Retired Sydney auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's controversial book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (2007), rests on a pivotal point from which Bishop Robinson draws most if not all the strength for his arguments: his perception of the mind of Christ.
According to Bishop Robinson: 'What appears certain is that we cannot say that it is proven fact that Jesus possessed perfect knowledge and, therefore, it is not proven fact that Jesus determined all details of his future church with perfect knowledge and divine authority' (p. 93).
If one accepts Bishop Robinson's thesis that Christ had imperfect knowledge and therefore had limited perception of the future, then it is of course allowable (from a solely Christocentric point of view at least) for Bishop Robinson to open up the entire teaching of the Catholic Church for review and debate; for without a blueprint or manifesto written in Christ's hand, all we have left to judge Christ's desire for the Church are his teachings in the Gospel.
Bishop Robinson queries such teachings as original sin (p. 250), the ordination of women (p. 253), the Assumption (p. 255), homosexuality (p. 189), birth control (p. 255), the Sacrament of Reconciliation (p. 256), papal infallibility (p. 257), divorce and re-marriage (p. 257), as well as papal and Roman Curial authority (p. 269).
True man, true God
But if we take a sola Scriptura approach it is quite evident from Sacred Scripture that Christ was not only true man but true God and therefore had the capacity to see into the future.
He not only spoke of his execution (Matthew 26:2), but he saw things that would not be possible without a divine nature. He knew the woman at the well better than she knew herself (John 4:1-42); he saw Nathaniel seated beneath the tree, even before he came to the physical location (John 1:48); he knew that Judas would betray him (John 6:70-71), as with Peter (Luke 22:34); he knew that Lazarus would die (John 11:4); he knew the manner of Peter's death (John 21:18-19); he knew that he would be seated at the right hand of the Father (Luke 22:69), and finally he knew the fate of his Church (Matthew 24:1-19).
Among the other signs of His knowledge of the future, Christ knew that the Holy Spirit would be sent (John 14:15-20). It is therefore a contradiction for Bishop Robinson to base his thesis on a theory so un-Scriptural (the imperfect knowledge of Christ) and then return the reader's attention, consistently, to whether the contemporary Church is in fact faithful to the Scriptures.
Confronting Power and Sex presents a profile of Christ as indeed a flesh and blood man, who would be revolted by the abuse and corruption in the Church today, but it fails to emphasise sufficiently that Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter's son, the man whose hands were splintered by crafting timber, and were eventually nailed to the Cross, is also the Pantocrator, the Alpha and the Omega; living in time, and transcending time; the God made man who issued the words: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am' (John 8:58).
Even if it were true that Christ had imperfect knowledge, there would still be a further stumbling block to accepting Bishop Robinson's thesis, and his many examples of dogma in need of reform.
Bishop Robinson seeks to reclaim the Church for Christ. Yet Sacred Scripture teaches us that there is a Trinitarian dimension to the Incarnation and flowing from this a Trinitarian mission operating in the Church.
While the Scriptures to which Bishop Robinson continually refers in Confronting Power and Sex are a critical part of the tradition of the Catholic Church, the Church has been inspired to move on through the epochs, with the same surety of teaching as that found within the Sacred Scriptures, Scriptures which the Church itself collated and established as Canon.
The truth of the Church could therefore not be limited to what Christ did while living in his pre-resurrected body on earth. If this were the case, then the promise that Christ delivered to his Apostles at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, would be with them, was in fact a lie. If we as Catholics accept that Christ did not lie, then the Holy Spirit must drive the Church, with regard to matters of dogma.
As such, according to this line of thought, it is irrelevant whether Christ in the Gospels gave an explicit order that there must be successors forever to the Apostles (see Robinson, p. 104); it is irrelevant whether Christ in the Gospels stated his agreement with papal infallibility (see Robinson, p. 116); it is irrelevant whether the Assumption of Our Lady is mentioned in the Gospels. What is relevant is that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are in the Church, with the People of God, and that Church dogma has the seal of divine authority (John 16:7-14).
That this People of God are in fact often caught out acting in a manner far from divine is an important but separate question to those matters related to dogma.
In Confronting Power and Sex, it would seem that Bishop Robinson has fallen sadly into the trap, so succinctly described by G.K. Chesterton, that while the reformer is always right about what is wrong ... [he] is generally wrong about what is right'.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, the University of Oxford, and has been a regular contributor to AD2000.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the London Tablet. This shorter version is published with the author's permission.