Reflections from my participation in the Australian Plenary Council

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. Here he reflects on his immersive experience as a participant in the Church in Australia’s Plenary Council.

The Australian Plenary Council has just completed four years of consultations, discernment and drafting ideas, culminating in its Second Assembly in early July in Sydney when its 277 members and many others gathered for a week of deliberations. 

It was a huge operation by any standard and flew in the face of apathy, scepticism, and some outright opposition within the Catholic community, to reach a largely successful conclusion. Years of implementation are still to follow so the process is far from completion.

The outcomes must now be explained and ‘sold’ to the wider church community and in some cases to Rome. The decentralised structure of the church means that a considerable proportion of the implementation will be in the hands of diocesan and parish leaders. 


The most important lesson is that in its construction and operations a council or synod must model the synodal church of Pope Francis by being inclusive, transparent, and accountable. These principles demand that those ‘insiders’ who are chosen to be around the table must represent as far as possible a full cross-section of the People of God and not an elite reflecting the comfortably orthodox views of most of their bishops.

If numbers preclude them being around the table their voices must still be heard. The processes must be clear and open to the whole community, engaging them and drawing on their wisdom; those in charge must be held accountable and public reporting must be regular and frank. That was not always the case in my experience. 

From the start expectations must be clear and agreed upon. Our early expectations were set high for an open discussion of “The Future of the Church in Australia”. The agreed premise, though not the various potential remedies, was that the church was in crisis by various measures, such as church attendance, public standing and priestly and religious vocations, and quickly spiralling downwards. There were two complementary elements to these expectations.

One was that ‘business as usual’ would not do anymore; the second was that ‘everything would be on the table’. Not everyone agreed with these promises by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Some bishops could not resist the temptation to water down both these elements and official attempts were made to temper our expectations for renewal. This was frustrating, although the bold initial framing of the task remained as an aspiration. 


Participants in any synodal event should always be clear about its official vision and about the role they are being asked to play. The competing visions for the Australian Council were that it should be viewed as either a ‘bubble’ or a ‘bridge’. I argued strongly for the latter. At the heart of these competing visions was the role of the wider Catholic community.

Broadly speaking the Plenary Council authorities, largely bishops supported by chosen clerics, religious and lay women and men, presented the council assemblies as a ‘bubble’ within which a community of members toiled to engage with each other and the Holy Spirit, in semi-monastic fashion, perhaps like a religious chapter. Their contact details were protected from public view. Two-way engagement with the whole Catholic community took second place in this vision.  

The alternative vision, exemplified by the church renewal movement in the form in my case of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and by the national network, the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, was that engagement with the Catholic community should have been the most important element of the council.

In this vision Plenary Council members were a bridge to that wider community and should act as its representatives. The reform movement, often under great pressure of time official disdain, always strived to engage with Council members on behalf of the wider community through its submissions and public forums. 

Not rushed

Another lesson of the Australian council was that the process takes time to do well and should not be rushed. Four years, extended by twelve months because of the interruptions caused by Covid-19, is a long time to maintain the attention of the Catholic community. In many ways, however, the steady pace of the council deliberations was exemplary; but in the final weeks before the Second Assembly developments were too rushed.

Members struggled to keep up. The final draft agenda for comment by members appeared only five weeks before the assembly was due to sit. The absolutely final agenda, incorporating motions and officially sanctioned proposed amendments, was issued less than a week before the assembly. Plenary Council members, much less the general community, would have benefitted greatly from more time for deliberation and discernment. 

Plenary Council members, coming from a variety of backgrounds, were a crucial cog in the machinery. The majority were ex-officio: church leaders, including bishops, vicar-generals and leaders of religious leaders; some were chosen from church agencies and groups like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, youth and ethnic communities; a minority were lay volunteers, not elected but chosen in various ways on a diocesan basis by local bishops.

Most of the lay people already led very busy lives in their family and professional situations and struggled to give the council sufficient attention. We all needed considerable support and opportunities for formation and adult learning in a church context. This can be provided at the national level, but ideally participants should receive local recognition and support from their dioceses, parishes and, for many, church employers, wherever relevant. Some members were fortunate in having informal support networks to compensate when official support fell short. 

The church has its own language and rituals, which shape events like the Plenary Council. It was a new experience for me despite my own insider background on church committees. Synodality works most effectively when it features plain talking. As Justin Stanwix has written recently from Australia (La Croix, September 14 2022) “a listening Church depends upon a plain speaking people”.

Discernment must not get in the way of frankness, which is hard enough to manage anyway. Lay Catholics, free-er than many participants to ‘talk truth to power’ must call a spade a spade. Yet the culture and ‘standing orders’ of church events often impede plain talking and church reports can be sanitized and bureaucratized. As Stanwix points out, not only must plain speaking be encouraged but it must be reflected in agenda-setting and report-writing. 


There are still competing understandings of the meaning of synodality. We may collectively appreciate that walking together involves deep and respectful listening, evidenced in the successful small-group spiritual conversations undertaken at our Australian council. But disagreement remains about how a synodal church approaches the vexed topic of traditional authority of bishops and priests in their respective domains. This tension is highlighted when it comes to voting. 

The Australian council navigated successfully through a mid-week flashpoint at the Second Assembly when some key motions on witnessing the equal dignity of women and men failed to reach the required two-thirds majority of deliberative (bishops’) votes. A potentially disastrous failure of the synodal process was overcome by a combination of some agile and flexible church leadership and generosity of spirit among women members, especially, within the council. The universal church should learn from this flexibility and generosity. 

Three months after the completion of the Second Assembly, a final lesson has become clearer. The November 2022 meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has the Plenary Council on its agenda. The council was always a new approach stitched onto the traditional order. That order is ‘business as usual’ and the constant danger is that the implementation of synodal outcomes reverts to the old ways.

Clerical and episcopal authority is still assumed, and the implementation becomes their business unless challenged. On the bigger questions diocesan bishops retain their authority. More detailed implementation remains the business of parish priests. The experience of synodality for ordinary lay Catholics becomes a lucky dip. Their church is made up of a patchwork of different lives and experience. 

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He was a member of the Australian Plenary Council and thanks Francis Sullivan, his friend, and fellow Plenary Council member.    

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