The purpose of the recently published controversial book by Bishop John Heaps of Sydney (now retired) seems to be summarised in its title: A Love That Dares To Question: A Bishop Challenges His Church. The questions go to the heart of the Church's sacramental life and to her authority to teach the truth.
The book encourages a dichotomy between "good people" and an intolerant Church whose harsh teachings exclude them. Love and the Church's teaching and laws are bifurcated. The Church and Jesus Christ separate on these issues, and the Bishop attempts to use the Gospel to point out where the Church has gone wrong.
But while he reminds us that his "object is not to judge anyone" since "To judge anyone as a sinner is beyond our capacity. It is an irrational act itself," he reserves his own judgment primarily for the Church.
Examples of those who fit into the category of "good people" include priests who have left because of problems with purity ("good priests who have found that celibacy is not their vocation"), the divorced and re-married, or those who have left a spouse to live with another ("good people who live in long-lasting, life-giving relationships, who are told by Church officials to go back to a former relationship ... or to live a celibate life"), and those who "find that the requirement of integral confession is a stumbling block."
He includes theologians "who have honestly sought a better way of expressing the eternal truths and a way to live the Christian life with authenticity and compassion, who need a generous attitude of open listening and a warm welcome into the heart of a loving Church".
The Bishop seems to imply "the attitude of the Church on shared responsibility and consultation, the presumption in the Church of the Roman Rite that the gifts of priesthood and celibacy are both required for a person to be ordained, the role of women in the life and ministry of the Church, the teaching of the Church on sexual matters, and the whole style of Church decision-making and government" are evils to be classified alongside "systematic genocide, torture, trading in human beings ..." and assorted social evils.
To include, as he does, not merely "attitudes" but, without qualification, the Church's teaching on sexual matters, as among these "evils" defies adequate comment.
Bishop Heaps examines the current state of the Church as he sees it: "There is not only the fear which the Church has in the past tried to instil to control dissent. There is also the fear seemingly present in Rome now which cannot listen openly to challenge, criticism or opposing views of loyal and devoted members of the Church. It seems that this closed fearful mentality is also a factor contributing to frustration and rejection of the Church by many as being irrelevant and out of touch ... It is no wonder that the faithful walk away and the young mostly find no satisfaction or answer to life in a Church which seems again to have closed its doors and windows to the world."
In reality, it is the Bishop's position which is fearful and conservative. He seems fearful of a magisterium that is willing to teach the truth clearly and unambiguously. He seems to wish to conserve the "spirit of Vatican II" mentality which was at its peak in the late 60s and early 70s.
The Bishop attacks the ordinary magisterium, implying that it cannot be trusted, and stating that "Its teachings on marriage and sexual ethics have been abysmal. Any pastoral priest will know from experience the misery inflicted on people through commonly accepted teachings, now no longer held."
He gives no example of teachings in relation to sexual ethics which are now no longer held, and in relation to marriage there was mention earlier in the book of mixed marriages occurring in the sacristy. He states in a one sentence paragraph: "Our moral decisions should concentrate on the existence of life and its quality." This is apt to confuse since a major battle against moral decisions based on a consistent ethic of life has been made in the name of the "quality of life", e.g., on abortion.
In speaking of the Sacrament of Penance the Bishop sees it as "a way to personal self-knowledge and to social responsibility." He holds that "individual confession is a most valuable way of coming to a deeper realisation of self and of the results of one's attitudes" while seemingly dismayed the "Third Rite" of Reconciliation has been "all but suppressed by a central authority."
Needless to say, such views differ in tone from the Church's own understanding of these matters, as expressed in her teaching, and are consistent with the apersonal understanding of sin he wishes to promote.
The views of Bishop Heaps on the subject of marriage are even more perverse: "If one partner betrays the love and trust of the other and walks away, surely the sacrament has dissolved...". Should it be surprising that he takes issue with the Church for not welcoming back clergy who have left to marry, or that he should hint at dissent on the question of the ordination of women?
This book is a confused and confusing example of where a mistaken view of the Church has radical consequences for her teachings. The consequences touch at their core at least four of the seven sacraments, and seemingly the whole area of moral teaching as it affects sexuality and the human person.
His view is not one which focuses on the mystical Body of Christ, but that of a lobbyist who wishes to bring his own agenda to a merely human institution. This stance is becoming increasingly passé as new generations discover what Chesterton called "the romance" of Catholic orthodoxy.
Stuart Rowland is a barrister practising in Melbourne, who also has degrees in theology and classics.