A Bishop Speaks

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s new book represents a signal accomplishment in the genre of writings by disgruntled ex-something-or-others. Even as Robinson retired in order to write it, the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, where he had worked as auxiliary for some twenty years, was listing his retirement “for health reasons.” Well, to paraphrase the Psalmist, out of the mouths of babes—and diocesan curial officials—come the darndest things. In fact, the bishop, whose recent appearances in a whistle-stop lecture tour of the United States showed him to be a spry seventy-year-old in good shape, is more concerned with the health of the church. Like many others, he thinks it isn’t what it might be.

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church grows out of the years its author spent spearheading the Australian Catholic bishops’ efforts against clerical sexual abuse of minors. Robinson sees both the specific issue of sexual abuse and the general malaise of the church as products of three intertwined causes: unhealthy psychological states, unhealthy ideas about power and sex, and an unhealthy environment. Robinson’s views about what makes for a potential abuser, while well informed and helpfully expressed, are not especially original. When he confronts the larger picture of today’s church and its problems, however, he becomes a far more interesting and challenging critic. The emotional power of this book reflects the experience of working with many victims of sexual abuse and not a few abusers. The critique of a church that could let this happen is both forceful and compassionate.

Robinson builds the case that a healthy church depends most of all on a healthy image of, and relationship to, God. He devotes chapters to the use and abuse of power, and the need for a healthier approach to teachings on sexuality, finishing with some practical suggestions for changes in ecclesial self-understanding and governance. Again, much of this has been said before—but never so clearly by a bishop with such impeccable credentials. Robinson’s standing lends authenticity to everything he says; and even if you disagree with him, you cannot doubt his concern for the welfare of the church.

He highlights a number of important truths. First is the often-forgotten principle that the church should take its cues from the God of Jesus Christ. If God’s omnipotent hand is stayed in the name of human freedom, and if God’s kenosis in Jesus Christ involves subjection to the limitations of human knowledge, then the church itself should imitate those very restrictions. A prideful church, complacent in its own possession of knowledge and power, is a poor reflection of a self-emptied God. Second, God’s reaction to sexual sin is not anger at an offense to God, but anger at the harm done to the victim—be it a victim of child molestation or an adult used for self-centered pleasure. Third, and perhaps most controversially, Robinson suggests that papal infallibility should be limited to clarifying what is essential to Catholic faith, and to doing so in the context of consultation, first with the college of bishops, and second with the whole church. In his view, the phenomenon of creeping infallibility on many moral and ecclesiological issues, such as contraception or the ordination of women, reveals an effort to exercise papal authority with no concern for consultation at all.

The enunciation of these and other truths about the church is destined to arouse the ire of the institution; and indeed, Robinson’s book tour was denounced by several Catholic bishops. Yet Confronting Power and Sex makes a much bigger claim in its insistence that the two real sources of our knowledge of God are “the Bible and the world around and within us.” By contrast, Robinson argues, “discernment”—including Tradition—is a mere tool, not a source. The need, he says, is to find a proper balance among the three; and his book leaves little doubt that he believes things are currently unbalanced, with the tool having come to dominate the sources. One suspects that the “tool,” AKA the teaching authority of the church, may not see it in quite the same light, though most theologians would argue that Robinson has Vatican II behind him. Here, perhaps, Robinson needs to do a little more work to explicate the difference between Tradition itself, as the living memory of the church that guarantees the development of our understanding, and the uses sometimes made of Tradition—along with the exaggerated claims made for the perspicacity of its official interpreters.

Robinson’s book would deserve serious attention even if its only strength was the way it ties the inadequate response to the sexual-abuse scandal to deeper structural flaws in the church. But Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church does more than that. While violating the unwritten rule of episcopal omerta, Robinson has provided the rest of us with a little bit of hope that bishops are in principle (and in fact) capable of speaking for themselves in the public forum on matters of significance. He has shown us the example of a bishop exercising—in his own phrase—“the freedom to be wrong,” a willingness to engage the church in general, and the laity in particular, in an open and vulnerable way. Notwithstanding the controversy his book has sparked, Bishop Robinson is a reformer, not a revolutionary, and his conclusions and proposals deserve our respect and consideration.

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: 
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Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His book The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination (Liturgical Press, 2017) won the College Theology Society award for the best theology book of 2017. In June 2018 he begins a one-year appointment as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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