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The careful choreography of plenary



The First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council held few surprises. The program made sure of it. Proceedings were carefully choreographed and the agenda was deliberately anodyne. It took several days before participants found their feet. The ‘deep listening’ process of scripture reflection and sharing in small groups did engender a spirit of collegiality. At the same time, it constrained free flowing discussion and overwhelmed any effective canvassing of the issues confronting the Church. The upshot was a week devoid of strategic focus.

Given that so much time was spent on prayerful reflection, not enough was available to the task at hand. The Catholic community had supplied 17,500 submissions in an initial consultation phase. Yet the Plenary was not presented with any report on what those submissions contained, nor was it presented with any draft resolutions from the submissions. It can only be assumed that the Bishops Steering Group deemed the submissions to be of insignificant value to the Assembly. The expert theologians, scripture scholars, canonists and public policy advisors were kept at a distance. It was if the participants were meant to start from scratch.

What did emerge was the diversity of views over the role and purpose of the Church. Again, no surprise there! Though more important was the lack of clarity over the actual starting point for the conversation. Participants were constantly reminded that Pope Francis was calling for a Church motivated by a ‘missionary impulse’. It seemed fair to assume therefore that the task was to imagine what that looks like for the Church now and into the future. Yet the daily feedback from the working groups roamed far and wide from personal devotional practices all the way to cutting edge pastoral outreach. Again, no surprises when you give Catholics free rein!

The situation would be less distressing if there had been an overt recognition of the crisis the Church faces. A crisis that is both of its own making and one that prompts questions about religious belief in our world today. This crisis needs to be addressed by the Plenary Council in two fundamental areas: internal organisation and pastoral disposition. On the first, the organisational life of the Church has already been the subject of intense scrutiny by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. One of the seventeen volumes of the Final Report dealt specifically with the Catholic Church. It contained clear recommendations for governance and culture. Following this, the bishops and religious leaders commissioned a two-year study that produced The Light From the Southern Cross report into governance and cultural issues. These two reports outline a similar roadmap for change. But the elephant in the room is the authority of bishops.


'Building trust is a two-way street. Being trusted to act in an ethical manner, both in its business and organisational dealings and in the dealings with people, in and out of the Church, is non-negotiable.'


Almost before the ink dried on the reports some bishops dismissed their recommendations as an attack on episcopal authority. Some even went as far to say that the reports would make the Catholic Church too ‘Anglican’! Talk of shared governance models and expanding the influential role of the laity, especially women, was a bridge too far for those content with ‘business as usual’. This despite the evidence that most indicators the Church was going backwards. Calls for Church leaders to introduce measures enhancing best practice accountability and transparency, vital to regaining the public trust lost after the abuse scandal and cover ups, continue to be met with shrill warnings about erosion of episcopal control.

This issue must be faced head on. Whether the Church can embark on a new missionary strategy is dependent on getting its own house in order. That is, demonstrating that the culture to conceal and deal in the dark is over. That best practice governance is commonplace. That transparency in how decisions are made and by whom is the norm. That the laity, especially more women, are effectively involved in and jointly accountable for the life and future direction of the Church. These are the obvious indicators of a changed culture and structure. One that has some chance of being believed when they say ‘trust us’!

On the issue of the pastoral disposition of the Church the way forward is more fraught. The mindset and culture of our Church is still based on an outmoded understanding of personhood. Our Christian anthropology has not kept pace with the insights of the human sciences and contemporary understandings of personal development, including around sexuality, gender identity and its diversity. This is a fundamental disconnect for the Church in the Western world. It puts at risk the effectiveness of its mission. This is particularly the case for the Church’s relevance to young people exploring their place in the world; or in bridging the chasm with the LGBTIQA+ people in their full participation in the life of the Church; or in embracing divorced and remarried Catholics, including their reception of the Eucharist. A more nuanced theology of personhood would better inform our pastoral practice and deliver a genuinely inclusive, compassionate missionary outreach.

This is what the Plenary Council must address. Building trust is a two-way street. Being trusted to act in an ethical manner, both in its business and organisational dealings and in the dealings with people, in and out of the Church, is non-negotiable. Reaching out with compassion, affirming people, being for others, goes to the heart of a ‘missionary impulse’. Doing it without conditions goes to the heart of the Gospel. Anything less looks like ‘business as usual’.



Francis Sullivan AO is Chair of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Mater Group of hospitals. He was previously CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

Topic tags: Francis Sullivan, plenary, Catholic Church, bishops



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Disappointing but not unexpected, Francis. Jesus saw some powerful leaders as lacking in wisdom (blind). He himself had no power but had full authority, our Scriptures insisted, because of his wisdom. Our bishops need to see their authority in terms of wisdom (not a given) instead of just the power they were given at their ordination as bishops.

And I am still wondering what exactly Augustine was implying when he said the deer at the front, leading the others, would need to go to the back after a time and lean his head on the one in front, to rest. Were these deer meant to be a line of bishops? Or was Augustine implying true wisdom and authority come from the presence of God in each one of us? A guiding presence.

Many women are finding in our wider society that some men are furious at them for trying to take away from men what they are entitled to, as men. Those women reply: no, we are just taking from you what you were never entitled to because all you were ever entitled to was equality. I see some parallels with laity and bishops.

Mike Yates | 26 October 2021  

The current episcopate of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church in Australia are supposed to be two things. One is fathers in Christ, which is pastoral, the second is bold, innovative leaders to fulfill the mission given to them by Christ to spread the Gospel. To me they have failed both. What we have are 'leaders' who have come through a very monastic and limited training in seminaries, which in no way fits them to deal with real life, which contains women, gays and all sorts of other people they seem unable to interact with in any meaningful sense. They also came through an on-the-job training as junior priests where they had to knuckle under and do as they were told. What we have are over-educated administrators, like the late, unlamented Ronald Mulkearns of Ballarat (aka Paedophiles' Paradise). Mulkearns was an 'expert Canon lawyer' who couldn't put Canon Law, which has extremely stiff penalties for paedophile acts, into practice. I am reminded of one of those high level military gabfests in the USA, where supposed 'experts' droned on about theories of counterinsurgency . One of the last speakers was a British Gurkha Rifles brigadier, with experience in Malaya during the Insurgency, who commenced 'I am just a simple soldier, but...' We need a few more 'simple soldiers' in the episcopate who can actually do their jobs.

Edward Fido | 26 October 2021  
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Funnily enough, I've heard more than a few blokes in mitres saying, "But I'm just a simple bishop." In one case, Lennie Faulkner, it was true. And he was a leader without peer.

Paul Smith | 30 October 2021  

Ah, Francis, if only you were a bishop... if only...

Ginger Meggs | 26 October 2021  

‘or in bridging the chasm with the LGBTIQA+ people in their full participation in the life of the Church; or in embracing divorced and remarried Catholics, including their reception of the Eucharist.’ The grown-up attitude is that if you make the problem, you should fix it instead of being a stumbling block to others. ‘Our Christian anthropology has not kept pace’: it doesn’t have to. ‘In the beginning, it was not so’ is a normative as well as an empirical claim.

roy chen yee | 26 October 2021  

Thanks Francis for sharing your thoughts after the first session of the "Synod that isn't a Synod", merely a "Plenary Council" - I'm not sure if there is a significant difference!
It is quite clear that the the careful analysis and presentation of the church's governance problems by the Royal Commission are of minimal interest to the bishops who appear to regard the recommendations as background noise to their continuation of "business as usual."
It is also obvious from the little attention paid to public submissions to the "initial consultations" that those too are regarded as insignificant to their "mission" to convince us all that prefacing all pronouncements as "missionary objectives" will enure success.
Well may they pray for that, but there is unfortunately a much greater task for us to manage.

Inspirational leadership is needed, but many cannot find that from within those leading the ACBC.

Come Holy Ghost!

Jim Boyle | 26 October 2021  

I understand why Francis (and a number of other commentators on the Council) is promoting a more liberal treatment of sexual issues as the way forward for the Church to have more "outreach". The sexual revolution of the last 50 years has probably changed society more than at any other time in the Common Era and Christians, along with most everyone else, have not failed to notice and respond to this. However the task of the Church is not to fall in with this new direction in society but rather to announce a (counter-cultural) message of hope and life to suffering humanity. The Church cannot be much use if it falls into the same errors that abound in today's world.

Daniel O'CONNELL | 26 October 2021  
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I'm seeking to understand, Daniel, why you think 'the sexual revolution of the last 50 years' is getting in the way of the Church's task to spread 'the message of hope and life'. Would you hep me please?

Ginger Meggs | 30 October 2021  

Remarkably, not so much as a single mention of Christ in the author's critique of this Assembly of the current PC, despite the central mandate of the Church's mission in the world: making Him known and loved by word and action, in season and out.

John RD | 27 October 2021  

Surprise ! Surprise ! Seems like, despite all the created hype and build up the Holy Spirit didn't turn up after all even though prayer dominated the talk fest. Perhaps the Sprit doesn't approve of human self-interest interfering with his eternal plan for Mankind [please note - no gender bias employed or intended] and the intent of gender in his plan for creation of human life and, indeed, all other life on this planet. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is not into protest of the type popularised by the likes of the liberated, "we know better than Christ" Catholic priests, Luther, Cranmer and Wolsey.

john frawley | 27 October 2021  

I think it is quite possible to be quite traditional in your beliefs about sex and marriage and yet be able to accept that a minority of people are same-sex attracted. People with same-sex attraction can be married now at law. However, I do not consider a Catholic church to be a suitable place for same-sex blessings or weddings. The latter appear to have happened in Austria, where the Catholic Church is in a similar position to that which the Church of England is in England. In both countries church attendance is declining. The Catholic Church has something very similar to a religious divorce in the Orthodox Church: it is called an annulment. I know of a woman with five children who was granted an annulment. Her husband was, I believe, a member of one of these weird under-the-radar supposedly 'Catholic' sects. He was psychologically abusive in the way he wished her to live and conduct family matters and bring up the children. We Australians have to remember that Pope Francis is ethnically Italian, like the majority of the Argentine population. Italians have the phrase 'una bella figura'. What it means is they listen with great respect to what the Church says and then do their own thing. The Pope gets this. The hierarchy here don't.

Edward Fido | 27 October 2021  

There was Paul organising so many body parts into one body of believers, and later on Constantine overnight amalgamating so many popular pieties into one state religion. Fast forward, and to change the image to that of Chesterton: the ‘church’ has since careered through history like a chariot swerving one way and another, until lately the wheels have fallen off. And now there is a move to get everyone to embrace the synodality experience and head for Rome. While yet others would organise their own road trains to go their own way, a bit like the circled wagons of old. Better to forget Lamarck and the magic production of a giraffe overnight and find a few kindred spirits willing to adopt the wise anthropological way that goes back to Jesus, where ‘two or three gather’ - to ponder the parable of the leaven in the mass of dough, or these days the leaven in the occasional bread roll here and there.

Noel McMaster | 27 October 2021  

Careful manipulation indeed Francis.
"Failing to properly investigate rumors about McCarrick was a sign of both incompetence and clericalism." Salt Lake Tribune Nov. 2020
The RC made similar findings about Pell, Searson and Ridsdale and roughly 2000 others. Take Ridsdale: "The RC into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that senior figures in the church, including Cardinal George Pell, knew about Ridsdale's prolific sexual abuse of children but protected him. Ridsdale was ordained at St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, in 1961. The first complaint about his behaviour towards children was received by the church that same year. Ridsdale held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest, with an average of 1.8 years per appointment" Catholic clergy abusers made up 61.8 percent of Australian sexual abuse complaints. We never hear about the Bishops confronting offenders. We never hear of any sanctions. No, we hear of rewards, cover ups- Hart being gifted with 2 Melbourne dwellings worth millions on retirement.
In the pithy description of Pope Francis, beware when “Clerics feel they are superior, [and when] they are far from the people.” source Aleteia.
So how do we fix it? The feeling overwhelmingly among the laity is that we cant. We are powerless, expected to be submissive, obedient, quiet, to mind our manners and let ourselves to be walked all over by jackbooted Bishops and the Clergy impregnably clad in their Hierarchical armour. Despite evidence of decades of abuse, financial scandal, moral scandal, sumptuous lifestyles and an ingrained Bishopric attitude of "who the hell do you think you are?" Definition of clericalism?: "a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy"- or as you succinctly say," Business as usual".

Francis Armstrong | 27 October 2021  

How brave you are Francis, to soldier on. I decided some years ago to leave the battlefield for various reasons, as very little of it made sense and the beliefs and views of the Church were incompatible with my own. I wish you strength and tenacity in your journey.
Edward, may I respectufully tell you that forty years ago, I investigated the possibility of an annulment of the previous marriage of my about to be husband, and was told it would take some years and need probing questions about the intimate details of his marriage. I found both these aspects appalling, verging on voyeuristic, as did he, and so we engaged a civil celebrant. Perhaps things have changed now so I hope the woman you refer to, had a better experience. No doubt the bishops are as disinterested in my opinions as I am in theirs.

Henri | 27 October 2021  

I had the benefit of a great catholic education from priests, nuns, brothers and laity. My faith is based on what I call the positives of Christs teaching. Love, forgiveness and charity.
I would not have a clue about canon law, the power of the bishops and the internal machinations of the church. Interminable discussion of these topics is a turn off to most Catholics.
Society now is different then it was in 30 AD. Finally, women hold an equal role to men in life, and not awarded that role on the whim of men.
We now know that sexuality is to a large extent genetically determined, which was not known till recently.
And we know that men are the by far the greatest cause of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Do I have to say more. The Catholic Church is not inclusive, and till we become inclusive, how can people like me be involved in "mission".

Rob Harpham | 27 October 2021  

I believe the lady in question's annulment was in a case of real psychological abuse and manipulation, Henri. I knew her husband slightly and had been warned that he was involved with a cult-of-sorts, so avoided any discourse on religion with him. Friends of mine, good mainstream Catholics with brains knew her and were extremely supportive. An annulment basically means that there was something about the marriage ab initio which rendered it null and void. Nonconsumation would be valid grounds. Tribunals vary. Some are excellent, others not so. The matter can be handled with sensitivity. It is bad when it isn't.

Edward Fido | 28 October 2021  

Faith in God and membership of the Church are not the same thing. The lack of transparency and cover ups in the Church have hurt us all immeasurably. Vincent Long and others have written incisively about how “clericalism” has created the situation. Many have left the Church, no longer able to identify with an institution they see as broken, and many of us struggle to continue on. If the Bishops choose to ignore the cry from the people, so many submissions, so much prayer, so much work, I fear they will have no Church over which to exert their authority.

Sally | 29 October 2021  

Thank you Francis Sullivan, for your amazing tenacity and clear thinking.
For me, it’s too painful to keep being rebuffed, but I continue to appreciate and admire the work you do.
Hang in there!

Beth Rees | 29 October 2021  

Francis Sullivan you have my sympathy. The structure of the Plenary Council reminded me of the organising principle of Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks - Democratic Centralism, which Stalin compared to the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church without the sacraments. I don't ascribe power- hungry motives to the Bishops & the Plenary Council Secretariat - in fact I fancy they see themselves as doing God's Will. I think they lack an open-mindedness which can embrace the plethoric multiplicity of ideas that an educated Catholic laity can produce. And has produced. So they try to squeeze what they can into fixed categories and leave innovative & challenging propositions on the cutting room floor.

Uncle Pat | 30 October 2021  

How sad you had to write this summary Francis, but thank you for your honesty. I keep hoping the leaders of the church will stop seeing the church as their personal vocation and hence property. The rest of us are invisible. However, we are not invisible to our Loving Father. I keep having to remind myself of that!

Kathryn Davis | 30 October 2021  

Thank you Francis for being there. I followed your contributions on the RC closely and again I see your commitment. Well done and please keep your commentary public.

Laurie | 30 October 2021  

Great to hear some decent feedback. From someone who has not been able to find a way to contribute, I'm glad I haven't.
I'm most interested in the church's positioning in the colonising state. I think there is a lot to apologise and face up to there. Are we positioned with the State? Or with God and Creation?

What will Catholics formal institutional relationship with Sovereign First Nations people be?
Was this discussed? I certainly couldn't get in on the agenda in the Cairns diocese. One of the delegates from Cairns was aged 85 and deaf. Their pastoral influence lies in that past.

But I guess they are a man and a priest.

Margaret Pestorius | 31 October 2021  
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‘interested in the church's positioning in the colonising state. I think there is a lot to apologise and face up to there. Are we positioned with the State? Or with God and Creation?’

Good questions, and to do with two kinds of Original Sin, religious and secular.

Original Sin (religious) is the guilt we carry for the transgression of Adam and Eve. I suppose it must be a kind of epigenetic guilt, an ingrained weakness caused by the trauma of the transgression, or we would not, individually, carry any guilt for the behaviour of another. Of course, all it takes for the guilt to be removed is a simple affirmation by proxy, during baptism, to acknowledge that evil.

Is there epigenetic trauma among pure-blood First Nations for possession under terra nullius? Is there epigenetic trauma among mixed-blood First Nations? If there is, isn’t the 1967 referendum the affirmation by proxy acknowledging the evil that should remove individual guilt for Original Sin (secular) from each non-First Nations individual who comes to live on this continent after possession?

Of course, after baptism comes numerous sins against all and sundry and requiring compensation for each (in this world or the next) just as after the 1967 referendum comes more individual sins against First Nations individuals requiring individual compensation for each (in this world or the next), but the Original Sins are gone.

What is the Church’s position with colonisation? The same as with Original Sin? It exists until, by declaration, it doesn’t? The Crucifixion declared that Original Sin (religious) ceases to exist if there is a declaration of belief in the equality of all under baptism. The 1967 referendum declared that Original Sin (secular) ceases to exist if there is a declaration of belief in the equality of all under the Constitution.

roy chen yee | 01 November 2021  

I don't think you really understand what the 1967 referendum really did Roy. It didn't give our First Australians the right to vote - that had already happened at both federal and state level. It simply meant that they would be included when counting the number of people in the country or parts of it. Nor did it remove the ability of the Commonwealth to make racially discriminating laws - it just extended that power to include First Australians. So racism - the belief that underpins and justifies colonialism - remains embedded in our national constitution. < https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/first-australians/other-resources-about-first-australians/1967-referendum >

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2021  

‘It simply meant that they would be included when counting the number of people in the country or parts of it.’ Sounds like an improvement on what existed before. What’s your beef with this?

‘Nor did it remove the ability of the Commonwealth to make racially discriminating laws - it just extended that power to include First Australians.’

And why shouldn’t the Commonwealth have an explicit power to make laws for people occupying different racial categories? You have a crystal ball in front of you that says a need might never arise? If Australia weren’t a federation, the national parliament would have a general power to legislate upon anything and everything, as in the UK and New Zealand. Rather than hobble the Parliament, if and when something turns up, the people can look at it then.

roy chen yee | 08 November 2021  

Like I said Roy, you don't understand the 1967 referendum or, for that matter, the Australian constitution, or even what colonialism means in terms of the mind-set of the colonisers or the impact on the colonised. Instead of dragging your coat in the dust why don't you go back and properly address Margaret's very real concern?

Ginger Meggs | 09 November 2021  

Thank you for this report Francis. To say that it is disappointing is somewhat of an understatement. Perhaps the Australian Bishops do not share with me, and others I’m sure, the urgent need to put our house in order. Truly I am amazed by this seeming dismissal of major and much needed criticism by the Royal Commission. Equally damning is the apparent filtering, if not outright disregard, of the voice of the laity. Many have already walked away. Many more will if it emerges that their wishes have been toyed with or manipulated to fit in with a predetermined agenda to steady the ship, rather than to ensure that it is sailing the correct course. As for those who sail her - the laity - there will be no open mutiny. Rather they will simply and quietly continue to abandon the ship.

Ernest Azzopardi | 01 November 2021  

Thanks, Francis, for your persistence in identifying contemporary failures, stating them in an easily understood language that makes sense to pastorally-informed Catholics, and exposing the opportunity wasted in the wider Australian context for the Catholic Church to make its mark on the religious discrimination exemptions legislation coming up for passage in parliament. At a time when the entire nation is poised to decide on this matter it comes as yet another shameless example of Nero fiddling that the largest employer and second-largest education provider in this country opted for the too-easy silence of the synodal process to navel-gaze while the jobs of many hundreds of GLBTIQ persons are placed on the line by a government determined to write evangelical protestant scripturalism into anti-discrimination legislative exemption without so much as a peep of protest from our hapless Catholic leaders. The fact that an estimated ten percent of the lives of hundreds of thousands of children educated in our schools will also be made highly vulnerable to the heresy-hunts of those zealots, some of whose views are unashamedly on show in these columns, offers further evidence of our incompetent and bumbling episcopal leadership. Business, indeed, as usual, as German Bishops towards Hitler!

Michael Furtado | 02 November 2021  
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Catholic schools are Catholic, independent Christian schools are usually Reformed, Islamic schools are Muslim, and all traditions have well established views on what can be considered to be moral in sex and cohabitation. Unless a stumbling block is a cornerstone, which the manifestation of LGBTIQ* cannot be, the relevant concept is vaccination to protect the health of a body from the stumbling blocks within it.

roy chen yee | 03 November 2021  

Spoken like a cross between a calvinist and a mullah, Roy. The problem is: how can you vaccinate yourself against yourself. Its not as if the Church favours castration anymore, which in any case would trigger an epilectic seizure in you for fear that the sole purpose you attribute to any act of physical pleasure, including admission to salivating at the whiff of a delicious chow mien, breaks you out into a pre-confessional sweat. Better, say I, to stumble and demolish the meal than to endanger your life - a greater sin, no doubt? - by starving.

Michael Furtado | 05 November 2021  

‘The problem is: how can you vaccinate yourself against yourself.’ Perhaps Dr John Frawley can contribute.

Autoimmunity occurs when the body’s attack mechanisms are fooled into thinking that home tissue is foreign tissue, or that foreign tissue is home tissue. The fooling can be done by mutations within the body or by agents which are forms of life or activity alien to the body, or by agents causing mutations.

Can you vaccinate yourself against yourself, so to speak? Some people are investigating: https://www. tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645515.2019.1593085; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5607155/

Vaccination is only one means of medication. Given the many external interventions that exist under the heading of medication, there is no logical impediment to the idea that a body can’t be vaccinated against itself, any more than that cures against biological self-harm cannot be ingested or delivered by radiation, or, by extension, cures against psychological or theological self-harm cannot be delivered by cognitive intervention.

Metanoia is a cognitive intervention upon a pre-existing mental state.

roy chen yee | 08 November 2021  

Thank you for the flattering suggestion that perhaps could make some sort of contribution to the current debate between your good self and Michael Furtado. I regret that I am impotent to do so because I haven't the slightest inkling as to what either of you are talking about!

john frawley | 09 November 2021  

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