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Forward to the Second Plenary Council Assembly


The 280 Plenary Council (PC) Members have just taken another major step towards the Second Assembly in Sydney on 3-9 July. Yet it is difficult to have a proper public conversation about this step because it has taken place behind closed doors. 

On 28 February, the PC authorities published Towards the Second Assembly: A Working Document for Members. They also advised Members on how to approach their task of discernment, asking us to respond by 4 April. Feedback and input from Members, said Bishop Shane Mackinlay, Vice-President of the Council, was critical, but that, in revising the document, ‘important contributions’ would also be made by ‘various committees and advisors’. 

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference will consider the revised document at its May meeting, after responses by Members are considered by the Drafting Committee. The final resolutions for the Second Assembly will then be released publicly at the beginning of June for public discussion. 

Towards the Second Assembly comes a long way under the guidance of the four writing groups, whose membership has not been made public, although Members were informed and the names of the Drafting Committee and the periti are no secret. Though it is a mixed bag, it is probably the best document emerging from the PC, making it even more frustrating that it is not in the public domain. 

The PC authorities remain resolute that the process will remain ‘in house’ as far as possible. The document is addressed to the Members alone and we have been discouraged from making it more widely available. We have been advised that it is not a secret document and that we are not gagged, but that we should not pass it on to others. It is none the less in limited public circulation. 


'The wider Catholic community should be able to read and discuss Towards the Second Assembly. Yet it is officially prevented from doing so. It is not too late for this decision to be reversed. Meanwhile Catholics should try to get hold of a copy.' 


The PC authorities must have heard the many voices from the wider Catholic community over the past four years urging a broader involvement in its deliberations. But those voices have been deliberately excluded in favour of a discernment bubble. PC Members have never been directly asked their opinion of this approach, though some of us have registered our disagreement on this point to no avail. 

The wider Catholic community is ‘on the outer’ from the time of the release of the Fruits of the First Assembly in December 2021 until the release of the final proposals for the Second Assembly in June 2022. For six whole months the discernment and discussion will officially be private and the final outcomes of the Second Assembly will be the poorer for it. This will make the final four weeks more hectic than it should be. 

Towards the Second Assembly has four sections: Communion, Diversity and Participation; Ecclesial Leadership and Governance; Missionary Disciples in the World; and Reconciliation, Compassion for the Wounded and Care for our Common Home. 

Each section includes general context and theological background, concrete proposals, and recommendations for further deliberation. The whole document is just thirty well-spaced pages. The prime resource was the Fruits document, which was a low point in the PC deliberations. Under these circumstances the writing teams have done quite well though there is unnecessary overlap between the sections. 

Strengths include proposals for those aspects on which the views of the First Assembly were quite clear. These include (Section A.1) supporting and acting upon the recommendations by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Commission (NATSICC). But the same writing group (Section A.3) has produced a much weaker section on inclusiveness, which buries critical communities in a grab bag of ‘those who are overlooked’ and on the ‘peripheries’. This grab bag includes widows and orphans, those with a disability, those who are divorced and remarried and those who feel they are not accepted because of their sexuality or gender identity. 

Not only are some groups overlooked, but the language is dismissive, not facing up to the church teachings and behaviour responsible for excluding people because of their marriage status, sexuality or gender identity. It is not a case merely of people ‘feeling’ that they are not accepted by the Church. 

Section B on church leadership and governance contains the same mixture of strengths and weaknesses. The section on ‘The Practice of Synodality’ (B.2) makes strong suggestions about diocesan synods, diocesan pastoral councils, parish pastoral councils and on implementing The Light from the Southern Cross report. It also proposes an innovative National Catholic Synodal Leadership Council. 

However, the very next section (B.3) on ‘Women and the Church’ is unacceptably cautious, despite partially taking up the cause of women deacons. It repeats without apology that it is 20 years with little action since the Church’s Women and Man report and includes platitudes about women being given their ‘due’ place in the church. Relying on Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women is patronising. 

Section C includes some wise analysis on formation and culture. But C.2 makes the mistake, while recognising positive values in Australian culture, that the Church must learn from these values ‘in order to restore lost credibility’. The Light from the Southern Cross report made clear that acceptance of the best secular values is not just about restoring lost credibility but is the right thing to do! 

C.2 also rightly emphasises the value of listening, but repeats in similar terms the catch-all lumping together of a range of people who ‘feel’ marginalised by the Church. The Church must recognise that it does marginalise many groups and it is not just a case of the feelings of such groups. 

There is much more. The wider Catholic community should be able to read and discuss Towards the Second Assembly. Yet it is officially prevented from doing so. It is not too late for this decision to be reversed. Meanwhile Catholics should try to get hold of a copy. 

PC Members themselves should be able to discuss the document with the wider community in addition to other Members. I have benefitted enormously from doing so in my own discernment and I will continue to do so against the wishes of the Church authorities. It just makes common sense. 




John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Closed church doors. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Plenary Council, Church, Towards the Second Assembly



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Existing comments

John, thank you for your honest summation of this ‘hidden’ document. My heart bleeds when I read your words. So much possibility was on offer when the council was called. So much disappointment in the secrecy that surrounds this document and in it not being shared with or let alone discussed by those of us who have been holding our collective breath waiting to read, discuss and hold close what we prayed the Holy Spirit would achieve when the Council gathered. As a woman who has been a loyal and active member of our Church for over 70 years, I weep.

Tricia | 05 April 2022  

Gosh John, I admire your fortitude. Sounds like the response of a Catholic Church under siege which it is, and one that is not able to understand that WE are the Church! Perhaps there is a dearth of thinkers left standing but are the parishioners such pariahs to them, requiring such secrecy? The Holy Spirit will not work in such a secretive chamber, deaf to Christ's teaching and example. Shame.

Carol | 05 April 2022  

There must be millions of Catholics like me looking to re-engage with the Church after the horrors of the Royal Commission, hoping for a glimmer of light from a Church that is cloaked in darkness. The answer to 2000 years of secrecy is not more secrecy.

Mark (and Liz) Carkeet | 05 April 2022  

John I admire your patience and forbearance. Who should be surprised about the hidden document?
The candidates were chosen in secret. The Bishops in the previous PC published their recommendations in Latin. Since the Royal Commission the Vatican have thumbed their nose at 12 of the 14 findings.

The secrecy of the Hierarchy is deafening. Their complete lack of sanctions against the child molester clergy in their midst and their obdurate refusal to laicise over 2000 offenders or indeed even investigate their crimes and their own cover ups is another indication of Business as usual.
This PC is a cover up by a carefully selected clique of non boat rockers who are ultimately window dressing for the hierarchy and preservation of their power and prestige within the "church".

Francis Armstrong | 05 April 2022  

The great cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky observed that “whoever sets the agenda controls the outcome of the debate”. Clearly, those controlling the Plenary Council process are doing just that. The approach is counter to all the principles of inclusive leadership and counter to the Pope’s endorsement of synodality, made even worse by the secretive process adopted and the assistance of unnamed advisors.
Worse still, the many voices from the wider Catholic community over the past four years “have been deliberately excluded in favour of a discernment bubble” and a falsely labelled ‘fruits’ document presenting proposals of mainly individuals as the product of the 1st Assembly.
Clearly, the agenda for the critical 2nd Assembly of the Plenary Council is under the control of those who happen to have the decisive vote at the Council, the bishops of Australia.
The Plenary Council consultative vote is thus hamstrung by the topics allowed onto the agenda, not to mention the controlled time limit for the 2nd Assembly of 5 days that will prevent considered discussion and discernment.
This is NOT synodal process. Plenary Council consultative members should follow the example of the bishops of the world at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and insist on: a) the opportunity to revise and agree the agenda before the 2nd Assembly commences, and b) the extension of the Assembly sufficiently to allow adequate debate of that agreed agenda. The Australian bishops must then comply with the canon law requirement (c.127) that they must not act contrary to the consultative vote without an overriding reason, a canon not even mentioned in the Plenary Council statutes.
Plenary Council members can still save this Council and ensure that the Council properly reflect the sense of faith of the Australian faithful.

Peter Johnstone | 07 April 2022  

What if the "sense of faith of the Australian people" exists only in the miniscule minority of Australian Catholics who follow and practice the Faith? Perhaps the Council might be better off listening to the vast majority who have given active Catholicism away rather than the few who want to be protestants.

john frawley | 07 April 2022  
Show Responses

John Frawley, the 'sensus fidei fidelium' (the sense of faith of the faithful) certainly includes those many who have walked away through frustration with the inadequacies of the institutional Church that so often fails to reflect the faith given us by Jesus.

Peter Johnstone | 10 April 2022  

John if the Bishops ignore the practical common sense of active Catholics, parents and the recommendations of the RC, why would they listen to lapsed Catholics who have left the church in droves?
I think they are only interested in donations, legacies, Government grants, what comes in on the collection plate each week. Sounds a little cynical I know.

Francis Armstrong | 11 April 2022  

In my understanding, neither the Plenary Council nor the Synodal process of which it is part is intended to be an instrument whereby the pope and bishops relinquish their official responsibility for the Church's teachings and practices.
In alleging that Australia's Catholic bishops are acting ultra vires at this stage of proceedings, is the reform coalition represented here open to the possibility that some of the proposals submitted are not compatible with the routinely invoked "sensus fidei fidelium", the discernment of which is ultimately the responsibility of the Church's hierarchy (cf. Vatican II, "Lumen Gentium" III, 18-25; CCC, 888-896; 2034); and that our bishops, a distinctive mandate of whose office is to ensure doctrinal integrity in the Church may well, in this context, have "overriding reason" - not least, Church unity - in their exercising of discernment at this stage in proceedings?

John RD | 08 April 2022  
Show Responses

John RD, I agree that neither "the Plenary Council nor the Synodal process of which it is part is intended to be an instrument whereby the pope and bishops relinquish their official responsibility for the Church's teachings and practices." A Plenary Council is intended canonically as a means of informing that responsibility. Synodality ensures that the magisterium is informed by the people of the Church in fulfilling that responsibility, i.e. the 'sense of faith' of the faithful who have the day-to-day experience of living in the world as members of society and of small communities, familiar with the signs of the times. Our bishops certainly must ensure doctrinal integrity and that involves listening to and discerning the sense of faith of the faithful in the Church.

Peter Johnstone | 11 April 2022  

Thank you, Peter.
The sticking point remains the authority and function of the pope and bishops in discerning the "sensus fidei fidelium."
In the PC process to date, reflected in these pages, there have been strident voices (not yours) that repeatedly demand the abolition of the Catholic Church's hierarchical structure, specifically its magisterial office and functioning - a call usually occasioned by the mishandling of clerical abuse, the Church's teaching on marriage and sexuality, and the reservation of priestly ordination only to males.
I don't see how appeal to a sensus fidei fidelium that would exclude or place the same weight on the contributions of the official magisterium and the laity would, to say the least, be practicable in determining the universality necessary to substantiate the very term invoked.

John RD | 11 April 2022  

It appears that John RD has missed Peter Johnstone's point that the bishops have an ultra vires obligation to consult the faithful. What they then do about it is a matter for them.

Surely calling the Plenary Council was not designed to ensure that those selected to attend and participate should become gate-keepers for the bishops, protecting them from engaging with the precise purpose of the Council which is to hear the voice of the faithful.

Michael Furtado | 13 April 2022  

In reading your article on the preparation of, and the continued secrecy in regard to, the document 'Towards the Second Assembly', it is almost as if Sir Humphrey Appleby is orchestrating the proceedings on behalf of Church authorities. As Nigel Molesworth said, 'any fule kno' that synodality is not about surrendering the Magisterium. It is about decent and open governance of the affairs of the Catholic Church. It was in obscurity and through obfuscation that the dreadful evil of child sexual abuse was perpetuated. The Royal Commision was absolutely scathing about this. The lines from the song: "when will they ever learn..." spring to mind. I am aghast. Stupified.

Edward Fido | 11 April 2022  

Thank you John. As always you have provided tantalising insights and whetted my appetite to read more. Agree with commentaries so far that secrecy breeds distrust at a time when trust is what we need.

Maria P Harries | 11 April 2022  

Peter Johnstone. "The many who have walked away" have in truth walked away from the Church founded by Christ and so doing have walked away from Him. My point is that we do not know why the vast majority of baptised, nominal Catholics have walked away and that should be investigated because it might throw considerable light on what the problems really are. There is nothing which supports the assumption that you favour: viz that people have walked away principally because of bad management. It is more likely that they have walked away because they do not have faith or belief - perhaps because we now have lost two generations of Catholics who find nothing to revere in practice and have not been educated in the teachings of the Church. The destruction of the sacred liturgy following Vat II and the relegation of religious studies in Catholic schools to the level of comparative philosophy and a points scoring exercise for university admission have excluded Christ and his teachings from many and they have nothing uplifting to inspire them. Business management is a minor consideration when it comes to faith and belief - it is a man made construct which can be easily altered, unlike the divine construct that is Christ amongst his people in a sacramental body, God and man as one in the very image of Christ himself . Its time to get over the disappointment that Vat II didn't change the administrative/ management systems of the Church and didn't give certain elements what they wanted and hoped for, [such as married clergy, female ordination and liberal contraception] re-visit its promulgations in the documents and implement them as intended and written not as we would choose to interpret them in accordance with secular/personal preferences. Later this week we would all do well to ask ourselves how often since the changes following Vat II has our God wept and pleaded, "Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do". Christ's Church is based on humility, acceptance of his Father's will and sacrifice not management theory.

john frawley | 11 April 2022  

You make some excellent points in your post of 12 April 2022, John Frawley. I don't think most Catholics have drifted away from the Church because they wanted to, at least not initially. It was gradual disillusionment. You were extremely lucky to have been brought up in a decent Catholic home where the Faith was practiced by both parents. There are multitudes like you. The problem tends to occur when there is not a united front at home. It is almost universally accepted now that some of those who claimed Vatican 2 inspiration got it wildly wrong. A lot of the mysterium went out of religion as a result. The English liturgy, if well celebrated, is good. Badly celebrated with crap hymns (excuse French) it is awful. Benediction raised one up. What does these days? The Church is not a watered down 19th Century Ethical Society. It is not about doing good and asking for money to do so. These are Fruits of the Spirit. There needs to be a revolution in holiness in the Church. That is the starting point. But transparent administrative reform needs to come too.

Edward Fido | 11 April 2022  

John Frawley's analysis and reflection faithfully and eloquently represents the feelings of many who experienced a Catholic upbringing in family, parish and school in pre-60s Australia - a generation in many places today who form the obvious majority of Mass-going Catholics and for whom the most important and urgent contemporary priority of the Church is the nurturing and communication of faith in an identifiable living tradition.
The relative complexities and challenges of a changed and changing society notwithstanding, the priority for renewal John Frawley recognizes can't be overstated; and within it, together with the admirable outreach to those in need our schools encourage, due exposure to and emphasis on doctrinal and sacramental practice of the faith.
As the Church's history shows repeatedly, crisis is the opportunity and harbinger of renewal and growth.

John RD | 12 April 2022  

Great Thanks, John Warhurst, for the lucidity of your summation and the courage to break ranks in order to share it! Your disclosure of unnecessary episcopal secrecy highlights a problem endemic to the Australian Church.

With precious few exceptions, the ecclesial culture that spreads from open and unsecretive bishops animates diocesan culture and its settings.

Thus, Parramatta since +Bede Heather, Toowoomba (until his deposition) since +Bill Morris and Adelaide under +Lennie Faulkner.

Because incumbents and their laity have no say in episcopal succession, such cultures can be atrophied as happened in Toowoomba where half the faithful left in protest after +Bill's removal.

Culture, as you know, is a tenuous thing. While Bishops can stymie its development, it persists underground as Jesus' followers, like the early reformers a millennium and a half later, found in gatherings in upper rooms and garrets, priest-holes and dungeons, where a pilgrim faith is still nurtured in a thousand clandestine ways.

We live, it seems, at a time of The Catacombs. Only this time our persecutors are episcopal and clerical. Shrouded in in-house subterfuge and pathologically committed to power and control they wouldn't recognise the virtue of openness if they fell over it.

Fight on, John!

Michael Furtado | 13 April 2022  

The catacombs you refer to Michael Furtardo, appear to be full of ecclesiastical 'bats', who continue to drop guano on the brave few who remain within the Church and who, like you, actually think for themselves. There are indeed good, sane Catholics, like John Frawley, who were formed, like you in decent believing homes with a decent Catholic education. One of the things those responsible for Catholic education are doing and which will bear real fruit is opening the system to Non-Catholics. In the great days of the Raj, when a place like St Joseph's North Point accepted all comers, many found their way to the Faith through the excellent Belgian Jesuits who ran it. The Church needs to wean itself from the old sectarian laager mentality fostered by the likes of Mannix. John Warhurst is a gem. I am so grateful to him. Mille Fois Bravo, John!

Edward Fido | 21 April 2022  

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