While the Plenary Council is, in part, a response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it also provides the Catholic community with the opportunity to play a role in the consultation process as the Church embarks on a restart and a refresh by asking the question: what is God asking of the Church Australia.
It is an opportunity for the Catholic community in Australia to affect real and much-needed change in their Church.
The consultation process began two weeks ago in Canberra where four open dialogue sessions were held. These sessions were aimed at engaging with disenfranchised Catholics who have left the Church in the wake of the Royal Commission. The sessions were held away from any Church-owned property to create an air of neutrality and and an environment where everyone could speak their mind.
The dialogue sessions are the first step in a three-stage process: dialogue, discernment and legislation.
The process will culminate in a meeting involving all the bishops in Australia in Adelaide to be held in March of 2021. The goal of the members of the Plenary Council will be to distil the proposals resulting from the Plenary Council 2020 and transform them into points of action which will determine the future of the Catholic Church.
What is God asking of the Church of Australia?
This is the question which inspired the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as they planned the Plenary Council.
Plenary Council 2020 will mark the first council to be held in Australia in 80 years.
A Plenary Council is the highest form of communion between local arms of the church across Australia. While the final stage of Plenary Council 2020 will involve a meeting of Australian bishops, the purpose of this type of communication is intended to engage with the entirety of the Catholic community in a dialogue.
The purpose of these dialogues is to discern how the different faith communities live the Gospel amidst the questions and challenges faced on a day-to-day basis.
The Plenary Council itself is made up of representatives from the Church laity, religious, ordained ministers and the bishops of Australia.
To learn more about Plenary Council 2020, watch the video below.
Consultation in the Church
Plenary Council 2020 is one of the most ambitious consultation processes ever undertaken by the Catholic Church in Australia. The consultation process is largely inspired by Pope Francis’ encouragement of fostering a synodal church which listens to its people.
While Plenary Council 2020 is an opportunity to bring about large-scale change to the Church in Australia, as an arm of the larger international Church, all suggested changes from the Plenary Council must be sent to Rome for approval prior to their enactment.
While the process has some already-disenfranchised members of the Catholic community feeling as though Plenary Council 2020 does little more than give those who believe in retaining the status quo a platform to enact their agenda while smaller organisations remain unheard and/or disregarded, others are planning to participate in Plenary Council 2020 in a very real and serious way.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the group Concerned Catholic Canberra-Goulburn are hopeful real and palatable change will emerge from the plenary process. They were among the first Catholic organisations to make a submission to Plenary Council 2020. Their concerns focus largely on governance of the Church and structural issues. Their largest concern, however, is the role of women in the Church.
Plenary Council 2020 and the broader community
While the Plenary Council aims to address concerns of Australia’s faith communities, it is important for the broader community to take interest in the Plenary process and not let it go on without disruption and behind closed doors.
The Council represents a crucial turning point for the Church in Australia and it should not be handled as business as usual.
As John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, points out: “The health and transparency of the churches is as important to the nation as that of its other major components like banks, trade, unions, ethnic and farming communities.”