Australia’s Archbishop Costelloe: Women’s ordination and church governance are ‘big theological questions’
Read Part I of this interview here: Australian Archbishop Costelloe tells Pope Francis ‘The church in Australia is alive.’
In the second part of this exclusive interview with America, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, S.D.B., the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, discusses the Plenary Council of the Church in Australia that was held from 2018 to 2022, of which he served as president. He explains that, unlike the German synodal way, the Australian Plenary Council did not have its origins in the abuse crisis. He goes on to identify the top three priority conclusions that emerged from that historic event: care for Indigenous people, the abuse crisis and the role of women in the church.
The archbishop recalled that a few months after Benedict XVI appointed him as the ninth archbishop in Perth in 2012, the Australian government announced the setting up of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. “This was, therefore, a major factor. But even prior to that, we had already decided that we had to do something to address the challenges facing the church. The sexual abuse crisis was there, we were all painfully conscious of it, but it wasn't as if it was the only factor which prompted us to act,” the archbishop said.
“In fact, the announcement of the Royal Commission convinced us that we had, in a sense, to put our plans for the Plenary Council on hold because of the urgency of responding as well as we possibly could to the Royal Commission and the crisis that we were facing.” He recalled that the Australian bishops postponed the Plenary Council’s second assembly twice, first to respond to the Royal Commission’s report and again because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The reality of the sexual abuse crisis and the growing realization of the extent of it was very much a part of our recognition that we could not just continue business as usual. It was therefore a very significant factor. But we did not initially call the Plenary Council in response to the Royal Commission.”
Care for Aboriginal Peoples
When the plenary commission finally met again, the archbishop said, three priorities emerged.
Archbishop Costelloe identified the first priority as “the way the Plenary Council, all through the whole journey, and very strongly in the second assembly, focused on the whole question of the Indigenous people in Australia, the Aboriginal people and the need for the church to make our response to their situation a major priority.”
Elaborating on this, the archbishop said: “The problems of the Aboriginal people, like Indigenous people everywhere, I suspect, include the dreadful degradation really of the way in which many of them are forced to live. It is part of Australia’s shame that here we are, probably one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet so many of our Indigenous people live in deplorable conditions.”
"It is part of Australia’s shame that here we are, probably one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet so many of our Indigenous people live in deplorable conditions."
He recalled that care for Australia’s Indigenous peoples “has been a priority for the church for a long time. But in the Plenary Council, there was a strong recognition of it as a major priority for the church moving forward.” This priority, he said, was reflected in the council’s final documents and was highlighted by the inclusion of Indigenous people as members of the council. It also stood out, the archbishop said, in “the presence of and respect for their spirituality and the incorporation of their spirituality into [the Plenary Council’s] liturgies.”
The 2019 Synod on the Amazon proposed a special liturgical rite for Amazonian Indigenous peoples. Asked if the Australian church had discussed a similar possibility for its Indigenous people, Archbishop Costelloe said they had but up to now have only agreed “that the celebration of the Eucharist can be influenced by and incorporate Indigenous culture and spirituality. A special rite does already exist but is not widespread in Australia. It was authorized and is celebrated particularly in the diocese most north of Perth, Broome, which is largely a mission [diocese] to the Aboriginal people, a gigantic area but with very few people.” He said there are ongoing attempts to integrate various elements of the Aboriginal culture into the liturgy, “but how far it will go, I don't know.”
The sexual abuse crisis
Although the council was not a direct response to the abuse crisis, “there was a very strong recognition that our response to this dreadful reality in the church in Australia is very much an issue for us, and the ongoing business of the church probably for as long as any of us will be around,” the archbishop said. “The council wanted to underline the absolute need for an ongoing commitment to this.”
He added that the council recognized “that this is not simply something in the past. The damage which sexual abuse causes in people’s lives is ongoing. The council sought to express our need to care for [survivors of abuse], to respond to them, and, equally, our need to do everything we possibly can to make the present and the future a very different story for people than the past.”
He raised as specific concerns how to welcome survivors who wanted to return to church but struggled with trauma responses in those spaces and the “extraordinary loss of credibility” of the church in Australian society.
“All of this helps us to understand why people speak, rightly I think, of an unhealed wound. For so many people the sexual abuse of the young has been and continues to be very damaging, primarily for the victims and survivors, for their families and their friends, but also for many other people whose faith in the church has been so damaged. I worry that there are some who may never be able to find a way through this tragedy.”
The archbishop added that “we dealt with the abuse crisis in the second assembly very differently to the other issues. We dealt with it very much within the context of, I would almost say, a liturgical experience of lament, of sorrow, of apology and of a determination to continue and deepen our commitment to the dignity, safety and security of all who engage with the church.”
The role of women in the church
Archbishop Costelloe said the third major priority to emerge from the Plenary Council is “the role of women in the life of the church,” the debate over which led to a “moment of crisis.” The archbishop recounted that a series of propositions concerning women’s role in the life of the church were all gathered into one complex motion. The motion passed the first, consultative vote of the entire assembly with just over a two-thirds majority, but when it came time for the bishops-only “deliberative vote,” the motion “just fell under” the two-thirds majority.
The result “prompted a moment of real distress and concern amongst many people, not just many of the women, but many people,” Archbishop Costelloe said. He was sick that morning and was not present for the votes but, he recalled, “I was called out of my sick bed to come and see what we could do. There was real distress amongst the bishops about all this as well.”
Over lunch, the bishops met and “realized that the motion was too complex, and so we broke it up into individual parts so that each section could be voted on independently. We changed the process and allowed for further debate on the floor about these motions.” After some reorganizing of the motions and changes in wording, he said, “people felt that they were heard and that they could say what was in their mind and heart: It changed the mood completely.” In the next two votes—the deliberative and the consultative—all of the motions relating to women passed.
“There are some big theological questions around this whole idea of tying governance to sacramental orders, in the way that we have understood it...I believe there is a theological issue here. It is not just a sociological issue.”
“Since then, so many people have spoken about the disruption as something like a Pentecost experience: There was the raging fire and the roaring wind, and we were able to move forward,” the archbishop said. It was “one of the clearest indications that it wasn’t just members who were active at the Plenary Council: The Holy Spirit was at work as well.”
Asked to describe what the disagreement was over, Archbishop Costelloe said, “I think it probably comes down to the question of the governance issue in the life of the church.” He explained that “the idea of women taking on roles of great significance and leadership in the church has been a reality in the church of Australia, ever since I’ve been a bishop, indeed, longer than that.
“There was never any question about the commitment of everybody,” he said, adding, “It was more a matter of what that might look like in practice.”
The Salesian archbishop explained: “What I think is at issue is the relationship between the role of women and the role of the ordained ministry. Even if you leave the ordination question aside for a moment, there is still a great need to explore ways of engaging women in all other levels of the life of the church in significant roles. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
“In my own reflections,” he continued, “it seems to me that the fact that in the church ultimate governance is invested in the ordained ministry, and women are not part of the ordained ministry, is a significant element of what is a very challenging question.” Archbishop Costelloe said that as a researcher of the theology of ordination, he believes that this question is, at its heart, theological.
“There are some big theological questions around this whole idea of tying governance to sacramental orders, in the way that we have understood it,” he said. “I am not saying that this will change or can change, or should or shouldn't change, but I believe there is a theological issue here. It is not just a sociological issue.”
Responding to Pope Francis’ separation of the power of Holy Orders from the power of governance in his reform of the Roman Curia, the archbishop remarked, “This seems to be a very new development, and I think it is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out.”
“At this time there is an invitation to the church to revisit the theology of ordained ministry and ask ourselves again, particularly in relation to Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal church, what we can identify as the unique and irreplaceable role of the ordained ministry—in other words, what is essential and what is not?” the archbishop said. “This is an important question: one, I think, which will still be there after the conclusion of the forthcoming synod.”