Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has caused quite a stir with his book published in August and reprinted this month. The book is called Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garrett, 2007) and was a venture started by Bishop Robinson after his retirement in 2004.
For 10 years before retiring, Bishop Robinson led the Australian bishops’ committee which developed procedures to deal with clergy sexual abuse. While the book is not primarily about this abuse, Bishop Robinson’s work in this area has significantly influenced his understanding of power and sex in the church.
Bishop Robinson’s argument is prefaced by his statement, ‘I …must never forget that I am myself an imperfect member of (an) imperfect church, contributing my problems and failures as well as my assistance’ (p. 22).
The bishop speaks with great faith in God, and a great love for the people of God. His understanding of biblical interpretation does not diverge from Catholic teaching in this area. The section on conscience is well researched and shows the necessity of an informed conscience. He writes with a sense of balance – endeavouring to maintain a central ground. For example, while he questions the increasing power of the papacy, he does emphasise the importance of this office. Nevertheless, Bishop Robinson has also challenged the present structure of authority in the church and questioned some teaching in the area of sexual ethics. As an expert in canon law, he will be aware of the consequences of this action.
I am not an expert in ecclesiology (the study of the church) and thus will not comment on the bishop’s questions to do with authority and church structure.
His argument on sexuality focuses on three areas: a biblical understanding, his exploration of conscience and what he calls an ethic based on persons. This ethic is based on the good or harm done to oneself, others and the community.
I have some questions regarding his theological understandings. Bishop Robinson uses psychological models to describe what it means to be Christian. This seems to be limited. It is most worthwhile to be healthy people with healthy relationships but this is not the central goal of baptism. The central goal of the Christian life is transformation and new life in Christ. He also uses the word ‘God’ interchangeably with ‘god’ in the first section of the book which is both distracting and does not follow standard convention.
The book seems to try and cover too much ground and, as a consequence, some of the arguments lack depth. For example, Bishop Robinson’s critique of the doctrine of original sin uses the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 but does not mention Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Jewish people do not have a doctrine of original sin. This doctrine arose in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He does not refer to any contemporary theological work on this doctrine. To suggest (wrongly, in my opinion) the doctrine of original sin is no longer valid would, at the very least, require a more exhaustive argument.
However the call to openly discuss various issues is welcome.
Susan Wilson is a theologian in the Wellington Catholic Education Centre. Geoffrey Robinson: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus is available from Pleroma, 0508 988988.