Updated: 9.30am, 14th October (AEDT)
Sydney, Australia

Australian Catholics had only glimpsed “the tip of the iceberg” during the first assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council held last week and the failure to tackle some issues head-on was a stain on the church, a senior academic and member of the council says.

John Warhurst, emeritus professor at Australian National University, said he is hesitant in his optimism for the progress made at the Plenary Council, the first since 1937.

John Warhurst

John Warhurst. PICTURE: Supplied

The national meeting, attended by 278 members across the country - including bishops, members of religious congregations and laypeople, discussed 16 questions including matters relating to the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse, euthanasia laws, education and women’s roles within the church. The role of First Nations peoples and church governance was also on the agenda.

But Warhurst says the 16 agenda questions were “too bland” and didn’t do justice to the 17,500 submissions and “community ferment” during the consultation process.

“Sexuality, including justice for LGBTQI+ Catholics, is the elephant in the room. It can’t be avoided, though authorities try hard to do so, because through many families and children it touches most of us across various divides within the church,” Warhurst wrote in a blog before the Plenary Council ended on Sunday.

In an interview with Sight, Warhurst said the subject was almost invisible in the church at the moment. While big changes such as the acknowledgement of same-sex marriages would be "something that only the Vatican could probably handle", Warhurst said that "if you pull back a little bit from that, there is the whole question [what you would call] pastoral ministry towards same-sex marriages".

"It would mean much clearer support for same-sex staff and same-sex students in Catholic education for instance, or in higher education.”

He said the role of women in ordained ministry also “remains a tough battle”.

“There was a lot of discussion [about women’s roles in the church] and it was spread around a lot of areas...but I think it needs a consolidated approach.”

He said if discussion did get to women’s ordination or women’s ministry “it would then have to go to Rome, but it could be a strong statement by the Australian church”.

“My hesitation to get too excited relates not just to diversity and polarisation within the church, however, but to the Plenary Council process itself.”

Warhurst, who is also chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, says the first assembly process “turned out to be too compressed and rushed”, particularly in the 36 hours before its close.

He said this led to key elements, such as the final group papers and communique to proceed without proper examination, something he warned should not be repeated.

However, he acknowledged a lot of work would be conducted in the next nine months ahead of the second session of the Plenary Council with a report to be provided to members and a lot of public conversations ahead of July.

“So for July itself, I think timing will be a really crucial issue - whether there’s the possibility of any more time - but if there’s not, it will have to be extraordinarily well [and] tightly-organised and focused to get through what’s involved,” he said.

Meanwhile, another plenary member - Warren Featherstone - warned the council of a deep spiritual crisis in all the West, including Australia, which had received little attention during the Plenary Council.

He said the secular world is hostile to the church, and the “abuse crisis and the trauma it caused didn’t help that”.

“Even if the abuse hadn’t happened though, the hostility of secular ‘opinion’ to the Church would still exist”, he said.

“Issues around defending the conscience of individuals and Catholic institutions should be paramount for the church. The increasing state attacks on Christian faith has been rarely addressed in the plenary.”

Another voice in the week-long council was lay member Chris Lee, whose concerns were for young men of faith, the lack of male role models, and the decline in church attendance if fathers did not attend Mass.

Lee, who has managed two of the church’s 'Houses of Discernment' - where young men can go deeper in their faith, says “statistically” church attendance by families increased if fathers also attended Mass.

“We also know that from studies that if a father and mother attend Mass together with their children there is a 33 per cent likelihood that the children will regularly practice the faith into adulthood, however, if the father does not practice regularly and the mother does, then the likelihood of children practicing into adulthood then drops to two per cent.”

He told the council the church needs to reaffirm its “commitment to fatherhood”, and support young men and fathers “to be the foundational leaders of their families and the wider community”.

“If the father plays such a vital role in the passing of the practicing of faith to his children, maybe we need to instead of simply asking “Where are our young people?” begin to ask the question “Where are their fathers?”.

During the closing Mass on Sunday, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, spoke about “the adventure of the Gospel” in his homily and warned about members using Holy, rather than worldly wisdom.

“If, as a church in Australia, we can keep the commandments and repent when we fail, if we can let go of every possession or privilege, ideology or attachment, structure or aspiration that gets in the way of the adventure of the Gospel, then the hearts of the faithful and the church may truly be renewed”, Archbishop Fisher said.

“Follow Christ the Good Teacher and all will be well. Guided by divine rather than wordly wisdom, the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia must now continue its work of prayerful and careful discernment towards the Second Assembly next year. God bless the council members and organisers in the meantime!”

On the final working day of the First Assembly on Saturday, a series of proposals were presented for consideration over the nine months leading up to the Second Assembly in Sydney.

This included moves to better embrace the rich liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church in Australia, especially its Eastern Rite churches, a renewed focus on vocations, and on strengthening partnerships between Catholic schools and parishes.

The president of the Plenary Council, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe says the council’s steering committee will now determine the work to be undertaken in preparation for the second assembly held in Sydney from 4th to 9th July, 2022.