In Other Words

The Church’s Cycle of Scandal

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church By Geoffrey Robinson 307 pages, Melbourne: John Garratt Publishing, 2007 Bishops named Robinson are causing considerable heartburn in Christianity these days. The Episcopalians famously have Bishop Gene Robinson, the openly gay prelate in New Hampshire whose 2004 ordination is threatening to split the worldwide Anglican Communion. Now, ...

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

By Geoffrey Robinson

307 pages, Melbourne: John Garratt Publishing, 2007

Bishops named Robinson are causing considerable heartburn in Christianity these days. The Episcopalians famously have Bishop Gene Robinson, the openly gay prelate in New Hampshire whose 2004 ordination is threatening to split the worldwide Anglican Communion. Now, the Catholic Church has Geoffrey Robinson, an Australian bishop whose incendiary new book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, calls for sweeping reforms in the wake of the church’s sexual abuse scandals.

Christianity is a complex global family of faith, and the issues of power and sex are not necessarily of universal interest. More than two thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where battles over sexual ethics or the authority of the Vatican are not generally top-shelf concerns. Yet in "the West" — and for the purposes of Robinson’s book, Australia may be counted as part of the West — sex and power form the front lines of Christianity’s most agonizing debates. Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church is therefore an important book, because it opens these debates to full public view.

More precisely, Robinson gives voice to one side of the conversation — the liberal Catholic perspective that Rome is far too powerful, and that Catholic theology is unhealthily obsessed with what critics mockingly call the "pelvic issues," meaning sexual matters such as birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Other constituencies in the church, such as those who find the late Pope John Paul II’s "theology of the body" a persuasive account of human sexuality, or those who believe a strong papacy is essential to protecting Catholic identity in a secular world, find little echo in his account.

Such one-sidedness, however, cannot be considered a defect, because Confronting Power and Sex is not really designed to be dispassionate analysis. Instead, the book amounts to a cri de coeur from a spiritually sensitive soul who has been deeply shocked by the sexual abuse crisis. Robinson is determined that something — indeed, one could have the impression that almost anything — must be done to clean house.

Robinson reveals early on that he, too, was sexually abused as a young man, though not by a priest or anyone connected to the church. Later, when he was placed in charge of the Australian bishops’ response to the sexual abuse scandals that erupted there in the early 1990s, his long-suppressed memories came flooding back. Initially, Robinson writes, he hoped that the church would respond to the crisis with compassion and vigor. When that didn’t happen, in his view, keeping silent about the church’s failures essentially revictimized those already abused.

"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," Robinson writes. So in July 2004 he resigned as auxiliary bishop, meaning an assistant to the archbishop of Sydney. Official Catholic theology still considers him a bishop of the church, albeit without office.

Of course, passion and good intentions do not always make for compelling logic, and there are times when Robinson’s outrage appears to lead him into self-contradiction. For example, he argues that since the 19th century, the pope has become too strong a leader, yet in almost the same breath, he complains that the pope failed to exercise strong leadership on the sexual abuse crisis. Likewise, Robinson claims that Catholicism has become too hierarchical, yet at one point he proposes instituting "presidents of regions" in the Western church, tantamount to patriarchs in the East, which would inevitably create a new layer of hierarchy.

Robinson is also prone to wielding clichés that cry out for nuance. For example, he writes that instead of following timeless rules, the aim of Christian morality ought to be for people to "grow to become all they are capable of being." But, of course, people are not merely capable of love and generosity, but also of being murderers, thieves, or, for that matter, sex offenders. Some criteria are required to distinguish healthy growth from the destructive and disordered sort, and Robinson is not terribly clear what those criteria might be.

For some 300 pages, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church scatters proposed reforms like buckshot. They range from relatively small matters (a five-year performance review for parish priests) to dramatic moves such as ordaining women as priests and revising traditional doctrines such as original sin. At one point, Robinson casually states that he would even take a red pencil to the Nicene Creed, the fundamental statement of beliefs that Catholics recite each Sunday at Mass. (He says a "few phrases" need revision, without specifying what they are, and proposes a new, "more positive" preface.) However liberally one construes the requirements of membership in the Catholic Church, assent to the creed would be seen by most reasonable believers as a sine qua non.

Given all that, it isn’t difficult to understand why Robinson is no longer in the Vatican’s good graces, or for that matter, those of many of his fellow Catholic bishops. During a recent speaking tour of the United States to promote his book, Robinson was pointedly asked by several American bishops to stay out of their dioceses, and more often than not he ended up speaking in non-Catholic venues.

Unlike his Episcopalian counterpart, however, this Bishop Robinson is unlikely to cause a serious fissure in his church. Catholics have the pope to offer a firm "yea" or "nay" to proposed innovations, whereas the archbishop of Canterbury can at best offer gentle advice. For their part, even moderate Catholics, who generally share Robinson’s shock about the sexual abuse crisis, will likely see some parts of Confronting Power and Sex as a bridge too far.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the book completely. For one thing, Robinson’s quarter century as a prelate has given him keen insight into the inner workings of the church. He observes, for example, that for all its defects, the Roman Curia, meaning the administrative bureaucracy of the Vatican, acts as a brake on unfettered papal power — preventing a pope from straying too far from tradition, or acting out of personal caprice.

For another, Robinson’s gut instincts are often quite wise, however debatable his theology or structural analysis. His warning that "spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous power of all" has been dramatically borne out by recent experience. The sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church is indeed an abomination, and it’s far from clear that the church has taken all the necessary steps to set things right. Most notably, even though it has adopted draconian measures for dealing with abusive priests, there is little accountability for bishops who fail to protect their flock.

Taken less as a platform for church reform, and more as an index of the emotional and spiritual toll wrought by the sexual abuse scandals, Confronting Power and Sex thus offers a powerful reminder: The corner has not yet been turned.

Robinson’s book probably won’t lead to deep changes in the church, at least under the current pope, but it will keep an important conversation alive. If nothing else, it should at least do well in the literary marketplace; Vatican censures have a dubious track record when it comes to changing hearts and minds — but they almost infallibly boost sales.

For More Online

Read John Allen’s interview with Bishop Robinson at: ForeignPolicy.com/extras/robinson.

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