Seeking a plenary council fit for purpose

Posted 14 November 2018 9:44am
Tags: Religion, Mission,

Fr Frank Brennan. As published in Eureka Street 21 October 2018.

The Bishops’ Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment has now concluded in Rome. Like the Synod on the Family, this synod which was focused on youth was more inclusive and democratic than previous synods. Pope Francis has been trying to make the church more ‘synodal’. He has been happy for synod fathers to vote on each paragraph of a document, publishing the voting figures, and taking forward only those paragraphs that gain a 2 out of 3 vote. But like his predecessors, Francis rightly insists that the church is not a democracy. A synod is not a Parliament. And the Roman Church is not trying to emulate the Anglicans.

Francis raised some eyebrows at this last synod when he allowed the male religious lay representatives to vote. His conservative critics are fond of pointing out that a synod is primarily a synod of bishops meeting with the pope and think only clerics should vote. Francis raised other eyebrows, and perhaps these eyebrows were raised a little higher, when he denied any vote to the couple of women religious lay representatives in attendance. Though youth were the focus of the synod, the youth participants had no voting rights. Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher was a member of the synod. A disproportionate number of the Australian youth in attendance came from the Sydney Archdiocese. Maybe they were better organised. 

When interviewed after the synod, Archbishop Fisher said, ‘We had a group of 36 young people present throughout. They were delightful. They were lovely to talk to informally, and they were not backward in coming forward in the general assemblies and the small-group discussions. Most of them were very idealistic. It really added to the whole process, having them around. But at times I felt they hunted in a pack: They would clap and cheer and whoop comments that played to a very particular script.’

We Australian Catholics are now preparing for a Plenary Council. Hopefully there will be a large number of participants at the proposed plenary council who are not bishops. They won’t all be delightful. Some will be young. And they will be wanting to do more than talk informally. When those without a deliberative vote organise to make themselves heard, it will be important for them not to be perceived by those with a deliberative vote to be hunting in a pack.

When discussing how the new synod procedures instituted by Pope Francis had worked in Rome last month, Archbishop Fisher observed‘The papacy is hugely important ... What [Synodal Fathers are] wary of, I think, is the way synods might be manipulated today, swept up by the fashions of the age.’

These observations from the vice president of our Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference triggered a couple of alarm bells for me when thinking about our forthcoming Australian Plenary Council, to be held in two sessions in 2020 and 2021. Pope Francis, unlike his immediate predecessors, is more willing to take guidance, and he is hoping that the local Bishops will be close to the people in the pews and in the streets, hearing their daily needs and concerns, and making pastoral decisions suited to local circumstances. Francis is fond of saying: ‘In a synodal Church, it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.’

Francis’s approach is consistent with Vatican II’s emphasis on listening to the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of faith of the faithful) and the established Church governance principle of subsidiarity. As long ago as 1931, Pope Pius XI decreed that ‘it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.’

Only bishops will have a ‘deliberative’ vote at the plenary council. Other participants can be given a ‘consultative’ vote. Under the present canon law, there is provision for the bishops to be accompanied by a significant number of priests, religious and laity. There will probably be about 200 eligible attendees including bishops, retired bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, religious superiors, seminary rectors and theologate rectors. The overwhelming majority of these will be men. Under the existing canonical provisions there could then be up to another 100 laypersons appointed. So when you do the maths on the present canonical arrangements, there would probably be only about 50 places for women other than nuns in an assembly of up to 300. And the smaller country dioceses are unlikely to have any representation greater than their bishop, one priest and one lay person. Now, that’s just not on. In twenty-first century Australia, there is no point convening a time consuming and expensive assembly of the Church which includes so few lay women and people from the pews. In the wake of the royal commission, the Catholic faithful are as adamant as the general public that there be transparency and inclusiveness in our church governance arrangements.

To date, the consultation team for the assembly headed by facilitator Lana Turvey Collins has worked tirelessly, doing a great job traversing the country and getting people talking. Some bishops, like Archbishop Prowse in Canberra, Bishops Long in Parramatta, O’Regan in Sale and Bird in Ballarat have led their dioceses in consultations which have been very detailed and inclusive. Other bishops have been less engaged, largely leaving it to the national facilitation team. If the plenary council is to be a success, it is essential that the council members come with a sense of the needs and spirit of their own local churches. The national church will develop a synodal sense only if the dioceses themselves are already living and acting synodally. 

The consultations around the country are going well in dioceses where the bishop has got onboard with the process. But there is an increasing realisation among lay people (in particular) that the lay participation at a plenary council risks being abysmally low when it comes to having a place at the table; lay participation in the deliberative voting will probably be non-existent; and the selection of lay people may be insufficiently inclusive.

What’s needed is a structure which ensures that the bishops with deliberative votes are fully aware of the sensus fidelium of their own dioceses and to be attentive to the concerns raised by lay participants (and perhaps only to the concerns raised by lay participants, rather than what the bishops themselves might regard as neuralgic issues).

There are a number of canons even in the existing canon law which point to the need for attention to the consultation process. Bishops casting deliberative votes at a plenary council are required to seek the counsel of the people, in their dioceses and at the council. Canon 127 provides that where ‘counsel is required, the act of a superior who does not hear those persons is invalid; although not obliged to accept their opinion even if unanimous, a superior is nonetheless not to act contrary to that opinion, especially if unanimous, without a reason which is overriding in the superior’s judgment.’ Canon 212 encourages Christian faithful to 'make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.’ Canon 212 goes on to state that the 'Christian faithful have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful.’

At the very least, there will be a need to seek a dispensation from or an amendment of Canon 443 so as to increase significantly the representation of laity at the plenary council.

Being the Roman Church with its hierarchy and ordained offices, we all need to accept that ultimately it is the bishops and the pope who legislate when there is a need. But the last thing the Australian church needs at the moment is a new set of laws or a law-making body which precludes attentive listening and the discernment of equals. What we need is a listening and inclusive Church — a plenary council at which the clergy and the laity have a proper place at the table, at which the voices of the ‘rusted-on’ and the ‘cheesed-off’ Catholics are heard and at which the bishops are respectfully listening as much as speaking. 

What we need is a plenary council which is an expression of the Church at its best — delivering education, health and welfare services to those in need regardless of their identity, celebrating the sacraments and the liturgy with the people in the pews — in all their diversity and varying existential and social challenges — and praying for a broken and complex world whose secularisation may well be a sign of the times in the best Vatican II sense. It is time for our Church to learn some lessons from the world, from parliamentary democracy and from other Churches which have a longer tradition of taking seriously the deliberation of the diverse faithful regardless of their place in the hierarchy.

If the plenary council is to be a success, the deliberative votes of the bishops legislating new laws for the Australian church in 2021 or at some assembly thereafter will be seen to be the hierarchical endorsement of the sensus fidelium expressed with hope and joy in 2020 and 2021.

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