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Evaluating plenary: One journey ends, another begins



Ten days after the conclusion of the first Assembly of the Plenary Council each member was sent an Evaluation Form to complete. As well as reflecting on our experience we were asked to consider how we would complete the phrase ‘It would have been good if…’. The authorities told us that our responses would help to plan the second Assembly. 

In my own response I noted that the working of the first Assembly itself could not be separated from the preparations for it. These preparations got us to the Assembly starting point and that point shaped where we halted. 

The preparation for the second Assembly is very much a case of ‘Here we go again’. We are replicating a previous journey and we must learn the lessons in a way which improves the whole experience. The quality of the second Assembly will depend upon it.  

The nine-month journey from the Working Document to the first Assembly Agenda Questions looks to me very much like the similar length journey which faces us from now to next July. 

The ingredients are very similar. There are inputs, internal mechanisms such as committees to process the inputs, and finally outputs. 

Prior to the first Assembly there were the 17,500 submissions from the faithful of Australia. These were then summarised in national and diocesan reports from the National Centre for Pastoral Research of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). The first subsequent dilution came with the work of the six Writing and Discernment groups organised around themes chosen by the Plenary Council authorities. Following this stage a four-person drafting committee produced the Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris). The final step was again taken by the PC authorities themselves, producing the 16 Agenda Questions, which shaped the Assembly itself. These questions were then distributed for discernment across ten small groups of about thirty members each. 


'Like all church matters, the governance of the Plenary Council must be more synodal than it has been so far. For this to happen it must be more transparent, inclusive and accountable.' 


The regular calls for greater transparency in this process by reform groups were not a theoretical synodal exercise, but a practical attempt to improve the outcomes of the process by opening it up to wider scrutiny. Those in responsible positions, such as the Bishops Commission, the Executive Committee and the Facilitation Team, failed to seek the assistance of the wider Catholic community. Good process was ignored, and it showed in the limits in the final outcomes. 

The process is now starting again with same people in charge. The major exception is that the Steering Committee, largely a group of bishops (five out of six ex-officio members, plus 2-3 chairpersons and two facilitators), which governed the First Assembly, has now been joined by a Drafting Committee, whose responsibility is to produce draft motions to be voted on at the second assembly. This committee, which will perform a crucial role, comprises five people selected by the authorities: Bishops Paul Bird (Ballarat) and Shane Mackinlay (Sandhurst, Deputy President of the PC), Professor Renee Kohler-Ryan, Head of the School of Philosophy and Theology, Notre Dame University, Rev Dr Stephen Mellor, Dean of St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, and Dr Sandie Cornish, Leader of the Justice, Peace and Ecology Office for ACBC. 

The relationship of this key drafting committee, which is yet to meet, to the steering committee remains unclear. What is also unclear is what materials are regarded as the inputs. Are the ten final reports of the small groups from the first assembly the starting point? If so, then these hastily assembled reports constitute little further advance on the pre-Assembly stages of the process. Even when compared to the six reports of the earlier writing groups (2020) the flawed first assembly process meant that they suffered from excessive haste. There was just not enough time allowed within the assembly, not to mention the handicap of the poorly constructed and allocated questions, for anything more considered to emerge. 

The other exception on this occasion is that the 277 Plenary Council members have now effectively taken ‘office’. Stronger networks exist between them and some confidence in their own ability has been built. A sense of empowerment, fuelled by an element of frustration, has emerged. This is potentially a powerful new and positive addition to the dynamics of the Plenary Council. 

The Plenary Council authorities have issued a timeline for the key developments expected by 4-9 July 2022. These are said to include: ‘Prayerful discernment on the outcomes of the first Assembly. Preparation of papers and proposals for the second Assembly’. 

Exactly what that means remains remarkably vague. Let us hope that lessons have been learned. Like all church matters, the governance of the Plenary Council must be more synodal than it has been so far. For this to happen it must be more transparent, inclusive and accountable. 


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, and a Plenary Council member.

Main image: Feet standing on stone floor. (Miguel Ángel Aduarte Carou / Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, PC, Plenary Council, Catholic, Australia



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Existing comments

I admire your tenacity John, but it is already clear that what the bishops want, the bishops will get. Consultation means never having to say you’re sorry: they can say they consulted, and then safely ignore it, because they know better of course, at least in their own minds.

Frank S | 28 October 2021  

Reading this sobering and wise assessment, I find myself wondering if in all of this I would have recognised in the discussion even a trace of anything I (or anyone else in my groups) actually said what now seems like a lifetime ago.
Somehow the Golden Calf comes to mind.

Margaret | 28 October 2021  

Thank you, John, for your excellent summation of what actually happened at and what will eventuate from the recently concluded Plenary Council. It is good to know there will be a followup Council and that the participants are networking to be more effective. The members of the Steering Committee sound good. The clerical members are not known for being hyperconservative, as far as I am aware. One of the historic problems the Catholic Church in this country has suffered from is its authoritarian, often seemingly unresponsive administration by a remote hierarchy who, with some superb exceptions, seemed to be tone deaf to the punters in the pews. I believe the past Papal Nuncio, an Englishman, tried to get a few more liberal bishops nominated but was stymied by the local establishment. When I say 'liberal' I do not mean someone heretical who will go against the Magisterium, but a normal, decent human being who can move confidently in the real world, like Pope Francis. The bishops need to have the confidence of their clergy and to treat them properly. Decent working conditions and reasonable renumeration, with the ability to marry, might lead to more Australian men considering a vocation. Women deacons would open up the Church to a vast talent pool. The clergy, both priests and permanent deacons, are vital building blocks, as is an informed and proactive laity.

Edward Fido | 28 October 2021  
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Edward's analyses, arising as they appear out of the pages of a Billy Bunter novel, are highly entertaining. His longstanding critique of Australia's currently well-established and multicultural indigenous Church, employing a punter's view of equine personality and Jockey character relating to breeding and ethnic origin, might well draw more than a tear from many a sentimental Irish-inflected Australian eye, though I fear it might be more of laughter than admiration. Nuncios - although the last one was more Liverpudlian than Francophile 'corps diplomatique' - have a poor record for assisting with episcopal appointments, still less of reflecting the spirit of Vatican II, bound as they are by their appointment both to the Australian state as well as their status as the Pope's link with the Australian Church. Might I recommend that he continue to amuse us with a cosmology drawn out of the world that made sense to Charles Hamilton? Let's see: there was Bob Cherry, the head of the Sixth Remove, as indeed at least one stereotype of an Indian, called Hurree Jamshed Ram Singh. Edward could then safely focus his commentaries on the College of Cardinals, failing which he might refer to Andy's essay here on disciplining words.

Michael Furtado | 31 October 2021  

‘would have risked hurting Edward…a thought that obviously never registers with you’ (29/10/21, Handing on a Tradition). Or, it seems, with you. Is this the ‘progressive’s’ Orwellian disregard for what was said yesterday or merely the goldfish’s groundhog day astonishment at finding a new corner of the aquarium?

roy chen yee | 01 November 2021  

John Warhurst's article makes good sense. He has worked with the Australian Bishops, as I have, although in my case in educational and social justice contexts. My experience of what the Church means by evaluation and the rest of the world does differs markedly. In my research on school funding I dug into the archives of various organisations and commissions charged with investigating the school-funding arrangements of our nearest neighbours, New Zealand. Everyone I asked (clergy, bishops, directors, archivists, university librarians) recorded stories of researchers despatched to NZ and who had returned with negative recommendations. Even the NZ Catholic Education authorities provided the names and dates of those who had 'consulted' them. However nowhere did I unearth a written report, nor even of at least one that the NZ Church could claim to have received as a matter of courtesy. This followed a similar pattern of reliance on hearsay when I left the classroom to focus on School-Level Evaluation, the Disadvantaged Schools Program and the Teaching for Human Rights Project. Catholic Education Authorities were keen to avail of government funding but seldom had records to show how it had been spent. This 'culture-specific' attitude, prejudicing accountability, has profound Synodal implications.

Michael Furtado | 31 October 2021  

Increasingly, given their unremitting interest in PC procedures, I wonder whether the reformation coalition will not be satisfied until its own 'magisterium' replaces the authority of the bishops. This latest deconstruction suggests the 'Spirit' of the Assembly speaks in tongues of bureaucratese.

John RD | 28 October 2021  
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While your wonderings may occupy your thoughts, it would seem they seem to me to attribute far too casually motive to others. Our bishops inability to effectively mobilize the resources within their own dioceses to combat the sweep of euthanasia across this country is a testament to the fact that, to most, they are speaking to deaf ears whether that be in the public square or the faithful. Abuse of children is and was their stumbling block. The bulk of them were revealed as lacking moral fortitude. Until they do something to change that perceptions can whistle in the wind all they like.

Kimball Byron Chen | 29 October 2021  

‘Our bishops inability to effectively mobilize the resources within their own dioceses to combat the sweep of euthanasia across this country is a testament to the fact that, to most, they are speaking to deaf ears whether that be in the public square or the faithful. Abuse of children is and was their stumbling block.’

‘Stumbling block’ is an excuse. Even if there were no abused children, the spirit of the times would have had the secular public and a lot of the faithful in two minds about euthanasia and one mind about same-sex marriage. After all, are the abused children blocking the ‘progressives’ from any episcopal message about poverty, the environment or asylum seekers?

On the issue of mixed or blocked messages, is it really the case that a person can’t tie her shoelaces and chew gum at the same time while processing the messages coming at her in this interconnected world? The human brain can prioritise and sort dozens of incoming intellectual stimuli. That’s why you’re reading and writing on ES instead of sitting in a tree. ‘Abused children’ is just a convenient excuse for ‘progressive’ disobedients. If that excuse didn’t exist, the disobedients would have found another.

roy chen yee | 29 October 2021  

"‘Abused children’ is just a convenient excuse for ‘progressive’ disobedients. If that excuse didn’t exist, the disobedients would have found another." Do you have any evidence ro support that opinion, Roy?

Ginger Meggs | 30 October 2021  

Ginger Meggs, the controversy over Modernism precedes the child abuse scandal: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/what-dissenters-mean-by-the-spirit-of-vatican-ii

roy chen yee | 31 October 2021  

That's not evidence Roy, that's just another opinion.

Ginger Meggs | 31 October 2021  

‘That's not evidence Roy, that's just another opinion.’

That the philosophy or ideology of Modernism existed before the known child sex abuse scandal within the Australian Church is fact and that modernists were blaming bishops for not adopting their views is fact.

As to your opinion that that’s not evidence, what is the fact that proves that you are stating a fact and not an opinion?

roy chen yee | 31 October 2021  

Roy, I checked the credentials of the journal from which you quote your article. Frankly it surprises that someone like you, with recently cited Jesuit credentials, should now cite an article from a known Opus Dei front organisation. Not that nomenclatural association should always be employed to discredit information, but when that organisation is noted, like Freemasonry, for infiltration, indoctrination and apologetics, associations of this kind are better known than not. While JP II's 'personal prelature' endowment of Opus Dei gave it some immunity from Catholic scrutiny, at a time when the contemporary Church has shed its history of secrecy and justification, albeit universally wrung from it by exposure of massive cover-ups on the child abuse question, this is no time for using such a discredited information source. Opus Dei is nothing more than a secret organisation of ancien regime reactionaries, now openly prepared to make common cause with millenarian Protestants and others to advance a common politico-religious agenda. I should know, Roy. I was a student resident at Netherhall House, their UK House of Formation during my study of Religious Education at St Mary's University, London. Deliberate attempts were made to recruit and indoctrinate practicing Catholics at the time.

Michael Furtado | 03 November 2021  

'with recently cited Jesuit credentials'. Where? I don't cite credentials. I lay a transparent path from reasoning to conclusion. When you can't rebut a point, you don top and tails and do an opaque song and dance with smoke and mirrors. The article you disparage also has transparent reasoning but you disparage it because of some hocus pocus that it is connected to Opus Dei. I don't know if that is so. It's irrelevant whether it is or not.

roy chen yee | 04 November 2021  

Roy I must say though that the carefully crafted agenda appears designed to preserve the power, authority and position of the hierarchy and has about as much relevance to the legacy if abuse in the 21st century as China's likelihood of embracing democracy. I think it's a show council. As they sit back after its over sipping their cup of tea they'll say "We showed those bastards!"

Francis Armstrong | 05 November 2021  

Wouldn't that be a surprise John RD that the so called "Reformists" would want to drag the Hierarchy kicking and screaming into the 21st century and challenge their inept, bumbling, holier than thou, we cannot question Rome, obeisance into the light of day.

Francis Armstrong | 02 November 2021  

I'm with John RD. I feel there is a strong push to replace clericalism with bureaucracy. I'm trying to work out how the average man/woman/child will be better off, spiritually and/or socially under this new political bureaucracy. What will change except the capacity for the church, even at parish level, to divide itself along political/bureaucratic lines? How does this help us, the Church community, to know, love and follow Jesus? How does this help us, the Church community, to love our neighbor? How does this help us, the Church community, partake of and become what we already are, the body of Christ? If we want reform then we need to concentrate on the basics of Church, how to spread the gospel message to love God and love our neighbor. Why do we need to replace a clerical institution with a bureaucratic one?

Brian Leeming | 29 October 2021  
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Perchance Brian Leeming needs to review and be more precise about his use of words. Bureaucracies, common to both clerical and political elites, comprise the ever-present and often faceless component of what those in charge, whether clerical or partisan, decide needs to be done. In France the shift from a hereditary and unaccountable aristocracy supported by an equally unaccountable clerical hierarchy to a secularised, anticlerical and elected republic at least reflected popular opinion and support. While I hear no one here suggesting that all synodal decisions be made on the basis of a popular vote, the Church needs to stop playing 'Let's Pretend' and acknowledge that it is a highly complex entity, often torn apart by competing and partisan interests. The main way forward if we are to avoid the obfuscation and confusion leading up to the highly contested First Stage of the Plenary Council, as Warhurst shows, is to avoid a repeat of it by embracing transparency, inclusivity and accountability en route to conducting its Second Stage.

Michael Furtado | 31 October 2021  

After reading John Warhurst and Francis Sullivan on the First Session of the Plenary Council, I’m left with feelings of dashed hopes for a better outcome, for renewed hope, respect and energy in the Australian Catholic Church. The old dictum of “the medium is the message” is coming through with the appearance of “same old, same old.” Personally I think the outcome of the Plenary Council will matter little to Australian Catholics. Those who are “rusted on” will hang on just as they do now; those who look for perceived necessary reforms may find some implemented but fall far short of what they hoped for; and those on the fringe as well as those who have already walked away from the church community are just as likely to maintain their position. For all the talk about needed reform there is but one answer and that lies in obedience to Jesus’ words: “By this will all know that you are my disciples. That you love one another. Love one another as I have loved you.”

Ernest Azzopardi | 31 October 2021  

That's not even logical Roy, just more of your word games. Why don't you start writing about love, in a loving way? Gotcha games won't get you anywhere.

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2021  

Any organisation, including the institutional Church, will fail in its mission without good leadership: principles, practices, structures and culture. That requires accountability, transparency and inclusion without discrimination, respecting, listening to, and involving the people of the Church.
The Plenary Council's efficacy hangs on the reform of church leadership.
Any success will be thanks to those bishops who have sufficient humility to acknowledge and address the imperative for reform of the Church's governance; and that means leadership, accountability, inclusion (particularly of women), a commitment to synodality, and the eradication of clericalism.

Peter Johnstone | 02 November 2021  

What we should ascertain John is what percentage of the 685 recommendations made by the last Plenary Council in 1937 were adopted by Rome. Did child abuse form part of those considerations? And if they were adopted were they kept by the clergy in Australia?
It seems not.
Rome recently scorned and scotched 12 of the 14 recommendations made by the Australian 2015 Royal Commission and only accepted Pedophilia should be characterized as a canonical "crime" and the abrogation of the Pontifical secret. So much for Vatican clerical arrogance.
Also the chair of the ACBC and the Australian hierarchy have voiced more concern about the humiliation occasioned to church reputation by the scale of the abuse rather than restructuring the conditions within which abuse flourished. No one has seriously suggested the abolition of same sex boarding schools and orphanages. Putting women in charge of the dormitories rather than psychosexually immature men who historically cannot control their juvenile appetites.
It beggars belief that the PC has some exclusive monopoly on the prayerful discernment of the ear of the Paraclete. It also goes without saying that the carefully structured divisions and power structures within the PC have again rudely sidelined the Laity and women in this country.

Francis Armstrong | 03 November 2021  

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