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The Plenary Council is dead, long live the Synod of Bishops

  • 06 December 2022
The Church in Australia is living in an age of transition, but also of continuity. This notion is summed up in the saying, ‘The king is dead, long live the king’, meaning that the transition from an old to a new monarch is one of continuity as well as change. 

For years the Australian Church has devoted itself to the whole-of-church consultation known as the Plenary Council. That council concluded its work at the end of its Second Assembly in the second week of July. Its members were thanked and departed never again to come together in the same form. In this sense, reinforced in recent official correspondence, the Plenary Council is dead. 

In another sense, of course, it remains alive. The Plenary Council decrees were considered and approved by Australia’s bishops at their Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) November meeting, then sent off to Rome for review. In six months’ time they will be officially promulgated. 

Each of the decrees has been assigned to one of the official bishops’ commissions for monitoring and coordination. Progress in implementation of the decrees is to be reported back to the ACBC in May 2023, then 2025 and finally 2027. Back in July at the Second Assembly it was agreed that a new national synodal roundtable, representing the wider Church, would be set up to coordinate the review, but no announcement about any progress with that has yet been made. It appears that it will be created late in 2023 after the First Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.  

At this national level lay Catholics risk being disenfranchised at a critical moment. There is a real danger that the momentum generated by the Plenary Council will be lost. 

Effectively implementation is now in the hands of each diocesan bishop. That has unpredictable consequences. In the recently published ACBC Annual Report for 2021, the retiring president Archbishop Mark Coleridge plainly lays out this state of affairs that ‘The real powers in the Church rest with the Dioceses’; while he also predicts optimistically that ‘The days of dioceses as independent fiefdoms and the Bishops as a law unto themselves are gone.’. Tell that to lay Catholics in many dioceses where business as usual prevails and little is being done about the reforms agreed at the Plenary Council. That is what many former Plenary Council members report from the ground. 

Attention has now switched to the Synod of Bishops, which has now