Archbp. Coleridge

Abp. Mark Coleridge

William Mahoney, Ph.D reports for  ChurchMilitant.com  •  Australia’s bishops have voted to continue on their current downward trajectory by re-electing Abp. Mark Coleridge of Brisbane to a second, two-year term as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), leading some Catholics to wonder just how much damage will be done to the Church in Australia. 

Elected for his first two-year term as president of the ACBC in May 2018, Abp. Mark Coleridge was re-elected on Friday for his second term at the Australian bishops’ Plenary Council being held by video conference amid the pandemic.

Re-elected as vice-president of the ACBC was Sydney Abp. Anthony Fisher.

“Archbishop Fisher and I have worked very closely over the past two years and I’m grateful that the bishops have backed our ongoing partnership,” said Coleridge.

“As a Conference, we have faced a number of big challenges over the past two years, including preparing for the Plenary Council and considering how the people of God in Australia can walk together into the future, especially now in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis,” he added. 

Citing the continued collaboration with Coleridge, vice-president Fisher said, “When we have medium- and long-term initiatives to carry out, it’s good to have settled leaders supported by a group of bishops with shared aspirations.”

Australian Plenary Council 2020

The Australian bishops will hold a Plenary Council in Adelaide to decide “how the People of God in Australia can walk together into the future,” as Coleridge said, in the midst of years of clergy sex abuse scandals, dwindling vocation numbers and closing parishes. 

The council was slated to take place in October 2020, but the Australian bishops have decided at their Plenary Council to postpone it indefinitely because of the pandemic.

“Even though it is possible Australia may have moved through the worst of this health crisis by October, our capacity to adequately continue the process of discernment and formation — for everyone in the Church and in particular for the delegates — is severely compromised,” said Plenary Council president Abp. Timothy Costelloe.

“The bishops remain committed to the Plenary Council journey and affirm that two assemblies will take place,” he added. “The timing, the order and the location of the two assemblies will need to be re-examined, but it is hoped that having one assembly in Adelaide and the other in Sydney might still be possible.”

On the agenda for discussion are the ordination of women, distributing Holy Communion to non-Catholics and supporting so-called same-sex marriage.

A word-cloud graphic on the website for the council includes phrases such as “Communion for all,” “Support same-sex marriage,” “End discrimination of LGBTQ,” “Ordaining married men to be priests,” “Ordination of women,” “Modernize Church teachings” and a slew of other such phrases.

Coleridge and Climate Change

Another topic brought up for discussion in the “Final Report for Phase I: Listening and Dialogue” for the Plenary Council is climate change. Answering the question “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” one answer reads, “we live in a time where the complacency of the previous generations has led the world to an enormous problem that needs to be addressed: climate change.”

Climate change is certainly on the minds of at least some of the Australian bishops, including newly re-elected Coleridge. 

In response to a presentation given in September 2019 by president of the Oceania Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences by Abp. Peter Loy Chong of Suva, Fiji, Coleridge said “the whole question of ecological concern in the mind of many, many people is really all about politics and ideology, economy and science, and, therefore ‘Religious people, steer clear — ‘butt out’ is what you hear constantly.”

“What on earth is the bishop of Rome doing talking about things of which he knows absolutely nothing? … ‘Leave it to the politicians, the ideologues, the lobbyists, the activists, the economists and, of course, the scientists.’ ‘Preacher, butt out,'” continued Coleridge. 

“Well, I’m afraid it’s not going to be like that,” he went on, “because what we have come to understand — and (archbishop) Peter has touched upon this in a very interesting coda at the end of his talk — the need for a new language, a language that we would call, rightly, ‘sacramental.'”

Coleridge talked about the Church finding its own voice in discussions on climate change, saying, “what it seems to me the Church has had to do and still needs to do is to find our own utterly distinctive voice in the cacophony, and speak, not as a politician … but to speak with the voice of the Bible.”

Coleridge concluded his speech saying participation in environmental debates are not: 

just a wacky footnote in the life of the Church, nor is it just part of what the Church is on about because, if it is about this vast interconnectedness where everything is connected to everything else in the great God-given web of life, then there is no part of the Church’s life … that is not touched by the concerns raised by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter … .

Some Catholics have compared the upcoming Plenary Council in Australia with the “synodal way” of the German bishops — a two-year project that began on the first Sunday of Advent 2019 to rediscuss immutable Church teachings. With Coleridge’s re-election and the Plenary Council on the horizon, they are wondering down what path Australian shepherds are leading their flocks.

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