How the Plenary might resolve the unresolvable

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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 and likeness of God, we must start to ordain women’, ‘(We need) to break down the human construct that we use as tools to gain power and manipulate’,

‘ Where is the mercy and forgiveness when we deprive divorcees who have remarried commune?’

‘As a layperson, the Church's decision to vilify homosexuals and not attack a consumerist culture suggests that the Church likes punching down, not up...’ 

On the other hand, a PC is not simply a process to accept all suggestions and ideas. The question remains: how does a PC navigate the condundrum of being clearly ‘open to the Spirit’ across these new submissions, while honouring earlier Spirit-led discernment that produced long-accepted stances and teachings of the church?

One answer was presented at a member formation session: a ‘Spirit overflow’, which is a notion of holding the tension between conflicting views by staying sincerely open to another viewpoint, while continuing to speak from our own heart and understanding. Members can then, ideally, expect a resolution to the unresolvable that goes beyond human capabilities.

Members of the PC would do well to remember their foremost calling is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the Australian Church. That doesn’t mean limiting or restricting that discernment to what members consider possible for the church to address.

While recognising that the nature of this PC, which inhibits making changes to some issues, may be at odds to synodality, plenary members can still stay focused on discernment of the Spirit, irrespective of how practical they think they outcome might be.

Because while practical outcomes are a defined criteria for a successful PC, the road to these outcomes might not be clear. Members simply need to present themselves at the PC, each with individual takes on various issues, moulded through formation, and supported by the prayer of the wider faith community. They come, ready to listen to the other voices, not through the head or the ears, but through a stillness and a willingness to absorb the points being made by the other.

As with the Magic Eye stereogram images of the 90s, it is the role of members to look beyond the obvious or central issues facing the Church, to look for the 3D sense of God forming the church within the discussion. The role of members is to look for God, rather than focusing on a particular issue. There is wisdom in the Biblical caution of not putting new wine into old wineskins. Sometimes the current wineskins are just no longer suitable to hold the richness of the wine that is the faith. The focus for many on the Plenary Council is not on retaining the wineskins; it is the wine that is the focus.

I heard a comment, expressed separately by both a Plenary Council member as well as a couple of wise and grounded laywomen I was chatting to, that seemed to put the whole Plenary Council journey into some perspective: ‘this council is just one of many ways in which church reform can be facilitated.’ It helped alleviate some of the angst that has been building up about how it will all turn out.

In the same way, the council members trust that God’s Spirit will speak through them, and the Spirit will also speak through other members, as well as through the PC process. The process began with the National Consultation, will continue through the Plenary Council and progress into the future through continued Spirit-led discussion and action between the Church’s hierarchy and the faithful.

 

 

Dr Nimmi Candappa is a Melbourne writer, Plenary Council member and academic.

Main image: Woman raising hand at convention (Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Nimmi Candappa, Plenary council, royal commission, church reform

 

 

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God does speak, but sometimes ears are closed, often among the hierarchy. This time is very much like the Renaissance, where some leading figures in it, such as Erasmus and Colet, were instrumental in introducing the study of Greek to Western Europe. This had a phenomenal effect on Religion and University Education. Things could never be the same again. I do not think bringing up the matter of women's ordination will be beneficial because Rome has said it's out. Women deacons, who have existed in the past and who are part of the three fold ministry, should be discussed. There is no doctrinal bar to them. They would change the Church radically and dramatically. They can do everything bar consecrating the Eucharist. Think of that. Regarding sexuality, the authorities need to clamp down on fulminations from the pulpit about masturbation. For heavens sake. Tolerance and inclusivity are good, but we need to be careful buying into things like Queer Theory, which are not biblically and theologically soundly based. This is an area where Neo-Marxist deconstructionism attempts to infiltrate.
I shall not be taking part in the process, merely thinking for myself. I find it works.


Edward Fido | 30 September 2021  

Dear Dr Nimmi Candappa: thank you for a revealing article. - - - Was a tad surprised that in your list of Catholics hankering after change [those estranged from the Church, priests looking for direction for their own parishes, women bereft of opportunities to express their faith & seeking a look-in, parents of uninterested children desperate for ways of bridging the gap between Church traditions & modernity, those ostracized from the Church, as well as those not wanting any changes at all] you saw no place for many who long for the Church to be true to Christ's life & instructions & Apostolic foundation, specifically in enthusiastic engagement with the miraculous Catechism of the Catholic Church and its New Testament foundations. - - - When you say you want the Plenary Council to: "help bring about deeper faith across a wider congregation", what do you actually MEAN by 'faith'. This is a core question that bears on everything else. - - - How sad it makes me that you never mention Jesus Christ in your article. I worry that this diminishment of Jesus (if widespread) bodes ill for the Plenary Council & so for our Church. - - - Let’s lovingly move forward in all the ways you list, dear Nimmi, but ONLY as true Catholics who joyfully believe & proclaim wholeheartedly & unreservedly that Jesus Christ alone is the triumphant sole ruler of the heavens & the earth; is the fullness of the one eternal God enfleshed, crucified, resurrected, ascended, reigning, pouring out His Holy Spirit, & soon returning as the sole, eternal Judge of all of us, living and dead. - - - Ever in the merciful grace of our Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ; love & prayers & blessings from Marty


Dr Marty Rice | 30 September 2021  

‘As a layperson, the Church's decision to vilify homosexuals and not attack a consumerist culture suggests that the Church likes punching down, not up...’ Acute comment: ‘punching down, not up.’ When brawling against the Devil, do as brawlers do: punch in all directions. If you consider the four traditional sin-types which cry to Heaven for vengeance as four transparent cubes bound to each other and rotating endlessly through spiritual hyperspace, with all humans and the Devil tossing within them, the Devil has to be punched in all directions because, tossed about within the cubes like you, that’s what he is doing to you, striking from within whatever sin-type he, for the moment, happens to be located. It’s not as if we haven’t heard of these four traditional sin-types.


roy chen yee | 30 September 2021  

Why is it to be assumed that being 'open to the Spirit' is speaking through sweeping generalities and assertions such as "Women are treated in a tokenistic manner" and "we must start to ordain women."? Why should any Catholic "absorb" the notion that the ordained priesthood is merely a "human construct" employed as an instrument "to gain power and manipulate"?


John RD | 01 October 2021  

I admit to feeling torn about the PC. I really do hope that it will open the doors and windows and allow the Spirit to rush in the renew not only the Church in Australia but rush out through us into the whole country and world. My greatest hope is that the PC is a forum for active and respectful listening to everyone; those who are happy with things they way they are, those who are not happy, those who are caught somewhere in between and those who are wounded and bleeding and those who have left. Pope Francis keeps showing us a way forward; I hope we have the courage to follow him - because he is following Christ.


Paul O'Shea | 01 October 2021  

It seems to me that a lot of the focus has been on the relationship between man and woman. From my perspective, I feel that we need to try to look at the age of our community and how to meet the needs of them all- young, middle-aged and old, regardless of sex. As we grow old, our needs change in life, and so does our perspectives. When we are young we need tuition in all aspects of life, including religion; then as we mature, our convictions become firmer. As Catholics we have to be inclusive and think of the needs of all ages, and how to retain the young and the old to our faith.


JOHN WILLIS | 01 October 2021  
Show Responses

‘When we are young we need tuition in all aspects of life, including religion; then as we mature, our convictions become firmer.’ It’s not only the young for whom it is a scandal to cause them to stumble. It’s much more so for the old, for whom, the older you get, statistically the more probable it is that you will be meeting judgement at any moment. Children, statistically, have many years ahead of them to recant, the old not so. Anyone should be careful about the age of the heads into which they pour moral ideas. And anyone who is old should be careful about the moral ideas being poured into their heads.


roy chen yee | 04 October 2021  

Dear Dr Nimmi Candappa: thank you for a revealing article. - - - Was a tad surprised that in your list of Catholics hankering after change [those estranged from the Church, priests looking for direction for their own parishes, women bereft of opportunities to express their faith & seeking a look-in, parents of uninterested children desperate for ways of bridging the gap between Church traditions & modernity, those ostracized from the Church, as well as those not wanting any changes at all] you saw no place for many who long for the Church to be true to Christ's life & instructions & Apostolic foundation, specifically in enthusiastic engagement with the miraculous Catechism of the Catholic Church and its New Testament foundations. - - - When you say you want the Plenary Council to: "help bring about deeper faith across a wider congregation", what do you actually MEAN by 'faith'. This is a core question that bears on everything else. - - - How sad it makes me that you never mention Jesus Christ in your article. I worry that this diminishment of Jesus (if widespread) bodes ill for the Plenary Council & so for our Church. - - - Let’s lovingly move forward in all the ways you list, dear Nimmi, but ONLY as true Catholics who joyfully believe & proclaim wholeheartedly & unreservedly that Jesus Christ alone is the triumphant sole ruler of the heavens & the earth; is the fullness of the one eternal God enfleshed, crucified, resurrected, ascended, reigning, pouring out His Holy Spirit, & soon returning as the sole, eternal Judge of all of us, living and dead. - - - Ever in the merciful grace of our Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ; love & prayers & blessings from Marty


Dr Marty Rice | 01 October 2021  



Thank you Nimmi for your article that palpably expresses how many of us feel as we approach this momentous historical event our beloved Church.
You are indeed a prophetic voice with courage to draw attention to the avoidable issues that enables us to descend from moral high ground to listen with compassion to voices that matter. You are a passionate disciple of the Lord whom you love deeply. May the Holy Spirit of Pentecost move within the hearts of all who are discerning and casting a vote to lead our Church in the Way the Truth and the Life - JESUS.


Loretta Hughes | 01 October 2021  

As Dr Marty Rice reminds us (30/9), growth in the the knowledge and love of Christ, and personal response in faith to his call to discipleship lie at the heart of the Gospel, the sacramental community that is gathered in his name, and the ongoing mission of proclaiming and witnessing to him and his kingdom. The new evangelization doctrinally and pastorally initiated by Paul VI in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" and taken up by his papal successors recognizes Christ as its touchstone, as I hope and pray will be evident as the Plenary Council progresses.


John RD | 02 October 2021  

Sadly this seems to be yet another navel gazing exercise which places humanity and gender identity before Christ.


john frawley | 02 October 2021  

I think John RD hit the nail squarely on the head when he said certain things, such as the priesthood, were not human constructs. The reason for a sacred priesthood, to me, goes back to the Last Supper and the words Jesus said at it when he instituted the celebration of the Eucharist. It is not the person of the priest which is sacred, but what he does. It is important that distinction is well and truly understood. It might help prevent clericalism. I fear the Plenary Council may become a gabfest for those addicted to religious gabfests. These are numerous. It may end up being as fluffy and innocuous as 'Cup of Tea Time', which, in some Anglican parishes I belonged to. were the highlight of many worshippers' Sundays. These were often sad, lonely people, trying to make a connection. I wonder if some of the attendees at this PC will be in a similar mood? I think so.


Edward Fido | 02 October 2021  

‘unresolvable’: The difference between whether it is a boon or a bane, or a challenge or a problem, to have a question to answer is the difference between being inside the Garden or Fallen outside of it. Within, a question is an invitation to resolve a challenge which will stimulate. Outside, a question is yielding to the acknowledgment that without resolution, a problem will depreciate and degrade the more. There are four sectors of sin (or Sin) which, in the traditional description, ‘cry to Heaven for vengeance’. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words, the problem which the Plenary is supposed to solve is why we have a society in which the apparent presumptive for leader of the Liberal Party of NSW, the colony which was the foothold (but not a touchstone) of Christ as Christ in the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit, has runs in two of those sectors but no identity in the others, while the apparent presumptive for deputy leader, who received a ‘Catholic’ education, may have some runs in the sin-sectors which appeal to the material interests of Western Sydney, the home of the Howard aspirationals who tend to work in jobs in which they have no autonomy and who would benefit from the ethic of not cheating the worker of the value of his wages, but has no runs in the same sectors as his leader and, from the face of it, appears to be doing the Sacrament of Matrimony no favours.


roy chen yee | 04 October 2021  

Nimmi, when I read your article I thought it well-intentioned if perhaps mild and somewhat understated. After all, the Church and its Spirit belong to no particular factions and must be open to all. Judging from the responses you've elicited above, with the exception of Loretta Hughes' gentle endorsement, you've surely done right to trawl the deeps and come up with the kind of dregs that inhabit a horror underworld of the Church's own making and which constitutes a target that would have broken even Christ's heart. In acknowledging this challenge, and since the Synod commenced, I have experienced a Damascene change of heart, realising with the needs on show here, substantially manifested by their own jaundiced attitudes and sanctimony, that there's a colossal amount of work yet to be done. While I realise that, as a research-scholar at Monash in traffic-engineering, you would encounter ethical objections to the invention of a machine that could serve us and them well by mercifully running them down, might I suggest an extension of the excellent work done by Catholic Aged Care Services in the form of a Zyklon-B gas-chamber with Pope Francis offering conditional absolution to the first Catholic prepared euthanase them.


Michael Furtado | 09 October 2021  
Show Responses

‘machine….chamber’ That spurs an idea. Most of our internecine controversies would be solved by the invention of a machine that could deliver to anyone who professes to be a Christian a minute’s visit to Purgatory. Or perhaps for just a second. We wouldn’t want to be coming back with PTSD.


roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

Whatever happened to your usual exercise of male privilege in addressing a post by a woman? Where’s the ‘La belle Nimmita’ or some similar gay and carefree expression of laddishness and larrikinity?


roy chen yee | 12 October 2021  

'conditional' on what? Even as a story, the line doesn't make sense.


roy chen yee | 14 October 2021  

‘Damascene’. Typical mooching after cheap grace. A ‘Damascene’ conversion only happens after you fall off your horse, hit your head, go blind, and maybe have to learn for a day or two how to clean your bottom without being able to see. Only when those actual or metaphorical dues are paid, can you have your conversion. Sounds like the cheap confabulation of conscience with opinion.


roy chen yee | 14 October 2021  

‘Church and its Spirit belong to no particular factions’ When a faction persists with a line of reasoning which will result in fruit which is intrinsically evil, the question can be asked if the faction was ever consubstantial with the tree. Perhaps, in the opposite metaphor to that of the Church being in the world but not of it, the faction is a serpent in the Garden but not of it.

Persisting with the proposition that an opinion is synonymous with conscience permits conscience to permit an intrinsic evil, an illogicality which lurks adjacent to Scripture and Tradition but is not of them.


roy chen yee | 17 October 2021  

It is interesting to know that your research is to do with automated traffic control, Nimmi, because I think there are many within the hierarchy who will be wanting to activate the 'Stop' sign at any hint of change or progress at the forthcoming Plenary Council. There are, obviously matters regarding the Magisterium which are out of bounds and rightly so. but many others are not. The calibre of the Australian Catholic hierarchy and the Anglicans are similar, is not very good. There are and always have been exceptions. I await results.


Edward Fido | 10 October 2021  

Interesting comment Dr Nimmi , "Members of the PC would do well to remember their foremost calling is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the Australian Church. That doesn’t mean limiting or restricting that discernment to what members consider possible for the church to address."
The carefully selected agenda did exactly that. Circumscribed the topics of discussion, outlawed controversy, elbowed out women and the laity. We talk about the sacred priesthood and yet 25% of these people, including brothers, break their vows (upon which the very safety of children relies) with impunity.
As for the minuscule sample of carefully handpicked players in the game, prayerfully claiming they have the ear of the Holy Spirit, no doubt I'll be dammed if I'd accept any of their findings. I think its an exercise in hierarchical manipulation and power control .


Francis Armstrong | 12 November 2021  
Show Responses

‘…their foremost calling is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the Australian Church. That doesn’t mean limiting or restricting that discernment to what members consider possible for the church to address.’

True, insofar as language of international diplomacy that says black is white can be technically true. To discern is to consider what is magisterially possible because continual revelation is conjunctive, not disjunctive.

‘We talk about the sacred priesthood and yet 25% of these people, including brothers, break their vows (upon which the very safety of children relies) with impunity.’

According to God’s conversation with Abraham, Mrs Lot wouldn’t have become salt if 75% of the population of Sodom and Gomorrah had been free of the guilt of your priestly 25% some several thousand years later. Apply the same conversation and the priesthood is still sacred. As for impunity, there is no impunity in the next life. If you’re hung up about impunity in this, join the club of all the critical race theorists, Aboriginal activists, refugee advocates, greta thunbergs, etc. who have you in their crosshairs for some guilt or another. Those without sin can cast the first stone. The rest, as is being done, plug holes.


roy chen yee | 14 November 2021  

You're accusing others of a guilt-obsession Roy? What was that about splinters and planks?


Ginger Meggs | 18 November 2021  

To address the nomadic chip on your shoulder, the problem with the acceptance of homosexuality is not guilt but logic, proved by the dyslogic that is imposed on a third party, the trophy child who is sundered from nurture in one of the two lines of its genetic provenance.


roy chen yee | 22 November 2021  

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