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A new ‘historic’, ‘substantial’, and ‘comprehensive’ report on Catholic Church governance The Light of the Southern Cross was handed to the Australian bishops on 4th May 2020. It will have ‘far-reaching implications for the Church’s life and mission’.
The report recommends a ‘new paradigm’ for church governance in Australia with key principles of transparency, accountability, dialogue and leadership. But the decision of the bishops at their May 7-14 plenary meeting to lock the report away in secret until December is simply ‘business as usual’.
Catholics for Renewal, whose award-winning book Getting Back on Mission: Reforming our Church Together made substantial recommendations on church governance, believes this 6-month delay in making the report available is unhelpful, indefensible and unacceptable.
“This groundbreaking report”, says Dr Peter Wilkinson, President of Catholics for Renewal, “was commissioned and prepared on a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. If Australia’s bishops are to honour their commitment to the Royal Commission they should make the report public at least by June 2020.”
“It belongs to all the People of God,” says Wilkinson, “not just to the bishops and religious orders. We have a right to see it without undue delay.”
It is time for the People of God to take our rightful place in the Church
* Archbishop Coleridge, The Courier-Mail, February 8, 2017.
by David Timbs
During the final days of the February 2017 Catholic Wrap Up at the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Catholic bishops made a number of undertakings both to the Commission and to their own people. These included commitments to address failures in structure, policy and procedure in order to bring these into compliance with civil requirements and to rebuild institutional trust as an honest corporate citizen. They called upon the Royal Commission to assist them with advice to address the pressing issues of their flawed episcopal governance and culture. No doubt that will be coming very soon in the Commission’s Final Report.
The bishops also made it clear that they they accepted responsibility for breaking faith with the people entrusted to them, that the proportions of their failures of leadership were catastrophic. They have signalled that they will strive to be pastors who will listen closely to the concerns of their people, accept the advice and council that the Catholic community will offer them and that they will engage with the faithful in the work of reform and renewal. A specific undertaking on the part of the bishops was to welcome full, active participation by all Australian Catholics in the planning, preparation for and participation in the 2020 National Plenary Council. When papal approval for this general synod is given, Australian Catholics will be looking closely for clear signs that the bishops deliver on their promises.
Brain Coyne, Catholica, writes in his email,
I've spent the last few days reading the report we brought to your attention on Wednesday by Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson. I think this has greater potential to change things in the Church, or lay some groundwork for whatever comes next, than almost anything else I have read over the past 20 years. For a long time I've been arguing if the Church is to be revived, or have a future, it needs to go back to the raw canvas over a lot of our fundamental beliefs and theologies. This study in effect does that even though its immediate objective is addressing the question of why the child sexual abuse tragedy and scandal occurred. If you are not aware of this study all I can suggest is that you need to be. Mind you, such are the forces in the Church I am not optimistic that it will generate change. I'm more of the view these days that this sort of inquiry and discussion will be paving the way for whatever comes next. The people who ought be most reading what Des Cahill and Peter Wilkinson have to say are, more than probably, going to be the least likely to be reading it.
(Published in The Swag, Vol. 25, No.3, Spring 2017, pp. 12-15)
This second article in the series looking at particular councils, examines the initial preparations for the 2020 Australian Plenary Council. Further articles will examine in some detail the seven particular councils – provincial and plenary – which have been held in Australia since 1844, and a final one will attempt to imagine what the 2020 Plenary Council might hope to achieve.
A synodal church in Australia
Though the Second Vatican Council declared in 1965 that it “earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with new vigour”, in Australia since then, synods and councils have not flourished.
During the past 52 years only five of Australia’s 28 territorial dioceses have had a diocesan synod: Canberra & Goulburn in 1989 and 2004, Maitland-Newcastle in 1992-93, Brisbane in 2003, Cairns in 2008-11, and Broken Bay in 2011-12. Sydney has not had a diocesan synod since 1951 and Melbourne since 1916. Several other dioceses, including Bathurst, Hobart, Parramatta, Toowoomba and Wollongong, have had non-canonical diocesan ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but the Holy See’s 1997 Instruction on Diocesan Synods states that all such assemblies should be formally situated within the canonical discipline of the Church.
There have been seven particular councils – provincial and plenary - held in Australia since the Catholic hierarchy was established in 1842 (see Table 1), but no provincial council since 1907 (1st Melbourne Provincial Council) and no plenary council since 1937 (4th Australasian Plenary Council). Worldwide, only two plenary councils have been held since 1965: in the Philippines (1991) and Poland (1993).