Catholic church weighs historic reforms

·3-min read

The Catholic Church in Australia is about to confront its demons at a historic gathering that will chart a future for a diminished institution bruised by the damning findings of the sex abuse royal commission.

The last time bishops and representatives from all of the nation's dioceses gathered for an all-in plenary council was in 1937.

World War II was still two years away. Australian-born priests had only just begun to outnumber Irish ones. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was only five years old.

The issues now confronting the church could not possibly have been foreseen then - royal commission findings that child sexual abuse was rampant and covered up; a shrinking flock of followers; a shortage of priests; and what to do with women.

From this Sunday, 280 ordinary lay members and bishops will convene to consider issues that will have a profound effect on the shape of the church in Australia.

Among the most pressing agenda items is how the church plans to reform.

Then 45 bishops will vote on binding resolutions that will be sent to the Vatican for approval.

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge is also the president of the Australian Catholic Bishop's Conference and pushed for the summit.

He says the royal commission didn't prompt the event but the "great humiliations" it exposed must inform the next steps of a "diminished" church.

He accepts some bishops are nervous about the prospect of structural reforms that could result in a greater role for lay people.

But he also says the circumstances that fostered the culture of secrecy cannot continue.

"If we try and set up fortress church we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to accept certain facts - we do not have the social profile and the public voice that we once had," he's told the ABC.

"We have to ask the questions about what it means to be a poorer church, a humbler church, a simpler church, but a church which is reaching out in all kinds of new, and perhaps hitherto unseen ways, into culture and society."

Former royal commissioner Robert Fitzgerald says it's no secret that the church "struggles with transparency" and that some bishops, priests and laity still hold the belief that the church is a private institution.

He wants to see the return of pastoral councils to improve transparency and increase the involvement of lay people in decisions taken by priests and bishops.

"If the governance of the church is not significantly improved, and the participation of women isn't considerably enhanced, then ... the reforms we've talked about previously in relation to professional standards, the way in which we protect vulnerable people, they will falter over time," he has warned.

Archbishop Coleridge says "question of women" will be central to the deliberations of the plenary council.

Other issues on the agenda include how the church might "open in new ways to Indigenous ways of being Christian" and learn from First Nations peoples.

The first Plenary Council assembly begins with a mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Perth on Sunday. The event runs until October 10, and will be conducted online.

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