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What did the Plenary Council achieve?

  • 12 July 2022
The Plenary Council (PC) is over and the time has come for assessments. What did it achieve? In positive terms it brought together an enormously generous group of people whose dedication to Catholicism is extraordinary. It also demonstrated the diverse complexity of the community. As PC member John Warhurst commented: ‘In political terms we [Catholics] range from One Nation to the Greens and everything in between’ (Blog, 9 July).

That’s true, but PC votes consistently indicated that the large majority of Catholics strongly support church renewal. Out of 277 members, the most those opposed to renewal could muster was 65 even when you count the juxta modum votes as ‘no’ votes.

The PC’s most positive achievement was its strong support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, calling for a First Nations voice to Parliament to be enshrined in Australia’s constitution. In some ways Catholics are ahead of the general community on First Nations concerns. The reason: this has been an issue for the church for decades and was pushed by pioneers like Shirley ‘Mum Shirl’ Smith, Ted Kennedy and many others, making it central to mainstream Catholicism

On the issue of equality, the PC eventually semi-caught-up with the 20th century in a vote on a set of re-drafted motions supporting equal dignity for women and men. Perth archbishop Costelloe, in an understatement, commented: ‘There is a long way to go …in understanding the proper role of women in the life of the Church.’ Exactly, archbishop!

But the problem is that Catholicism has long resisted equality as a ‘feminist plot’ so that we’ve now just caught-up with the 1970s. As Costelloe admitted ‘there’s still a long way to go’ to get the church into the 21st century.

'Awareness has been raised, Catholics wanting renewal are clearly the majority, prominent lay leaders have emerged and many of the bishops ‘get’ the real issues.' 

This debate takes us to the core weakness of the PC. Because some bishops and laity have long resisted the basic reforms of Vatican II, particularly that of living in the real world as mandated by Gaudium et spes (‘The Church in the Modern World’), we are endlessly at a disadvantage, always playing catch-up. As someone said, we’re entangled in ‘pathetic incrementalism.’ For example, there are a set of motions asking bishops to establish diocesan pastoral councils and parish councils, structures already legislated in the Code of Canon Law (canons 511-514 and 536).

Another example: