Retired Sydney bishop calls for a radical overhaul of the Catholic faith

Retired Sydney bishop calls for a radical overhaul of the Catholic faith

Michael Gilchrist

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired since 2004 as a Sydney auxiliary bishop, has just published a book titled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garratt Publishing), which presents a list of radical changes to Catholic teachings, disciplines and structures.

Bishop Robinson is best known for his role between 1994 and 2003 in formulating and implementing on behalf of the Australian bishops the Towards Healing process of responding to victims of abuse. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of this by Australian Catholic University in 2004.

Many of the Bishop's proposals are not new, being similar to those suggested in an earlier book by another retired Sydney auxiliary, the late Bishop John Heaps, titled A Love That Dares To Question: A Bishop Challenges His Church (1998), as well as by Paul Collins in his book Papal Power (1997).

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn, who said he had not yet read the book, responded (27 August) to a basically factual report about its contents in The Canberra Times.

The report, he said, 'suggested that the book contains a number of well-worn and distracting misperceptions, chief among which are these: (1) that the Catholic Church is monolithic, and that the Pope can therefore act or speak over the heads of the bishops at any given time and on any given issue; (2) that clerical and religious celibacy is a major cause of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; (3) that the Catholic Church's culture of forgiveness is an aggravating factor; (4) that the problem of sexual abuse is special if not unique to the Catholic Church; and (5) that the Catholic Church has not really begun to tackle the problem.

'Each of these claims is wrong, and I thought had been shown to be wrong,' he said.

It is of course true that the Church in different parts of the world, including Australia, has responded very poorly to the many cases of sex abuse. But this has been the pattern in a host of other churches and secular bodies.

The recent revelations of endemic child abuse in outback aboriginal communities, which prompted belated federal government action, underline the fact that child abuse is a broad social problem, not just a Catholic one.

While there is little likelihood the Bishop's list of proposals will be implemented, even in the long term, it is significant that a prelate who was seriously touted by some as a successor to Cardinal Edward Clancy as Archbishop of Sydney in 2001 should have held and now openly present such views.

While ill-health was a factor in Bishop Robinson's 2004 resignation, he confides in his book (p. 22), 'I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations. I resigned my office as auxiliary bishop in Sydney and began to write this book about the very foundations of power and sex within the church'.

Media coverage

The more liberal sections of the secular media have given the Bishop's book lavish and sympathetic coverage, with The Age (Melbourne) calling it 'extremely impressive: thoughtful, open and constructive' and the Sydney Morning Herald describing it as 'an explosive critique of the church'.

The Religion Report on ABC Radio National (29 August) presented a lengthy and supportive interview that sounded for all the world like a re-run of its earlier one with Bishop Heaps following publication of his controversial book.

During his ABC interview, Bishop Robinson said he thought many of Australia's bishops 'would agree with quite a number of things that I've said within the book'.

Given what Bishop Robinson actually proposes - in effect a major overhaul of the Catholic faith - this is an interesting observation. For he goes well beyond a call for voluntary clerical celibacy and a more accountable form of church government.

What follows is a brief summary of the Bishop's vision of what he calls 'a better church, a church that is not contrary to the mind of Jesus Christ.'

Original Sin

At the heart of the Christian story is man's fall at the beginning of human history and the consequent need for Christ's redemptive sacrifice - hence the doctrine of Original Sin.

Bishop Robinson believes this doctrine needs a rethink: 'Since the Council of Trent we have come to realise that what we know about Adam and Eve comes from a story, not an eyewitness account of what happened.

'Also, through scientific discovery we have been made aware that the development of the human race was slower and more complicated than the biblical story of Adam and Eve allows for.

'The question of the origin of evil in the world is a profound one, deserving of lengthy and serious consideration, but there have always been problems with the story of Adam and Eve as an adequate explanation of this problem.

'Is it safe to base religious belief on such an affirmation ... Does revelation give us 'the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents'?' (pp. 251-252).

Bishop Robinson then questions Jesus' knowledge of his own divinity and what this implies: 'At a time when we are coming to realise that Jesus himself might have given up the privilege of perfect knowledge and have had to struggle through his life and mission with only limited knowledge, should we not be looking again at claims which imply that the church has access to a level of knowledge that even Jesus might not have had access to?' (p. 248).

Nor are the Christian creeds - such as the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed - exempt from critical scrutiny: 'How could mere human beings claim such certainty concerning the inner life of God or the exact manner in which Jesus was both human and divine? Is there not a point, quite early in this speculation, at which we should bow before the mystery of God rather than attempt to spell it out in poor human words?' (p. 236).

As for reference to Jesus' Ascension into Heaven, he says that 'only Luke speaks of this', so 'it would seem more prudent to place this question of the exact manner in which Jesus returned to his father in the category where freedom reigns' (p. 239). In other words, belief in the Ascension is optional.

The Nicene Creed, he thinks, 'would remain basically as it is' with 'only a few phrases in that Creed that might be considered in need of change' along with a few additions to update it.

As for the pope, Bishop Robinson considers 'papal power has gone too far and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise' (p. 128). He later adds, 'if the whole body of the church is to have the freedom to grow, it must have a say in the foundational beliefs of the church' (p. 148). Here, perhaps, a vote on the real presence in the Eucharist might be a possibility for starters.

Bishop Robinson says that Vatican I's teaching on papal infallibility rests on unsure Scriptural foundations and he asks whether 'there now a need to reassess what happened in 1870?' (p. 247).

In fact, he considers all earlier decisions by Church councils should be open to review in the light of later knowledge: 'To escape the prison of the past, a later church authority, including a later universal church council, should have the power to change the teachings of an earlier and equal church authority, including an earlier universal church council' (p. 241).

Moral teachings

The Church's moral teachings are in particular need of overhaul, according to Bishop Robinson.

Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church's ban on contraception, is taken to task, with the Bishop asking whether 'it is God's will, and indeed order, that both the unitive and procreative aspects must necessarily be present in each act of sexual intercourse ... If a proven fact, what are the proofs?' (p. 204).

His general 'love your neighbour' approach to sexual morality would allow for all manner of 'loving' sexual expressions outside of marriage, including active homosexual relations, particularly as the Scriptures, in the Bishop's view, are an unreliable guide: 'We have already seen that Paul and other writers of the Second [New] Testament outside the gospels failed to maintain the radicalism of Jesus on both purity and property laws. If their sayings on those subjects are not divinely inspired truth, we must have serious reservations as to whether their other sayings on sexual matters [including homosexuality] can be taken, in and of themselves alone, as final proofs' (p. 190).

The Church's position on divorce and remarriage is also challenged. Bishop Robinson notes that 'many Catholic bishops express a real uneasiness about the present teaching of their church on the subject of divorce and remarriage ... after many years of pastoral practice, after much thought and prayer, they are not convinced that the current teachings of the Catholic Church on this subject fully reflect the mind of Jesus'.

He himself wonders whether the teaching of the Catholic Church on divorce is 'fully in harmony with the person of Jesus as revealed in the gospels?' (p. 258). Apparently Jesus' words, 'what God has joined together ...', were out of character with Jesus' real 'person'.

Compulsory clerical celibacy is, of course, a prime target: 'If the church is serious about overcoming abuse, then the contribution of celibacy must be most carefully considered (p. 18). He then warns, 'others will not stop asking, 'How many abused children is celibacy worth?'' (p. 19).

Elsewhere on the doctrinal front, Bishop Robinson believes that Pius XII's infallible declaration in 1950 on Mary's Assumption into heaven should never have been issued: 'The problem is that there is no evidence from the bible for the Assumption, the tradition does not go back to the event itself, and the arguments from the world around and within us are weak' (p. 255).

As for women priests, the Bishop remains 'unimpressed by the arguments put forward to claim that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood ... This is particularly true if one again asks whether it is a proven fact that Jesus acted with perfect knowledge and authority at the Last Supper, laying down eternal and divine rules for the church' (pp. 253-254).

Church government

Bishop Robinson concludes with a detailed framework for a new form of church government: 'There should be legislation that clearly sets the Peter-figure within the church and accountable to the church, just as Peter was. Among other matters, it should set out when the Peter-figure must have the consent of, or at least consult with, the bishops and/or the whole church.'

There should also be a system of appraisal every six years for priests, bishops and even popes with procedures set in place to allow for wider participation by the Catholic population: 'It would be possible today to know the mind of all the members of the church by means of a process of preparation and education that ended in a vote taken at the Masses on a given Sunday' (p. 291).

This congregational model of church has more in common with Calvin than Benedict XVI.

Ironically, for all of Bishop Robinson's concerns about unchecked papal power, even if this were true, the reality is that for much of the time since Vatican II the Church in Australia has been effectively run by local elites sharing many of Bishop Robinson's views, e.g., the heads of CEOs, liturgy bodies, tertiary institutes, seminaries, etc.

Despite a succession of directives from popes and Vatican congregations over the past 30 or more years, the situation in many dioceses has been business as usual, as the pews empty and generation of younger Catholics no longer practise the faith. Bishop Robinson's agenda is clearly part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garratt Publishing), RRP $34.95.

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