The Australian Plenary Council: What you need to know

A Pillar explainer

The Catholic Church in Australia will begin a plenary council this week, a canonical meeting of the entire hierarchy of the country, to address a sweeping agenda which will examine the Church’s fundamental missionary orientation and its internal institutional structures.

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The meeting, the fifth plenary council in the country’s history and the first since 1937, kicks off in the city of Adelaide on Saturday for an eight-day session, the first of two , with the second session due to be convened in July next year. 

The council was originally set to begin last year, but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Oct. 6-10 session will be a hybrid meeting, with many of the meetings taking place in an online format because of the ongoing government restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

So what’s on the agenda, who’s (virtually) going to be there, and what is a plenary council, anyway? The Pillar explains:

A plenary council: definitely not a synod

There has been a lot of talk in the Church about synods and synodality in recent years. Quite a lot of the time, focus has landed on what a synod isn’t and cannot do. Synods do not act like parliaments; synods are a consultative exercise only; most importantly, synods cannot legislate on the life of the Church. But a plenary council is a very different thing indeed.

A plenary council is a particularly solemn and formal meeting convened by all the bishops of a region, defined as all the members of a bishops’ conference. But, although the conference votes to convoke the council - with Rome’s permission - and sets the agenda, once it is in session it has a life and authority all of its own.

Unlike a synod, which meets under the authority of the person who convokes it and can only advise that authority, a plenary council, according to canon law, “takes care that provision is made for the pastoral needs of the people of God and possesses the power of governance, especially legislative power.” 

So, while all the acts of the council need the formal approval of Rome before they come into force, plenary councils can and do pass binding norms for all the particular churches (dioceses) of the region.

What’s on the agenda

Ahead of the Australian council, the bishops’ conference published six documents around the theme of “How God is calling us to be a Christ-centered Church in Australia,” treating topics like prayer, faith formation, Church governance, conversion, and ecclesiastical institutions (like Catholic schools and charities). 

The documents are based upon the conclusions of a final report, issued by the Australian bishops’ conference’s National Centre for Pastoral Research, which was the product of a two-year “listening and dialogue phase” ahead of the council sessions.

Preparations for the council followed the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which found serious failings in the protection of children from abuse in the Catholic Church and other major secular and religious institutions.

“God’s love endures,” begins the pre-conciliar document on mission and evangelization, “but the credibility of the Church has been harmed by revelations about the moral failures of some Church members. This knowledge has damaged the moral authority and trustworthiness of the Church, but it has called us to be holier and humbler in search of greater fidelity to a faithful and merciful God.”

Many of the documents issued ahead of the council focus on increased accountability within the local Church, while also looking to create more flexible pastoral models aimed at evangelization in the face of declining numbers of priestly vocations and parish attendance. 

While many of the topics slated for discussion at the council enjoy broad consensus, other issues have provoked debate among local Catholics, including over the way they are presented in the pre-conciliar documents. 

In a section of the document on inclusiveness, participation and synodality dealing with Church governance, the document notes that “the absence of full lay participation in parish and diocesan governance, along with the ‘culture of clericalism’” were “significant concerns” during the preparatory phase. 

The document cites diocesan and parish pastoral councils as avenues through which the expertise of lay people “could be utilised,” “yet both remain optional and advisory,” notes the document.

Another area which has generated considerable internal discussion is the adoption of the language of LGBT in discussions of human sexuality in the documents — language which the Vatican has consistently not adopted in its own documents.

In the final report from the listening phase, various responses are presented under the heading of “Ending Discrimination of LGBTI,” and said that “participants particularly referenced the Church’s marginalisation of the LGBTI community.”

But, while entire sections of the document present submissions and feedback critical of the Church’s teaching and approach to the issue of human sexuality, no similar space is given to respondents supportive of the Church’s position or skeptical of the wider secular values on sex, gender, and marriage. 

Who’s invited

The plenary council includes a total of 278 delegates or “members” representing all aspects and levels of the Church in Australia.

All the diocesan bishops, auxiliaries, and the bishop heads of personal ordinariates and prelatures, like Opus Dei and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, for former Anglicans, are members by virtue of their office. Each of these, along with four delegates elected by the retired bishops of Australia, have a deliberative vote in the council.

Along with the bishops, all the vicars general and episcopal vicars of Australian dioceses are members by office, as well as other members drawn from the leadership of religious orders and communities, seminary rectors, heads of theological institutions, and more than 100 representatives of the diocesan priesthood and lay faithful from around the country. Each of these has a consultative vote.

Along with these, guests from other Catholic bishops’ conferences and organizations like charities, as well as from different Christian communities in Australia, have also been invited to attend, although they do not have a vote. 

What to watch for

A plenary council is not something that happens every day - in Australia it’s closer to something that happens every 100 years. 

Because the council has legislative power, and its conclusions (with Roman approval) bind all the Catholics of Australia, from the diocesan bishop down to the lay man or woman in the pew, it has incredible potential to influence the life of the Church in a country.

It also means that the stakes are incredibly high. While the final documents of many Church gatherings, like synods, are often shaped to reflect a particular view, aspiration, or hope for a future direction, the acts of a council are law, properly speaking, and so the details and nuances of language matter — and will likely be closely contested in the coming weeks and months. 

How the council speaks, on issues like prayer, evangelization, and faith formation will be treated as prophetic teaching by the local Church, as will the way it addresses the clerical abuse scandals of recent years. And what it decides on institutional matters could impact the life and shape of Australian dioceses for generations to come.

Expect to see animated discussions about the future of diocesan structures like parishes, missions, and schools, and how they fit and work together, and above all how they are governed. 

Lay “co-responsibility” has proven to be a key theme in many of the documents released ahead of the council, and the formal agenda includes discussion of adopting a more “synodal” form of Church governance, so watch out for debate about how the laity can be included in the decision making process of the Church’s governing life, and how this is balanced against the apostolic authority of the local bishops. 

These same conversations are likely to shape how the council addresses pastoral subjects, like adopting a more welcoming stance for same-sex attracted Catholics in parishes and a keener witness on social justice issues. 

How the Australian council balances the feedback from its “listening phase” with the immutable teachings of the Church, and how its efforts are received in Rome, could prove a template for the global synod on synodality set to begin in the coming weeks.

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What’s next

The first council session will kick off on Saturday and conclude on Oct. 10. Between then and the second session in July next year, there will be a lot of conversations among Australian bishops and Catholics about the direction and emphasis of the topics on the agenda, and on the drafting of the formal documents which will face a vote by the assembly.

What happens in between the sessions, and what is agreed or not between the bishops who will cast the final deliberative votes, could end up being as important as anything which happens during the formal council sessions.