Australia: The Fifth Plenary Council Has Ended (1)

July 14, 2022

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, begin in March 2018, held its first assembly on October 3-10, 2021 and its second on July 3-9, 2022. Both sessions were rocked by heated differences, particularly over women and the diaconate.

What Is a Plenary Council?

Canon law distinguishes general councils from particular councils. The first bring together all the bishops belonging to the Catholic Church, they are then called “ecumenical,” which, according to the etymology, means universal.

Particular councils may be of several types:

– they can bring together a diocese, which would be a diocesan synod, bringing together the clergy around the bishop;

– they can bring together the bishops of an ecclesiastical province, and are convened by the metropolitan bishop;

– they can also bring together the bishops of several ecclesiastical provinces forming a region;

– finally, they can bring together all the bishops of a country, and are called national or plenary councils. It is this type of council that is in question here.

Before holding plenary councils, Australia – and New Zealand which were a single province – held provincial councils.

Plenary councils were held in 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1937, and are referred to as the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Councils of Sydney, as that city was the primatial seat of the country. It should be noted that the first was that of the plenary council of Australasia, the second and the third, plenary councils of Australia, and the fourth, plenary council of Australia and New Zealand.

Canonical Rules for a Plenary Council

It must be convened by the conference of bishops, who must fix all the material circumstances, as well as the questions to be dealt with.

The rules also specify the members who must be summoned to this council: diocesan bishops, coadjutor and auxiliary bishops, and other titular bishops. All these members have a deliberative vote.

The vicars general and the episcopal vicars, the major superiors of religious institutes, the rectors of ecclesiastical universities, and some rectors of major seminaries must also be convened with an advisory vote.

Other members may be called to a particular council, with only consultative suffrage: priests and faithful, “in such a way, however, that their number does not exceed half of those in listed” in the first two points.

Finally, the decisions of the plenary council must be validated by the Holy See.

The Convocation of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia

At the first assembly, 266 delegates were called: 180 of them were among those who must summoned. The others were in the third category. At the second assembly, there were 277 delegates, the composition remaining roughly the same.

The reasons given for the convocation of this plenary council were the following: the invitation of Pope Francis to dialogue; changes in Australian society; and the outcome of the Royal Commission inquiry into abuse. This last point seems to have been decisive, and provides a similarity with the German Synodal Path. However, the latter chose a sui generis path, while the plenary council is one of the traditional instruments of the Church. Apart from the fact that the new canon law, which is cited above, allows for the introduction of a number of people apart from the bishops, who alone were summoned before this reform.