Power and Sex in the Catholic Church
Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
John Garrett Publishing. 2007. Price: $46.99 (approx.)
Review: Kevin Toomey OP
Serious doubts about the manner in which the Catholic Church has dealt with the terrible crisis of sexual abuse in the Western Church triggered the writing of this book. It is a veritable cri de coeur, a plea from the heart of a man whose knowledge and love of the church have been amply demonstrated in his long and distinguished church life: as pastor, academic, canon lawyer, retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney and, most poignantly, head for nine years of the Australian bishops’ task force set up to deal with the crisis of sexual abuse. It was in dealing with those who had been the victims of abuse that he came to realise that more needed to be said and done.
Bishop Robinson thinks that the church is presently managing rather than confronting the problem of abuse, and that sooner or later it will come back to hit the church in the face. Therefore, the abuse must be dealt with – and not just in structural and practical ways. More broadly, the Bishop throws down the gauntlet to what he sees as a lack of leadership from the top in our highly centralised church.
His thesis is simple: with power goes responsibility. Within the church’s present hierarchical structures the pope is the one who has the power to oversee the making of many necessary changes in church life. This would involve two things: first an in-depth survey of the causes of the problem of abuse. Bishop Robinson’s personal experience of nine years at the coal face of this crisis ensures that what he says about reform, vis-à-vis the structural and practical matters dealing with sexual abuse, makes good sense.
Secondly, and beyond these matters, he sees the need to look at many broader theological issues, issues which he says are tied in with, and underlie, the church mindset dealing with this power base which has allowed sexual abuse to grow. It is when he broaches these broader theological issues that the Bishop’s thought is most challenging.
The passion with which he writes shows that he is a man with a very large dream or vision for the future of the church. Some ideas find an immediate resonance with me, for example when dealing with questions of conscience, the role of the Roman Curia, the way the popes have exercised their authority in the last century and power of the Synod of Bishops. Other matters, for instance his thoughts about the doctrine of infallibility, are not so well thought out. His expertise is as a canon lawyer, not as a dogmatic theologian. In speculating so freely, he opens himself up to having the validity of his major criticisms dismissed as well.
In its best sense, the book can be seen as a commentary on the statement in the Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 22: “Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they (the bishops) have supreme and full authority over the universal Church.” Bishop Robinson’s push to have the authority of local bishops more clearly recognised in the delicate interplay between pope and bishops is an important one. He is a bishop. He knows this issue as an insider. His opinions deserve a good hearing.
More generally, Bishop Robinson hopes that all he writes will spur a large and broad dialogue at all levels of the church, so that not just the views of the pope and the Roman Curia will be heard in the renewal of the church but the voices of all church members. This will be a fond wish, I fear, unless he receives great support from his fellow bishops and ordinary members of the church. It is touching to see that the Bishop is open to his ideas being judged to be wrong; but not before they have inspired renewed debate at all levels of the church.
I recognise very clearly Bishop Robinson’s courage in putting his considered thoughts down on paper. He is clearly troubled by the present practice of authority within the church, and can no longer remain silent when he sees the way ecclesial power is being exercised.
This public honesty in uttering his doubts and misgivings openly is rare, and will carry with it a huge cost. To say the least, it will ruffle many ecclesial feathers in Rome and in Australia. My hope is that there will be a measured church response which does not crush this man who has had the courage to speak out.
An afterthought: each chapter ends with a meditation. I found many of these inspiring and helpful for prayer. They gave me a fine glimpse into the spirituality of Bishop Robinson, whose avowed aim is to help us reclaim the beatitudinal Spirit of Jesus.
Kevin Toomey, a Dominican priest, acted as Assistant in Rome to the Master General of the Dominicans, Fr Timothy Radcliffe. Presently he is working in a Dunedin parish.
Power and Sex in the Catholic Church
Commentary – Humphrey O’Leary
Recently, the draft was circulated in Australia of an online petition to the nation’s Catholic bishops. This called for the bishops at their plenary meeting next November to acknowledge that there is a major crisis in the country regarding ministry. They must plan how to prepare suitable women and men for ministry, and among other steps look to ordaining married men. Those interested were urged to send the petition to their own bishop and to the secretary of the Bishops’ Conference.
Pre-conference response has varied. It has run from Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, President of the episcopal conference, putting out a letter strongly supporting the continuance of a celibate clergy, to Bishop Pat Power, auxiliary of Canberra, publicly expressing support for the petition. The latter recalled the repeated but unsuccessful attempts he had made in his 20 years as a bishop to have the Roman authorities consider the ordination of married men and the return to active ministry of priests who have married.
His experience would ring a bell with our own bishops. At the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist in Rome, New Zealand bishops were to the forefront in airing long taboo topics. Bishop Denis Browne spoke of the increasing shortage of priests, raising the possibility of the ordination of married men. His remarks caught world-wide attention and were echoed by other participants. The papal document Sacramentum Caritatis, summarising the work of the Synod, did not so much as mention this possibility, even to reject it. So much for collegial dialogue.
The debate has moved to a wider level with the publishing by retired Sydney auxiliary bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, of the book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church – Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. My first reaction on seeing the title was to wonder how such a restrained and cultivated man as Geoffrey Robinson could have come to write a book with such a title. This man is no maverick. Over many years I saw him in action, initially as Secretary, then as President, of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand. He is no way-out liberal. I know the respect he enjoys among his colleagues.
The book stems from Bishop Robinson’s years as chair of the Professional Standards Committee, established by the Australian bishops to deal with the increasing wave of complaints of sexual abuse. He resigned two years ago, disillusioned by the church’s handling of sexual abuse complaints. He sees people at every level seeking to ‘manage’ the problem and to make it ‘go away’ rather than truly confront and eradicate it.
He regrets there has never been regarding sexual abuse a papal ‘sorry’ in the name of the church. If only the Pope had spoken clearly at the beginning of the revelations, inviting victims to come forward so that the whole truth, however terrible, might be known and confronted; firmly directing that all members of the church should respond with openness, humility and compassion, consistently putting the needs of victims before the good name of the church – how much fairer it would have been for the victims and how much better for the standing of the church.
Bishop Robinson’s book is not simply about the sexual abuse crisis and the church’s inadequate response to it. He sees this tragic episode as just one more manifestation of a consistent misuse of power in the church. He recalls the Italian phrase far bella figura – literally – to make a beautiful figure, better translated as ‘keeping up appearances’.
This mentality he sees as deeply entrenched in a church that has its centre in Rome. Authority has too often been more concerned to look good than to be good. Papal Infallibility has lead to the entrenched idea that the pope and the church he rules can never really be wrong.
Robinson spells out the need for a radical reassessment of how power is being exercised in the church. Too often voices that should have been listened to have been ignored. He considers that the bishops and, indeed, all members of the church have the unpleasant, difficult and unwelcome task of getting through to the Pope that he is falling down on his task of being the rock on which the church’s life and ministry is founded. The sexual abuse scandal could be the occasion for getting home to the Pope and to so many others that there are deep-set patterns of misuse of power in the church that must be recognised and corrected.
In calling bluntly for a better church, one he would see as less contrary to the mind of Jesus Christ, Geoffrey Robinson has ignited a bombshell. Read his book for yourself, and consider whether you personally have a part to play in this drama.
Humphrey O’Leary, a canon lawyer, is Superior of the Redemptorist community in Auckland