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Who ‘won’ Australia’s plenary council, and why it matters

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

The fifth plenary council of Australia formally closed Sunday, bringing the years-long process to an end. The final session of the council saw members and consultants consider a range of motions and, after a day of high drama over the issue of female ordination, reach a fairly united consensus in the final round of voting.

But at the end of a council assembly visibly divided over controversial proposals, did anyone really come out on top? Were there obvious winners and losers?

While a quick look at the vote totals might suggest that kind of lens, participants in the synod say the story is really something different.

While divisions among the assembly boiled over during sometimes tense voting sessions, the real story, and lesson, of the council isn’t whose motions were passed or blocked, but what kind of consensus was forged afterwards.

So what does that mean for the Church in Australia, and around the globe?

The bishops of Australia announced the plenary council, the first in Australia since the 1930s, in 2018.

A plenary council is a regional meeting — one for all the territory of a bishops’ conference — that, according to the Church’s canon law, meets to discuss “the increase of the faith, the organization of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted, and protected.”

It can only be convoked by a conference of bishops, with the permission of the Vatican.

The council - consisting of lay, clerical, religious, and episcopal participants - was called to discuss evangelization and the mission of the Church in a rapidly secularizing Australian culture. Formally, only bishops can pass decrees or decisions of a plenary council, but other participants were invited to offer their perspectives and consultative votes.

The council considered a lengthy slate of statements, resolutions, and motions for consideration across eight areas of Church life, addressing healing historical injustices and moral failures by the Church, sacramental life, ecclesiastical governance, formation, and mission.

Quoting from the 2007 “Aparecida” document produced by the bishops of Latin America, the council’s opening documents said the Church in Australia needs to “move ‘from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.’”

The draft proposals appeared to reflect the distinct, even divided groups which have participated in the council process, with some calling for renewed catechesis and formation for adult lay Catholics, and a bold announcement of the Church’s perennial teachings on social issues.

Other participants wanted the council to emphasize the Church’s pastoral engagement with secular society, highlight environmental concerns, and call for progressive reforms to Church governance.

The proposed texts for the council session appeared at times to offer competing visions for how the Church should approach pastoral and theological issues. But the drafters made efforts to frame seemingly opposing approaches as complimentary, rather than contradictory, saying, for example, on marriage and divorce:

“In a society that sees the Catholic understanding of marriage as ‘outdated and irrelevant,’ there is an urgent and clear need for a renewed catechesis on marriage.

“At the same time, there is a great pastoral need to care for all married couples, including those who struggle to accept the Church’s teachings about the sacrament of matrimony.”

But efforts at mutual accommodation for the council’s different schools of thought and emphasis came to a head over three of the most controversial proposed motions:

  • One resolution would have petitioned Rome to allow a broader use of the Third Form of the Rite of Penance, using general absolution instead of individual confession;
  • Another would have asked the pope to permit lay men and women to give homilies during Mass in place of the priest or deacon;
  • One would have expressed the council’s support for the ordination of women as deacons, and committed the Australian bishops to ordaining women should the pope allow it.

The motion on female deacons became a source of high drama and rancor in the assembly room last week after it failed to pass a vote by the bishops, with participants telling The Pillar that there was a clear sense that a script hadn’t been followed among the 70 or so assembly members who refused to resume their seats after the morning break.

Later in the week, a compromise text on the same subject was drafted and passed by the assembly which offered the more modest proposal that the bishops meet to discuss what to do in the event Pope Francis changed the Church’s sacramental teaching on Holy Orders to admit women deacons.

The assembly also appeared to split the difference on the other two proposals, passing the petition to Rome requesting broader use of the Third Form, which already exists in canon law, and rejecting the call for lay homilies.

The council also heard calls to create a kind of supra-national governing body to oversee the dioceses of Australia, not dissimilar to the permanent synodal body currently being pushed in Germany. But the Australians declined to take up the idea.

Inasmuch as the council rejected proposals which would have called for Rome to either dispense from canon law, change sacramental teaching, or upend the basic ecclesiology of the Church’s hierarchy, it could be called a “win” for “conservatives” — but neither of those words seems especially well-suited to what happened in Australia.

While a simplistic review of the council’s final votes might suggest that a strongly progressive agenda was beaten back, that framework doesn’t account for the broad unity shown in the final sessions after the ructions of the first vote on female ordination.

After the council closed, one council participant told The Pillar that the end result could perhaps be called  “a score draw for both sides.”

But the participant said that “wouldn’t be exactly fair” to the mood in the room.

Instead, the participant highlighted the importance of unity at the end of what at times felt like an adversarial process.

“Were there competing agendas and visions for the Church going forward? Absolutely. Did either side walk away with everything they wanted? No.”

But, they said, “the really important result is that we’re walking out of the council together, as a Church, not going our separate ways.”

This is a significant point — and the importance of that result shouldn’t be discounted.

If, as has been reported, council organizers and some attendees appeared to be racing along with controversial proposals with the expectation that the assembly would pass them as a matter of course, the initial upset at the vote on female deacons is perhaps understandable.

But, perhaps to the surprise of many, that upset appeared to pass quickly and see the assembly unite around a final text acceptable to all sides.

By seemingly all accounts, everyone at the council felt “heard,” and a final document which appears to give all sides a say, while staying within the magisterium and law, is no mean feat.

Looking ahead to the final meeting of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, scheduled for next year, many Church watchers have expressed fears, similar to those preceding the council in Australia, that the synodal assembly will meet with a pre-prepared script to follow calling for radical changes to the Church’s ecclesiology and magisterium.

The driving force behind that suspected script is usually said to be the Church in Germany, and its ongoing synodal way, which appears to grow more radical even as it faces more concerted criticism from around the global Church and ordinary German Catholics continue to leave in droves.

But the result in Australia could prove the most likely indicator of what to expect in Rome next year — a broad, perhaps fractious, conversation about the whole life of the Church, but one leading to a final document which is catholic enough to include all voices and Catholic enough to stay within the bounds of the Church’s teaching and self-understanding.

As regional synodal processes conclude in the coming months, and synthesizing documents begin to filter up to and around Rome, it’s likely that some radical proposals from minority ideological camps will emerge. If and when they do, they are certain to generate controversy.

But the Australian lessons would seem to be this: don’t presume the result before the final votes are in, and don’t assume that argument among differing wings of the Church can’t lead to consensus, and maybe even unity.

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