Australia: The Fifth Plenary Council Has Ended (2)

July 18, 2022

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, begun in March 2018, held its first assembly from October 3-10, 2021 and its second from July 3-9, 2022. Both sessions were rocked by heated differences, particularly over the women and the diaconate. The previous article review the definition of a plenary council.

The Fifth Plenary Council of Australia began with a general consultation in the country, from which an instrumentum laboris – a working text – was prepared. According to one commentator, there were 17,500 suggestions submitted by 220,000 people consulted.

This working paper contains several issues, such as co-responsibility in mission and governance, a response to the Royal Commission on institutional responses to child sexual abuse, church solidarity with Aboriginal Australians and those who are on the margins of society and the promotion of an integral ecology for all of our common home, the Earth.

The council held a first plenary assembly from October 2-10, 2021 in Adelaide. Then a second from July 3-9, 2022 in Sydney. Eight texts were approved at the end of this last assembly, which will now have to be examined in Rome before being approved.

Each text is accompanied by a decree. The first text deals with reconciliation: it is a question of making repentance in relation to the Aboriginal populations of the Torres Strait. The decree plans to develop a liturgy with “culturally appropriate use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander symbols and rituals.” An inculturation with pagan rites…

A second text discusses repentance for abuses and the decree provides a liturgy to express it. The third text evokes the mission: education, social apostolate, ecumenical relations, and interreligious dialogue.

Strong Dispute Over the Female Diaconate

The fourth text, “Witnessing to the equal dignity of women and men,” gave rise to a most interesting and revealing episode. A motion that commits the Church in Australia to acting in a way that involves “considering  women for ministry as deacons – should Pope Francis authorize such ministry in light of the findings of the reconstituted Study Commission on the Female Diaconate.”

The motion obtained a qualified majority – two thirds or more of the voters present – ​​among the participants present in an advisory capacity. But it did not achieve a qualified majority among the members with a deliberative vote – in other words the bishops.

Faced with this result, around sixty delegates refused to return to their seats after the morning break. Biting comments began to flow: “We're supposed to be here to listen to the Spirit, that's what everyone keeps saying. But it does seem that at least a few people arrived with a pretty clear sense of what the Spirit was supposed to say.”

Eventually, the bishops gave in and introduced the rejected motion in a conditional form: “That, should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorize the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends that the Australian bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia.”

This episode calls for several remarks. Firstly, the inconceivable claim of thinking that the faithful united can bring about a kind of new revelation: the teaching Church remains the episcopate; the faithful represent the Church taught. Secondly, putting the truth to a vote is an aberration: the majority does not make truth.

Then, the cowardice of the bishops displayed before their sacred duty to teach the revelation of Jesus Christ. In the same vein, the episode gives us a view of the future of the Church under the synodality regime towards which Pope Francis is tending with all his might.

Finally, the denial of a revealed truth in the text of a plenary council is the crowning achievement of this attitude. The female diaconate is an aberration for several reasons. Historically, there has never been a diaconate given to women by ordination in the history of the Church, even if history mentions deaconesses who provided various types of assistance. However, in that tradition, the practice has a capital value.

But there is a deeper reason. The Council of Trent recalls that the sacrament of Holy Orders is composed of at least three degrees: the episcopate, the priesthood, and the diaconate, not wanting to decide for the other degrees conferred in the Church. If they are essential degrees – and they are – they are under the same law.

However, it has always been accepted, and this was recalled by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that the priesthood can only be conferred on men. The proposition therefore necessarily applies both to the episcopate and to the diaconate. No theologian worthy of the name, no bishop can ignore such a thing. But the Australian episcopate, which had blocked this erroneous proposal, has yielded to pressure.

Other Provisions

A decree asks to review the directives concerning the participation of the laity in preaching – according to Canon 766 of the new code, in which it admits “certain circumstances.” The bishops refused to endorse a broader proposal. Another decree calls for the widening of the use of penitential ceremonies.

Finally, in connection with the eighth and last text which deals with governance, the synodal couplet is widely intoned: “That dioceses and eparchies support parishes to establish and strengthen appropriate synodal structures by developing guidelines and providing resources for the flourishing of Parish Pastoral Councils… and other parish bodies.”

“That representatives of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Catholic Religious Australia, and the Association of Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (PJP) form a working group to develop and establish a roundtable structure . . . to foster, assess, and report periodically on the development of synodal leadership across the Church in Australia.”

With such results, it is not even necessary to launch into the synod on synodality: the Faith is already being auctioned off by the voices of the “People of God” who feel animated by the Spirit to evacuate everything that would embarrass modern sensibilities.