A year ago, the ABC accidentally did a good job of explaining one of the most important faultlines in contemporary Catholicism. It was so illustrative (and amusing) that I put it away for later like a marmalade sandwich. Adhering perfectly to the national broadcaster’s only criterion for assessing the newsworthiness of a Catholic story – internal fractiousness – the report was about the rancor between “mainstream Catholics” (the ABC’s goodies) and a flourishing “old-fashioned” cohort (the baddies) in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. “I’m very well put out really,” one mainstreamer complained. “I can’t cope…” Neither could 39 like-minded others who dobbed on their fellow congregants to the Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous. Two accompanying photographs tell the story better than words: here are the enlightened moderns and here are the troublemakers. The first picture – let’s call it The Last Cuppa – will bring a grimace to the face of any Catholic who ever had to pray over the top of entitled gasbags treating the parish church like a rumpus room. You came to visit the Blessed Sacrament; you leave with the latest about a wonky knee.
Since 2018, the Catholic Church in Australia has been conducting a Plenary Council – ostensibly to re-evaluate the mainstays of its mission. A sentimental imitation of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Plenary Council – the fifth in Australian history – is being run by full-time Catholics (most of them women) who are eager to re-gift to those unburdened by either chancery pay packet or remembrance the disastrous theology of the 1970s. Yes, there was a ‘consultation’ process and the people who dominated it watched enough Q+A to know the Church ‘has to change.’ The result is a veritable Homer’s car of must-haves that were voted on last week. The word ‘journey’ appears 13 times in the Final Framework For Motions, a marker that is to modern Catholicism what tree rings are to dendrochronology. Like Tasmania’s Vatican II bitter-enders, the movers can accurately be dated as babyboomers of a wilting timbre.
First slated in 2016 as an expiatory renovation, the socio-political context was Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission Into Getting George Pell; the ecclesial context was the advent of Pope Francis and the two Synods of Bishops he convened in 2014 and 2015 on marriage and the family. Those forums may also be seen as prequels to the 2023 ‘Synod on Synodality’ announced by Francis in 2020. Its nickname widely mocked – it reminds me of Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables – that synod is another “journey.” So too is the “consultation process” that garnered from every diocese in Australia suggestions for discussion. If all of this sounds confusing, rest assured – it is.
Plenary Council participants and Catholics generally have been asked (ad nauseam) to discern the “signs of the times” so as to understand how best to live the mission of Christianity today. Obeying the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the Church is apparently outmoded. Interestingly, in both Matthew (16:2–3) and Luke (12:54–56), these signs are distinguished from the weather. The Final Framework neverthless includes an entire section on “Integral Ecology and Conversion for the Sake of our Common Home.” It asserts – sans evidence – that “drought, bushfires, floods and extreme weather [have] become more common in Australia.” The Pope has angrily condemned the proselytising of non-Christians but he and his admirers want to convert as many people as possible to the religion of ‘saving’ the planet. Historically, this is a peculiar contrast.
While it is certainly a Judeo-Christian and philosophical good to eschew greed and environmental rapine, it is Luddite-Stalinist nonsense to advocate “swift and unified global action” to cure the earth – as Pope Francis did in his pretentious 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’. Ask Sri Lankans and the farmers now facing eviction in Holland what they think of “global action.” Catholic liberals like to market Laudato si’ as an organic continuation of the ecological theology expounded by John Paul II. The problem is not either pope’s support for safeguarding nature but, first, their ignorance of economic history – like the role of free markets in lifting billions out of famine and beggary – and, second, their highly dangerous encouragement of globalism and “international coordination.” This presupposes the vitiation of local and national autonomy and the use of monopolised violence on a world scale. It presupposes too the end of sovereignty.
If there is a ‘sign’ that should have been as obvious to the discerning as the one on Mount Lee it is the evil of ‘swift global action’ but the Plenary Council didn’t notice it. There is an entire section in the Framework about Aboriginal reconciliation, of course, but no apology from bishops for going MIA during the ‘pandemic’ or for threatening to sack Church employees unless they submitted to the vaccines. That travesty should have become a cautionary tale about extinguishing rights for a counterfeit good on the say-so of unaccountable ‘experts.’ When it comes to obedience to the state, however, the Australian Church – long hostage to government largesse – has few peers anywhere in the world. There’s rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and then there’s melting down ciboria to make a brooch for Livia. The strictest mandate enforcer was Archbishop Mark Coleridge – the man who convoked the Plenary Council. Eight months ago, he disallowed conscientious objection and claimed the double ‘vaccinated’ could not spread covid. The lesson? News cycle shooting stars are not signs of the times and panic is not discernment.
The thrilling promise of ‘synodality’ to liberals is that by hastening episcopal and papal approval of radical change, traditionalists – Catholics who believe it is ultra vires of any committee to reno the deposit of faith like a run-down bungalow on The Block – will be silenced forever. Plenary leader and well-known professional Catholic Francis Sullivan, for example, took last Wednesday’s initially rejected motion on deaconesses as a culture war setback: “There was a lot of anger and frustration, particularly on behalf of women but also the LGBT or rainbow community if you will.” (I won’t). A former Labor government ministerial chief of staff in Western Australia, Sullivan reportedly led an “alternative meeting” of 60 of the 277 plenary delegates to finesse a way forward after voting for a “Female Diaconate” failed to attain sufficient votes to be officially endorsed. (The relevant motions easily won a simple, but not the required two-thirds, majority). Miraculously, the relevant motions were put to a second vote on Friday and the ‘Holy Spirit’ sued for peace. It’s hard to say which is the bigger disgrace: the importunate push-polling or that most of the delegates are so obviously riled by the infallible declaration of St John Paul in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. God only knows what the jilted were saying about St Paul in the ladies’ toilets.
It is no coincidence that in 2020 Pope Francis re-constituted an Indiana Jones ‘Study Commission’ on the ‘female diaconate’ to look for the holy grail of church liberalism: ‘evidence’ that women were ‘ordained’ as deacons in the ancient Church. The original commission didn’t find any but – as we saw at the Plenary Council – if at first synodality doesn’t succeed, its cultists simply declare that “more study” is needed. The prize is worth the lies: what do you get if you have a ‘deaconess’ and a parish church with no priest? You get a ‘communion service’ at which a priestess – in all but name – presides. Given that Francis himself has repeatedly shown arrogant contempt for fraternity and dialogue, there is no limit to the cynicism permissible on this subject.
His vicious reversal of Summorum Pontificum last year and his stripping of power from the world’s bishops to formally licence associations of the faithful in June were hardly ‘synodal.’ Both decrees were attacks on those pious, dedicated folk he enjoys hurting the most: ‘traditional’ Catholics. Like his secular counterparts on the far left, the Pope regards merciless authoritarianism as virtuous in ideologically convenient circumstances. When Nancy Pelosi took Communion at a papal Mass in Rome on last month’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul – despite being barred for her abortion-loving fanaticism – that was Bergoglio saying his crosier is bigger than the Archbishop of San Francisco’s. As I always say of this pope, he’s very humble. Ask him; he’ll tell you.
A person who didn’t feature prominently at the Plenary Council (I mean that he wasn’t mentioned once) was St John Cardinal Newman. The great Englishman’s 1845 ‘Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine’ remains a classical and authoritative explanation for how Christian teachings come to be elucidated anew (but never ‘changed’), sometimes over the course of several centuries. Ultimately, the understanding of faith as it exists in time and space derives from the whole People of God. The latter, supernaturally disposed and enabled to think with the Church and be mindful of her marks, are always actuated by the spiritual welfare of others – and others-to-come – and never by ‘me’ and ‘now.’ Development is lived and immanent; it is not squared away by a committee in an afternoon or ‘done’ of one generation’s volition. The best way to develop doctrine is to assent to it for life. This truth it took a woman and mother to see: “Do whatever he tells you.”