Plenary Council 2021-2022

The First Assembly of Australia’s Fifth Plenary Council of Australia ran from 3 – 10 October 2021. The Second Assembly will run from 3 – 9 July 2022.

The Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) representative at the Plenary Council is the Chair of the CSSA Board, Francis Sullivan AO. He will provide a daily report on his experience of this momentous event for the Australian Catholic Church.

Mr Sullivan’s daily reports, for both Assemblies, appear with the newest at the top of the page.

Friday, 8 July 2022

Equality of dignity for women takes a step forward – 8 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

I am just in from the official celebratory dinner. It was held in the Cathedral College Hall the very same room where the Assembly conducted its daytime sessions. It was a fun night. Council members, Plenary staff and support crews mixed freely after what has been an exacting week.

At the beginning of this week, I made the point that the success of Assembly motions would come down to wordsmithing. At a very practical level that was true. But it does not tell the entire story. Most of the proposed motions did pass with a tweaking of a phrase or with the addition of a concept here and there. This usually was to satisfy someone’s ‘pet issue’ or give the nod to a particular interest group. However, this was not the case with the issue of the treatment of women by the Assembly.

When the bishops voted down all the motions dealing with the equality of dignity for women the reaction was visceral. As it should have been. No other issue has been more consistently front of mind in the years of consultation for the Plenary Council. No other issue stood as a testament to the Church’s approach to contemporary Western life. Wordsmithing would never be sufficient to turn around the self-imposed Plenary crisis of the episcopal ‘no vote’! Only attitudinal change would.

Almost immediately after the Wednesday morning tea break protest, the dynamics shifted. A tangible change in attitude and approach moved across the workings of the Assembly. Council members realised the stakes were high. None more so than the bishops. Although we will never know what led them to make such a damaging decision, it was clear to me that whatever was to return for a second round of voting was going to be received by the bishops in a completely different light.

And what was put back on the table was different. It was pleasing to see that not only were the motions grounded in the equality of dignity between women and men, but there was recognition of the need for the ‘protection of the personal dignity and rights of women.’ An acknowledgement that the right to participate in Church decision-making structures, for example, is equally shared between women and men. This is a paradigm shift.

So too is the commitment in the motions to enhance the role of women by overcoming the cultural and other assumptions that lead to inequality. Again an open acknowledgement that the injustice experienced by women in the Church has deep structural, attitudinal and behavioural roots.

As a further indicator of the breakdown in episcopal resistance, the motion calling for openness by the bishops to the prospect of women deacons passed with an overwhelming majority.

Whether this episcopal about-face will ‘cut through’ in the public square is probably doubtful. Actions always speak louder than words.

I have a few reflections spinning around in my head that I will post next week. Thank you to all who have made contact this week. It has been an honour to be a member of the Plenary Council.

I want to sign off with just one further thought. As we sat through the sessions and sought to discern what the Spirit was saying, I was acutely aware of the intensity of the experience for the members. We carried with us the intimate voices of those we love, those we know who have made pleas for change, those who have lost hope and those who fear hope’s fate. For me, crafting the motions was far more than a philosophical exercise. It is probably best described as placing an existential lens over the words. A desire to see in print what can expand in meaning into inclusive and welcoming tones that captures the lives of people in all their circumstances, hopes, aspirations and need.

The Assembly was continually asked to see how the motions could lead to a more Christ-centered Church. Without those quiet, tenderly held voices coming to the table, I couldn’t see how that Church would arrive.

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Thursday, 7 July 2022

Women will drive change – 7 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today at the Assembly, the atmosphere was markedly different. So too was the program. The organisers had adjusted the process to make it more participatory and transparent. Members were given the opportunity to openly express concerns over the draft motions and suggest amendments from the floor. This would not have occurred without the events of yesterday that saw many of the women members stage an open protest against the decision of the bishops to effectively deny moves to witness equality of dignity between women and men in the Church.

And it is important to correct the record of those events. News reports incorrectly attributed the organising of a lunchtime meeting of members to discuss the morning’s events and their implications to me and my friend John Warhurst. To be clear, the women members organised for themselves not only a venue to meet during the lunch break, but also to conduct a facilitated conversation and report the summary of those discussions to the full Assembly. It was the force of their collective agency that spoke so powerfully throughout the course of yesterday and into the reconfigured program of today. So many members, including bishops and other clergies, mentioned to me how crucial yesterday’s protest and demonstration of anger and upset has been to the potential success of the Assembly.

As we convened this morning the words of the daily scriptural reflection were not lost on anyone:

Acts 2:2-4a:

‘And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.’

The passion and energy that erupted through the heartfelt reaction of most women members have literally changed the dynamics and possibly the outcomes of this Plenary Council. Why? Because it will be women that will ultimately drive this reform in our Church. Left with their own decision, the bishops seemed incapable of doing it. And it is becoming increasingly clear that women will no longer tolerate their unjust treatment.

Suppose this Second Assembly does not rise to the challenge to ensure that women are treated and regarded with equal dignity and rights to those of men in the Church. In that case, yesterday will go down in history as the day that the prospect that the Church’s rhetoric of equality of dignity for all will never eventuate.

The Bishop’s decision to vote down motions that would have advanced women’s equality in the Church has received international media coverage. A decision that is seared into the public’s imagination. Only a decision of equal force can counter what now looks like blatant disregard for women’s dignity and rights.

The bishops will have before them motions that affect participation in governance structures and even open access for women to be ordained as deacons if Church law permits. There won’t be a bishop in tomorrow’s Assembly who will not have registered the importance of their vote.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Getting Real – 6 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Well, things got real today! As the canon law prescribes, for Plenary Councils, only the bishops cast what, in effect, is a decisive vote. Everyone else casts a consultative vote. In other words, the bishops can overturn what the others have previously decided. The hierarchical Church in full swing!

Today, the bishops kicked an own goal. They voted down motions related to the equality of dignity between women and men. Motions that included the possibility of women becoming deacons if Pope Francis paves the way. Other motions would have recognised the power imbalance that impacts women and the cultural assumptions within the Church that lead to inequalities for women. Significant acknowledgements that have not been made before by the Australian Church. And it looked like they would not be made again anytime soon.

Thankfully, the reaction from the Assembly members was visceral. Many female members were visibly upset and angry. The bishops appeared non-plussed and then rattled. Why so still puzzles me. The fact that this Plenary Council process has spent years consulting women and men and then have an episcopal vote effectively eradicates the major section of the Plenary’s deliberations on women and men defies logic. Yet that is exactly what was delivered and what sparked a spontaneous revolt.

By any count, the members of this Plenary Council are rusted on and loyal Catholics. They have committed to the Plenary process and have a considerable emotional investment in its success. That they were prepared to stand up to the bishops and protest speaks to the point at which we have arrived. Enough is enough.

The Canon law describes a plenary council as a meeting of the churches. It is not a meeting of the bishops. Well, today, that was made very plain as the members, particularly the women, drew a line in the sand. This Plenary is not about episcopal control and preferences. It is meant to be about the decisions taken by all the members. And those members have become very exercised that the voices captured through the 17,000 plus submissions and the dialogue and listening sessions, along with the feedback through the thematic papers, needs to be heard in the deliberations of this Second Assembly.

So far, the motions before the Assembly can at best be described as tame. They have been crafted to pass any episcopal muster. Inoffensive, cautious, and taking the important issues effectively nowhere. Clearly, the members don’t wish to be associated with what has the potential to be a ‘non-event’. Already the Council is not on the radar of the Catholic community. Delivering what would be ‘business as usual’ would be an embarrassment.

The protest this morning did stir the pot and force a change of plan. The bishops hurriedly convened a meeting that had the effect of postponing the day’s work schedule and revisiting the previous day’s motions. The members were gracious enough to stay with the process in good faith even though the bishops did not reveal why they chose to vote down the motions that led to the fracas.

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Vote over role of women disrupts Plenary Council assembly, The Catholic Leader

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

A ‘Missionary Impulse’ must drive us – 5 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today was a tough one! Maddening actually! The main theme was inclusion. The motions under consideration concentrated on the experiences of exclusion for the LGBTQI+ community and women from access to the diaconate. Both issues are indicative of the cultural misalignment of the Church with contemporary Australia.

I don’t know why I was so surprised by the Assembly’s hesitancy on these issues. Whenever the discussion turns to the equal dignity of women and men, any translation of this into their equal rights to participate as ordained deacons becomes weaponised and divisive. As many women mentioned to me, even this concession seems so hard! Yet during the day I heard from bishops, priests and pastoral assistants from across the country over how women, consecrated or not, are leading local parish liturgical and pastoral programs, performing chaplaincy roles, conducting professional canonical services and crucial diocesan duties. Literally keeping the Church presence alive in many settings. Yet, formally calling for the women to be considered for the diaconate is a bridge too far. Little wonder so many women and men feel frustrated, angry and alienated.

Assembly members were also asked to consider whether it was right to specifically include people who identify as LGBTIQA+ as a distinct category along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women, those divorced and others who have suffered abuse of any form as experiencing marginalisation within the Church. I would have thought this to be straight forward. Not so in this Assembly. Even though I heard from senior clerics how bishops are putting in place dedicated chaplains for ‘those who identity as LGBTIQA+’. Some Assembly members’ level of political correctness over the politics of sex and gender is gobsmacking. As if making any reference to ‘those who identify as LGBTIQA+’ is somehow running counter to the missionary outreach of the Church beggars belief.

I joined with other Assembly members to place on the record the formal recognition of those who identify as LGBTIQA+ in the introductory statement to the section entitled, ‘Called By Christ – Sent Forth as Missionary Disciples.’ In fairness to the drafters of this section, the phrase had already been included in the text but Assembly members were presented with a motion to have it removed! Fortunately, common sense did prevail.

Both of these instances are indicative of the dilemma facing the Church. Pastoral outreach is the main game. Political correctness is not. Pope Francis keeps urging for a ‘missionary impulse’ to drive the Church in post-modern times. For me, that means engaging with the context of ‘this change of era’ as the Pope calls it. That is, facing those realities and upholding the dignity of people in the circumstances in which we encounter them. It means building a sense of community, creating just relationships, sharing resources and trying to leave no one behind as the pace of modern living risks ever greater social and personal isolation and fragmentation.

The Assembly heard from Archbishops and religious sisters that the recent Census maps a Church in decline and suffering from the suffocating effects of secularisation. No news there! It is fair to say that the Assembly is not being presented with a roadmap out of this phenomenon. Maybe because there isn’t one, or if there is, it is not the path of resistance and clinging to practices that are plainly not working.

The respected US teacher and writer Margaret Wheatley, in her recent book, ‘Who Do You Choose To Be’, correlates organisations with living organisms that adjust and change to their environments in order to preserve their inner cell. She says that the identity of the living organism has the very function to change in order to save itself. That change is inevitable and to not change is fatal. Sound familiar? The history of our Church is one where it always integrates into the world, adapts, changes and incorporates the unfolding truth. Now is no time for putting heads in the sand. No time for knee-jerk reactions. No time for stubborn resistance. The Spirit is moving, not standing still. We risk being left behind as an unmoored God moves on!

Fr Richard Rohr often speaks of an ’emerging Church’. One guided by an alternative orthodoxy, inclusive, humble and with attention to the Universal Christ. For me, that is the pathway forward. Clinging to the wreckage is not a sane option.

Even though the second full day of the Assembly was wrought with angst, I believe the members know that change is inevitable in all its faces. The frustration is always with the timeline!

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Monday, 4 July 2022

Signs of hope, but room for more – 4 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

The first day of the Second Assembly showed just how far the official Church has travelled. Motions were considered that actively acknowledged the history of abuse and discrimination against First Nations people and the victims of child sexual assault. Motions that in themselves were no longer contentious speaks volumes for the level of awareness and social consciousness the Church now brings to its actions and lack of action. The results of the voting will be made known tomorrow.

Beneath the debate on these issues lies the confronting reality that the culture of the Church can be discriminatory and exclusive. It is a culture fed by defensiveness and an instinct of self-containment that leads to arrogance. This is not the attitude Pope Francis calls for, nor is it the character Jesus portrayed.

At assemblies like this, the resolutions all come down to words. Language is a powerful tool. It can liberate or constrain. It can be expansive or small-minded. I fear that the institution’s approach to the sex abuse scandal still suffers from a cautious, defensive instinct, forever seeking to contextualise the crimes and relegate them to history. Too often, our lamentations confuse our discomfort with the pain of the victims rather than standing in a vulnerable space free of explanations and justifications.

In other words, the Church still tends to merely incorporate the incidences of abuse into its ongoing story rather than letting the scandal confront its very nature and, in turn, its culture. It shies from debates about any implicit institutional biases or even how episcopal authority can be corrosive of genuine systemic reform.

Unless there is a comprehensive acknowledgement of the cultural factors that led to the scandal that concealed its realities and facilitated the evasion from police and other authorities, the institutional response will always appear limp and bureaucratic.

The Royal Commission specifically listed 16 recommendations for the Church. The bishops and religious leaders bristle that a secular body can be so affronting. But if it weren’t for the public inquiry, the Church would not even consider compliance with its safeguarding standards. That said, it still struggles to get national compliance with its complaints protocols. Bishops and religious leaders have too much say over how the supposedly independent safeguarding agency operates and in turn, what resources it is given. Again, the culture of control rears its head.

Tomorrow, I hope to speak to a motion before the Assembly relating to how the Church comes to terms with people experiencing marginalisation, such as LGBTIQA+ persons. For so many of us, this is a pivotal moment at this Assembly. It is one thing to claim that everyone has dignity, even equality of dignity. But it is another, stronger claim to acknowledge their equality of rights. The right to participate fully in our Church must not be based on sexuality or gender identity, nor on marital status. Our society has shown us how to effect equality, and the Church needs to learn from it, not stand apart and continue to discriminate and humiliate.

So, fingers crossed for tomorrow!

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Mass with signs of indigenous respect launch historic Plenary Council assembly, The Catholic Leader

Plenary Council assembly reaches decision day about the Church role of women, The Catholic LEader

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Going to the Second Assembly – 3 July 2022

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Well, the litmus test has arrived. Will the Catholic Church in Australia make a shift towards the estranged and disaffected, or will there be business as usual? After a decade of revelations about sex abuse scandals, criminal convictions, and court-ruled payouts to its victims, the institution limps towards the second assembly of the Plenary Council less unified, less popular, and less certain of itself than ever before. The bishops’ hyper control of the Plenary processes speaks volumes for an organisation under threat, both from within and without. The general disinterest in the Plenary Council from ordinary Catholics and the general community is palpable. Yet, the official line is that the Holy Spirit has something to say if we only stop and listen. So, how will we know if the Spirit has been heard?

Catholics “voting with their feet” is the single most telling aspect of contemporary Catholicism. Under 10 per cent of Catholics choose to worship on a weekend. They have left for multiple reasons, but overall, the institutional Church no longer can hold their interest or passion. Their pursuit of decent and good lives, commitment to raising healthy families and contributing to their communities and workplaces no longer includes a conventional Catholic lifestyle. They want a meaningful existence, and it seems the Church no longer fits the bill. It is as if the God they seek no longer resides in the pews, and the Divine voice is no longer heard in the doctrines and public positions of the institution. There is no point returning home like prodigal children when that home is in a foreign land and time.

Unless this drift of Catholics from the Church is not confronted, understood, and meaningfully addressed, the Plenary Council outcomes will boil down to an “insider talkfest”.

Sociologists have observed the downward trend of allegiance to the Church for decades. Even the much-lauded Second Vatican Council did not alter the momentum of Catholics leaving their practice and dissociation from the public positions of the institution, particularly on matters of sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. It is as if the Church continues to function through a stance of resistance rather than incorporate the benefits of discovery through the human and social sciences into its theology and sacramental practice.

Sadly, the upshot has seen divorced people, same-sex attracted and gender-diverse persons and even those who have used IVF to bring life into the world be placed at odds with a Church that insists life be conducted within a normative framework. The Church’s refusal to accommodate these lived realities marginalises and eventually alienates people. It is humiliating and discriminatory. Nothing could be more contrary to the witness and message of Jesus than a Church culture that leaves people at the margins, judged to be less than others and excluded from the sacramental life.

Pope Francis has exhorted us to follow the “missionary impulse”. Yves Congar OP famously said that true reform starts at the margins. Both speak of shifting the normative paradigm. This Second Assembly, despite the heavily orchestrated draft motions, the truncated consultations, the dubious administration of amendments and submissions, can still stand up for those humiliated and hurt by the Church. It can still affirm what theologians articulate as a contemporary Catholic human anthropology where sexuality and gender are no longer barriers to full participation in the communion and ministries of the Church. And it can boldly claim that equality of dignity brings with it equality of rights to participate in a Church that seeks to reflect the Spirit of Jesus to the world.

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Related media: Without change Church’s mission is at risk, Plenary reformers say, The Catholic Weekly (2 December 2021)

10 October 2021

Light from the Southern Cross – 10 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

I have left the First Assembly of the Plenary Council optimistic that change is coming. What that looks like is unclear. Plenty of balls have been tossed in the air. Resolutions have been crafted somewhat hastily. But the Show is moving and the collective imagination has been ignited.

Councillors have been positive and constructive. The magnitude of the task is dawning as the diversity of views and appreciations of the role and purpose of the Church percolate through the discernment groups’ reports and the interventions from Members. I assumed that this was always going to be the case. The organisers deliberately designed a process that would elicit the variety of ways Catholics understand their faith, their practice and their Church. So, to that end, the Assembly has done its job.

Yet, the real job is to confront the crisis the Church faces. A crisis that is both of its own making but also one that asks squarely what is the value of religious faith in our world today? People have left the Church either through disgust with the history of abuse scandals or because they no longer could relate to it for various reasons. Certainly, on the latter, it seems Pope Francis wants the Church to make the shift from its usual propositional stance to one of mission. A shift that emphasises mercy and compassion before seeking to engage in a dialogue of ideas and philosophy.

When it comes to the abuse scandals, the Church has nowhere to hide. The civil authorities did what the Church could not do for itself. That is, fess up! The culture of the institution is ingrained with a self-protective instinct. There are endless excuses why those in positions of authority and influence did not discharge their duties morally and legally. There is an almost knee jerk submission by the laity to senior clerics that stifles honesty and perpetuates secrecy and concealment. Church leaders and their advisors take an “institution first” risk management approach to victims’ complaints and abuse allegations. This is a culture that is prepared to set itself up against the world to the very point that it paid lip service to the laws of the land and the dictates of human decency.

It is this culture that must change and change quickly.

Calls for improved governance come straight from the Royal Commission’s damning finding on the Church leadership. Calls for increased participation of women in governance and ministries, like the diaconate, come from revelations at the Royal Commission over the toxic influences of clericalism. These are just two areas that must be addressed upfront.

Let’s not kid ourselves; with all the best will in the world, these issues will be strongly contested. That contest will be held within the context where Councillors are grappling with the balance between a restorationist/rehabilitation instinct and a reimagination/reformist instinct. It’s time for a “Catholic Third Way” in order to triangulate these tectonic plates on which the Assembly teeters.

In a structure as conservative as the Church, gradual change is in itself a major step forward. However, some steps have already been laid out clearly by the Royal Commission findings and they must be implemented in full and seen to be. Otherwise, the same instinct to dismiss criticism as unwanted and misguided will only further entrench distrust and have the Church itself dismissed and unwanted.

Fortunately, there is a considered and intelligent roadmap available. The Light From the Southern Cross Report, commissioned by the bishops and religious leaders, published in 2020, outlines measures to improve Church governance within the confines of the Canon law. It addresses the findings of the Royal Commission and instils contemporary standards of accountability and transparency. It offers solutions to the paucity of formation of Catholic adults and it suggests measures for the renewal of seminaries. Frankly, it has done the work but awaits the nerve from church leaders to be implemented in full across the whole Church.

Councillors could do themselves a big favour between now and next July’s Second Assembly. They could read it!

9 October 2021

Cultural Change – 9 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Take heart, the drumbeats of change are echoing through the Plenary Council. Reports on the Assembly’s work are making the cases for change. Across many of the working groups, there are calls for solidarity with the aspirations of First Nations people for constitutional recognition; adoption of innovative models for lay/clerical governance; expansion of programs for contemporary lay and religious formation (academic and other); professional supervision for clergy and Church workers and importantly, the expansion of the influential participation of women, including consideration of women deacons. So, thankfully, these issues are on the table and cannot be discarded or ignored.

That said, our Church attitude and culture appears to be based on an outdated understanding of personhood. In other words, the understanding of Christian anthropology has not kept pace with the insights of the human sciences and contemporary understandings of personal development, including around gender and its diversity. It underpins why there is such a disconnect with the Church in the western world at least. It risks rendering our attempts at missionary outreach to be far less effective than they could be. Whether we are talking about being relevant to young people as they explore their place in the world or bridging the chasm with LGBTIQA+ people and their full participation in the life of the Church. A more nuanced understanding of personhood would better inform our pastoral practice, including resolving the issue of access to the reception of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The late Bishop Geoffrey Robinson spent years leading a more enlightened and pastorally driven whole of Church response to the sex abuse scandal. He penned a book-length reflection entitled “Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church”.

It stirred the pot. He was not popular with some of his episcopal colleagues or with Catholics unsettled by his critique. But his main points still stand. Whether consciously or not, the Church culture posits real power with men and clerics in particular. It dismisses the insidious effects of denying human sexuality and its repression. It scapegoats the influences of homosexuality and pays lip service to the equality of women at all levels. Those in positions of power and influence have been found to misuse or ignore canon laws that would have revealed the abuse of their authority.

This is a cultural problem. We are still by instinct a closed system, with our own codes of conduct and entitlement. Some are more privileged than others and have better access to real influence and decision making than others. The inertia that characterises the organisation can be devastating for those who long to be identified with a vibrant and welcoming Church.

The upshot is that the best will in the world will not break through if we remain isolated from the best insights into human development and interpersonal growth. To break through, we definitely need a “missionary impulse”. We can’t remain content as a “people set apart” as if an alternative universe somehow is attractive. So far, the numbers just don’t prove it.

At the heart of our current crisis is the disinterest of the wider society, including those Catholics who have drifted from meaningful participation. Disinterest tells us plainly that we need to become relevant and relatable. At the same time, we need honest appraisals of the attitudes the Church projects to people who feel at odds with a conventional understanding of being “a good Catholic”. Despite some pastors best efforts, there are still undertones of discrimination and judgment. This is divisive and ultimately counterproductive to any actions motivated by a ‘missionary impulse’.

The Plenary Council has a unique opportunity to overtly express the heart of our Church. The deliberations of this First Assembly suggest we are well on the way in this important journey. Pope Francis calls us to the “art of accompaniment”. He draws on the book of Exodus, saying that accompaniment “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”. The image is poignant and speaks of staying with the other in a spirit of reverence for their dignity and worth. 

Talking about ourselves with only ourselves won’t help. We will need to be informed about the emerging understandings of personhood. We need better access to the insights of applied theologies in this field if ultimately our Church can shift to being relevant and relatable as a Church of the Now!

8 October 2021

The Times They Are a-Changin’8 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Leaving today’s Assembly reminded me of a story from a good mate. He recalled pouring out of a Dylan concert and overhearing the bloke in front saying to his girlfriend that the songs bore no resemblance to their peak in the 1970s. And even the newer tracks just didn’t hit the mark.

Gradually over the week, the Assembly has heard a wide spectrum of heartfelt suggestions, ranging from the nostalgic through to the revolutionary. Almost like Catholics in therapy! Some things hit the mark and others hark back to times that I remember fondly but no longer work for me.

Pope Francis warns the Church to not miss the change in era. The old ‘rock stars’ need to step aside. There are only so many ‘Farewell Tours’ the fans can take! And the fans are voting with their feet.

By its nature, a change in era implies a change in the terms of engagement. A paradigm shift is essential for the effectiveness of the mission of the Church. It is not about efforts to restore or even to renovate ‘business as usual’. It is more than rehabilitation. A renaissance, a reimagining, best hits the mark. Being a Church on mission requires new information and a committed disposition to engage and affirm. It is about compassion, not imposing convention or compliance. But we need new methods to accomplish this.

We live in times where new knowledge arising from new social and scientific understandings, including cosmic and ecological, provide new insights into emerging personhood. We also have the data on a society defined by gross inequities, breaches of human rights and intractable inter-generational poverty. A vibrant Church will insist on being at the coalface of these challenges. Not with a set of propositions but rather with a driving desire to restore human dignity, balance the scales of justice, and reverence the people and land we work with and live on.

As it currently stands, the Assembly seems to teeter on tectonic plates. Some are comfortable with the traditional notion of the Church, almost as a bulwark against society. An alternative universe, determined to preserve beliefs and traditions from the corrosive influences of secularism. Then there are those calling for the Church to embrace the new sciences and the unfolding appreciations of human development to better relate to the world around it. Little wonder the Councillors express frustration with the process to date.

Many of us have been formed in the tribal culture of old or enlivened by the new ecclesial movements. However, the challenge is to avoid becoming ‘museum pieces’ to use Pope Francis’ term. We all need to resist ‘pumping air into old tyres’. That is, our complex world does not require simplistic, static answers. Our theology needs to evolve as God’s creation evolves. 

A case in point is how we can get stuck on our understanding of the human person. We need to be conscious of notions of personhood that are actually prescientific concepts that don’t do justice to those who stand before, with and apart from us. Again, I think of the rainbow people in particular.

I feel a degree of apprehension at this moment in the Assembly. I worry that the Councillors, myself included, do not have the information or time to digest the profound paradigm shift that is before us. Serious scholarship and spiritual direction led the enlightenment of the Second Vatican Council. We need access to similar input and formation if the magnitude of the task can be embarked on with authenticity and hope.

With so much still ‘up-in-the-air’ perhaps tomorrow will provide the direction we need for a strategy to take us further on this path of renewed mission and relevance.

7 October 2021

Confronting Abuse – 7 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today was very powerful. In a Special Plenary focused on those who had been abused and hurt by our Church we were led through a lamentation session and on into serious reflection and discussion. The atmosphere was solemn, the burden far from light.

This was an important session. Confronting the shameful history of abuse is vital. That history is alive today. It is something we carry as a Church, and it must shape us as a Church.

Unless all the implications of the sex abuse scandal are faced head-on, I fear the Church will struggle to be identified for anything else in my lifetime. Of course, there are many fine works conducted in the name of the Church. I am involved in both the social service and health ministries. But the dark shadow of the scandal lurks. It will continue to for as long as the Church appears not to have fully atoned for the crimes and the cover-ups. It will continue until the Church comes to terms with itself. What were the cultural factors that permitted concealment and complicity? What instincts drove Bishops, leaders and their advisors to disbelieve victims and to seek to silence them? 

These are difficult questions that go to the fundamental question of why a Church would treat people, children firstly, so badly. Why also would a Church harbour criminals and go to great lengths to protect them? What were the ‘working assumptions’ for those in positions of power and influence that ultimately put the institution before the welfare of children?

I know that Church processes of accountability and safeguarding are light years better today than in previous times. I also know that administrators and ecclesial leaders are far more determined to ensure safety for children. But still, things are less than best practice.

The Church effectively still investigates itself in meeting safeguarding standards and addressing initial complaints. There does not appear to be a consistent approach to dealing with reparations for victims across the Church. The voices of victims seem absent from the governance structures charged with dealing with abuse cases. The recommended accountability and professional supervision measures for clergy and Church personnel are far from implemented. There has still not been a comprehensive national report on the ‘state of play’ of the current cases of abuse, the resolution of cases and the financial reparations made.

Councillors have been asked to ‘see through the eyes of those who have been abused’. The best way for that to happen is to allow the experiences of the abuse to influence what we see, what we decide and what we do.

Councillors also are continually reminded of Pope Francis’ call to respond to a ‘missionary impulse’. Reaching out to the abused, be they sexually or otherwise, will help ignite that impulse and burn the flame for change.

Related media: The Plenary Council confronts Church abuse, The Catholic Leader (8 October 2021)

6 October 2021

The Journey – 6 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today more than any other, brought home to me that we are just four days into a 9-month journey. The Councillors are becoming more familiar with the listening process, and probably if they are like me, more patient in how resolutions and final motions will be developed. As it happens the Plenary Council President, Archbishop Tim Costelloe, made it clear that final motions will be voted on in the next Assembly listed for July 2022. He encouraged the drafting of resolutions now. So, the heat is on to craft some tangible proposals or miss out on advancing issues that the Steering Group will in turn sift.

This is where the rubber hits the road. Obviously, the Steering Group is key and so too are the criteria they will use to assess whether a resolution can be morphed into a formal motion. Issues of Church law, doctrine and pastoral practice evidently form the basis of that determination. I hope this doesn’t mean that proposals to amend, even change Church positions will not be discounted outright. We need to test a range of issues within the full Assembly: increasing influential participation of women, expanding inclusion of the laity in governance, stripping our culture of the toxic influence of clericalism, and overtly bringing about our communion with LGBTIQA+ people. To do less than these things means we would have failed.

I could not let the day pass without mentioning the devastating reports of the Independent Commission into the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church of France. An estimated 216,000 children suffered abuse and the French Church was described as showing ‘cruel indifference’. As one Councillor and friend said to me today, he struggled to breathe after hearing the reports.

It can sound trite, but here we go again! The French bishops ask for forgiveness and promise to act. It has a familiar ring to it. We must act with resolve and definitively. We must resist any temptation to ‘put the scandal behind us and move on’. That is too defensive, too self-protective, too institution focussed. Unless those who have been abused and those who have been traumatised by this scandal can experience real atonement from the Church, then the scandal has not been properly faced.

Tomorrow the Council will have a special plenary concentrating on the hurt caused and the abuse perpetrated by the Church. On behalf of us all, the Plenary Council needs to speak loudly and compassionately to those we know have been victims and to those who silently look from afar. And actions speak the loudest.

5 October 2021

Inclusion – 5 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today’s sessions enabled more participants to have a say. Passionate, heartfelt interventions on a range of issues so typical of a ‘Catholic free for all’! It was heartening to hear members raise concerns over the participation of women, the outreach to new Australians and the missionary agenda for the Church. However, what struck me most starkly were the voices that have been effectively silenced in the Plenary’s Agenda. This was even more clear to me after our small group session of Scripture reflection.

As it stands, we are not being directed to seriously contemplate the plight of the LGBTIQA+ people in the Church. This raises distinctive issues that need attention. The experiences of ‘rainbow’ people in our Church have been fraught and still are overshadowed by discrimination, even exclusion. The residue of the same-sex marriage debate still lingers, as do the unresolved pastoral matters of access to the sacraments, including the Eucharist. For some Catholics, this is a bridge too far and they resist any practical measures that would seem to ‘change Church teachings’. 

But, is this the heart of the Gospel? Is our Church practice consistent with the Gospel? 

From my perspective, we have a lot to learn from wider society. The stigma and barriers surrounding LGBTIQA+ people have been rapidly dismantling in recent years as enlightened understandings are assimilated. The respect for diversity in personal development and human relationships has led to more harmonious and healthy attitudes. The insistence on the non-discriminatory treatment of people based on sex, gender and religion has contributed to more inclusive authentic communities.

Yet, the Church runs the risk of leaving LGBTIQA+ people at the margins. Rather than meeting them there and bringing them into the fold with the promise of full participation, they remain ‘off the agenda’, left in the ‘too hard basket’.

Like many practising Catholics, this issue is close to my heart through the experiences of my own family. Whether they realise it or not, the tone and impact of the language of Church spokespersons and others declaring what they call ‘Church teachings’, is judgemental, demeaning and hurtful. It is simply not enough to say that everyone is loved by God and then draw a line in the sand over the full participation in the faith community of our ‘rainbow’ sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, grandchildren and friends.

4 October 2021

Listening – 4 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

Today’s sessions have stressed the importance of listening as the key to the discernment process. Not as simple as it sounds. I certainly have entered this process having read plenty and talked to many. We were asked to take this seriously and I assume most members have likewise done some homework and sought the views of others. The degree to which members have been involved in support groups, discussion nights or even formal renewal organisations will vary. What probably doesn’t differ is the sincerity of their involvement and desire to help bring about change.

That is why I am perplexed by those who express concern that the Plenary Council could simply be a political play and a tussle akin to factional politics. To reduce Church dynamics to that of mere politics is too simplistic. Of course, there will be strongly held views. These often come from very educated people, theologically trained and pastorally experienced. Others are widely read or have lived through tough times and struggled to remain engaged with the Church, and so express themselves accordingly. There will be people who have grown frustrated by what they have encountered as the rigidity of the Church, its judgmental tone and absolutist postures. They, too, can express disenchantment, even despair that their sense of belonging is being undermined. There are others too who feel unsettled by challenges to their understanding of Church and religious practice. They likewise express trepidations over the future of the Church through the lens of what has worked for them and the communities they belong to. These are not political statements, nor are they weaponised chants to either bring down or fortify the institution, as if they are part of some political crusade. Nor are they shots over the bows of episcopal authority. 

For me, they are genuine voices that cry out to be heard. They are the groans of a people wanting to cultivate a place of nurture and spiritual and moral direction. A place that is inclusive and respectful of differences. A place that actually makes real our belief that God is love, and we are here to explore how love works.

Some bishops, for years now, have been concerned that the Plenary Council will be used to weaken the notion of an episcopal led Church. Frankly, we don’t have the time to entertain that reactionary approach. We do need bishops and laypeople to stand shoulder and shoulder together, looking in the same direction, implementing a strategy of mission that builds unity across differences.

To that end, the Assembly will need to get down to specifics. As I indicated in my blog yesterday, I raised the issue of women’s participation in governance and ordained ministries in the Open Assembly today. I will respect the privacy of those discussions but be reassured that many members have contacted me expressing support for this issue and indicated their desire to advance it in the course of the Assembly’s dialogues.

We also began the small group process this afternoon. I have been allocated to a group that is exploring two questions:

(1) How might we better accompany one another on the journey of personal and communal conversion, which mission in Australia requires?

(2) How might the Church in Australia respond to the call to ‘ecological conversion’? How can we express and promote a commitment to an ‘integral ecology of life’ in all its dimensions, with particular attention to the more vulnerable people and environments in our country and region?

3 October 2021

Opening Eucharist – 3 October 2021

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

In today’s opening Eucharist Archbishop Tim Costello stressed that we are a Pilgrim People. For me, this means being a community humble enough to keep seeking the truth. To keep striving for authentic ways to relate to each other; to those who are not in the community and to those who feel at odds with the community. 

As I participated in the mass online, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the diversity of ways Catholics identify these days. Some practice in conventional ways. Others find their religious expression through good works and community services. Others still have found nurture and sustenance in specific movements and spiritualities, including being involved with social justice groups, refugee support and meditation communities. 

We know that nearly 90 per cent don’t attend regular weekend worship. But it doesn’t mean that they still don’t value a spiritual search and are not embarked on a life of meaning and service. Often they find real congruency between their religious values and the life choices, daily decisions that mark their place in the world and their disposition to others.

The variety of Catholic identities is a healthy sign of a Church on the move. It shows that to be Catholic is to be adaptable to the times. It shows a willingness to embrace the social context and work with the cultural parameters that often define how ordinary people find ways to navigate the questions of life. It is what Pope Francis means when he calls for a Church that ‘goes to the streets’, relates ‘at the margins’, has ‘the smell of the sheep’.

As we assemble to discern what God is asking of the Church in Australia, I want to be ever mindful of the diversity of Catholicism in Australia. I want to resist being caught up in an image of Catholicism that is ‘too white bread’, too conventional. Rather I hope the Assembly can recognise the varieties of ‘being Catholic’ and affirm people on that journey.

And related to that are the various voices from the diverse corners of our Catholic community. Throughout the consultation period leading to this Assembly many voices called for particular issues to be addressed by the Plenary Council. Such as the central concern of the full participation of women in governance and ministry. Groups like Catholic Social Services Victoria have suggested that an additional agenda item, Justice and Equity, should be included. Whether it will or not is unclear. Surely the organisers should address this upfront.

We have been told that those voices have been heard. We have also been told that the issues will be addressed in the course of the Plenary Council. Yet the current agenda is less specific. We are told not to stress, that it all be accommodated.

Well, tomorrow morning in the first plenary session, broadcast live, the formal agenda will be approved. Members can ask for clarifications or make specific interventions of concern. To do so, members flag any intervention with the Steering Group the night before. I have asked the group to consider informing all the Plenary Council members how specific issues raised in the consultations will actually be able to be discussed and voted on. Hopefully, the answer will be there for all to see!

Related media: Australia’s historic Plenary Council gathering that could reshape the Church, The Catholic Leader

1 October 2021

Assembly of the Plenary Council needs to deliver reform

Blog by Francis Sullivan, CSSA Chair

I am a delegate for the Plenary Council which starts with the first Assembly from 3rd to 10th October. Because I am locked down in Canberra, like the majority of delegates, I will be attending all sessions online. Not my preference but it is what it is!

I intend to send out a blog at the end of each day. It will be my reflections on the discussions held and the evolution of the agenda. Speaking of agenda there has already been a fair bit of disquiet over what actually will be discussed at the Assembly. When the Plenary Council got underway over four years ago the organisers encouraged Catholics to get involved. We were asked to “discern” what God was asking of the Church in Australia. A tall order indeed! That said, the organisers received 17,500 submissions covering the views of well over 200,000 Catholics. Impressive in anyone’s language. 

Since then the submissions were distilled into 6 thematic papers for discussion within the Church. Ultimately the Assembly is presented with 16 broadly based questions. They are somewhat anodyne and difficult to see where the specific issues raised in the submissions will be brought to the table. But brought to the table they must. There has been too much consultation for issues to be swept aside or placed in the ‘too hard basket’.

I like other delegates will enter the Assembly open-minded, with a disposition to respectfully listen and then discuss issues without prejudice. At the same time, this is a time for our Church to face facts. We are in crisis. On any indicator, be it participation rates, financial health or public influence, the Church is in decline. The sex abuse scandal has eroded the public’s trust in the Church. Ordinary Catholics likewise have been confronted by the shameful cover-ups, secrecy and deceit that characterised the scandal. The moral failure of the Church leadership was castigated by the Royal Commissioners.

Unless we confront, head-on, the culture that enabled the scandal to go on for so long, I fear that we will continue to see the decline and irrelevancy of the Church in my lifetime.

These days a common catch cry is that there is no synodality without spirituality. Pope Francis wants the spirit of synodality to echo the humble, listening Church he has often spoken about. He calls for a poor Church of the poor. This must be our starting point. We need to shed the vestiges of the medieval authority structure, the entitlements of clericalism and the male dominated decision making and policy formulation processes. We need a Church that better reflects the diversity and composition of the communities it seeks to serve. A Church that has an institutional instinct to be missionary, not propositional. A Church that doesn’t insist on people fitting into a predetermined mould, but rather is a place where unity across differences is its hallmark. A Church where compassion, not convention, is the term of engagement with society. Well, the dialogue begins this Sunday and I am keen to be involved. After my years working for the Truth Justice and Healing Council, I feel privileged to have this opportunity to once again contribute to my Church which has been so integral to my life and how I go about life. Please feel free to respond to my blogs and let’s pray that the Spirit gets a say too!

Media Statement – 1 October 2021 – Catholic Church policy summit needs to deliver reform

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