Written by Kathy Clubb
When Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote that the Our Lord’s crowning with thorns was suffered by Him in reparation for sins of the intellect, he could have had in mind the kind of intellectual pride that is currently on display at the various national Synods. Australia’s Plenary Council is a good example, being regarded by many as a colossal waste of time and resources. These hotbeds of dissent are the source of ongoing suffering for faithful Catholics who feel powerless in the face of widespread error being promulgated on a daily basis.
In Australia and elsewhere, outrageous calls for inadmissible changes to the Church’s teaching have, for the most part, been going unchallenged. Doctrinally solid documents emanating from the Plenary Council and the subsequent Synod sessions have been few and far between. More often than not, the official statements have been full of corporate jargon and ill-defined terms such as ‘synodality’ and ‘clericalism’, leading many to question the point of these resource-draining meetings. By all accounts, the concluding documents represent neither the thoughts of the majority of Catholics nor do they get at the heart of the Church’s most pressing issues.
As Ed Condon of The Pillar has reported, very few Catholics are interested in making submissions to their local national Synods. In many regions, such as England, Poland and Venezuela, less than 1% of Catholics have contributed to the process and this was also the case in many Australian Archdioceses such as Brisbane and Melbourne. The Diocese of Hamilton, New Zealand, reported that “ … the principal theme that occurred to the committee was that of apathy. Marked by the lack of participation in contrast to the marketing and communication efforts.”
While this trend can partly be attributed to COVID disruptions and to “synod fatigue” due to the multiplicity of local synods and plenaries, this lack of involvement suggests that there are other reasons as well. The synthesis document from the Archdiocese of Sydney explores this lack of participation and although generally thought to be on the more conservative end of Church politics, is itself representative of the jargon-filled reports from most other jurisdictions around the country. Less than half of 1% of Catholics in the Archdiocese responded, and many of those who did respond were from known “dissident groups” such as Catholics for Renewal, the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Catalyst for Renewal, and Australian Catholics for Church Reform. Tellingly, more than half of respondents were over the age of 60, with only 2-3% of submissions from Catholics under the age of 29.
The Sydney synthesis differs little in essence from most of the documents issued by the Plenary Council. It lists six main areas of concern for the Church, noting (on page 12) the “deep mistrust of the Plenary process among many of the faithful, bishops and priests”. The document is misleading in the sense that there is no commentary around the validity of the content of submissions made to the Archdiocese or on the suggestions for reform. Opinions have simply been collated and reported. In fact, this is the problem inherent in the entire Plenary process: that error and truth are bundled together without distinction.
The theme of governance is addressed, as well as the role of women in the Church. The document uncritically presents the suggestion that women could be ordained to the diaconate and claims that “patriarchal power structures” need to be eliminated. (page 13) There is a suggestion that a new department, such as “an Office or Commission for Women” (page 19) needs to be created in order to oversee the role of women, thereby expanding an already bloated Church bureaucracy.
Another area addressed by the submissions is the priesthood. The call is made for ‘improved’ formation for seminarians (page 15), something which is not objectively bad but which in practice could mean that young men are exposed to many worldly influences which could potentially destroy their vocations.
A surprising question is proposed in this section: since “celibacy is not part of Aboriginal cultures” (page 13), should Aboriginal deacons and priests be allowed to marry? However, although married priests are already allowed in some rites, such as the Eastern Rite and in the Ordinariate, this is not because those men are culturally unfamiliar with celibacy. To say otherwise is to suggest that God’s power is limited in some way, or that He withholds His grace of perfect continence from certain priests based on their heritage. Again, in this mish-mash of opinions, truth and error are placed on equal footing.
The wearily-ubiquitous call for the Church to be “Inclusive, Welcoming & Listening” is listed as a priority and this will apparently be achieved when the hierarchy embraces the cryptic “changing nature of people/families.” (page 17)
The Sydney document highlights the great divergence of concerns and opinions held by Australian Catholics, from orthodox to heretical, but instead of pointing out the danger to the souls of Catholics who hold erroneous beliefs, it simply lists various points of view indiscriminately. It is impossible to tell how likely it is that any suggestions will be implemented, making the document of little practical assistance.
One of the more extreme reports came from Parramatta. Under the leadership of Bishop Long, this diocese is known for its aberrant school curriculum and for its financial irregularities. The synthesis expressed surprise at the “minority” which requested “education and formation based on a pre-synodal understanding of the Church”, (page 17) that is, faithful Catholics who are demanding a return to tradition. The focus of the report is “synodality” and how that is being lived out in parishes. While this document is more accurately a “synthesis” rather than a collection of disparate opinions, its liberal slant is of great concern. More ‘inclusion’ for LGBTI Catholics, a greater use of Aboriginal spirituality in the liturgy and a change to “misogynistic and hierarchical” (page 21) liturgical texts are among its dominant themes.
However, among the thirty Diocesan syntheses is one that stands out for its orthodoxy and truly pastoral approach. The Archdiocese of Hobart Synthesis is remarkable for its clarity and sound teaching and will give hope to any Catholic who is tempted to despair of any good coming out of the Synodal talkfests. After first acknowledging that the effort required from Tasmanian Catholics to make a submission holds a “narrow appeal”, the document goes on to express the thoughts of more than 4000 members from that state in terms that can only be described as thoroughly Roman Catholic.
Missing from this synthesis is the secular jargon that has become so familiar in similar Church documents, and in its place is the refreshing light of truth, calling us back to the main mission of the Church: to preach Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. The comparatively short document – only 12 pages – addresses three main themes: Communion, Participation and Mission, but instead of simply compiling disparate opinions, it gives a thoughtful analysis of topical themes, providing a much-needed balance to the commentaries being made around issues.
The “Communion” section highlights the need for prioritising the things of God, stating that the unity desired by so many “is simply not possible without grounding ourselves in the life of the Trinity.” (page 2) It reiterates on several occasions that for the Church to flourish, it needs to be filled with truly Christian people, and it expresses a concern over the secular language being employed by the Plenary and Synod in order to address supernatural realities.
“The answer will not be found in programs, formulae or bureaucracy but in fostering our relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer and the sacraments. This is the only way to build up vibrant, strong and united communities that can authentically witness to God’s love in a broken and hurting world. Without an encounter with Jesus and conversion, we can only love in our own strength and will achieve nothing.” (page 2)
Reference is made to pastors and catechists who preach error, and some stern admonitions made by St Paul about holding fast to sound doctrine are included.
The topic of ‘accompaniment’ is dealt with very soundly, as the authors remind the faithful that the goal of inclusion is “not merely to fill the Church with people” but to “enable conversion and repentance” so that Catholics can fulfil their eternal destinies in heaven with Christ. The need for repentance is particularly emphasised in the section on sexuality:
“We need to love others enough to call them to conversion and holiness. Sometimes calls for the Church to be inclusive and welcoming really mean that the Church’s clear teaching on marriage and sexuality is rejected.” (page 3)
This section goes on to call for consistency from the Church on maintaining the traditional teachings on sexual morality:
“We are all called to chastity, whatever our situation in life and we need to clearly communicate this. Those in irregular or difficult situations, for example cohabiting, divorced and remarried persons or those in homosexual relationships, can carry a huge burden and not least of their problems is the often-confused mixed messages they receive from leaders in their church communities …. We cannot pretend that we are truly loving someone however, if we fail to call them out of an objectively sinful situation and instead try to accommodate the Church to the world’s standards. The importance of a united front here in counselling on and teaching about these matters is clear. Many are confused about the Church’s teaching about sexuality and chastity with profound consequences for their life of faith. Formation and support in this area is an urgent need.” (page 3)
Much is said in the Synthesis about the Holy Eucharist and the need for reverence and appreciation of this great reality within our parishes, particularly through increased availability of Adoration. It is encouraging to read that “Submissions from younger age groups frequently expressed the desire to worship with reverence and how they are drawn to beauty in the liturgy with the use of chant, incense etc. The idea that total informality and the shallow attempt to be relevant is the way to reach young people, is not borne out by their submissions and comments.” (page 4)
The ‘Participation’ section covers a lot of the ground that has proven to be so problematic over the course of the Plenary sessions, and indeed, remains the source of controversy at other national Synods, such as that being held in Germany. However, the approach shown here is again thoroughly Catholic: the call for more participation by women is challenged by the document’s authors asking for specific examples of those places within the Church where women could be called to serve more fully. The point is made that without specifics, this call could be for anything ranging from greater consultative roles to women’s ordination, and so clarity is required. Likewise, ‘clericalism’ is identified as a topic that needs further development since many submissions failed to define the term or to elaborate on the precise problem presented by ‘clericalism.’
An excellent point is made regarding the emergence of the so-called ‘synodal Church’: that it is necessary for Catholics who participate in ‘synodal structures’ such as pastoral councils, to be well-formed. The Synthesis lists the requirements needed for a true sensus fidei: participation in the life of the church, listening to the word of God, openness to reason, adherence to the Magisterium, holiness (humility, peace & joy), and seeking the edification of the church. (page 7)
This formation is essential for anyone involved in an official capacity within the Church, and, although noticeably absent from most chanceries these days, is necessary for the bishops to prioritise if the Church is to flourish going forward. Good formation is the antidote to the model of the Church so often presented by the hierarchy; the doomed model that resembles the statue which, in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, could not remain united, since “iron cannot be mixed with clay.” Error and truth must not be put forward as equal, optional forms of Catholicism.
Proponents of the ‘Synodal pathway’ throughout the Church have woven a veritable crown of thorns for the Bride of Christ. Let us hope that, like a rose hidden among the thorns, the Archdiocese of Hobart’s hidden treasure finds many admirers. It is possibly the most edifying document to emanate from either the Plenary Council or the Synodal process so far.