Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Book Review)

John Ashman

Robinson, J. Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. The Columba Press. ISBN 9781856076605.

Six years ago on the recommendation of a friend I read Rabbi Jesus, an Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton, an American Episcopalian (i.e. Anglican) priest and professor. Drawing on recent archaeological discoveries, new translations and interpretations of ancient texts, Chilton makes some astonishing claims about the life, influences, and teachings of Jesus. Had those claims been made in earlier centuries Chilton would almost certainly have been condemned as a heretic and thus suffered the consequences, possibly even leading to his execution. It was one of the books that I could not put down as it rewards the reader with a refreshing, revolutionary and, indeed, shocking portrait of Jesus’ ideas and beliefs that certainly challenge – many would say, undermine – the Church’s understanding of the identity of the central figure of the Christian faith.

Fortunately I suffered no ill effects, no lightning strikes, or loss of faith as a result of reading Rabbi Jesus, but I was left wondering whether the Jesus we seek to serve and follow has been masked, even distorted, by the present structures, historic teachings and doctrines that have accumulated over two millennia. We are entitled to ask, as the disciples once did, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly’. The present Pope has contributed volumes to increase our understanding of Jesus, including his remarkable two volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, but he has done so from within the rarefied atmospheres of, first, academia and, latterly, the Vatican. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who was auxiliary Bishop in the archdiocese of Sydney from 1984 to 2004, is exceptional in that he dares to say that one of the ugliest events to emerge from the Catholic Church, namely the sexual abuse of minors and the concealment of that abuse by church authorities, stands in complete contradiction of everything that Jesus lived and taught. In Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church he speaks not only as a bishop who, in 1994, was elected by his fellow Australian bishops to head the National Committee for Professional Standards, coordinating the response of the Church in Australia to revelations of sexual abuse, but, he confesses he was himself the victim of sexual abuse when he was a child, albeit the abuser was not a priest or religious.

The assertion of this book, first published in 2007, is that the source of the abuse scandal is rooted in the power structures of the Church. He calls for nothing less than a thorough restructuring, a ritual cleansing, of the Catholic Church, including a constitutional papacy, arguing that: “Papal power has gone too far and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise.”

Bishop Robinson lays the blame for the crisis firmly at the feet of Pope (now Blessed) John Paul II: “I am convinced that if 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, and firmly directing that all members of the Church should respond with openness, humility, honesty and compassion, consistently putting victims before the good name of the Church, the entire response of the Church would have been far better. With power go responsibilities. The Pope has many times claimed the power, and must accept the corresponding responsibilities.”

In order to reclaim the spirit of Jesus in the Church, the bishop advocates far-reaching changes. In the firing line are the present teachings on divorce and remarriage (about which “many bishops are uneasy”), sexuality (including homosexuality), papal infallibility, collegiality, mandatory priestly celibacy, the ordination of women; he even suggests that some phrases in the Nicene Creed might need tweaking. The list is comprehensive, even down to questioning the need for bishops to wear mitres (to be “consigned to the dustbin of history”).

Bishop Robinson has paid a price for his outspokenness and, naturally, he is a prime target for the venom of certain “faithful catholic” bloggers. One such says of him: “Bishop Robinson is a lover of this world with a haughty contempt for the Church of Christ”. This is certainly not my understanding based upon my reading of his book. Other dissenters have paid a higher price. A fellow Australian bishop, Bishop William Morris, was removed from his diocese in 2011 for publishing a pastoral letter in which, among other things, he set down certain options to meet the declining number of priests in his diocese, such as the ordination of married men and of women. Discussion of the latter is apparently now taboo. In 1994, John Paul II published a document in which he declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. The present Pope in an elucidation, when he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that this definitive teaching had been decided ‘infallibly’.

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin priest and Preacher to the Papal Household, once said that the primary aim of all evangelisation and catechesis was not teaching people a certain number of eternal truths or of passing on Christian values to a rising generation, but to “bring people to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ the only Saviour by making them his ‘disciples’” (quoted by James Alison in Knowing Jesus, SPCK, 1993). Reading Bishop Robinson’s book, and his thoughtful meditations at the end of each chapter, it is clear that the author believes that Jesus Christ and his teachings are of inestimable value to humanity. In a profound and provocative way he desires that we should all grow – Pope, bishops and the whole church – in holiness, compassion, and humility. In his own words in the final Meditation: “The most fundamental change of heart and mind required of us is that of a constant return to the Great Tradition, the person and story of Jesus Christ, and the song that he sang”.

This text has originally been published in the Quest Bulletin no. 62 (Winter 2012)