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How the Plenary might resolve the unresolvable

  • 30 September 2021
At one level a lot is riding on this Plenary Council. Only the fifth such Council in the Australian church history, there is a great sense of anticipation among a wide variety of groups: those estranged from the church, priests looking for direction for their own parishes, women bereft of opportunities to express their faith and seeking a look-in, parents of uninterested children desperate for ways of bridging the gap between church traditions and modernity, those ostracised from the church, as well as those not wanting any changes at all.

All are looking on with interest at one of the most formal consultative processes within the church. Will it or won’t it produce tangible output that will help direct the church into the post-Royal Commission, post-Covid era, and help bring about deeper faith across a wider congregation?

The extent to which any outcome can contribute to that goal is out of the immediate control of the present Plenary Council. While the Council, through its definition can set binding canonical laws for the related region (i.e. Australia), the laws and norms applicable in this process are still limited. That is, it is likely discussion will be restrained to the particular areas addressable by a local Church.

In this context, many pleas within more than 17,000 submissions collated for inclusion may be pie-in-the-sky ideals that are sidelined in the PC discussions. These include calls for broader interpretations of scripture, a gentler approach to those who are at odds with church teachings, practical suggestions for dealing with priest shortages, and more detailed suggestions around responsible church governance.

This presents a challenge for heeding the call by Pope Francis for a church of synodality, centred on mutual listening and learning. Plenary members must take care that the Council will not be a one-sided conversation or a show of mutual listening contrained to a Church-defined 2000-year-old script.

Some argue that issues, such as women’s ordination, divorce, views on homosexuality, are not worth discussing in the PC given the clear teachings of the church on these. Yet this runs the risk of ignoring raw feedback.

'While practical outcomes are a defined criteria for a successful PC, the road to these outcomes might not be clear.'

Consider these excerpts from submissions from the Final Report for the Plenary Council Phase 1: Listening and Dialogue:

‘Women are treated in a tokenistic manner and are angered by this…’

‘If men and women are made in the image