Searching for coherence in a chorus of voices: Insights from the Church in Australia’s Plenary Council

Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan is on the Board of Directors of Mary Aikenhead Educational Ministries and is a member of the Mission and Identity Committee for Sydney Catholic Schools. She is also a delegate for the Plenary Council of Australia.

In 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah listens for the voice of God. He knows that voice when it whispers to him. I thought often of this account during the various phases of the Plenary Council, and especially during the assemblies.

On more than one occasion, significant opportunities were ignored in favour of rhetoric of a distinctly secular hue. As Pope Francis calls for an increasingly synodal Church, it is crucial that the trends of society not drown out the quiet voice of God.

After all, there is much at stake for the Church in the way that we represent Christ’s Gospel to the world. The Church has a mission, and Christians need to be missionary – not conforming to the whims of the age but bringing the profundity of the Gospel to the times in which we live – witnessing to Christ in every way that we can.

At a moment when society thinks that religious institutions are dangerous or irrelevant, every synodal assembly is an opportunity to find how members of the Church can bring Christ’s presence into the world. This requires a certain adeptness at identifying the marginalised in our own Church, in every nation, and in an increasingly globalised society. It demands Christlike imagination to find how we can prayerfully respond to contemporary needs.

Unfortunately, the raised voices of the advantaged can be mistaken as those of the marginalised. If one were to rely on most media accounts, one might readily assume that the plenary council in Australia was mainly about women’s rights. The blatant disregard for just how much women constantly contribute to the life of the Church in Australia, institutionally as well as spiritually, was rendered nought beside the issue of female ordination.


This distraction at the centre of the assembly had the effect of taking valuable time and energy away from other issues that are debatably of far more concern to those who seek to live the Gospel in their daily lives. During the first assembly, the youngest lay Chancellor of a diocese in Australia at the time recounted the story of a local parishioner in his extremely large rural diocese.

All this man wanted from the Church, by his own account, was to have regular access to the sacraments, and to have a priest at his side when he died.


However, members did not substantially consider ways to address an almost crippling national shortage of priests and of priestly vocations.

When another member raised the point in the second assembly that many of the motions carried demanded resources that rural dioceses simply do not have, it was as though she had not spoken at all. As elsewhere in the world, the Church in Australia remains in the wake of the horrific discoveries concerning institutional child sexual abuse. As is only just, this was emphasised during both assembles and in all documentation.

The reality, though, that any priest today shoulders the Christ-like burden of being marked with sins that he personally has not committed, was untouched. The priesthood was apparently reducible to two problems: “clericalism” (left undefined) and female ordination.

Each of these depends on thinking of the priesthood in terms of worldly power rather than Christ-like service. A worldly priesthood is not one founded on an Apostolic Church inspired by God and not of human making.

It is then of little wonder that the council mainly ignored the fact that priests are a sign of contradiction in any age, quietly bringing Christ to the unrecognised marginalised – and that we can surely do far more to support them.

Other quiet voices were those of women who are undistracted by the question of whether their rights are being violated by the male priesthood. Those single, married, religious, and consecrated women without whom there would be no Church at all, encountered some extraordinary moments on the assembly floor.

A male member in one discernment group refused to recognise as “woman” the only female at the table who did not represent the secular status quo. This was by no means an isolated incident.


Women who were members of the council precisely because of the significant ways in which they contribute to the Church, who did not at the same time advocate for a secular feminist narrative of power, were frequently deliberately silenced.

Therewith, opportunities to contribute to the domestic Church by supporting mothers, and to support vocations that could significantly influence a vibrant Church in Australia went by the wayside.

The lack of proper recognition of the ways that lay women contribute to the ministries and offices of the Church was certainly demeaning. Then there are the men both inside and outside the Church who feel that they have nowhere to go.

It is no wonder that, surrounded by a narrative that to be male is to be “toxic”, they turn to popular gurus such as Jordan Peterson, or to traditionalisms that distort what it means to be a Christian man. The need for spiritual support for Catholic men was raised many times during the assemblies, but the final documents hardly indicate this point and it was made abundantly clear that while a document on the dignity of women was a non-negotiable, nonesuch was required for men.

More marginalised groups could be identified, beyond those shouting others down. Here I will mention only one more. In Australia, it is evident that our ageing population is increasingly vulnerable.

Despite the catastrophic effects of legalised euthanasia in other nations, Australia has gone down the same path. At the same time, investigations into the aged care sector have revealed high levels of neglect. The elderly must have some of the quietest voices among us. Why could we not hear them? Surely we need to raise the question, lest the Church’s prophetic voice become incapable of reaching those who need spiritual and material support.

Judged primarily against secular standards, the Plenary Council in Australia may well have done some good. The institutional Church in Australia is more aware of some of its faultlines and members of the council at least are better informed about different views on key issues.

However, the concerns of the privileged few tended to overwhelm those quiet voices of the most vulnerable in our midst. In the end, at least this member is left asking: has Catholic Social Teaching become the treasure buried underground that will never do any good in the world?

Or, can we become a synodal Church that finds the strangers, widows, orphans, and prisoners of our age, and shows them the face of Christ?

Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan (BA (Liberal Arts) The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, USA, Rome Italy; MA (Lic.) Philosophy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven; PhD (Philosophy), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) is the National Head of the School of Philosophy and Theology at The University of Notre Dame Australia.

Professor Köhler-Ryan is on the Board of Directors of Mary Aikenhead Educational Ministries and is a member of the Mission and Identity Committee for Sydney Catholic Schools. She serves on the Reference Group for Studies in Catholic Thought, which reports to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. She is also a delegate for the Plenary Council of Australia.

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