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What connects the Voice and the Synod of Bishops?


October 2023 is a crowded month. It will be remembered by many Australians for the failed constitutional referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. For many Australian Catholics it will also be noteworthy for the First Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome from October 4-29. 

Some of us have been juggling the two events in our daily lives, though knowing that many others don’t care much about either one. The Catholic bishops have issued several statements about the Voice and many Catholic organisations advocated a YES vote. Some Catholics participated in the Synod preparations through taking up consultative opportunities and offering prayerful support, but many other Catholics took a more active and intense involvement in the referendum campaign.

The referendum felt more immediate and promised a more direct outcome than the Synod. 

The events may seem very different at first glance, one secular the other religious, but they have a surprising amount in common. Even the religious aspect connects them. The Synod is specifically a spiritual event invoking listening to the Holy Spirit, but many church organisations are also approaching the Voice in a prayerful spirit while listening to the invitation from Indigenous peoples. 

The church doesn’t hold referendums as they are a democratic mechanism for addressing community issues, at odds with hierarchical Catholic structures and values. Constitutional referendums, like the Voice, are democratic practices in which the whole community decides its basic political rules. But church synods, assemblies, and councils, operating within a monarchical structure, in their own way also address the basic rules of the church community, including governance, participation, and entry requirements. The Synod is, therefore, a constitutional convention in the broadest sense, though conducted with a tendency towards secrecy that would be unacceptable in a democratic society. 

There is a more direct connection between the two in terms of the content. The general question of the participation of Indigenous peoples within the church is on the agenda of the Synod, just as it was in the preceding Australian Plenary Council which strongly supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Voice is a moral issue for all Catholics, though whether it is primarily a moral issue rather than a political issue remains in dispute, underpinning divisions within the church community. 

The Voice and the Synod together are arenas which illustrate four themes: tradition and change, polarization, participation and leadership, and the acceptable boundaries of discourse.  


'We now know the result of the Voice referendum. And in a matter of weeks, the general direction of the Synod’s First Assembly will become clearer. Both immediate outcomes are crucially important because they will shape our communities for decades to come.' 


First, both events threaten the status quo in a modest way and challenge traditional ways of doing things. For some conservative opponents, this possibility still poses an existential threat. For progressive opponents neither approach goes far enough.

A successful YES vote in the referendum promised to introduce a permanent new institution, an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and Executive Government, enshrined in the Constitution. A NO vote, as it turns out, was equally conclusive by cementing the status quo. 

More intangibly and slowly the Synod may eventually advise the Pope to introduce new ways by which the church conducts its business, some of which may make the church more participatory and inclusive. New ‘advisory’ voices and mechanisms, like diocesan assemblies and pastoral councils, may be mandated at all levels. Alternatively, some new ideas, like greater equality for women, may be rejected by the Synod and not surface again for many years. 

Secondly, both are taking place within already diverse and divided communities. These events inevitably exacerbate such divisions by bringing them out into the open. Opportunities for change go to the heart of what makes these communities tick and what elements of them they value most. Churches are just as divided as nation states in this regard. Disengagement at best and secession at worst are real possibilities within the church if this opportunity for change is not taken. 

For both sides (and ‘sides’ exist within the church just as surely as within the referendum community) division extends to extremism and polarization. There are church equivalents of leading NO referendum campaigners, such as Warren Mundine. When he declares that the Uluru Statement is a declaration of war against modern Australia it echoes those church leaders who make the same criticisms about those positive statements of Pope Francis about the desirability of synodality within the church.  

Thirdly, both events have shone a light on participation and leadership. The Voice became a partisan issue once the Labor government’s proposal was opposed by the Nationals and the Liberals. But some leading Liberals/Nationals broke ranks to support the Voice even though this endangered their political careers. Within the church the ACBC refused to take sides on the Voice, but some bishops, including Vincent Long and Charles Gauci, bravely broke ranks to advocate YES. 

Finally, the lead up to both events has also highlighted the acceptable boundaries of public discourse. It is widely accepted that lies, misinformation, and personal abuse during the referendum campaign have crossed the line. Condemnation of reform-minded individuals, including of Pope Francis himself, within the church has been equally fierce and unrestrained (markedly in the United States and sometimes in Australia too). Generally, this has not been called out by church officialdom, much to their discredit. The final word on the Voice from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, for instance, should have more firmly held all participants to a higher standard. Those same standards should also be applied to critics of the Synod of Bishops. 

We now know the result of the Voice referendum. And in a matter of weeks, the general direction of the Synod’s First Assembly will become clearer. Both immediate outcomes are crucially important because they will shape our communities for decades to come.  




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council.

Main image: View from the Synod of Bishops. (Vatican media)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Synod, Catholic, Church, Voice, Referendum



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Existing comments

Certainly, both the Synod and the Voice can challenge tradition and "threaten the status quo." But the pertinent question is whether proposed changes will result in better outcomes. Well-intentioned laws can often have the opposite effect of that contemplated; a revolutionary proposal might seek an outcome that overturns the whole system.
Professor of Constitutional Law at UQ, Nicholas Aroney, thought the Voice could alter Commonwealth/State powers, thus not a "modest" change. Some would like changes to Catholic teachings which would hardly be "modest" if they overturned the Church's basic moral teachings.
The NO vote was not necessarily in favour of "cementing the status quo." Senator Jacinta Price wants to overturn the 50-year-old policy of separatism which, despite a huge "Aboriginal Industry" with massive funding, has failed to close the gap. Price wants an audit into indigenous spending in remote communities to see where the money goes, and an inquiry into child sexual abuse. However, her motion to hold a royal commission into the sexual abuse of Indigenous children was rejected. No voice for the most disadvantaged. Senator Pocock said that what was needed was "more funding for frontline services."
Just who is in favour of the decrepit status quo?

Ross Howard | 19 October 2023  

Interesting that the author should link Voice and Synod. Does the dumbing of the former suggest that the latter will stumble? Whether we deal with democracy or hierarchy we can’t overlook the power of physical entropy and its social analogue, ‘execution never fully realises intention’, which relates to means rather than ends in our diverse social dealings. So let’s say that while the moral goods of justice in history and the communion of peoples in the same humanising faith tradition stand (as meaning), it is the means that have to be shuffled to get worthwhile outcomes in contexts like Voice and Synod. ‘Small is beautiful’ could suggest more effective local listening to promote well being among First Nations Peoples and the rest of us, and the same with those who witness to a faith communion away from parish (the more so Rome) as they manifest a contemporary religious, agency-focused, diaspora.

Noel McMaster | 20 October 2023  

I'm fascinated by fractals - they seem to be everywhere......

Hilary Cook | 20 October 2023  

The Catholic Church has the weakest of all political systems - an elected (by an elite) Monarchy. Pope Francis is trying to circumscribe the autocratic/clericalist tendecies of such a monarchical system and by including the hitherto mariginalised laity to dilute power of the clerics. Francis sees reform as essential.
The form of democracy we have in Australia gives us "representative and responsible government" with a federal constitution. It's a brave person who'd advocate reform because all the parties and their elected representatives game the system. They "do what it takes" to get power and hang on to it.
But whichever system we talking about - the basic units are fallible broken human beings.
Francis puts his faith in the Holy Spirit. Australian pollies put their faith (in as much as pragmatism allows for faith) in satisfying the basic instincts of a variegated electorate so that they can get the support of a majority. Realpolitik.
While I hope to see signs of the Holy Spirit work at the Synod on Synodality in Rome, I cannot say I saw much evidence of geneerosity of spirit towards the First Nations of the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit in the recent politically charged Referendum..

Uncle Pat | 20 October 2023  

Uncle Pat. Perhaps the Spirit had no interest in the referendum. Indeed, with the abysmal goings on on this planet, Earth, these days, the Spirit must find it extremely difficult to find any avenue for intervention in any of Humanity's endeavours.

John Frawley | 23 October 2023  
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Thank you, John, for your pertinent comment on my observation on John Warhurst's article. I hold Emeritus Professor Warhurst in the highest regard not only in field of Political Science but also for his exemplary life as an active member of the Catholic church.
I believe that the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Blessed Trinity never ceases to work for the good of Creation.. I believe, Lord, help thou my unbelief.

Uncle Pat | 24 October 2023  

Amen to that, Uncle Pat!

Michael Furtado | 30 October 2023  

Lets hope the Synod comes up with meaningful reforms.
Misguided Bishops, Cardinals believe and teach that things are best off run by men. Patriarchal religious systems are characterized by misogyny, and rooted in an inadequate and flawed biblical interpretation. (Palmer). These elitist as of right attitudes, beliefs and actions have deeply damaged women's right to participate fully in the church, and seriously affected the vitality of the church.
Let's also hope this Synod is not just another talkfest. Another business as usual whitewash. That this Pope will stick to his guns on zero tolerance for child abuse.

Francis Armstrong | 25 October 2023  
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The problem with spiritual consequences is that they happen so out-of-sight (the next life being a good example of being so out-of-sight) that perpetrators and enablers are denied a visceral sense of accountability.

Hopefully, the Pope will be using the power of his mind and spirit to stick to his guns on zero tolerance for child abuse. But it doesn't really matter if he doesn't. Insurance companies refusing to insure Church bodies will glue the Pope to his guns or, more importantly, those Church bodies to their guns.

In fact, the way things have gone, governments and insurance companies do the greater proportion of the effective work. The government says no operating without guns and the insurance companies provide the guns and glue the Church bodies to them.

The free market as a department of morality within Creation. Who would have thought it?

s martin | 13 November 2023