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Australian Plenary Council Mandates Greater Roles for Women in the Church

The second Assembly of the fifth Plenary Council of Australia concluded on July 9, 2022, after four years of preparation in dialogue and discernment.  The 277 members, made up of lay people, religious women and men, priests, and bishops examined over 35 motions drafted from thousands of submissions that reflect the diverse voices within the Church.  Most members could participate only in the consultative vote, while the 47 bishops and other ordinaries had the deliberative vote.  The motions that received the two-thirds majority on both counts were confirmed as decrees of the Plenary Council.  Once they receive approval from the Holy See, they become binding for the Australian Church.

The ten decrees provide the mandate for Church reform on a number of issues.  The Plenary Council strongly supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which acknowledges the First Nations Peoples and proposes that the First Nations Voice be part of the Australian Constitution.  There was a recognition of the environmental crises and a commitment to join the Laudato Si’ Action Plan.  Pastorally, the Assembly requested that the Holy Father consider the broader use of the Third Form of Reconciliation where appropriate.  There was the call for lay people to be more adequately formed and empowered for ministries in the Church.  A request is to be made to the Bishops Commission for Liturgy to prepare a new English translation of the Roman Missal that communicates clearly and includes all in the assembly.

Perhaps the most significant motion was that concerning the greater role of women in the Church.   When the initial motion failed to receive the two-thirds majority of the deliberative votes, there were tears and deep sorrow in the assembly room.  Then came a pivotal moment after the morning tea break, when more than 60 Members spontaneously stood in silent protest at the back of the hall instead of returning to their seats.  Bishop Vicent Long Nguyen of Paramatta saw it as a “respectful and powerful gesture of dissent, rooted in the prophetic tradition.”[1]  As another Plenary Council member Sr Patty Fawkner SGS noted, those leading the day’s proceedings responded admirably with agility and flexibility. [2]  They suspended the day’s agenda and adopted a more synodal process.  Various meetings followed, and Members were informed of their results.  A working group was formed to redraft the motion, and more time was spent on consensus building before it was put to the vote.  Those present reported a positive shift in the Assembly’s spirit.  To many, that was the moment of the Assembly, when the Holy Spirit breathed new life into the Church.

The final Decree 4, “Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men” reads,

“that women are appropriately represented in decision-making structures of Church governance at the parish, diocese or eparchy, and national level, and in Church agencies, entities, and organisations;” (Article 1)

“That each Australian diocese and eparchy commits to supporting, with appropriate formation and recognition, new opportunities for women to participate in ministries that engage with the most important aspects of diocesan and parish life.” (Article 2)

“That the Plenary Council commits the Church in Australia to implementing more fully the undertakings made by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in their Social Justice Statement, Woman and Man: The Bishops Respond (2000), in response to the research report Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus (1999).” (Article 3).

“That, should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorize the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends that the Australian Bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia.” (Article 4)

The ACBC Statement (2000) referred to in Article 3 was a pledge to create a better balance of women and men in Church councils, organizations, advisory bodies, and ministries in Australia.  The Plenary Council’s reference to this two-decade-old pledge reflects the slow pace of change regarding women’s role in the Church.

With the Plenary Council’s clear mandate for the greater roles of women in decision-making structures and Church governance, may this vision for the Church take flesh in this land by the power of the Holy Spirit.