vatican 2 and the Australian hierarchy's commitment to applying its teachings to themselves and to all Australian Catholics.(both practising and lapsed). He comments so succinctly within the Eureka Street limit of 200 words that he could write a thousand words essay on Vat 2 and the Australian Hierarchy's Apathy. No problem!

Uncle Pat | 15 September 2017  

Uncle Pat makes the succinct comment that Robert Liddy is most unlikely to be invited to this upcoming 2020 Plenary Council. Yet Mr Liddy's opinions would not be considered that unusual in either the Anglican or Uniting Churches. I have a strong suspicion that, once what they consider the unnecessary awakening from their mental and pastoral slumbers by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse abates, the majority of the Catholic hierarchy in this country will head 'back to the past' when '1950 was a good year'. I draw to your attention Archbishop Coleredge, who looked quite flummoxed and had nothing relevant to say when briefly interviewed about the Commission on the 7.30 Report. Yet he surfaced quickly in his own environment with a Lenten pastoral letter, which did not mention the Commission nor Church leaders donning sackcloth and ashes for their poor leadership here. I am reminded of what the Duke of Wellington said of his troops to the effect that he didn't know what they did to the enemy, but, by God, they terrified him.

Edward Fido | 15 September 2017  

Celebration? Unless this Plenary Council really listens to the laity, there won't be much to celebrate when it concludes. Only 8% to 10% of Australian Catholics attend Mass now, and this is projected by one Church demographer to drop to 5% by 2030. However, there is hope in the example of Pope Francis who wants a 'poor Church for the Poor' but I see little evidence of other clergy leading the Faithful in this direction! Unless prophetic lay pople and clergy are given scope to lead the Faithful back to the Gospels, our Church will soon be even more diminished and even more despised than it is now, with the baggage of the clerical child sexual abuse exposed at the Royal Commission.

Grant Allen | 15 September 2017  

Uncle Pat: Do you accept without question Robert Liddy's assertion ". . . it was not the person of Jesus that inspired Christianity"? I imagine the 2020 Plenary Council will be assuming the contrary of this and building on it in its deliberations. Did not Jesus refer to himself as "The Way" manifesting a unique integrity of word and action that inspired others to follow him? Mr Liddy's "evolutionary" conflation begs many questions and should not be confused with the development of doctrine as articulated by Newman.

John | 15 September 2017  

If the national Catholic Church is going to have a plenary council, the only thing it should put its collective heads together to figure out is how to convince all Australians to become Roman Catholics. If the national Anglican or Baptist or Lutheran or Pentecostal or Salvation Army or Uniting churches were to do the same thing, each should be figuring out how to bring all Australians into its particular flock. Otherwise, none of them will be honouring Christ’s ‘Great Commission’ to make disciples of all. The Commission isn’t on how sectarians may adjust self-defensively to a secular world using Father Frank Brennan’s delicate twiddling of philosophical knobs and dials, it’s how the secular world may be convinced that it is a better state of affairs to become sectarian. On that point at least, in ultimate objective if not in means, the jihadists are with the program.

Roy Chen Yee | 17 September 2017  

...and yet one searches, still, for details of the (identities of) the membership of this 'Plenary Council'.

Rosemary O'Grady | 10 November 2017  

Will the Plenary Council of 2020/21 be representative? Look at who MUST be present....all males with maybe a female Religious.. Look at who MAY be present...clergy, retired bishops..all male...laity.... The number of those who MAY be present must only be half the number of those who MUST be present.... Work it out for yourself....,

Rex Hackett | 11 May 2018  

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