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Strapped in for the Plenary Council ride



Those of us who are members of the Plenary Council are now strapped in for what looks likely to be an uncertain ride. Some members, having concluded their initial formal formation and training, are now meeting in officially organised discussion sessions to build up their preparation for the first assembly which is now just over a month away. The wider community is also making final efforts by whatever means are possible to make its concerns known to members, including through the official Microsoft Teams website. 

Since their selection early last year the ground has been shifting under the feet of PC members under the influence of the Covid-19 pandemic. First the assembly was delayed by twelve months. Then it was reduced from a national face-to face assembly in Adelaide to a mixed-mode assembly conducted virtually from five hubs in the major state metropolitan cities. Ten days ago, it was changed again to a fully virtual assembly in which members will be based in isolation in their homes, supplemented by very limited social gatherings in some centres where that is permitted by government regulations. The situation remains fluid, but the members are increasingly isolated. 

The metaphor ‘strapped in for the ride’ has several meanings, each of which emphasises the fact that the members have almost no ability to influence the journey we find ourselves on. We are passengers in a vehicle which has been imported from Rome to facilitate the task of discerning the future of the church in Australia. The Plenary Council vehicle is not Australian-made, although the Australian authorities have been allowed to make some minor local modifications. 

The consequence of the changes which have been made under the duress of the pandemic are enormous and should not be overlooked. They make the chance of successful outcomes, however they might be defined, much more problematic. Yet the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has deliberately downplayed the latest change towards the bottom of a media release headed ‘Technology in place for first plenary council assembly’. The leader of the Plenary Council Facilitation team, Lana Turvey-Collins, described the latest change as a ‘pivot’ rather than a ‘detour’.  

PC members, other than bishops, still remain in the dark about significant matters, which appear to have been decided by the bishops months ago. These include the list of non-voting experts and observers. The PC assembly process has failed to be a model for the synodality under which it ought to be conducted. There has been little transparency or accountability. Decisions continue to be made by a few behind closed doors. 

There has been considerable bonhomie in the PC gatherings so far. But this warmth and good humour cannot disguise the fact that the hierarchical character of the ‘old’ church continues to be embedded in the modes of operation and culture of this supposedly synodal event. PC members can’t escape it. Undue deference to those in authority remains.


'PC members, other than bishops, still remain in the dark about significant matters, which appear to have been decided by the bishops months ago.' 


The tension between the naturally laid-back character of mainstream Australia, on which we pride ourselves, and the ecclesial formality of internal church events remains unresolved. The equality of the People of God is hard to put into practice if church titles, like Archbishop and Bishop, get in the way. My hope remains that the Australian character will find some way to democratise proceedings. 

The new format also exacerbates the pressures of time under which the PC Assembly will conduct its business. Time was at a premium already, but the intense ‘working individually from home’ format may necessitate further reducing the official working time.  

The final crucial element, not well understood by the broader Catholic community, is the Spiritual Conversations method. This special approach to decision-making — involving structured talking and deep listening — differentiates this event from secular occasions, even parliamentary sittings which begin with the Lord’s Prayer. It also goes beyond the normal prayerful approach usually undertaken at meetings of church boards and parish councils, which might begin and end with a prayer and include a spiritual reflection. 

During the Plenary Council prayer will be both communal and personal, interspersed between other elements of the assembly. There will be a period of prayer between the consultative and deliberative voting. The deliberations themselves will be tightly framed by the Spiritual Conversations method, which determines the order, length and approach of all contributions. 

This discernment method is well understood by some PC members, but to many others it is quite new and the skills must be learnt and practised. It is a framework which, to be successful, must prove itself as not unduly limiting. It will be a failure if it inhibits the full expression of the voices of the faithful, which were so wonderfully on display during the early consultation phase of the PC process. That process enabled 17,500 submissions to be made.

Those holding authority in the church, including those responsible for the PC, seem to have forgotten the priorities evident in those submissions when they constructed the Working Document and the subsequent Agenda Questions.

The PC ride is about to begin. It will only reach its potential of revitalising the church in Australia if its members are not too tightly strapped in. The assembly process must allow voices to be heard and never become an unnecessary straight-jacket on the journey. 



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: Virtual house of God (CHBD/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, PC, Plenary Council, Catholic, Plenary Council First Assembly



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Existing comments

Thanks for keeping us all up-to-date on the process and the issues here, John.
I take some comfort from your presence as a member of the Plenary Council, and from the precedent during the first session of Vatican II when some senior members intervened, resulting in a significant change in the approach to committee membership and to reliance on official draft documents. I'd like to think that your own discernment around the processes and direction of the Plenary Council involves dialogue with other members, and that, collectively, you'll make a significant difference to the outcomes. God speed!

Denis Fitzgerald | 26 August 2021  

Thanks John for your updates on the PC. All the best to you and your fellow delegates. As anyone who has been to meetings and conferences will know, what happens "on the side" is often more important than the formal sessions. At Vatican II that was the coffee bars that came to be known as "Bar Jonah" and "Bar Abbas". I hope you manage to find a virtual equivalent.

Francois Kunc | 26 August 2021  

Thank you, John. A timely reminder of the unnecessary constrictions under which the Church insists on operating.

Kevin Liston | 26 August 2021  

Your tenacity is awesome, John. I believe the Plenary Council, despite difficult circumstances, will be alive to possibilities. In "All About Eve" Bette Davis uttered her famous words "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." However, Bette also was not reticent in "Marked Woman" saying "Some will wind up in the short end but not me baby." I believe our Comforter, who nurtures and empowers: the Holy Spirit, will be present.

Pam | 26 August 2021  

Call me a techno-sceptic, but I can't believe that anything credible will come out of a gigantic zoomfest. The agenda is not about superficial administrative adjustments, but a fundamental review of organisational philosophy and systems. Face-to-face discussion and caucusing are essential, in my opinion, for outcomes to have any credibility. Better to postpone the whole show for as long as necessary.

Richard Olive | 26 August 2021  

It's already been delayed once and is now to be held online with everyone in isolation - in sight of the end of lockdowns as vaccinations ramp up. So why not delay it again until 2022 when people will be able to meet in assembly where physical proximity to oneanother will facilitate a dynamic that could never be achieved on screens.

Paul Smith | 26 August 2021  

God must find this whole delusion extremely entertaining and confusing at the same time.

john frawley | 27 August 2021  

Good luck John!
Looking back to Vatican II, at the first Assembly the Conservatives tried to control the agenda, but in a 'revolt' the whole Agenda was thrown out and sent back for a complete redraft .The end result was the momentous changes in the Church following the Council. Sadly many of the Reforms have been eroded by conservative Popes and silent power movers in the Vatican and the Australian Church , leading to the evils of Clericalism which we have seen revealed in all their horror in recent times. Either of Hierarchy sees the writing on the wall or the Church as we have known it will sink into irrelevance for most Australian Catholics. I hope that progressive forces in the Assembly will push for the urgent changes needed in Chinch governance. You have our prayers.

Gavin O'Brien | 27 August 2021  

I concur with John's sentiments. From my perspective there are some major problems with the process in addition to those already alluded to by John
Firstly, the 16 questions are an impossible assignment. An examination of any one of them will take many hours and even them, answers may not emerge

Secondly, the process does not employ one of our unique human faculties... our imagination, and certainly not the Church's use of prophetic imagination.
Finally, the process envisaged has not been able to deal adequately with the alternative or radical thinkers. They tend to be marginalised so that the outcome can be achieved on time
John's "ride" may turn out to be a failure to launch.

Garry Everett | 27 August 2021  

Thanks, John, for giving those of us on the 'outside' an idea of what's going on 'inside', Hopefully those controlling the synodal agenda will also read your report. It struck me last night in listening to your Second Convocational Summation that you did a great job with a process that was wonderfully 'horizontal', deliberately unstructured so as to invite maximum participation, and inevitably with many unfastened seams and few finishing touches to record, that it took a person of your skills to do this. I observe this not merely to compliment you but as a long-term student of policy and governance, which is a field in which you have risen to the top. Perchance, therefore, there are some skills to be learnt from the secular democratic world, in which I have little doubt that the invocation of the Lord's Prayer and other more formal and structured attempts to call down the blessings of the Almighty, especially where discussion, exchange and decision-making are as portentous as they are intended to be life-changing, require the skills of persons like you and Robert Fitzgerald to 'shape' towards meaningful and concrete conclusions. THIS constitutes the gift of policy-making to the world of religious decision-making.

Michael Furtado | 27 August 2021  

I regret that I draw little comfort from this article. Is "deep listening" going to be ISO9001-certified, or something of that ilk? Who can define "pivot" versus "detour" in some sensible way?It is just more obfuscating gobbledegook. I may well be jaundiced in my view, yet somehow the entire exercise, which one might have hoped would open up our particular Christian confession to fresh air, reeks of the intellectual mediocrity embodied by managerialism. Same old, same old. I think I'll simply revert to my covid-induced holy huddle.

Fred Green | 27 August 2021  

"During the Plenary Council prayer will be both communal and personal, interspersed between other elements of the assembly".
Don't the bishops realise that the entire Plenary Council process is just one big act of prayer?
God doesn't need a formula of magic words, in English or in Latin, to get the drift of what is going on. As the late Sister Wendy Beckett, better known as an art historian, said: "God knows our hearts anyhow; prayer is God's taking possession of us". "The longing for completion, for meaning, the sense that we are not just passing time,...". "There's no secrets as to how to pray".

Bruce Stafford | 27 August 2021  

As John Warhurst's latest "Eureka Street" offering persists in the reform groups' assumption of an intrinsic incompatibility between "hierarchy" and "equality", as well as effectively assigning a merely nominalist value to ecclesial leadership titles such as "Archbishop" and "Bishop", I find myself wondering if those commonly antithetical to "hierarchy" and legitimate authority in the Church's structure and governance- mainly, it appears, children of the 1960s - carry their protest so far as the hierarchical relationship between the Creator God and the human creature itself revealed in the Abrahamic religions' scriptures, and, in Christian understanding, for two millennia? In Western academia's postmodern enthrallment, the words of CS Lewis in "The Abolition of Man" seem to me particularly prescient and apt: while acknowledging technology's benefits in helping to overcome natural adversities such as famine and plague, Lewis recognises also how our very technological prowess has exacerbated our proneness to self-delusion, or what the ancient Greeks called "hubris": that we have, in fact, "stepped into the void" wherein "everything except the 'sic volo, sic iubeo (thus I will, thus I command) has been explained away." In such an intoxicated condition, the sole basis for human action becomes a Nietzschean assertion of the human will and its political expression - not a phenomenon consonant with the prayer Jesus himself gave and taught us, his appeal to God his Father in Gethsemani, and his yielding of his spirit on the cross.

John RD | 28 August 2021  

ES correspondents are, from experience and on all sides, a rare and wise species. When one of them, Richard Olive, suggests a Synodal postponement till 2022 and, without evident prior knowledge of it, so also does another in the person of Paul Smith, the Great Enabler, undoubtedly aware of the opportunity and need for further consultation and more inclusive preparation that the Delta variant offers, should surely be listened to.

Michael Furtado | 28 August 2021  

It really does seem like the Plenary has “pivoted” so many times that it’s hard to recognise this proposed big ‘zoom meeting’ as a synod at all.

Cath | 28 August 2021  

Richard Olive: ‘Face-to-face discussion and caucusing are essential’; Paul Smith: ‘physical proximity to one another will facilitate a dynamic that could never be achieved on screens.’ Valid comments, springing from the same reasoning as to why, for disciples in community, a Zoom Mass isn’t the same as a Mass that is zoomed, even if many of the 10% of Catholics who hear Mass tend, unlike Protestants, to hit the parking lot as soon as Mass is over. Still, even COVID has a kernel of good in that when normal times return, the practice of zooming will enable the in-bound to join in simultaneously with the parish Mass occurring a few blocks away before the home communion people turn up.

roy chen yee | 30 August 2021  

This whole charade reminds me of the so called Act of Free Choice by which Indonesia incorporated the former Dutch New Guinea/Irian Jaya. A Dutch journalist spoke to one of the traditionally dressed 'primitive' Papuans (complete with penis gourd). The 'primitive' spoke excellent Dutch and said, of the vote: 'We have no choice'. I do not think there will be a change in the generally soggy administration of SS Catholica Oz. Some hierarchs, like Fisher, are quite impressive. Well, his mother's Spanish and they have a different slant. He is also a Dominican, so his Theology isn't shoddy. Sogginess and irresponsiveness are the key faults of the Church here. Any major, doctrinally sound major change - like married priests - will need to be universal and to come from Rome. I understand why. It is a Church Universal. You cannot make one rule for West Brunswick alone. As far as pet peeves - like women clergy - I won't hold my breath: I'd expire. What the Church needs is more holiness. Real holiness. Remember Mary Mackillop? We need more like her.

Edward Fido | 30 August 2021  

John RD. You ask if "... those antithetical to ... the legitimate authority in the Church's structure and governance ... carry their protest so far as the hierarchical relationship between the Creator God and the human creature itself...". You need wonder no longer, John RD! The answer is, "Of course they do - like all those who suffer from the delusion that they know better than God himself".

john frawley | 01 September 2021  

Hi John: What do you mean by 'democratised proceedings'? What exactly should be democratised? Do you mean something like having a democratic vote on specific Church teachings?

marita | 01 September 2021  
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I don't think he does mean that Marita, but anyway why not?

Ginger Meggs | 07 September 2021  

Your quip (1/9), John Frawley, brings to mind the comment of the feted Marxist 1960s circuit-lecturer at Berkley, New York, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Cambridge universities - Isaac Deutscher - who described the early '20s Bolsheviks as "a revolutionary elite without a revolutionary class behind it."

John RD | 01 September 2021  

Hi John, Your dedication and enthusiasm is an inspiration to me. So many of my friends are pessimistic about the PC. However knowing that you will be there strapped in is greatly reassuring .

Frank Rosenfeldt | 01 September 2021  

John you show admirable fortitude putting up with the entire plenary charade. Given that there are 280 voting members and as at 2016 there were 5,291,839 Catholics that's a nominal percentage of those groomed patsies making decisions for the rest of us of .000052911 percent.
As for the hierarchy being in charge, David Letterman summed it up perfectly in the US context. "The Catholic Church has a tough new policy on child molestors: three strikes and you're a cardinal." - Author: David Letterman
And I note the findings of the RC on abuse and sensible suggestions on what to do about it do not even figure as a topic of discussion.
I see you have a good head of hair. But I daresay you will be bald at the end of it.

Francis Armstrong | 04 September 2021  

The Church of Rome moves glacially, if at all. It is the nature of the beast. Any institution 2000+ years old and with over a billion members must be doing something right. The Church contains not just the Latin Rite (the one we belong to) but also, to me, the far more interesting Eastern Catholic Churches, which, traditionally, were far more attuned to their members with services in languages much more comprehensible to them and what appears - for completely nondoctrinal reasons - to be a vast stumbling block: married priests. John Colet - a friend of Erasmus - was advocating married priests in Tudor times and nothing came of it. I believe the introduction of married clergy and their employment under decent wages and conditions would radically alter the Australian Church for the better. To put it bluntly, we are not attracting enough seminarians from what I would term a traditional Australian background so we, like the Americans, are raiding students in the final years at seminaries in Asia and Africa. These often have no understanding of Australian society and culture, which can lead to problems.

Edward Fido | 21 September 2021  
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‘students in the final years at seminaries in Asia and Africa. These often have no understanding of Australian society and culture’ Oh, the poor pickaninnies. Isn’t there an immigration department handbook in massa's kitchen English we can give them on how the Magisterium is out of date? Perhaps the Australian Church can fund an army of parish housekeepers who look like Mrs. Gandhi. Apparently, only a bullet could put her in her place.

roy chen yee | 27 September 2021  

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