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What can we expect from the Plenary Council? A Roundtable

  • 17 June 2022
What has been the significance of the Plenary Council to the Church and the broader Australian community so far? What more can we expect from the final session?   Julian Butler: It was a chilly July night in 2019 when I had my first, and still my most vibrant, experience of the Plenary Council. I joined colleagues from Jesuit Refugee Service, where I was undertaking a placement, at a conversation in the St Patrick’s parish hall in Blacktown. The large space was packed with people — over one hundred had gathered — and I was drawn to their engaging energy.

We began with small group conversation, followed by comments and questions. In my group an older, local diocesan priest and some employees of various Catholic organisations gave voice to a more liberal and progressive future for Australian Catholicism, while several younger parishioners spoke of being attracted to a more orthodox or conservative expression of faith practice. They weren’t radically traditional, nor were the others militant in any way. And while there were some perplexed looks and some clear lines of difference, there was an openness to listen even in the face of disagreement.

In the months following, I participated in a listening session with other Jesuits that fed into the initial Plenary process. I heard of many others in Catholic communities engaging earnestly and hopefully in similar processes. As this phase of conversation came to an end and talk of collating responses began, I recall saying to a friend, ‘I think this will be as good as it gets.’ I didn’t, and still don’t, hold much hope for significant changes to structures, practice or doctrine. I thought the Plenary Council would do enough if it could open a process that enabled listening, especially to voices and perspectives different from one’s own, and allowed people to feel heard in some way.

It might be said that as a member of a male clerical religious order in the Church I have the luxury of not minding a lack of change. As a person in my early 30s keen to be part of a Church that shares the Good News in word and deed, it’s clear to me we need to operate differently. But how? The contemporary Catholic moment is one of existential uncertainty. Traditionalists argue the Second Vatican Council has been interpreted too liberally, resulting in a loss of integrity of the truth, beauty and goodness of the tradition. Liberals counter