Is it time for a Plenary or National Council of the Catholic Church in Australia?

by Peter J Wilkinson
15 May 2012 originally published in The Swag

A plenary or national council (or synod) is an assembly of the bishops, clergy, religious and laity of a particular nation working to ensure that the pastoral needs of the People of God in that nation are provided for (C. 445).

It is 75 years since the last plenary council of the Catholic Church in Australia, held in 1937. That, and earlier ones in 1885, 1895 and 1905, were exclusively male clerical gatherings, with only bishops, theologians and superiors of male religious orders attending.  Women, religious or lay, took no part.

The question now is: Has the time come to convene a fifth plenary council or synod in Australia, to be held under new inclusive rules (C. 443) which allow wider participation of Christ’s faithful, including women, to address the critical issues of our times?

When to convene a Plenary Council

Vatican II wanted ‘the venerable institution of synods and councils to flourish with new vigor [so that] faith will be spread and discipline preserved more fittingly and effectively in the various churches, as the circumstances of the times require’ ((Christus Dominus, n. 36).  John Paul II wrote: ‘I therefore earnestly exhort the Pastors of the particular Churches, with the help of all sectors of God's People, confidently to plan the stages of the journey ahead’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n.29).

Canon Law sets no specific time for a plenary council, but allows a Bishops Conference to convene one whenever it is considered necessary or useful, so long as the Apostolic See approves. The Bishops select the venue and president, set the agenda, determine the start and duration, and dissolve it.  

A plenary council can discuss and legislate on a wide range of issues, including matters of faith, morals and discipline. It can also address the critical issues of the times. 

Since the last Australian plenary council enormous changes have taken place in the Universal Church, the world, our own increasingly multicultural and multi-faith society, and within our local Catholic community, where attitudes towards faith practices, pastors, certain teachings, and even religious identity have shifted markedly. Yet, in that time no national church forum bringing together all the People of God, has been convened to discuss these changes, to discern the contemporary mission and ministry of the Church in Australia, or to make plans for the years ahead.  The result is a church drifting, not focused; a church being pushed by circumstances, not led.

There are two occasions when a plenary council would appear useful or necessary: 1) when there is need to prepare a pastoral plan; and 2) when a crisis emerges.  Both occasions are now present.

Developing a National Pastoral Plan

Currently, only 7 of Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses have a pastoral plan (some out of date) while another 2 are drafting one.  At the national level, there is no integrated pastoral plan.  If our church is not to continue to drift, a 5-10 year national plan is needed. It would set out a vision, identify the key goals, and signpost the pathways to achieve them.

To develop a plan, a plenary council could use the strategies promoted by Vatican II: collegiality, co-responsibility and subsidiarity. Collegiality would involve the bishops, clergy, religious and laity making decisions co-responsibly for the good of our local church. The voices and wisdom of all would be heard and listened to, for ‘[I]n the church there is diversity of service but unity of purpose. Christ conferred on the apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying and ruling in His name and power. But the laity, too, share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ, and therefore have their own role to play in the mission of the whole People of God in the church and in the world’ (Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 2).

Meeting a Crisis

Parish ministry in Australia has been in a major and deepening crisis for some time.  While the Catholic population increases, local vocations to the priesthood and religious life are few, priests in ministry have aged significantly, almost one in every three parishes is now without a resident full-time pastor, an increasing number of parishes have been merged or amalgamated, less than 14 percent of Catholics regularly attend Mass, and many of the baptized no longer identify as Catholic.

The clerical sexual abuse scandal still eats away at trust and the credibility of church leaders. The strategy of recruiting ever-increasing numbers of overseas priests and seminarians for parish ministry calls for wider consultation, placed in the context of a long-term policy direction, and its sustainability and effectiveness examined. The increasing non-acceptance by many Catholics of some of the church’s teachings on human sexuality has to be addressed, as does the broadening of the role of women in ministry, and the need for greater transparency and accountability in church governance and finance.

Until a broad, open and collegial forum is provided, allowing bishops, clergy and laity with the courage, determination and authority to confront the issues and take decisions to resolve them, the present crisis will continue to erode trust and hope.  

Setting the Agenda

While it is the Bishops Conference which will determine the agenda and the questions to be treated, it should first consult widely with the clergy, and with religious and laity, men and women.

A plenary council is meant to ensure that the pastoral needs of the People of God are provided for. Therefore, it must review and, where necessary, establish or reform all those areas in church life relating to pastoral care. Foremost might be:

  • the spiritual development of the People of God;
  • church structures, giving full co-responsibility to the laity in setting policy, making decisions, and governance;
  • parish ministry, including the provision of suitable and sufficient ministers;
  • relationships between Catholic schools and parish life;
  • promoting engagement with contemporary issues of justice, peace, development and the environment:
  • the ecumenical, inter-faith, and missionary activity of the Church; and
  • an inclusive process for the selection of bishops.

Though Canon Law sets no limits on the agenda for plenary councils, they cannot proceed without the approval of the Apostolic See, which is unlikely to sanction an agenda allowing free discussion of positions not in accord with the traditional doctrine of the Church or the Magisterium, or which are reserved to the Pope or to other higher ecclesiastical authorities. Some diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation will, therefore, almost certainly be needed in this area. 

Who attends?

Those who must attend a plenary council, with a ‘deliberative’ vote, are diocesan bishops, coadjutor and auxiliary bishops, and certain titular bishops. Other titular bishops and retired bishops living in Australia can also attend with a deliberative vote.

Vicars general and Episcopal vicars must also attend, as well as elected male and female major superiors of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life, rectors of Catholic universities and deans of faculties of theology and of canon law, and elected rectors of major seminaries. However, they have a ‘consultative’ vote only.

Priests, other religious and lay men and women can also attend, but only in such numbers that they do not exceed half the number of all the others attending. They have a ‘consultative’ vote only.  The Bishops Conference can also invite others to attend as guests if they consider it expedient.

Those called must attend, unless they are prevented by a just impediment. Those with a deliberative vote can send a proxy who will have a consultative vote.

Before promulgation all council acts must be sent to Rome for review and approval. When approved, the council determines how and when the decrees are to be promulgated and when they will take effect.

Suitable time for a Plenary Council?

The year 2015 would be a very suitable time for a plenary council or synod. It will mark 50 years since the close of Vatican Council II and 130 years since the 1st Plenary Council of the Church in Australasia.

A plenary council in 2015 would also allow sufficient time for the necessary planning and consultations.

Could a plenary council make a difference?

A plenary council has governing and legislative power, and without prejudice to the universal law of the Church, can decide on matters which increase the faith, assist and strengthen Christian living, and improve the way the local church manages it affairs.  The purpose of any collegial body, whether consultative or deliberative, is always the search for truth or the good of the Church.

A plenary council may not solve all the problems of the Church in Australia, but it could stop the drift, revive hope, set out a vision, and lay down a plan for how the People of God in this nation might be a more authentic witness to Jesus and his message in the 21st century.  It could also demonstrate lived collegiality, co-responsibility and subsidiarity

Peter J Wilkinson

15 May 2012