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The Plenary Council: Consulting the faithful



The state of elementary education in England in the middle of the Nineteenth Century was a matter of considerable public concern. In 1858, the Newcastle Commission was appointed both to report on existing arrangements and to suggest measures likely to extend ‘sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of people.’

One of the associated problems was how to reconcile the freedom of denominational schools with public control over the subsidies which they then received.

In the January and February issues of the Catholic periodical, ‘The Rambler’, Nasmyth Scott Stokes, a recent convert to Catholicism, addressed the question of how the Catholic Church should cooperate with the Newcastle Commission. Stokes was in favour of open and positive cooperation with the Commission. Not only would such a policy dispel bigotry, but it would reassure the Commission that the public subsidies which the Church received had been spent on school buildings and teachers’ houses and not on churches and presbyteries. He further suggested that the Catholic authorities should welcome the Commissioners’ representatives into their schools so that they might witness personally to the effectiveness of Catholic religious instruction and assure the Commissioners that Catholic education was calculated to train useful citizens and sound Christians.

‘The Rambler’ had already come under suspicion from the Catholic bishops, mainly because some of its distinguished lay contributors had shown the temerity to indulge in historical and theological criticism, suggesting, for instance, that St Augustine was a proto-Jansenist. Nor did it help that many of these contributors were not only laymen but also converts. The editor, Richard Simpson, another convert, was induced to resign, and, to the initial relief of the bishops, John Henry Newman was persuaded to succeed him as editor.

In the first number of ‘The Rambler’ which he edited in May 1859, Newman studiously endeavoured to avoid controversy. The theological and historical articles were anodyne in intent and execution, and the pastoral visitations of Cardinal Wiseman to various centres came in for special commendation. But a comment by Newman buried in a notice on ‘Contemporary Events’ did not escape the scrutiny of prejudiced and critical readers. Apropos of the Newcastle Commission and in an oblique reference to Stokes’ articles in the earlier numbers, Newman submitted that:   

We do unfeignedly believe… that their Lordships really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned. If even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, it is at least as natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions, such as their children’s education.


'Newman also showed that while the bishops were in schism, the laity, in contrast, were resolute in their adherence to the orthodoxy of the Council of Nicaea.'


Even though Newman knew by this time (as Stokes did not know when he wrote in January and February) that the bishops were lukewarm at best to the prospect of cooperating with the Commission and absolutely resistant to the Commissioners or their representatives personally visiting Catholic schools, he nonetheless thought that there was merit in Stokes’ suggestion that there should be a wider consultation by the bishops before determining how they would respond to the Commission’s overtures.

Such, however, was the intransigence of the bishops in this matter that Newman himself was exposed to criticism and censure. His own bishop, Ullathorne, usually more enlightened that his fellows, did not hesitate to rebuke Newman for his temerity in suggesting that the laity might be consulted in such matters. His interview with the bishop on May 22nd, 1859, concluded with Newman acceding to Ullathorne’s request that he should resign from his short-lived editorship of ‘The Rambler’ after the publication of the next number in July.

If the good bishop had known the tenor of Newman’s contribution to that July number, perhaps he might have acted even more precipitately. For Newman’s essay, ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’, went a long way to vindicating both the original articles of Nasmyth Stokes and his own supportive comment in the May number. Then it further demonstrated, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective, how consulting the faithful not only in the practical matters currently under review but even in doctrinal issues might preserve the bishops from straying into schism and heresy.

In drafting his essay Newman noted that prior to the recent (1854) definition of the Immaculate Conception there had been an instruction from Rome itself that the sentiments of the laity should be consulted. He noted, too, that there was expert theological opinion in Rome that such consultation was appropriate, not, indeed, as far as the drafting of the formal definition was concerned, but in assessing the sentiments of the laity in respect of the projected definition. In this, of course, there was a suppressed a fortiori argument. If Rome was willing to entertain the possibility that the opinion of the laity was relevant in a doctrinal matter like the Immaculate Conception, should not the English bishops be willing to consult the laity in a matter as eminently practical as the education of their children?

As the essay unfolded, however, Newman’s argument became even more pointed. There is no doctrine more central to Christianity than Christ’s divinity. Yet Newman could assemble a wealth of evidence from the Fourth and Fifth Centuries to show that many bishops, both in the Latin and Eastern Churches, were Arian, rather than orthodox, in respect of this doctrine. Not only this, however. Newman also showed that while the bishops were in schism, the laity, in contrast, were resolute in their adherence to the orthodoxy of the Council of Nicaea. Whereas only too many bishops submitted to the Arian theology espoused by a succession of Roman emperors, the laity were willing even to endure persecution at the emperor’s hands rather than renounce orthodoxy. In some cases they even refused to bathe in the same public baths as the schismatic bishops and emperors lest they be contaminated by heresy!


'One might submit that a Plenary Council is a cumbersome instrument to ascertain the genuinely representative views of the Catholic Church in Australia.'


I am not suggesting that such manifestations of division between clergy and laity should be entertained at the upcoming Australian Plenary Council. Nor am I even contemplating that some of our bishops may be in schism. But I am suggesting, in line with Newman’s essay, that the episcopal and clerical members of the Council should be particularly attentive to the voices of the laity when they address the Council’s agenda. This is all the more necessary because, inevitably, in view of the canonical structure of the Council, the laity will be in a very significant minority. An overwhelming majority of clerical members is appointed ex-officio, and in some instances bishops have seen fit to choose further clerics, rather than laity, to fill what vacancies remained.

Indeed, one might submit that a Plenary Council is a cumbersome instrument to ascertain the genuinely representative views of the Catholic Church in Australia. Many of the canonical strictures regarding the membership, agenda and process of the Council will dampen the original enthusiasm for the Council that provoked over 17,500 submissions. Second thoughts might have suggested an extra-canonical assembly after the German or Irish model as a better way to convoke a more representative, less clerical, meeting. On the other hand, a canonically structured council does have the advantage that its recommendations are more likely to be taken seriously by the Roman authorities.

Whatever the outcomes of the Plenary Council, let us hope that this consultation entered upon by the clergy and the laity will be regarded as a first, rather than a final, step. Pope Francis has already indicated that further consultations of this nature should be conducted in every diocese prior to the Synod on Synodality in 2023. If the Australian Plenary Council were to prescribe in preparation for this Synod that in each parish a Parish Council should be instituted, and that in each diocese a Diocesan Council should be established, and that in both instances the laity should be significantly represented on these councils, that might seem to compensate, at least to some degree, for the disparities of membership that more or less inevitably attend the Plenary Council.


'It is imperative, then, that at the Plenary Council there will be a special sensitivity to the submissions and opinions of the under-represented lay members.'


The Australian bishops and religious superiors (of which I was one: 1991 – 1996) have never, as far as I know, been in schism – unlike their predecessors in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries. But their handling of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and even their responses to the Royal Commission left much to be desired. The reactions of the Catholic laity to this debacle (surprise, disappointment, incomprehension, disgust even) might seem to parallel those of their lay counterparts in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries when their bishops strayed from orthodoxy into Arianism. The Australian Catholic laity might submit that there has been as major a departure from orthopraxis by our bishops and religious superiors in their handling of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse as there was a departure from orthodoxy by these early Christian bishops when they strayed into Arianism.

Newman’s ‘Essay on Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ drew attention to this historical precedent in early Christianity to argue for greater consultation with the laity in mid-Nineteenth Century English educational matters. Might we also invoke its substance to suggest in the present parlous situation of the Catholic Church in Australia that a wider constituency than the predominantly clerical membership of the Plenary Council should be consulted, and that the laity’s wisdom, expertise and experience should be more adequately represented in any of the subsequent forums that the Pope has mandated in preparation for Synodality 2023?

Newman’ intervention with his bishop was unsuccessful – Ullathorne did not resile from requiring his resignation as editor of ‘The Rambler’. The reactions of the other English bishops and the Roman authorities were even more savage. Newman was denounced as ‘the most dangerous man in England.’ But Newman’s essay continues to remind us that the sentiments of the laity are, at least sometimes, a more reliable guide to orthodoxy and orthopraxis than the incestuous opinions of the clergy.

It is imperative, then, that at the Plenary Council there will be a special sensitivity to the submissions and opinions of the under-represented lay members. Let us hope, too, that at least one of the outcomes of the Council will be to put in place iron-clad structures of consultation to ensure that at both the parish and diocesan level the voices of the laity are heard and heeded and that clericalist and episcopal vetoes are banished from ecclesiastical decision-making.



Bill UrenBill Uren SJ AO is a Jesuit Priest, Scholar in Residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne and Former Rector of the College, Jesuit Theological College and former Provincial of the Australian Jesuits. He is a graduate of the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney, Oxford and the Melbourne College of Divinity. He has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics at the Universities of Melbourne, Murdoch and Queensland, and has served on over a dozen clinical and research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research institutes.

Main image: Engraving, John Henry Newman (1801-1890). (Hulton Archive/Stringer)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, catholic, plenary, consultation, John Henry Newman



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Existing comments

Thanks, Bill, for stating so clearly what many of us have had difficulty in communicating. Your last sentence goes to the essence of judging whether the Plenary Council is successful: “ Let us hope, too, that at least one of the outcomes of the Council will be to put in place iron-clad structures of consultation to ensure that at both the parish and diocesan level the voices of the laity are heard and heeded and that clericalist and episcopal vetoes are banished from ecclesiastical decision-making.”

Peter Peter Johnstone | 02 September 2021  

I am glad someone of your stature made this statement. You were once the Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne and the rectors there were usually men of considerable intellectual substance. In the undivided Church of the 4th and 5th Centuries religion and theology were as avidly studied and discussed by the general public as AFL is in Melbourne today. Church attendance and a knowledge of how the Church functioned and should function were much more general. The bishops here, by and large, seem to be very similar to those in England in Newman's time: they are usually procedurally extremely cautious and often lack real vision. Newman was a real, practical visionary. He basically set up UCD as the Catholic alternative to that bastion of the Protestant Ascendancy, TCD. The consequences, both for Ireland and the world, were enormous. It is a pity there is so much ignorance of religion these days, particularly among younger people, who have been really alienated by the paedophilia scandal. I think the laity need to step up to the plate themselves. The days of 'Yes Father, no father, three bags full' should be over. The sheep are in the paddocks. We are not sheep and should not act like them.

Edward Fido | 02 September 2021  

"I am not suggesting such manifestations of division between clergy and laity should be entertained at the upcoming Australian Plenary Council." A sentiment I think Newman would strongly endorse. He often used the phrase "conspiratio pastorum et fidelium" - a relationship between clergy and laity he conceived as much more than a transactional co-operation of pastors and lay faithful - more, rather, a mutual encouragement and sharing of the Holy Spirit, as suggested by the word "conspiratio": literally, a breathing together.

John RD | 03 September 2021  

It's doubtful, that Newman, given his careful definition of lay consultation as testimony to the Apostolic tradition rather than its determinant, would agree that "the voices of the laity" while they should be "heard" must necessarily be "heeded"; or that the exercise of episcopal authority should be "banished from ecclesial decision-making." Newman maintains a clear distinction between the roles of the "Ecclesia docens" and the "Ecclesia docta".

John RD | 03 September 2021  

In the foreword to my book "John Henry Newman: Selected Sermons" is the sentence "John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was not a writer whose works lend themselves to tidy classification". Through reading his powerful sermons, which are not given to brevity, I've been introduced to a writer who takes his reader on an unforgettable journey. It doesn't surprise me that he was denounced in his time by the hierarchy of the church as "the most dangerous man in England." The laity attending the Plenary Council in this place and at this time could have no finer role model than this Saint.

Pam | 03 September 2021  

Thank you Bill for a thoughtful journey as we approach the Plenary Council. I was filled with great hopes that the Plenary would allow us as layman to contribute to the discussions about much needed reforms in the governance of the Australian Church. I hold a Masters in Theology, combined with the experience and insights from a career spanning three decades of teaching Religious Education in our schools. Unfortunately as you write, our voices have been muted if not silenced by the 'stacking' of the Council, shutting us out of any effective voice in the decision making process.
Recalling the opening of Vatican II, it should be remembered that the attempt by the ultra conservatives forces to hobble the Council was overturned when the delegates threw out the original agenda and requested a now progressive one. Hope springs eternal .
As for me , I see the writing on the wall for the "official Church'. Declining attendance, financial issues, ultimately ending in more irrelevancy for most Catholics unless reforms are instituted urgently

Gavin O'Brien | 03 September 2021  

The C19th saw, without disagreement and with the benefit of hindsight, the highpoint of a religious 'arms-race' in what is quaintly called the Christocentric West by those who have hardly progressed beyond it. While not of the kind that caused protagonists to slit one another's throats, it offered a rehash, not encountered since the Reformation, before the birth of modernism and its message that a religious construction of this world offered little hope of human survival compared with the gifts of science and the privileging of reason. Almost exclusively among the Catholic religious congregations the Jesuits have led the way towards an accommodation with this development and, accordingly, the promotion of conscientious arbitration. To read human behaviour in any other light and counter it with doctrine is surely to regress (with the benefit of that selfsame hindsight) towards the mindset of the Taliban. Sheer logic reveals that a contrary position, grossly elevated to use of the word 'tradition', offers precious little scope for breaking new ground in reading the world as a living, interconnected cosmos, in which appeals to the Holy Spirit are but a smokescreen for stymieing progress towards a Catholicism that is as consultative as it is representational.

Michael Furtado | 04 September 2021  
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Lofty rhetoric hiding maggots under the carpet. ‘gifts of … the privileging of reason’ Arguing that the Magisterium is wrong is privileging whim at the price of intellectual instability. A magisterium is indispensable when truth in the intellectual enterprise that is religion cannot be tested with scientific method. Science has no magisterium because science accepts that something may be found in future which wrecks its current foundations of belief. ‘conscientious arbitration’ Similarly, religious conscience is not unfettered intellectual choice because conscience is curated by magisterium. ‘stymieing progress’ Unless a great theory can answer the simplest of questions, it only sounds good. Michael’s version of the privileging of reason and conscientious arbitration cannot answer the absurdity of the trophy child with a hybrid (ie., quasi-polygamous) parentage, or the ludicrous and pretty much abominable spectacle of a divorced priest in the pulpit (because, as surely as night follows day, sin being the omnipresent phenomenon that it is, a married priesthood will birth some divorced priests, Episcopal retired bishop Gene Robinson being an example). The practicalities of Michael’s rhetoric will take us in the direction of suborning our perception, so that we can only see as saintly those who are in sin (and those who are saintly as sinning bigotry), much like the line ‘just as every cop is a criminal and all you sinners saints’ from the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. ‘Catholicism that is as consultative as it is representational’ Not possible because sin cannot vote for truth, especially truth that is hard.

roy chen yee | 05 September 2021  

Who precisely is arguing that the magisterium is wrong, unless Roy employs this as an excuse to promote a view of it that has bypassed the participation of the faithful for quite a few decades now. Last time I looked average Mass attendance had fallen to fifteen percent and youth participation, auguring ominously for our future, down to seven. Representation, far from being a restoration project, spells a powerful threat to those like Roy and John RD who would use tradition as a means of promoting the same-old bug-bears about keeping divorced Catholics from receiving the Eucharist, yet another threat from Roy's war-chest of Gothic horrors with which to scare the bejaysus out of our pusillanimous pulpiteers? Haven't they got enough on their hands without counting on him as an ally? What indeed has retired Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson, from another flock and without a congregation of his own, got to do with this, other than to have his name trundled out among those of many has-beens, like retired Archbishop Chaput, with which to scare those among our episcopi, troubled enough by our current parlous state of affairs to lie awake at night, into a return to their uneasy snooze.

Michael Furtado | 06 September 2021  

‘Last time I looked average Mass attendance had fallen to fifteen percent and youth participation, auguring ominously for our future, down to seven.’ So, 93% of youth, the supposed hope for the future, mustn’t believe in the Real Presence (or they wouldn’t turn their backs to it). With that kind of thinking, they’re not hope but, like the remainder of the 85%, jetsam. Anyone with half-a-brain should know that abandoning the Real Presence cannot be an answer to anything. Even Michael Furtado doesn’t abandon the Real Presence. Incidentally, if you’re right about not abandoning the Real Presence, they’re wrong so why are you bothering to cite them in your argument? They’ll just be lead in your saddlebags. From that we may formulate a principle: Leavers are ex-lead in the saddlebags of the Church. When they choose not to be lead, they’re welcome home. After all, if God can raise children of Abraham from stones, he can raise youth from Muslims, Hindus, Afghani refugees. It looks like the 15% may need to renew their acquaintance with the Great Commission.

roy chen yee | 07 September 2021  

Just for the record, I understand the tradition of Christ and the Apostles to be indispensable to the Church's development of doctrine and practice consistent with it, and do not regard as "bug-bears" concerns about the Eucharist.

John RD | 08 September 2021  

Roy (7/9), your assumption of sameness is understandable but explains the Babel phenomenon. Across the globe we find a thousand distinct peoples, each with their own language and set of beliefs. Culturally adaptive radiation is advantageous because it makes conflict productive. The Babel problem is solved by reversing the assertion you make. Every language-plus-form-of-life totality is in continual change: in chronically unstable equilibrium and moving all the time. Therefore the group coheres only through continual daily intercourse with ALL of its members. Through this, rather than by placing them first, do all conventions evolve. Any relatively isolated or spurned sub-group quickly develops a distinct subculture. Thereafter, if all communication is severed for 50-75 years, divergence becomes irrevocable. If different groups don't keep in touch they grow apart, for there is no such thing as a stable culture. So also with youth culture! If we regard religion as an absolute, rather than a dynamic, we are destined to lose the vast numbers that you rightly forecast but view through the wrong lens. Its in this struggle that the fundamentalist mentality is formed. Hence the fundamentalist is always a 'super-patriot', while the ouvre is perennially excluded as a disloyal and subversive person.

Michael Furtado | 17 September 2021  

‘divergence becomes irrevocable.’ You seem to keep forgetting God all the time in your sociological analyses. If he can raise stones to be children of Abraham, he can corral the recalcitrant whenever he wants. Our job is just to keep the house clean. The last thing we want is for some johnny-come-lately ex-lead-in-the-saddlebag recalcitrant to come home and fire us, who’d been there all the time, for not doing our job. I think that’s called taking the talent from the person who has one and giving it to the person who has ten. At least, because they had been keeping the place in good shape, the grumblers in the vineyard didn’t have to give up their denarii to the latecomer. The Church is in the world but not of it. That is why your sociological analyses, being in and of the world (Babel? Wasn’t that just a highrise?), cannot encompass the Church.

roy chen yee | 20 September 2021  

I'm intrigued, Michael, by your reference to the 'Babel phenomenon' and its implications for cultural diversity and 'tribalism'. Could you please point to a few sources where I might explore those notions further? :-)

Ginger Meggs | 21 September 2021  

Bill – wonderfully crafted and potent with gentle intent. Your recall of the “Rambler Incident”, laced with Newman's advice to the bishops of the day, sits neatly inside your suggestions of how today's Australian bishops could order themselves at the PC first session.

Just a brief post script to the Rambler controversy. Almost 140 years later (1995) – the English Bishops showed that they had listened to Newman. In the shadow of the Birmingham Oratory, at the aptly named Newman College, all of the bishops of England and Wales lived, dined, mixed informally, attended plenary lectures and multiple workshops with Catholic Education leaders who were predominantly lay women and men. The conference was not notable for generating reports, but was generative of a spirit of respect and shared purpose.

Bill Burke | 04 September 2021  

“The reactions of the Catholic laity to this debacle (surprise, disappointment, incomprehension, disgust even)”. You forgot anger, lots of anger at their betrayal.

I have little hope of a meaningful outcome to the Plenary Council. It looks like a clericalist whitewash will occur. Like all managers who permit a token “consultation” with their staff in the business world, I expect the clerics will claim that they have consulted the laity but will take no notice of them.

Frank S | 04 September 2021  

I imagine Newman, who devoted most of his scholarly life to conscientiously exploring the Church's tradition and doctrine, would deem oxymoronic, to say the least, any suggestion of divorcing "conscientious arbitration" or discernment of what Vatican II calls "signs of the times" from "doctrine" and the ecclesial tradition in which it develops.

John RD | 05 September 2021  

Thank God for the Jesuits like Bill Uren for this scholarly article, stating a case for contributions of a broad spectrum of Catholicism to be given just consideration in the decisions reached at the upcoming Plenary Council. He is right to caution against the dangers of a clerical straightjacket dominating proceedings and outcomes. The contemporary Church's flock, of which I am but one, hope for a reliable compass to emerge from this Council to point to greener pastures for good shepherd navigators, rather than one that just points to comfortable lodgings for career shepherds. Shepherds with diminishing flocks to attend soon become an endangered species. Extinction usually follows unless preservation measures arrive in time.

Graeme P | 05 September 2021  

John RD if that is the case why should anyone listen to you? The laity must not only be heard but must also be heeded and no apologist for the Clerical hierarchy should prevail. Jesus was not a member of the hierarchy which put him to death.

Francis Armstrong | 07 September 2021  

Frank Armstrong: Assuming you're referring to my second comment (2/3), I don't consider bishops obligated to heed my views. I accept their magisterial authority and role in the People of God.

John RD | 07 September 2021  
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Where did Jesus give the hierarchy magisterial authority?
As an earlier writer has observed we may be the sheep but the Shepherd cares for his flock not the trappings and power of Office

Gavin O'Brien | 10 September 2021  

Gavin: In response to your question, I should think - following scripture and tradition - when Christ called and commissioned Peter and the apostles. (Cf. Vatican II: "Dei Verbum", II, 8-10; "Lumen Gentium", III, 18-22; "Christus Dominus", I: 4; Catechism of the Catholic Church: 857-862); The Fathers of the Church, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, of whose refutation of gnostic distortions Benedict XVI has said: "The true teaching. . . is not that invented by intellectuals, which goes beyond the Church's simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles." (The Fathers: 2008, p. 26).

John RD | 10 September 2021  

John – it would be relevant to note the quote you provide from Benedict XVI is an opinion of an eminent theologian: that he was pope at the time of publication is accidental. Any inference that the work cited has a standing similar to his writings produced and promulgated as part of his Petrine ministry would be wrong – a mistake, I'm sure you would not make.

Bill Burke | 12 September 2021  

While your qualification of its authoritative status is noted, Bill Burke, would you not think the statement itself bears relevance and consideration, not least since, in keeping with Vatican II's ressourcement largely inspired by Newman, it pertains to a recognised patristic source on a matter of doctrinal and practical consequence for all the faithful?

John RD | 13 September 2021  

Father Bill Uren's reference to Parish and Diocesan Councils reminds me that, within the last two years Pope Francis has documented how such assemblies are to function.
Despite his frequent condemnation of clericalism and its association with child abuse, his statements essentially support the the worst features of this scourge.
Parish Councils will exist only if the PP wants one. They will remain consultative which renders them close to useless. If they are to fulfil any worthwhile function, particularly as they relate to lay representation, the Holy Father's recent edicts need to be urgently and quickly revised.
His Holiness' general statements on the management of parishes echo his disappointing prescriptions on the councils.
I find this Papal attitude as surprising as it is alarming.

Grebo | 08 September 2021  

Newman was someone on a lifelong voyage of discovery of the Catholic Church. What catalysed his departure from the Church of England to the Catholic Church was a 'Damascus moment' whilst his ship was becalmed in the Bay of Naples. Many great saints - such as Ignatius of Loyola - have had mystical experiences similar. The proof of the genuineness of the experince is what they do after it. A genuine religious 'Damascus moment' brings real, tangible fruit. Being terribly, terribly English Newman did not wear his heart on his sleeve, but he loved the Church. When able to speak on matters of doctrine yet to be defined, he gave his opinion, but he never diverged from the Magisterium. One of the reasons he joined the Catholic Church was because he felt it was authentic and true to its roots. As John RD says, Newman was no heretic. There is much the hierarchy can do to make themselves and what they do more comprehensible to the laity, without whom there would be no Church. A good role model would probably be the late Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Woods, who I did meet. He was, like Newman, perfectly orthodox in his beliefs. This did not stop him modernising his archdiocese in the right way. He was guided by deep faith and a life of real prayer. 'By their fruits...'.

Edward Fido | 08 September 2021  

Fr Uren, in all the speculation about the upcoming Plenary Council one of the main complaints that I have heard is that the Laity feel totally excluded and despite their protestations to the contrary, the Bishops just wont listen.
Pope Francis had this to say: " “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”
?— Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 49.
I emphasise the second part of the first sentence: "rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security." Because that is exactly what we have here in Australia. If the 280 voting members (a minuscule sample of Australian Catholics) have been carefully chosen because of their roles and status, isn't that another example that clericalism is alive and flourishing in this church?

Francis Armstrong | 09 September 2021  

Thanks for all of this. I suppose there is some hope for real engagement and change, but my mind kept drifting back to a poem from the late Peter Steele SJ, a friend and brother Jesuit of Bill:

The Mortality Sub-Committee

The Mortality Sub-Committee has been in session
longer than anyone can remember.
For reasons opaque even to the Chair,
sundry faces grow dim before
disappearing, but so far there’s always been a quorum.

Though nothing has ever been said on the matter,
tacitly it’s understood that a dress-code prevails;
the ultra-bosky look — all wreaths and fig-leaves —
reported as having prevailed once
is no longer comme il faut. Power-dressing

in field-grey and cyanide-blue is the vogue,
accessories running to onyx and sable.
Many of the members affect a dapper air,
committees being, as is well known,
the zone of control in an uncertain world.

Recurrently, it’s incumbent on this group
to address submissions from such other
quarters as the Commission for the Testing
of Morale, or the Ad-Hoc Working Party
on Unwarranted Yearning. So far, to judge by responses,

no one has been disappointed with those efforts.
Hard on the heels of the last appraisal
has been a suggestion that imminent cooptations
should include the Dalai Lama, a veteran
user of Semtex, and Madonna’s younger sister.

It is claimed that someone may put up a question about
the Sub-Committee’s deliberations,
hinting, it seems, at redundancy. Such folly
has been envisaged by the members, who,
amply persuaded of their own pertinence, have

resolved to expand their endeavours to encompass
consultancies from China to
Peru. The issue of who should receive its reports
is under review. There is still hope
of something set out before the darkness sets in.

Sean Burke | 11 September 2021  

I assume what most people want of a Church is a loving, supportive organisation true to Christ's mission which they can feel a valued part of. One of the necessary building blocks of this Church is that its leaders differentiate between authority and authoritarianism. Pope Francis is quite capable of exercising his proper authority as against the likes of Cardinal Raymond Burke, but he is not authoritarian. John RD - sometimes a voice crying in the wilderness - is quite correct, legitimate Church teaching is not up for alteration at this, or any other, Plenary Council. Because the Catholic Church is so highly centralised, with most important decisions coming from the Vatican - with more than 1 billion members worldwide it has to be - the bishops are naturally cautious because they cannot deliver legitimate, doctrinally sound moves such as married priests. I guarantee this would increase vocations and possibly really revitalise the Church. Decent married clergy in the Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches can have a more immediate effect, especially as role models with functional families, than celibate clergy who lack some of the real life experience their married colleagues have.

Edward Fido | 23 September 2021  
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‘married priests. I guarantee this would increase vocations and possibly really revitalise the Church. Decent married clergy in the Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.’ Interesting hypothesis – the Catholic Church will be revitalised by married clergy because the Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches have married clergy. And the evidence that the Anglican and Protestant churches are simply buzzing with life is? That the US Episcopal Church is so full of the Spirit that you simply cannot enter one of its buildings without levitating? Some of the Orthodox and Uniate congregations may be vital but that’s because of the martyrdom of staying true while being hemmed in by an Islam which is tolerant only if it is not shaken or stirred and is willing to use the 007 licence to kill if it is either. Anyway, my myopic friend, the question is whether the episcopacy can be married because they, not the priests, are the successors of the Apostles. Like rooks opening access to the king, moves to married priests are really a Western liberal/’enlightenment’ assault on the bastion of unmarried apostleship to which all of the ‘eastern’ churches subscribe.

roy chen yee | 28 September 2021  

Hi Ginger, re. your request of 21/9: 'Your reference to the 'Babel phenomenon' and its implications for cultural diversity and 'tribalism', you will find quite a bit about this in many of the writings of Don Cupitt, e.g. 'The new Christian ethics', SCM Press, 1988.

Michael Furtado | 05 October 2021  

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  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 09 September 2021

In recent weeks the value of human life has become a topic of public conversation in different contexts. Proposed legislation on abortion and assisted dying has continued to focus attention on it. Debate about loosening COVID restrictions has also balanced the risk of death from the disease with risks to health and economic welfare from lockdowns. In Afghanistan the victory of the Taliban has again raised questions about the morality of the war and the killing involved by both sides.