By Fr Ian Waters
Fr Ian Waters provides an indepth insight into the upcoming Plenary Council of 2020 and how it relates to Canon Law. The below article has been edited but is published in full by the Australasian Catholic Record, October 2018.
The Australian hierarchy was established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1842. 
Since then, there have been six national Catholic councils held in Australia. The first two, celebrated in 1844 and 1869, are known as the First Provincial Council of Australia and the Second Provincial Council of Australia, as until 1874, the Australian dioceses were all in the one ecclesiastical province with Sydney being the sole metropolitan see.
In 1874, a second province—Melbourne—was established, and the national councils since then—four of them, celebrated in 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1937—have been called plenary councils, the term used in the Catholic Church in recent centuries for councils whose participants are from more than one ecclesiastical province; in the past, terms such as regional councils or national councils have been used. As we all know, another plenary council for Australia is planned to commence in 2020.
Plenary Council Preparations, Especially Locally
Unlike a bishops’ conference, which is an assembly of bishops, a council is a meeting of churches. A conference is an expression of episcopal collegiality; a council an expression of ecclesial communio.
The planned Australian council in 2020 will be an assembly representative of all in the constituent dioceses—bishops, clergy, religious of both sexes, universities and seminaries, bodies and individuals involved in diocesan governance, and the faithful (canon 443).
It will be argued by some that there will be practical difficulties in the logistics of large numbers, even though the law provides limits to keep numbers manageable—probably no more than 300 for the planned 2020 council (canon 443 §§3–5).
Consultation is an important part of any legislative or deliberative process, but it does not imply a parliamentary situation. Committee meetings, providing expert advice, helping draft and amend documents, and engaging in research are all important to ensure that all can be as fully informed as possible of facts and pastoral needs.
Councils do not just happen. They have to be convoked, planned, prepared and celebrated. Then promulgation and implementation follow. They should be a solemn proclamation of current convictions and future vision, involving the whole Catholic community.
If the planned council is to engage the entire Australian Church, all Catholics must be involved in some way. Local assemblies for discussion and preparation will need canonical guidance just as much as the actual formal conciliar assemblies will need it.
Conference or Council
Canon 439 determines that a plenary council is for all the particular churches of the same episcopal conference. Canon 447 determines that an episcopal conference is the assembly of all the bishops of the same country or a certain territory. Consequently, a council is a gathering of churches; whereas a conference is merely an assembly of bishops.
The Forthcoming Plenary Council
At the council, there must be bishops. The following must be called: all diocesan bishops and those equivalent to them (at present there are 34 in Australia); all coadjutor bishops (none at present); all auxiliary bishops (eight at present); and other bishops who perform in Australia a special function given them by the Holy See or the bishops conference (none at present). Other bishops who live in the territory can be called, but do not have to be called. They number about thirty—mostly retired bishops, most of whom served in Australia, although a few of them have served as bishops in other places such as Papua New Guinea. All bishops at the council, both those who must be called and those who can be called, have a deliberative vote.
As well as these bishops, current canon law legislates that various other persons must be called to the council (canon 443). They are:
- all vicars general and episcopal vicars;
- some major superiors—both male and female—of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life. The bishops conference is to determine their number, and they are to be elected by all the major superiors that have a centre in Australia (note they are elected by the major superiors, not appointed by the bishops);
- the rectors of ecclesiastical and Catholic universities in the territory, together with their deans of theology and canon law;
- some rectors of major seminaries, their numbers being determined by the bishops conference, and they are to be elected by the rectors, not appointed by the bishops;
- some priests and others of the faithful may (but not must) be invited; if invited their number must not exceed half the sum total of the bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, religious, and university and seminary representatives; and
- from every diocese or its equivalent must be sent two elected members from its council of priests, and two elected members from its diocesan pastoral council. While each diocese of Australia has a council of priests, not all have a diocesan pastoral council—in fact, at present, only nine are listed in the current Australian Catholic Directory.
Finally, guests may be invited. It would be almost unthinkable not to invite some heads of other churches to be present as observers. Similarly, it would be quite appropriate that the other regions in Oceania would be invited to send observers.
So what will be the role of the non-bishops, and specifically the role of laypersons? One jurisprudential directive is found in Apostolorum Successores, which is the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops. It states:
In particular councils only the bishops may make decisions, […] but certain important ecclesiastical office-holders and the major superiors of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life must also be invited, so that they may collaborate with the bishops, offering their experience and their counsel.
Participation of the Laity
Canon 444 states that all who are called to a council must attend, unless they are bound by a just impediment, about which they are bound to inform the president. Clearly, the canon is stating that participation in a council is a serious rather than trivial matter; however, no penalty is prescribed in the Code for anyone summoned to a council who has failed to attend. While canon 444 does not delineate the involvement of these lay participants, we must not overlook the fundamental provision of canon 19:
If on a particular matter there is not an express provision of either universal or particular law, nor a custom, then, provided it is not a penal matter, the question is to be decided by taking into account laws enacted in similar matters, the general principles of law observed with canonical equity, the jurisprudence and practice of the Roman Curia, and the common and constant opinion of learned authors.
Laws enacted in similar matters must include canon 465, which is among those regulating the diocesan synod:
All questions proposed are to be subject to the free discussion of the members in the sessions of the synod.
The current directory states that the composition of the diocesan synod is to be an image of the particular church:
In accordance with the canonical prescriptions, the membership of the synod must reflect the diversity of vocations and apostolic undertakings, and the social and geographic variety [that characterises the diocese]. A prevalent role should be entrusted to clerics, however, in view of their office in the ecclesial communion. The contribution of the synod members will be all the more valuable if they are distinguished for their moral rectitude, pastoral prudence, apostolic zeal, competence and prestige.
The directory outlines the preparatory phase as follows:
The faithful are to be invited by the bishop freely to formulate their suggestions for the synod, and priests in particular should be encouraged to submit proposals regarding the pastoral governance of the diocese. On the basis of these contributions and with the assistance of experts or of elected synod members, the bishop determines the various issues that are to be presented for discussion and deliberation during the synod. From the beginning of the preparatory work, the bishop should keep the entire diocese informed about the event and he should continue to request their fervent prayers for its successful outcome. He may also wish to offer suitable aids for preaching, in order to promote widespread catechesis on the nature of the Church, on the dignity of the Christian vocation and on the participation of all the faithful in their supernatural mission, in the light of conciliar teaching.
It is reasonable to conclude that all this is stating that consultation is an important part of the legislative process, even though it does not imply a parliamentary situation. A valid and extremely useful contribution by those with a consultative vote is to be made in committee meetings, providing expert advice, helping draft and amend documents, and engaging in research; in brief, assisting those with deliberative votes to be as informed as possible of facts, and aware of all pastoral needs of the territory, before they cast their deliberative votes.
The theology in force during the previous Australian councils, and consequently the canon law, did not permit lay participation in councils. In the second millennium, priests have always been participants as theologians and as representatives of the clergy—both secular and religious. In 1844, all priests in Australia were convoked; while distance prevented many from attending, more than sixty per cent attended. In 1885–1895–1905, great care was taken to ensure that as well as the priests taken by the bishops as theological and canonical advisors, each clerical religious institute would be represented, and that there would be an elected delegate of the clergy of each diocese. At these councils, all these priests were encouraged to speak freely and in the fullest manner possible; and all the evidence indicates that the bishops relied on these priests to provide solutions for some issues being addressed. As this is our Australian canonical custom (cf. canons 23–8), there is no reason why our bishops should not presume and encourage all called to the 2020 council to speak as freely and fully as possible.
Father Ian Waters has five graduate degrees in canon law and is a senior fellow at Catholic Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, where he has lectured canon law since 1991.
 Gregory XVI, apostolic letter, Ex debito pastoralis officii, 5 April 1842 (Iuris Pontificii de Propaganda Fide, pars 1a, vol. IV, Romæ, ex Typographia Polyglotta S. C. de Propaganda Fide, 1891, pp. 563–4).
 Pius IX, apostolic letter, Incrementa, 31 March 1874 (Pii IX Pontificis Maximi Acta, pars 1a, vol. VI, Romæ, ex Typographia Vaticana Polyglotta, 1875, pp. 311–13).
 E.g., Denis Hart, Archbishop Emeritus of Melbourne, and Brian Finnigan, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Brisbane.
 E.g., Austen Crapp, ofm, Bishop Emeritus of Aitape, PNG, domiciled at present in the parish of Deeragun, diocese of Townsville.
 The Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia, 2017–2018 lists only the dioceses of Adelaide, Bathurst, Bunbury, Maitland–Newcastle, Port Pirie, Rockhampton, and Sale, and the Maronite and Ukrainian eparchies, as each having a diocesan pastoral council.
 The Pacific nations, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand.
 Congregation for Bishops, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Apostolorum Successores, 22 February 2004, 26. Henceforth AS.
 It should be noted that the word prevalent is used here, not dominant.
 19. AS, 169.
 AS, 173.
From pages 22 to 25 of Issue 17: ‘Plenary 2020: A whole Church entering into mission, dialogue and discernment’ of The Record Magazine