EVEN MORE DISTRESSING NEWS FROM AUSTRALIA
A former ranking member of the Australian bishops conference has written a book which is bound to make media waves for some time to come. If it hasn't so far, it's only because Australia isn't the US or the UK, but this is serious dissent - with far greater influence than the actions of a few Italian bishops and priests, because of the worldwide reach and influence of the Anglophone MSM.
He makes some outrageous arguments, and somehow, one cannot help feel that his mindset is conditioned by the sexual abuse he claims to have experienced as a child.
To read what is quoted from his book, one would almost think he has not kept up with what Pope Benedict is doing - both about sexual offenses by priests and about 'collegiality', but within the limits allowed by the unparalleled responsibility of being the Vicar of Christ on earth and the Successor of Peter.
I think this bishop has forgotten that those are, above all, the main 'titles' - and therefore the primary mission - of the Pope, of any Pope.
Here are two major articles about it from the Australian press.
An Australian Luther?
by Barney Zwartz
The Age blogs
August 25, 2007
A Sydney Catholic bishop has written what strikes me as one of the bravest and most important challenges to the church in generations. He says until the church gets serious about two key areas - power and sex - it can't be taken seriously over sexual abuse.
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, the former head of the Australian church's anti-abuse efforts who was himself an abuse victim, has called for radical reforms, including cutting papal power and rethinking some ancient attitudes.
He would put sex outside marriage, homosexuality, women priests, celibacy, the idea of a special status for priests and much more back on the agenda for discussion by the whole church.
In an article today, I compare him with Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation. This is slightly mischievous - Bishop Robinson remains a devout Catholic - but it's intended to show the ambition and extent of his suggested reforms. A much longer analysis of the book was dropped from today's edition of the newspaper at the last minute, so - enjoying the luxury of a blog - I produce it below.
Is Bishop Robinson right? If you are a practising Catholic, what - if anything - bothers you about church dogma and practice? If you are lapsed, would Robinson's reforms attract you, or what further changes might be needed? Do other churches or religions need to rethink various issues too, and if so which?
The missing article
In English, it's only a tiny preposition, two little letters, but it has helped the Catholic Church get its power relationships wrong for centuries
Dissident Sydney Bishop Geoffrey Robinson shows how in the translation from Greek to Latin the church took a serious wrong turn that gave priests an inflated view of their special status and helped create a climate in which abusers could flourish.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible talks of a priest being "chosen". The Greek word means "taken" but in Latin it became "taken up". The "up" implies they are lifted to a higher level than laypeople, which allows an element of "messiah complex", and eventually a mystique.
It's an example of the close reasoning and broad scholarship behind Robinson's call in an explosive new book for perhaps the most radical and all-embracing reform ever suggested by a Catholic bishop, re-examining centuries of carefully guarded doctrines.
"Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous power of all," writes Robinson, a retired Sydney bishop, in Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church
, to be launched tomorrow.
"If the governing image of how to act as a priest is tied to the ideas of lordship and control then, no matter how benevolently ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present." It also adds to the pressure on priests.
"It was not a healthy idea, and it must now be confronted," writes Bishop Robinson . But it's not the only serious problem he thinks needs correcting.
He believes the church needs to ditch its traditional thinking about sex - in which all sex apart from a married couple who must not use contraception is an offence against God - in favour of a relational model. This has implications for sex outside marriage, contraception, homosexuality and women priests.
And there's much more, ranging from the sort of God Catholics worship - wrongly focusing on an angry God
[When was the last time the Church prezached an 'angry God', Bishop Robinson? Have you read or listened to nay of Pope Benedict's teachings at all
made the lives of millions sadder and poorer, he says - to curbing the power of the Pope and Curia, down to the sort of clothes bishops wear.
Carefully reasoned and presented [Oh yeah! From the point of view, perhaps, of a determined anti-clerical reporter],
the book is set to electrify the Catholic Church. Such is the significance of the changes he seeks, Robinson could be likened to a modern Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian whose challenge to key doctrines and the authority of the papacy gave birth to Protestantism.
It's a thought, naturally, that a Catholic bishop is not entirely comfortable with. "It's not quite as dramatic as that," he says. "I don't have inflated ideas that the book will change the world, but if no one speaks out nothing will happen. I think if you asked an out-and-out Protestant to read this book he would say `that's not my church'. For a start, there's a pope in it."
Little in his past would suggest that Robinson might break ranks so spectacularly. Indeed the full force of the tradition and the institution and an oath of fidelity to the pope are used to prevent bishops doing so. Robinson outlines the way this works, and writes "please believe me that all of the above and more have been in my mind as I have written this book".
He is well regarded in the Australian church as a careful and scholarly thinker, an excellent canon lawyer who was a sensible head of the Marriage Tribunal, a pastoral bishop who was good with priests, well versed in Scripture and author of devotional studies. Those who know him say he never courted popularity or power, but was well liked.
He ruffled legal feathers in 1990 by asking a series of pointed questions about lawyers' fees and their links with big business at a Mass for the opening of the law year.
As chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference professional standards committee, Bishop Robinson headed the drive for a national protocol that served victims better, the Towards Healing program.
He finally convinced all but two of the 180 bishops and leaders of religious orders whose assent was needed to introduce the protocol, but one of the pair was then Melbourne Archbishop George Pell, who broke ranks to introduce a separate protocol. (To this day, Melbourne has a different protocol from the national one.)
When Archbishop (now Cardinal) Pell, the chief bastion of conservative orthodoxy in Australia, became Archbishop of Sydney he and Robinson were not natural allies. Robinson does not mention Pell at all in his book but admitted to The Age
that the pair had differing views of the church.
But it wasn't Cardinal Pell who led Robinson to resign: it was a deep disillusionment over the response by church and pope to the abuse crisis. "I felt I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations," he wrote, so he retired to write this book.
Bishop Robinson himself was the victim of abuse while young, and he says it took him 50 years and his role in tackling abuse to come to terms with it. When in 1996 he answered a victim's question by saying he wasn't happy with the level of support from Rome, he received a letter from the Vatican saying he had been reported to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (once known as the Inquisition).
The Catholic Church is still not truly confronting the abuse problem, he believes. "I have a serious fear that many church leaders are now feeling the worst of the problem is now behind them, that it has been successfully `managed' and hence that they do not need to look at deeper issues," he writes.
Pope John Paul II failed his duty of responsibility and therefore failed to hold the church together. Even now, no pope has apologised to victims or promised to study the causes of abuse and ruthlessly change factors that contribute
Abuse is most likely when three factors come together to create a "murky" climate: an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sex, and an unhealthy environment, according to Robinson.
Compulsory celibacy can contribute to abuse - especially of adult women - by fostering an unhealthy psychological state such as depression and unhealthy ideas such as misogyny or homophobia. A church serious about tackling abuse would at least re-examine celibacy, Robinson writes, but both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have forbidden any discussion.
Papal power has gone too far, Robinson writes, "and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise. The authority of the college of bishops has been marginalised and the faith of the whole church has been rendered powerless."
The pope is caught in a vicious circle. The more he insists on authority the less people will listen and the more he will insist on authority. Papal infallibility - the 1870 doctrine that the Pope is preserved from error when he rules ex cathedra on doctrine - was a bad idea, he argues, and was based on claims that were known to be mistaken at the time. Even though it has formally been applied only once, he says, there has been a process of "creeping infallibility" in which statements by popes are increasingly seen as definitive and not open to discussion or change.
[A complete misrepresentation of the nature of papal authority
On sexual issues, Robinson asks rather than states, but his opinions are pretty clear. Traditional church teaching is that sex is designed to express love between a married couple and the means of bringing new life, and sex is proper only when it serves both these God-given purposes. All other sexual acts are offences against God.
Robinson suggests this argument is inadequate and misunderstands God. He recognises that sex can be misused and can damage people, but wants a sexual ethic based on the good and harm done to people and their relationships. This understanding would leave room for both sex outside marriage and homosexual sex.
He writes: "The church's task in the field of sexuality is to present to people an insight into the depth of all that is involved in sex and love, reminding them of the many factors that people ought to bear in mind. It is then individuals who must make their own decisions and take responsibility for them."
Robinson says the search for meaning which religion answers concerns love, and it is his developing understanding of God's love that underpins his book. But the Catholic Church for the last 1000 years has reflected far too much an angry god, a view responsible for "many of the worst pages in church history".
"At its worst people were ordered to perform the impossible task of loving a most unlovable god under pain of damnation. Millions of people were affected by these ideas and their lives were made sadder and poorer."
Catholics have no monopoly on the angry God, he told The Age, but "where that happens you will have a pretty angry sort of religion with lots of rules and lots of thundering from the pulpit".
A related problem is that the church has tried to constrain the beliefs of its members too rigidly in too many non-essentials. He cites the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, declared an infallible truth in 1950 so that to deny it is to deny the Catholic faith. As it happens Robinson believes the doctrine, but admits it is not in the Bible, it is not an early tradition,
the arguments are weak and if it's wrong, the essentials of the Christian faith are untouched. It should not be made a test of faith.
Bishop Robinson makes some interesting proposals for restructuring the church, from the top down. The pope's authority should be reduced, partly by requiring far wider consultation and partly by setting up regional "patriarch-presidents". The Latin church already has patriarchs of the Melkites and Copts, a model the church knows and accepts.
The pope should function like a prime minister - more than a rubber stamp, but less than a dictator - and should speak on behalf of the church only after he has consulted it.
The Curia (Vatican bureaucracy) also needs to be reformed, because it spends too much energy protecting and exercising papal power and privileges. Its members should not be bishops or cardinals, which would help clarify roles and show that not everyone important to the church must be a bishop.
The synod of the world's bishops should be given more authority, which would be helped by limited Curia appointments to three and getting the bishops, rather than the Curia, to appoint its staff. Other groups within the church, including lay groups, could also hold synods.
Bishops must go further in reversing the 1000-year history of clothes and ornaments that speak of power and riches, for example consigning the mitre to the dustbin of history. A hat that makes one the tallest person present sends the message "I am more important than anyone else here", not the message of Jesus, he believes.
Only such reforms, and a concentration on the liberating power of love, can restore the church. "Only a truly radical reform can give the church credibility again," Robinson writes. "I strongly believe that the future health of the church depends upon it being set free from the prison of the past. Only then can the church as a whole have the freedom to grow."
Revisiting the darkest hours
By Linda Morris
Sydney Morning Herald
August 25, 2007
During the darkest days of the priesthood, when the Australian church was wrestling with the scandal of sexual abuse, Sydney's Catholic auxiliary bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, was coming to terms with his own demons.
Only now, three years after his retirement, has Robinson has gone public with an extraordinary and personal disclosure: he was the victim of an abusive stranger. He had kept the secret hidden "in the attic of my mind" for 50 years until hearing the stories of victims began to stir "strong echoes within my own heart and mind".
But the church leader who could have become archbishop of Sydney did not reveal the abuse, and the indelible mark it left, to anyone outside a small circle of friends.
But this week Robinson, shy and guarded, broke his lifelong silence in an explosive critique of the church's use and misuse of power which outlines a radical vision for the church that questions the very nature of its power and sexual ethics and slays the sacred cow of papal infallibility.
Robinson, 70, was a teenager at the time of the abuse, the nature of which he does not fully disclose. The offender was neither a family member nor a priest.
Even now he finds it hard to tackle the topic and prefers his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church
, to speak for him. "Neither in my age at the time it happened nor in the duration of the abuse was it as serious as much of the abuse I have encountered in others, and yet, if the man had been caught in any one of his acts against me, he would have been sent to prison," he writes in the book's introduction.
"It was never a repressed memory but for most of my life it was, as it were, placed in the attic of my mind. That is, I always knew it was there but I never took it down to look at it."
When he was appointed in 1994 to the church's national professional standards committee to help develop procedures to respond to sex abuse complaints he made a vow to himself to "never defend the indefensible". He strove to act as a "decent human being, a good Christian and caring priest" and listened to the complaints of as many victims as possible so he could to learn from their experiences.
"It was talking with victims and some of the things they said aroused feelings and memories in my own mind. With the help of counsellors, I became conscious of some of the effects it had had on me." The memories not only inform his compassionate response to fellow victims but have fed his growing disenchantment with church authorities.
Robinson has written two other books but neither is as close to his soul as the latest.
His book sets out fearlessly and with faith what others have thought for a long time: that instituting legal and pastoral procedures is not enough to beat the crisis of sexual abuse in the church. More fundamental changes are needed to make the church relevant and credible today and to re-establish the message of Jesus Christ at it core.
Robinson says his writing was in development for almost 50 years, from the age of 12, when he entered the rarefied atmosphere of a seminary.
In his description of seminaries and novitiates as unhealthy places to grow into maturity, there is a sense of the wounded boy. He laments the absence of parents and other nurturing figures, the lack of intimacy and the perception of women as threats to vocation rather than as a positive and essential influence.
"At the time I wouldn't have found seminary life impossibly difficult but looking back I observe absences," he says now.
"I never wish to see any boy taken into the seminary at that age again."
Even in retirement Robinson is a leading church figure, which is why his open questioning of papal authority, compulsory celibacy for priests and the Vatican's "extreme" position on sexual ethics is so startling and explosive. This is usually lonely territory trod by the likes of progressives such as the assistant Bishop of Canberra, Pat Power.
Papal power has gone too far and there are inadequate limits on that power, Robinson says, and bishops and the faithful have been marginalised. He calls for a new parliament, a new hierarchical system for the local church, even new attire for priests and bishops, and raises for discussion the church's prescriptive attitude towards committed couples having sex before marriage.
He was studying in Rome when the winds of change blew from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and he believes it has been unfairly blamed for all the church's ills; the hierarchy should look beyond St Peter's Square for explanations for the massive changes and upheavals which have marked the modern world, he says.
The mobile phone, television and car had robbed Catholic parishes of their role as a powerful social centre.
"This is a very unusual book," says the church historian Ed Campion. "Bishops normally keep dissident thoughts to themselves but Bishop Robinson has gone public with his disquiet about how church authorities responded to sexual abuse scandals. He calls for change at the highest levels of the church, including the papacy. His compassion for abused victims is remarkable and welcomed.
"This grew out of his hard years of caring for injured people. Beyond this, the book is a fresh look at the fundamentals of Christian faith. When a Catholic bishop does this he surprises many people. Others will be grateful that Bishop Robinson has now joined in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a Christian today."
Father Michael Whelan, of the church reform group Catalyst for Renewal, says Robinson's lifetime of service in the Catholic Church, including 20 years as auxiliary bishop of Sydney, has been one of intelligence, fidelity and generous commitment.
"He is a man beyond reproach. He is also a man of considerable intellect and substantial scholarship. No one who knows him could doubt his love for the church. Indeed, those of us who knew something of his personal struggles with the Vatican in the late '90s will be always grateful for the faith-filled and humble manner in which he continued with his duties as a pastor during that time.
"This, above all else, has shown him to be a leader of the Catholic Church in Australia."
Robinson probably raises more questions than he answers, but he turns his searching gaze and reforming zeal to every corner of the church. His message of love to the church is that it must take its role to tackle sexual abuse more seriously, not simply manage the scandals.
Whelan says Robinson is urging all Catholics to dare to imagine a new way of being a church, a way that is more obviously rooted in the gospels and less obviously beholden to the Roman Empire and the historical circumstances of the fourth and fifth centuries. "Geoffrey Robinson has written a gracious book about a graced institution that too often forgets grace," he says.
"In its forgetfulness, that institution becomes prey to the 'absolutising instinct' and means become ends. Relative rules and relative teachings and relative roles and relative customs mysteriously become absolutes.
"Robinson asks us to remember the gospel and the reality of Jesus and common sense and humility. If this book has one message for us Catholics - and it is addressed primarily to us - it is simply this: Remember who you are. Remember why you are church. Remember Him."
A fellow member of the national committee for professional standards, Sister Angela Ryan, remembers Robinson for being dogged in his pursuit of a just church response to abuse claims.
In Australia, a country of 5 million Catholics, a nationally binding response to sexual abuse required the unanimous consent of more than 160 people, including bishops and religious superiors. When Robinson had finished cajoling and crafting the document only two refused their consent.
As a result of Robinson's persistence, the Towards Healing protocols is a "standout document" that has no peer in any other Australian religious denomination, says Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney.
"The first version of Towards Healing was a victim-centric document. He was adamant that victims of abuse should hear the church cared for them, wanted to help the victims and that they would not tolerate the abuse in future, and Towards Healing was, and is, still full of that," he says.
Robinson concedes the document will never satisfy everyone but says it succeeds in encouraging priests to confess their misdeeds, sparing the victims more pain and adversarial criminal proceedings where convictions are rare.
But the Vatican has at times been far from impressed with Robinson's championing of victims' rights.
Robinson discloses that he was reprimanded by the Vatican bureaucracy after he told an abuse victim he was unhappy with Rome's response. The comment, a response to a question from the victim, was made at a public meeting, in front of several journalists.
He received an official letter expressing the "ongoing concern of the Congregation for Bishops" that his public position was "seriously critical of the magisterial teaching and discipline of the church".
Two months later he received a further letter, informing him that his case had been forwarded to the church's doctrinal watchdog, implying he was suspected of some form of heresy.
Robinson was hurt by the criticism. The church was not perfect, but sometimes there was "only a fine line between accepting that I must work within an imperfect church and becoming complicit in the harm that those imperfections are causing to people", he later wrote.
He felt let down: "Here was the perfect opportunity for the papacy to fulfil its most basic role of being the rock that holds the church together but this did not happen, and the church fractured. I found it impossible to accept that I must give submission of mind and will to most words written by a pope but a failure to give leadership in a crisis seemed to count for little."
Like every bishop, Robinson takes seriously his oath of fidelity to the Pope. Rebellion is like breaking an oath to God. He eventually resigned, and Pope John Paul II accepted his retirement in July 2004, due to ill health. It was true that Robinson was battling a coronary condition that brought on bouts of pneumonia.
But it was also disenchantment that finally drove him out of ecclesiastical office.
Some of Robinson's supporters had wanted him to succeed Edward Clancy as archbishop of Sydney.
Perhaps Robinson's blackened copy book with the Vatican and his chronic shyness ruled him out of contention but, in any event, he never coveted the job. George Pell did.
"I was aware a number of people wanted that to happen and I was aware that was not going to happen, and I would not have wanted that to happen because it would have created intolerable pressure for someone who was as disenchanted as I was," Robinson says carefully.
Campion says anyone who has studied the church's response to sexual abuse is entitled to feel disheartened. "They were just unprepared because the mind-set is to think of these things as a sin that could be forgiven rather than as a crime that should be punished and the victims cared for. I think Robinson's book is a sign of that, surely a sign of change in itself."
Robinson says: "The most loyal person in the kingdom is the person who tells the truth. It's like the emperor with no clothes, I thought now had come the time to speak the truths."
Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church
by Geoffrey Robinson (John Garratt Publishing, $34.95).
Auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of Sydney (retired) 1984-2004
President, Canon Law Society Australia and New Zealand 1976-83 (secretary 1969-76)
Director, Regional Tribunal Catholic Church NSW and ACT 1972-84
Lecturer, Canon Law Catholic Institute Sydney 1967-83
Assistant priest 1965-84
Ordained priest 1960
Marist Bros School (NSW), St Columba's College (NSW), Pontifical Urban Uni (Rome)
Marriage Divorce and Nullity 1984
A Change of Mind and Heart 1994
Travels in Sacred Places 1997