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In a state of synodality


One takeaway from the First Assembly of the Plenary Council that might come as no surprise is that the controlling elite in the Church, the bishops, are not dependent on popular support. They are appointed not elected. They are generally irremovable. They come from a culture that is about preserving ‘the tradition’ (which can easily be expanded to include historical novelties that are not really part of the tradition). Moving into the new world of synodality brings obvious challenges.

The methodology of the Australian Plenary Council is similar to the one proposed by the preparatory document of the Synod of Bishops: a deep, prayerful listening. As the preparatory document states: In a synodal style, decisions are made through discernment, based on a consensus that flows from the common obedience to the Spirit [30].

In many ways this synodal process is somewhat counter-intuitive to the usual way in which groups, whether secular or ecclesial, make decisions. We are comfortable with the parliamentary style with its emphasis on ‘who has the numbers’. Deals are done and compromises sought to elicit support for a particular idea. Often there are winners and losers, with the losers marshalling to fight a rear-guard action.

The problem with agitating for reform and presenting ‘an idea’ and seeking support, especially from a controlling elite, is that good ideas are easily dismissed. The elite consider themselves intelligent and when confronted with a new idea, something out of the proverbial ‘left field’, the tendency is to be dismissive. The subliminal thought process goes like this: ‘Here is a new idea. I have not thought about things that way. Since I am intelligent either I should have thought of it (and I didn’t), or it cannot be a good idea. Really it is not such a good idea (because if it was, I would have thought of it).’ 

The mistake that some of the proponents of the reform make is to assume they can use the usual methodology of parliamentary persuasion (mustering the numbers) to impose their views on the bishops. The presenter of the idea looks to marshal support, exert pressure, ‘sell’ the idea, and try to persuade the controlling elite to change their minds and embrace the new way of thinking. This works if the position of the elite is dependent on ‘popular support’. It does not work so well in the Church.

Coalitions of reformist groups and public shaming in the secular media are counterproductive. That strategy only further reinforces the defensive reaction, with the risk that those bishops who are more tradition minded, become even more protective.


'The Australian bishops have set themselves a course and there is now no turning back. Now is the time for dreams to flourish.'


In the process of discernment, all the participants share their good ideas with everyone else’s. This seems to have been the outcome of the group process during the first assembly of the Plenary Council. A common theme in the various published comments and podcasts of some of the participants is that many were surprised by the diversity of participants which, naturally meant a diversity of opinions.

The melting pot of ideas will now become the basis for an approach that sees these possibilities as solutions to what are discerned as the common problems needing attention. 

That will be the next stage of the Plenary Council journey as the ‘good ideas’ are sifted, researched and presented to the second assembly in July next year. While some will remain sceptical and there is likely to remain an undercurrent of negativity by some people, it seems from the comments there is an overall sense of optimism that the Spirit is at work and will bear fruit.

Plenary Councils are legislative instruments. Good law has to be practical and achievable and well-received. But more important than the black letter law of whatever decrees might be enacted next July, is the change in culture that the process brings about.

Pope Francis addressed the Jesuit community in September 2019 in Mozambique and spoke about shepherding. ‘Great shepherds give people a lot of freedom. The good shepherd knows how to lead his flock without enslaving it to rules that deaden people. The shepherd has the ability to go in front of the flock to show the way, stay in the middle of the flock to see what happens within, and also be at the rear of the flock to make sure that no one is left behind.’

The Australian bishops have set themselves a course and there is now no turning back. Now is the time for dreams to flourish.

As the Synod preparatory document concludes: [32] the purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but ‘to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.



Brian Lucas headshotFr Brian Lucas is National Director of Catholic Mission Australia. 


Topic tags: Brian Lucas, Plenary Council, synodality, church, bishops



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Existing comments

Good grief, I must say I had not thought you would be so enthusiastic about change, Brian. I have always seen you as a small 'c' conservative. The Pope is, of course, speaking of the prevalent ethos of the Church and its way of corporate behaviour. Sadly, I see the Australian Catholic Church as being currently in 'Mannix Mode' in both cases, with some wonderful exceptions. Mannix was totally authoritarian and strongly against ecumenism. How things appear to have changed! Thank God, it's been a long time coming and it's from Head Office, not here. Is it a real change of spirit, or are at least some of the hierarchy here, like Cardinal Raymond Burke et sim, waiting for the next conservative Pope to oveturn things? I hope not. Obviously some purported 'reforms', such as women priests, will get short shrift but others, such as women deacons and married and reasonably paid clergy, which are not in conflict with the Magisterium, are worth considering. The Synod need not become too heavy and legalistic. We could emulate the Quakers and wait to ascertain 'the sense of the Meeting'. Beats point scoring and the resultant aggro!

Edward Fido | 21 October 2021  

At this stage of the Plenary Council process the prayer "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference" might well assume a relevance beyond the group for whom it was composed.

John RD | 22 October 2021  
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But what if, John, 'the things I cannot change' are really 'the things they will not change'? Isn't your use of this prayer in this context simply a plea for the retention of the status quo?

Ginger Meggs | 24 October 2021  

"What if..." introduces a hypothetical, Ginger. I prefer to presume goodwill on the part of the bishops within their ecclesial competence vis a vis consultation proposals.

John RD | 25 October 2021  

Yes, this 'acceptance' can be used to justify 'business as usual', the Church's current failed state, the most evil result of which as been the institutional cover-up of clerical child sexual abuse which protected abusers and left them free to violate even more children. We should not 'accept' autocratic and unaccountable decision-making by the hierarchy.

Peter Johnstone | 25 October 2021  

How, Peter Johnstone, is an intransigently suspicious and cynical predisposition towards bishops who have supported policies and the implementation of structures in Catholic institutions for the prevention of abuse, and encouraged lay consultation to address this and other challenges currently facing the Church, reconcilable with reformist groups' demands for "openness" and "listening" in the Plenary Council process - or are these dispositions, in reality, a one-way requirement only?

John RD | 25 October 2021  

But John, there really is no 'if' is there? The only 'things you cannot change' really are the 'the things they - the hierarchy - will not change'. I too would hope for goodwill on the part of the bishops but to presume 'ecclesial competence' where there is no transparent public accountability is surely wishful thinking. Where, for example, was 'ecclesial competence' effective in the institutional cover-up of clerical child abuse?

Ginger Meggs | 25 October 2021  

Ginger, the term "ecclesial competence' as I intended it applies not to the actual performances of bishops -some of which have proven abject betrayals of their calling and the trust of the faithful - but rather to the appointed offices which delineate their roles and duties within the Church.

John RD | 26 October 2021  

JRD, you are scrupulous if nothing else in drawing a distinction between those Bishops who betrayed their calling as well as our trust and others who didn't. The further question then arises as to how we are to trust those bishops still on the 'bench' and who knew about and ignored their roles and duties within the Church at the time.

Michael Furtado | 26 October 2021  

OK, I stand corrected John. I confused 'competence' with 'competency'. But competence doesn't ensure accountability. Just look at our (especially) federal government. Plenty of competence by little, I suggest, competency. And without a federal ICAC, no accountability. The Church's hierarchical structure may have plenty of competence, and even some competency, but where is the accountability? The cover-up of clerical sexual abuse was only brought to light, and subsequently addressed, because the civil state got involved. If it had not been for civil authorities acting, not just here but across the world, it would still be going on. This lack of public accountability is surely a structural problem. The Church needs an ICAC, staffed by people outside the hierarchy and outside the control and influence of the hierarchy. A good start would be to make the PP accountable to his parish.

Ginger Meggs | 26 October 2021  

Ginger, professional development requirements (e.g., regular police checks, in-service sessions), prominently displayed information (e.g., in classrooms, staffrooms, change rooms) on students'
rights, staff obligations and practical procedures for registering concerns and complaints (including identification of on-site 'go-to' personnel) are structural provisions that already exist and have been operative for some years in Catholic primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions - thanks largely, as Fr Frank Brennan has noted, to the egregiously maligned Cardinal George Pell and the late Archbishop Phillip Wilson. These resources and measures are geared to the maximal protection of all members of the school community, especially students, and to encourage the accountability, before State and Church, on which you rightly and admirably insist.

John RD | 27 October 2021  

True enough, JRD. However the exception shouldn't make the rule as there's such a thing as joint responsibility. Leaving aside the curious and exceptional dispensations you obviously insist should apply to those responsible for safeguarding the Magisterium, in the real world Royal Commission findings have universally resulted in wholesale resignations at the top. Where indeed are the Australian Bishops who have fallen on their swords and why not? Why should the faithful believe that their ontologically different status as clergy exempt them from taking responsibility for widespread systemic corruption and mismanagement, as the Royal Commissioner himself noted? Where does the buck stop, especially when the abuse is endemic and systemic. (The precise wording used was 'cultural'!) And why should we trust them again? What ontological exemption applies and why should the faithful take that on trust?

Michael Furtado | 29 October 2021  

In the sense of being members of God's household, the Bishops are elected not appointed. And it is comforting to realise that we are all God's elect. The Plenary Council did reveal plenty of diversity in membership, surely a most representative sample. I like Pope Francis' definition of a shepherd: "Great shepherds give people a lot of freedom." As long as we know there is a hand always reaching out for us.

Pam | 22 October 2021  

Brian, good to see your support for synodality even if you do portray it as something new. I was surprised to read your suggestion that the "synodal process is somewhat counter-intuitive to the usual way in which groups, whether secular or ecclesial, make decisions." At best, that is a very narrow interpretation of synodality no doubt based on current failed Church practice, and is certainly not the case in well-governed organisations where the principles underlying synodality, such as respecting and valuing the views of all stakeholders is regarded as no more than sound leadership. Such respect for and valuing of the views of those being led is in fact critical to Christian leadership and the teachings of Vatican II and certainly not counter-intuitive.
As you observe, "the controlling elite in the Church, the bishops, are not dependent on popular support" and "moving into the new world of synodality brings obvious challenges." Indeed, but this is a change from a dysfunctional form of governance. Let's pray that our pastoral leaders are up to these essential reforms of the Church's governance and leadership. It seems that some of our bishops are too comfortable with their autocratic exercise of authority which is of course contrary to the Church's teachings as reflected in Vatican II and canon law, cf. 212 §3: "The Christian faithful have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful."

Peter Johnstone | 22 October 2021  
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Leading speakers for reform groups claim their agenda seeks to implement neglected or stymied renewal initiatives of Vatican II. Indeed, the Council affirms episcopal collegiality (not autocracy) and the right of all the faithful to expression of opinion for the good of the Church. However, nowhere do I find the documents of Vatican II on the Church, the bishops and the laity encouraging an uprooting of the magisterium from the Apostolic tradition or an abolition of the believing community's hierarchical structure.

John RD | 26 October 2021  

In the Early Church the bishop was very much someone who was part of his flock, moving amongst his people and celebrating the Eucharist. It was the Middle Ages in which the Western Church became a secular power, which was a two-edged sword. The Renaissance and Counter Reformation saw the further development of Church power and ceremonial. Pope Francis does not like having his ring kissed. There's a real clue to the man. He tries to lead a simple, Christlike life. He was also a Jesuit and they were amongst the Church's greatest missionaries. Xavier took it to the ends of the known Earth. Francis' Godgiven mission is to bring the Church back to God and in that bring back all its lost sheep and to renew Western Christian Civilisation. It should be, to channel Nigel Molesworth, what 'any fule kno'. I am amazed some doubt it. The Holy Spirit is defintely moving at this Synod. As the Vogons kept shouting in ' The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy' 'Resistance is useless'. There are several stories about what happens to those who resist The Holy Spirit in The Acts of The Apostles. Bishops please note. If in doubt, consult your Bible.

Edward Fido | 22 October 2021  

An opinion that commends ES for its publication. It will appease the sundry naysayers who crowd these columns to raucously object to the progressive editorial line usually associated with Eureka Street. I would, however, like to point out in that regard that Brian's 'subliminal thought' allusion holds good for both conservative and progressive opinion in the Church, as indeed everywhere else in the discursive cosmos, if our vigorous exchanges in Eureka Street are to be parsed in his dismal terms. The critical challenge instead for the Synod, as indeed for all Creation, is how to manage it and THAT is the task of inspired leaders, rather than the dismissive judgments of those who in Brian's terms believe that their authority and their's alone emanates from a selection process that is accountable to nobody except a God whose view is conveyed to nobody else but them. That, and not the perverse inclination to oppose, as Brian slyly proposes, is why the Bastille fell and the guillotine was invented, as well as why we believe that the Paraclete was sent among us to mediate the pronouncements of a Father God who, with His Son, cannot quite pull it off on Their Own.

Michael Furtado | 22 October 2021  
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‘why we believe that the Paraclete was sent among us to mediate the pronouncements of a Father God who, with His Son, cannot quite pull it off on Their Own.’ A sly sneer that has to be Luciferian in origin, even if the tool using it is unaware of what it is saying. Gods are usually depicted as singular beings, as are, in the other two monotheistic religions, Yahweh and Allah. The Christian triune god is different but is not three gods of varying capacity, nor even three persons of varying capacity. All that the Father owns is given to the Son. It is nonsense to say that the Father and the Son cannot together pull it off because there is no ‘together’. The Son has nothing except what the Father gives him. The Father resurrected the Son. The Spirit has no capacity independent of the Father. The Spirit obeys the will of the Father and the concurrence of the Son. Everything comes from the Father. It’s not hard to imagine that Lucifer, in a hissy fit before leaving Heaven, would have attempted to divide the divine personalities in the way of this post. Intellectuals. Where do they come from?

roy chen yee | 28 October 2021  

Thanks for clearing that up Roy ! Now, what is its relevance to the article ?

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2021  

‘Now, what is its relevance to the article?’ The same relevance as Michael Furtado’s reply to the article, in that it is correcting an error in Michael’s reasoning.

roy chen yee | 09 November 2021  

At the end of the day, the Church is founded upon Logic, just as the spiritual realm (even before angels were created) contained nothing but Logic (or Logos), there being no other ‘things’ as such. Democratically to conflate opinion with conscience will result in the incoherency of a ‘conscience’ permitting an intrinsic evil. Bishops, being the authoritative faces of the Church Militant, have the duty to ensure that the Church is never embarrassed by being caught in a logical cul-de-sac. That is why they are shepherds and their opinions are, if in accordance with the Magisterium, final. In practical terms, the question to be asked at a synod is if a proposed suggestion were to be taken to its logical extent, could that cause an intrinsic evil to be permitted. If so, the suggestion is flawed from the beginning, as is the notion that conscience and opinion are the same.

roy chen yee | 23 October 2021  

This quote "the purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but ‘to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands." should read:
Listen to the Laity, Take heed of the findings of the Royal Commission, consider the necessity of equal rights for women, consider the benefit of ordination of married men, clean up the legacy of child abuse, stop putting church reputation above retributive justice, replace bind up wounds with swift justice, not a redress scheme that distributes pennies after years of legal delay, review the boarding school system and the orphanages run by the church and the conditions that permit abuse to flourish. Learn from one another does not mean listening to other Bishops. Dreams will never flourish in an environment of denial and exclusion of women and the laity. When Bishops refuse like Hart to testify before the RC and Commensoli issues statements that he would sooner go to goal than report a pedophile to the authorities, tradition and formulaic prayer are empty echoes of the past and fragrant incense smells like soot from a coal fire.

Francis Armstrong | 23 October 2021  
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Well said, FA! Brian Lucas' exhortation isn't new to clerical and especially episcopal practice and usage. After a lifetime of engagement with the Church I could repeat every bit of it as eloquently as a brain-dead parrot. Much the more critical question is 'follow- through' with all the consequences of 'making a start'. I've been part of several initiatives over many years and which began in good faith and eventually found the ground cut from under them, e.g. the National Missionary Council Mission & Justice Program, the Catholic Schools Teaching for Human Rights Project and the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace being some of them. None were ever brought to evaluation after running the course of their allocated life. Some were interrupted during their allocated lifespan. The Bishop who terminated the CCJP, Bill Brennan of Wagga, was persuaded to organise a Review AFTER the decision had been made and appointed the compliant Mgr Nestor to conduct it. Nestor interviewed many around Australia but stated that his work was in specific regard to what would follow the CCJP. Evaluation is a critical component of the success of any initiative. What exactly are the evaluative questions BEFORE the next Synodal stage?

Michael Furtado | 27 October 2021  

As National Director of Catholic Mission Australia, Brian Lucas would need to tell us exactly how his position as Australia's foremost missiologist sits alongside his view that Bishops are - to use his own words - 'irremovable'. While it may be hard as well as rare for a bishop to be 'removed', there are several instances of this from the past that any church historian and canon lawyer could cite. Be that as it may, one further question to him would be this. If Missiology incorporates a theology of mission that actively and critically challenges the idea that the Chuch and its bishops are appointed to maintain and safeguard the status quo, how exactly do its members engage in its missionary work if, even before starting, they are warned that, in a sense, nothing will change. Finally, how does Fr Lucas' position fit alongside that of my archbishop who chairs the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and who has publicly stated that the Synod is not about 'business as usual'. Why are we to gainsay the work of the Spirit by cautioning that everything is not up for grabs and instead to expect very little, as Roy appears to be ratifying.

Michael Furtado | 24 October 2021  
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‘appears to be ratifying.’ Well, if sincere opinion is the same as conscience, one could, after much prayer and fasting, come to the conclusion that an exclusive sexual relationship between two men is licit. If that is the case, all that prayer and fasting has gone to waste, any sexual relationship between two men being never licit, and the thinker would have been better off spending the time having a beer at the football for all the truth that was produced by the effort.

‘[E]verything is not up for grabs’ but the concept of Continual Revelation means that quite a lot of things are.

roy chen yee | 25 October 2021  

Perhaps, Roy, you could enlighten me on what substantial changes have in fact resulted from 'Continual Revelation' since the fourth century. The we might have an idea of what to expect in the future.

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2021  

I can empathise with Francis Armstrong. To use
rather brutal language, as far as empathy and insight go, many of the bishops are basically a mob of clueless losers. There were always exceptions. The Vatican should have retired the ageing, increasingly authoritarian and dreadfully bigotted Daniel Mannix and put the estimable Justin Symonds in his place well before Mannix passed on. Symonds, the son of Irish Catholic teachers, was educated at Sydney High School and knew the world outside the then closed circle of Australian Catholicism. He was apolitical: which is what the Church should be. Not morally neutral, but apolitical. Joseph Grech, who, like Symonds died far too early, was another exemplary character who brought a bit of Mediterranean light to what had become an Irish bog. Irish priests have said this about Australian Catholicism. I am all for women deacons, who I believe existed in the Early Church and are not against the Magisterium. Women deacons could do everything those wonderful Uniting Church women ministers do. Married and decently paid priests might attract more young Australian men. As far as women priests go, I think it goes against the Magisterium. I have to say that, even though it might offend some readers.

Edward Fido | 24 October 2021  
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The real problem is that the ordination of women "goes against the Magisterium" (the teaching authority of the Church), but the Magisterium as such is not infallible and is subject to and responsible for the many errors of the institutional Church. Personally, I find the arguments against the ordination of women to be very flawed, and the canonical restriction of the governance of the Church to ordained (celibate) men is arguably responsible for much of the ill-informed decision making by prelates and indeed by the Magisterium.

Peter Johnstone | 25 October 2021  

Offend away Edward. It was only a hundred years ago that canon law decreed that cardinals had to be ordained. Before that, the College of Cardinals was made up of both ordained and lay men. In the Bourbon era, one ordained Cardinal was 8 years old.
When it comes to earning leadership, the sacrament does not give to those what they do not have. In 2020 the American Jesuit Keenan’s welcome to Pope Francis included: “expand the role and place of women in the church.” Zagano was less optimistic about women cardinals, saying “it seems even in this pontificate law can trump prophecy." Whose law? Canon Law? No the beastly law of Hierarchical Tradition.
What one Pope can bind another can loose, (if of course he has the courage of his convictions).

Women with competence are not transgressive. Consider Joan of Arc. Competent women are the norm. The fact that they are denied roles does not mean that they cannot fill them.
Mary of Magdala was the first to see the risen Christ. She had a greater right therefore to ordination than any of the disciples.

Francis Armstrong | 26 October 2021  

With the Australian Plenary Council afoot, Brian has provided progressive minded Councillors with some tips on how they might translate some of their aims into achievements. He is well placed to advise on the reactive/reactionary response tendencies of the current ACBC membership. Moreover, Francis' processes for his Synod on Synodality will, in all probability, influence initiatives and outcomes occurring in the Aus PC – so, little is lost in taking measured, even restrained first steps.

However, the take out from Brian's lead paragraph seems more personal surmise than surprise: it is hard to see how unqualified statements about the role and prerogatives of Catholic bishops contributes to current discussions. For instance, the issue of bishops non reliance on popular support is not as straightforward as Brian implies. It may surprise some readers that Angelo Roncalli was plucked from a relatively obscure diplomatic posting and appointed Nuncio to France, then rewarded with his appointment as Patriarch of Venice for his success in removing Bishops who had forfeited popular support in their dioceses. Roncalli's confidential French mission was to hasten the retirement of French bishops whose allegiance had become too closely identified with the Nazi linked Vichy Government during the occupation and consequently lost respect and acceptance by significant numbers of their dioceses. Pius XII was delighted with the results – no protracted publicity, relationships with the leadership of French Jewry were enhanced and local diocese given time to heal.

Bill Burke | 25 October 2021  

It used to be the tradition in some Orthodox jurisdictions that a newly created bishop had to be endorsed by his flock with cries of 'Axios' ('He is worthy') at his enthronement. There have been instances in living memory of a flock crying out 'Anaxios' ('He is unworthy) in the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wondered if the latter cry invalidated the enthronement. What would happen if this practice were followed in the Catholic Church in Australia? I suspect many of our current bishops wouldn't have made the cut.

Edward Fido | 29 October 2021  
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‘What would happen if this practice were followed in the Catholic Church in Australia?’ Begorrah! Quirky with sense.

roy chen yee | 29 October 2021  

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