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A day of drama at Australia’s plenary council

The Australian Catholic Church’s plenary Council was the scene of high drama Wednesday.

The initiative was “thrown into crisis,” according to The Catholic Weekly newspaper, while the Sydney Morning Herald said that it had “descended into disarray.”

Divisions burst into view on July 6, midway through the final general assembly of the four-year project, which seeks to revive the local Church after devastating abuse scandals and amid falling numbers.

The Pillar takes a look at what happened.

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A consultation session ahead of the Australian 2021 plenary council. Credit: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Wait, what’s a plenary council?

A plenary council is the highest formal gathering of all local churches within a country. Unlike a synod, it has legislative and governance authority, meaning that its decisions are binding, subject to Rome’s approval.

The stakes were therefore high when participants gathered for a weeklong meeting in Sydney on July 3 to consider around 30 motions divided into eight themes. 

The agenda for the votes included some controversial motions, including a call for diaconal ordination for women, lay homilies during Mass, and broadened use of general absolution instead of individual confession.

The 277 plenary council members - including bishops, priests, religious and lay people – are drawn from across the ecclesial spectrum.

Council president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe told participants that they were “not enemies or combatants seeking to prevail over others.” He also cautioned that their “cherished hopes, dreams, and projects” might not be realized in the plenary council’s final votes.


Kangaroos in the Australian Outback. Australiavisa via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What’s the context? 

Recently released census data showed that, for the first time, the majority of Australians do not identify as Christians. 

While Catholicism remains the country’s largest Christian communion, accounting for 20% of the 25 million-strong population, the Church has lost considerable influence within Australian society.

The bishops hope that the plenary council will help to revitalize the country’s Catholics. Pope Francis approved the initiative in 2018. It is the fifth plenary council in Australia’s history and the first since 1937.

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Logo of the Second General Assembly of the Plenary Council of Australia.

What happened on Wednesday?

A participant, speaking on background, told The Pillar that the gathering got off to a smooth start in an atmosphere that was “remarkably cheerful despite clear differences.”

But the good cheer evaporated on Wednesday when plenary council members voted on two motions about women’s role in the Church. 

The motions were part of the initiative’s fourth theme, “Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men.”

Motion 4.5 formally committed the Church in Australia to “considering women for ministry as deacon – should Pope Francis authorize such ministry in light of the findings of the reconstituted Study Commission on the Female Diaconate.”

The motion won a qualified majority (two-thirds or more of present voters) among participants attending in a consultative capacity, with 148 signaling their Placet (assent), 27 Placet Juxta Modum (assent with modification), and 36 Non Placet (dissent).

But it failed to gain a qualified majority among members with a deliberative vote (ie, the bishops), with 25 opting for Placet, 10 for Placet Juxta Modum, and 8 Non Placet.

Motion 4.6, meanwhile, said that all Australian dioceses and eparchies should “foster new opportunities for women to participate in ministries and roles that are stable, publicly recognized, resourced with appropriate formation including theological education and commissioned by the bishop.”

The motion failed to achieve a qualified majority on the consultative vote (84 Placet, 32 Placet Juxta Modum, and 97 Non Placet) and the deliberative vote (27 Placet, 5 Placet Juxta Modum, and 11 Non Placet).

Another participant, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue among plenary council members, told The Pillar that it was noted by several women participants during the debate that such roles already existed in the Church in Australia, and they took issue with other language used in the council documents. 

One paragraph, in particular - which said that “though some women are content with their role in the Church, the attention of the Plenary Council has been drawn frequently to the task that remains, especially regarding women’s participation in leadership and governance structures” - was challenged as patronizing and minimizing of women who didn’t support the push for female ordination. 

“There was a clear pushback - coming from women participants - to say the Church is about service, everything is service, and instead what’s being talked about [in the motions] is who gets to be in charge of this or that,” the participant said.

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Participants in the Second General Assembly of the Plenary Council of Australia. Screenshot from Plenary Council Facebook page.

What was the response?

The announcement of the bishops’ votes generated uproar. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the planned schedule was suspended, while some delegates refused to take their seats, standing “at the back of the meeting room in protest.”

The Catholic Weekly said it understood that “some participants felt aggrieved by the bishops’ vote and that deep divisions were being voiced,” while “some felt the crisis was partly due to the process itself.”

Some commentators on social media suggested that the bishops were uneasy with an explicit commitment to female deacons, given that the subject is still under consideration in Rome. Others expressed astonishment at the rejection of the “timid” motions.

The participant who noted the pushback told The Pillar that about 60-70 delegates refused to resume their seats after the morning tea break and described the atmosphere as “deeply unpleasant.”

“There were a few tears, and quite a bit of acrimony in some cases,” they said. “There was also a bit of a sense of intimidation, really. There was a bit of finger-pointing at the women delegates who resumed their seats, that sort of thing.” 

During the lunch break, members of the plenary council’s steering committee huddled to discuss the situation. Another meeting of more than 60 people took place at the same time, reportedly led by Francis Sullivan, representing Catholic Social Services Australia, and John Warhurst, chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn.

Sullivan told The Catholic Weekly that there was a “palpable division” during discussions held the day before.

“There was a lot of anger and frustration particularly on behalf of women but also the LGBT or rainbow community if you will,” he commented.

The council participant told The Pillar that there was a sense that “a script hadn’t been followed, things hadn’t gone to plan.”

“We are supposed to be here listening to the Spirit, that’s what everyone keeps saying. But it sure seems at least a few people arrived with a pretty clear sense of what the Spirit was supposed to say.”

Plenary Council delegates commissioned in October 2020 in the Diocese of Darwin. Credit: Australian Plenary Council.

What’s next?

The Australian bishops’ media blog announced that at an afternoon session, “an overwhelming majority of members backed a motion to reconsider the two motions.”

“Following the announcement of those votes, council members were invited to spend time in conversation at their tables, sharing their feelings and responses, and considering how they could move forward constructively,” it said.

It added that plenary council vice president Bishop Shane Mackinlay “said this had clearly been an emotional time for many members, but that what had ensued was a sign of the ‘journeying together’ the Council has promoted.”

“We were able to hear from members – women firstly, but also from men – about how we can better respond to and recognize the gifts that women offer in service of the Gospel,” Mackinlay noted.

The blog said that a four-person writing team would receive recommendations for redrafting the motions, which are expected to be considered again in the coming days.

It underlined that members would continue to work through the plenary council’s agenda on Thursday. There may be a few bumps ahead, as participants are due to vote on contentious proposals for lay people to preach at Mass and wider use of general absolution.

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