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Vol 41 No 4

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Terry A. Veling

Richard Lennan

Mark O'Brien OP

Marie Turner

Kerrie Hide

Desmond O'Donnell OMI


Kevin Mark


Bishop Robinson's book

BISHOP GEOFFREY ROBINSON, retired Auxiliary Bishop of the Sydney Archdiocese, is not the kind of person who sets out to shock or be disruptive. His book, however, published last August and entitled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garrett Publishing, Mulgrave, Victoria. ISBN 978 1 920721 473), is classified under ‘Catholic Church—Controversial literature’.

The main message of the book is that the scandals of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and religious. together with what he declares to have been the inadequate response to these scandals from the leadership of the Church at the highest levels—Rome—raise deep issues concerning the Church institution as we have it. The author sets out to identify those issues and to suggest ways forward according to the sub-title of the book: ‘Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus’.

Bishop Robinson was given special responsibilities in this whole area when he was elected in 1994 by the Australian bishops to the National Committee for Professional Standards, the committee that co-ordinates the response of the Catholic Church in Australia to revelations of sexual abuse. Between 1997 and 2003 he was co-chairman of that committee.

He felt that the Roman authorities, including the pope, showed insufficient leadership on this matter. As he relates, when in a public meeting—with a journalist present—he answered a question from a victim of sexual abuse by candidly admitting that he was not happy with the level of support being received from ‘Rome’ (which the journalist reported as ‘the pope’), he received an official letter from the Congregation of Bishops expressing ‘ongoing concern’ that he had ‘expressed views that are seriously critical of the magisterial teaching and discipline of the Church’, that the ‘Holy Father [has shown] serious preoccupation in your regard’. This letter was followed by another informing him that the relevant documentation was being forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, implying that he was suspected of heresy.

If these are indeed a full enough account of the events, one is left to wonder at the heavy-handed response from Rome. If Bishop Robinson has not done justice to Rome’s efforts, we and the Church at large would like to hear the other side of the story. Otherwise, we are left with the impression that the Roman authorities have been found wanting and are covering up their failings with bluster.

Bishop Robinson reflects on how different he believes things could have been if the papacy had given leadership:

In this book I have criticised the pope’s lack of an adequate response to sexual abuse. And yet, if the pope had responded immediately and forcefully, speaking directly to victims and demanding a humble, honest and compassionate response from all members of the church, the power of the rock [the Petrine Ministry] is so great that the response of the Catholic Church could have been a model (p.139).

Such is the main message of the book. From some of the publicity surrounding its appearance one might get the impression that this is yet another demolition job on what Catholics hold dear. Far from it. I do have some criticisms on theological matters that I will get to later, but overall this is a most edifying read.

The chapters are a series of clear, elegant and original presentations of central themes, the most fundamental being that God is all about growth, and so also must be God’s Church. The Kingdom—Reign—of God is the transformation of the whole world. The Bible is the story of a journey towards a deeper understanding and a higher morality. The Church is an offer of life to the whole world, not primarily an institution for itself and for its members. Tradition is precious, transmitting as it does the fruits of the journey of the Church down the centuries—but tradition is in need of discernment as the legacy of the past is not all good.

Bishop Robinson urges the need for a more satisfactory presentation of the Church’s moral teaching—every pastor and moral theologian and most Catholics would agree. He provides very good material in that chapter. He reflects on the widespread lack of trust of authority, and yet the need for authority. If the Church’s teaching on sexual morality comes across as ‘nothing goes’, then people are tempted to accept the ‘everything goes’ of the surrounding culture. How true!

As one might expect in a book on this subject, Bishop Robinson gives a fine presentation of the healing process.

At the end of each chapter the reader is provided with ‘Meditations’ composed of points that summarise the chapter and stimulate reflection. Often these are suitable for group reflection and discussion.

All of this is stimulating reading. I see no reason to disagree with any of it. It is when Bishop Robinson moves into a more fundamental level of doctrine, especially ecclesiology, that I find myself unable to follow him all the way.

For instance, he links the question of Jesus’ knowledge—Son of God but truly man, so what did Jesus know?— with the question of Jesus’ intention to found the Church. I do not see the two as linked. I also place more importance on the symbolism of ‘The Twelve’: the Twelve chosen disciples correspond to the twelve tribes of the Old People of God, and are chosen to be the foundation apostles of the Church institution that Jesus intended to establish. I consider the lists of the names of the Twelve are very significant, with their groupings into three lots of four, with Peter always first—evidently derived from the primitive catechesis. For me, Peter’s infidelities and betrayal only strengthen the doctrine of the Petrine ministry as the Rock established by Christ.

In Chapter 12 Bishop Robinson makes a strong case for the reality of ‘The Prison of the Past’, which is described as a culture that makes Church representatives, priests included, feel a need to be right at all times and on all matters. This is clearly a culture that perpetuates the over-clericalisation of the Church that was in principle rejected in Vatican II. In the post-Vatican II Church all, clergy included, need to be more accountable to the Church community. Hence the value of appraisals, as Bishop Robinson points out. They are beginning to be accepted more as ideal standard practice in the Church—certainly for parish priests.

But Bishop Robinson links ‘The Prison of the Past’ with doctrines, and here I part company with him. A lot of powerful language surrounds doctrines: they are dogmas, definitions of doctrines solemnly promulgated to the whole Church to be believed as ‘of the faith’, essential to the ‘integrity of the faith’, essential to the correct communication of the Gospel, and ‘irreformable’. Most importantly, dogmas are signposts. Their primary function is not the communication of information, of new truth, but the setting up of markers from which we are to take our bearings as we seek to explore the riches of the mysteries of the faith. They are springboards—not last words but first words. They can never be contradicted by new enunciations of the mysteries, but they intend to indicate a direction along which we can appropriately explore the deposit of faith. They are liberating, not imprisoning.

Most certainly I am not saying anything of which Bishop Robinson is not fully aware. But it seems to me that he lays too heavy a burden on dogmas and definitions in the course of his discussion. As a result, in his argument, they become part of the structure of the prison of the past.

In an earlier chapter he writes about the sensus fidei, or instinct for discerning what is of the faith. He attributes the following statement to Henry Newman: ‘While the multitude may falter in its judgment’, we have certainty when the whole Church ‘in due course rests and acquiesces in a deliberate judgment’. That being so, and well said, I would like the sensus fidei to have been given more consideration in his discussion of the promulgation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Bishop Robinson complains that the arguments in Pastor Aeternus, the document in which the doctrine was formulated, do not satisfy as a proof of the doctrine of infallibility. I do not see that as being particularly relevant, since the arguments offered in the document are not claimed to be infallible, only the solemn definition which is recorded in one paragraph. The only proof that an infallible doctrine needs is consistency with the faith of the entire Church, to which faith the sensus fidei attests. Further, we have the safeguard of the providential oversight of the Holy Spirit: the successor of Peter could never solemnly and definitively—ex cathedra—impose an error in faith to be believed by the entire Church—the Holy Spirit would not allow it.

In fact, of course, infallible definitions are extremely rare. And certainly, one might argue that the definition of the Assumption was not really urgent. But the definition has a function: we know now not to waste our efforts with theories that in some way contradict the fact of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven; also, the doctrine speaks to us of the sanctification of the whole human reality by Christ.

I do not share Bishop Robinson’s concerns about ‘ascended into heaven’ in the Creed. We all surely know by now that this is imagery—theology, not history in some literalist understanding of history—and therefore, I believe, quite in place in an ancient statement of belief. We would not be likely to put it that way now, of course.

As with all institutions, the Church is continually prone to rigidity—to becoming frozen in the past. The ‘Prison of the Past’, I agree, is very real and causes untold harm in the Church and to the Church’s mission. But I claim that it is a psychological, sociological and cultural prison, not a doctrinal one. It will not be doctrinal if we know that we need to sit loosely, intellectually speaking, with the ‘symbols’ of the faith. Bishop Robinson’s book helps us to identify—‘name’—a number of the continuing negative influences of our Church’s past. For me, I consider it unfortunate that he ventured more deeply into doctrinal questions than he needed to in order to support his case.

              —Barry Brundell MSC, Editor

As children grow up, their parents must gradually stand back and allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from these mistakes. If the children abuse their freedom, the parents can only hope that the day will come when they will see that their actions are not contributing to their growth, health and happiness, and will want to change. Through all of this process, however long it takes, the most important thing for the parents is to keep their relationship with their children and continually show them that they love them, so that the children will want to turn to them when they experience the need. A church should act in the same way.

—Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, p.171.