Light from the laity – the 2020 Plenary Council.

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Tony French.

By now, you would have heard of the Plenary Council 2020. It’s been billed as ‘shaping the future of the Catholic Church in Australia’.

Perhaps like me, you dismissed it as just another gathering of bishops and clergy, meeting to make decisions on our collective behalf. But, no, not this time. The laity has been invited to participate in the Council, and perhaps your parish has invited you to form or join a plenary discussion group. Mine did, and I joined.

A few meetings later, I am disillusioned. So far, our submissions are a disparate and disorganised litany of complaints about what the Church has done, failed to do, and will likely continue to do or not do into the foreseeable future.

Literally, we are all over the shop – a cathartic exercise perhaps, but not one conducive to submitting a convincing and coherent proposal for reform. We have veered from an apology to the laity by the clergy for the child abuse scandal to woman popes.

This is not to suggest we are all in disagreement. What we are acknowledging is that Church structures are inadequate for today. The central question is: what is the place and role for us as followers of Christ in the world today?

The answer is twofold, and begins with theology. What are the existing theological grounds which will accommodate a new view of Church and our roles within it, and what should the relationship of Church and world be? No longer can the Church maintain its position as in the world but not part of it.

And there’s a lot of theological resources to ground contemporaneous reform of Church and its relationship to the world. You could begin with the early Church Fathers, but usefully start with Vatican II, papal encyclicals, and recent pronouncements from Pope Francis.

Theology underpins the understanding of an authentic presence of the Church in the world, not solely proclaiming a message of salvation, but of what it is doing to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

Then what new church structures are required for the Church to be in and of the world today? The current hierarchical structure is widely held in contempt, numbers of priests are decreasing, parishioners are deserting the pews, the religious and moral authority of the institution widely scorned.

The clerical past is over, but what are the new structures of church to be? Ideally, they should emerge as bottom-up not top-down reforms. Upward reform requires increased laity participation in teaching and pastoral concerns. The laity too needs to proclaim the Gospel message, first to our families, then to our friends. The Church can resource our local proclamations and reinforce publicly what it is to be Christian and to live a worthwhile life. That’s a call to SPC.

Acknowledging its past failings, the Church must proceed to project a message of hope in the world. After all, there’s enough despair out there already. Secular culture should not spell the inevitable end of Christianity.  Rather, it should prompt reflection on what constitutes an authentic Christian life as examined in light of the Gospel message. Secular culture is a challenge, not a Christian capitulation.

Theologically informed, and reading the signs of the time, new church structures might include but not be limited to:

  •    An expanded diaconate comprising women and men.
  •    Use of sympathetic modern liturgical translations.
  •    Rejuvenated preaching by laity as well as clergy.
  •    Devolution of some governance to national churches (subsidiarity), for example, the decision on whether to give communion to divorcees.
  •    A shift from preoccupation with sex and gender to matters of social justice.
  •    Is there really a need for legislated ‘freedom of religion’ in this country?
  •    Promotion by the Church of female models of faith.
  •    Regular diocesan and national synods.

The discussion, timetabling, and implementations of reforms would be considered at the regular synod gatherings, a ‘democratisation’ of the church if you like.

Solutions proposed with new sets of questions is, as Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us, how progress is made.

It won’t be easy, but we must accept the idea it might just be where the Spirit is leading us (John 16:13).

I will continue with my Plenary discussion group. I will have my say, and so should you, too .

Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer, and a member of the Board of SPC.



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