Richard R. Gaillardetz
It is easy for American Catholics to forget that the scandal of sexual abuse by clerics was by no means limited to our shores. The Australian church, for example, has undergone a similar crisis, and in 1994 Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson was appointed by the Australian bishops to lead a task force created to establish guidelines for dealing with clerical sexual abuse cases. His experience in that capacity led him to conclude that the clerical sexual abuse crisis was not an isolated aberration in church life but a symptom of a more pervasive church malady. Although official documentation states that Pope John Paul II received his episcopal resignation in 2004 for reasons of poor health, Robinson admits that he resigned because he could not continue to minister as bishop in a church about which he had such deep reservations. His recent book is a forthright assessment of the state of the church today. It offers a comprehensive program for church reform argued with great passion and love for the church but compromised, too often, by a lack of theological nuance.

Robinson calls for a sweeping evaluation of church attitudes toward power and sex. Refreshingly, his analysis does not begin with calls for institutional reform, but with a deeper reflection on Christian faith and the ways in which unhealthy conceptions of God, revelation, divine providence and Jesus Christ inevitably have negative ecclesial consequences. These chapters are catechetical in the best sense of the term: engaging explorations into fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith. He warns against the dangers of imagining God as a human (frequently a male!) writ large and reflects on the famous saying of Irenaeus that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. For Robinson, Scripture and the world are the two books of God and he subsequently develops the notion of tradition as both the fruit and process of the churchs discernment of the meaning to be drawn from these two sources. Robinson warns against a churchianity that turns in upon itself. The church, he insists, must recognize its mission of service to the world and the coming of Gods reign.

His analysis of the exercise of power in the church contains many perceptive, practical insights. Robinson highlights the juxtaposition in 1 Samuel of two accounts of the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, one in favor and the other critical. This juxtaposition should stand as a reminder of an enduring ambiguity in the Judeo-Christian tradition regarding institutional structures of authority. They may be necessary, but they are fraught with the danger of abuse. He illuminates some bizarre incongruities in the pastoral exercise of church leadership that result when institutional loyalty trumps the sincere search for truth:

I find it strange that, if I were to tell a cardinal in the Vatican that I was struggling with doubts about the existence of God, I would receive sympathy and support. But if I were to tell the same cardinal that I had doubts about papal teaching on contraception and the ordination of women, I would receive a stern lecture on loyalty to the pope.

Many of Robinsons proposals for institutional reform are sensible, if hardly new: a greater willingness to distinguish between what is essential and non-essential in church doctrine, a more modest and juridically circumscribed exercise of papal authority, a rejection of the practice of elevating curial officials to the episcopate and/or cardinalate, a call for episcopal membership at synods to be determined primarily by episcopal conferences, a proposal that the laity be allowed to participate in ecumenical councils and that the laity be granted a greater role in the choice of bishops.

Robinsons analysis of the Catholic Churchs attitude toward sexual morality is also filled with the practical insight of an experienced and sensitive pastor. He laments the way the role of conscience has been obscured in much official church teaching. The churchs teaching office ought to see itself not in competition with the exercise of conscience but as dedicated to the proper formation of conscience through moral guidance, careful study and respectful dialogue. Robinson suggests that the magisterium would enhance its authority if it were to honor rather than dismiss the complexity of many contemporary moral issues. If the church acquired a reputation for putting the arguments against its own views as powerfully, clearly and honestly as they can be put, its credibility would soar dramatically. The author offers a careful reading of the complex biblical traditions regarding sexual morality, identifying problematic purity and property ethics that coexisted uneasily with a personalist sexual ethic embodied in Jesus free and liberating treatment of others. On this basis he invites church leadership to consider a more balanced and open discernment regarding the adequacy of church teachings on the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and artificial contraception. He even wonders, provocatively, whether some forms of premarital sex might be morally legitimate.

Given my substantial sympathy for some of Robinsons insights and proposals, I have to confess a deep frustration with the shoddy argumentation that is marshaled in defense of many of his proposals, arguments that lead him to unnecessary positions. For example, he calls for a clearer distinction between essential and non-essential church teachings and challenges the modern ecclesiastical tendency toward creeping infallibility. Here again, many theologians in the church would share his concern. But this quite legitimate concern leads him to question the necessity of the churchs teaching on infallibility itself. His discussion of the First Vatican Council consistently refers to infallible statements, when Vatican I never used this expression. Infallibility applied not to propositional statements themselves but to an act of judgment (teaching or believing). Moreover, he presumes that the churchs teaching on infallibility leads to the view that dogmatic statements are unchanging and incapable of development, a position the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has explicitly rejected.

The target of Robinsons reflections is a very real and troubling ahistorical dogmatism that is alive and well in some sectors of the Catholic Church. It seems to me, however, that this is best confronted not by abandoning Catholic teaching on infallibility but by cultivating a more sophisticated understanding of it. In the same vein, Robinson believes that there are elements of the Nicene Creed that are not essential to the faith. He mentions the phrase, he ascended into heaven. He then argues against a literal interpretation of the phrase, one that assumes that Jesus physically levitated through the clouds and into the stratosphere. His criticism of such a simplistic reading is justifiable, but this hardly means that the Creeds teaching on the ascension is non-essential; rather, it simply warrants a more theologically sophisticated grasp of the doctrine itself.

Finally, while I sympathize with many of his calls for the structural reform of church governance, his appeal to a secular parliament as model for church governance overlooks the ways in which the church is not simply a liberal democracy (which of course does not mean that it ought not incorporate democratic elements). A far more fruitful warrant for structural reform would result from the re-appropriation of such neglected ecclesiological concepts as conciliarity, collegiality and synodality. One can only wish that Robinsons work had been subject to more rigorous editing and consultation with experts in ecclesiology and moral theology. The result, I am confident, would have been a more compelling and tightly argued work.

Theological difficulties notwithstanding, the importance of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church lies in the fact that a bishop, an ecclesiastical insider, has had the courage to challenge the institution of which he was a part and invite serious conversation regarding a broad range of church issues that have too often been declared off-limits by church leadership. If Robinsons book opens the door to more open and responsible theological conversation by members of church leadership regarding the unique demands facing our church today, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

Richard Gaillardetz is Murray/Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo and the author of The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006) and Ecclesiology for a Global Church (Orbis, 2008).

Comments

Warren Johnson | 6/9/2008 - 6:47pm
Professor Gaillardetz says "Infallibility applied not to propositional statements themselves but to an act of judgment (teaching or believing." Bishop Robinson responded "Surely infallible judgments are experienced through infallible statements. Is this not what Pastor Aetern us says?" Any chance of a response now from Professor Gaillardetz? Another question. What is the difference for a practising Catholic between teaching that is infallible and teaching that is irreformable? Finally, it seems that at one time the consent of the faithful was necessary for any proposed teaching to become Church doctrine. So what happened to that?
Carolyn Disco | 5/29/2008 - 11:40pm
Gaillardetz distorts Robinson's points about the Ascension, collegiality, and infallibility. Why? Robinson's letter, published later, answers the questions persuasively. The book deserved better than it received. Here's the reality of Robinson's positions in his own words: "First, he says that I state that the Ascension is a nonessential truth. What I do say is that the fact that Jesus, at the end of his time on earth, returned to his Father is an essential truth, but that the particular means by which he did so (ascending vertically from the earth?) are not essential. Second, he says that I appeal to a secular “parliament” as a model for church governance and that a more fruitful path would be to speak of conciliarity, collegiality and synodality. I do speak of conciliarity, collegiality and synodality, but in the chapter he refers to I make the important point that these terms will remain beautiful but empty unless we give them concrete form in specific, though imperfect, structures. Consequently I suggest some such structures, though I do not use the term “secular parliament” and I specifically reject the idea that the church could function as a liberal democracy. Third, his main example concerns the fact that I question the necessity of the church’s teaching on infallibility, that I refer to infallible statements when Vatican I spoke instead of acts of judgment and that I falsely presume that dogmatic statements are unchanging. I freely acknowledge that Richard Gaillardetz is a far better theologian than I will ever be, but I have difficulties with these ideas. Surely infallible judgments are expressed through infallible statements. Is this not what Pastor Aeternus itself says? Surely, also, if doctrines can develop, the prohibition of any discussion on the ordination of women is out of place. When I first heard the news that a theologian of standing had reviewed my book, I was delighted and hoped to learn much from the review. While again grateful for the many good things said, I have to add that I am left disappointed." I heard Robinson speak this evening to an overflow crowd. Indeed our hearts were burning as they have not before. The dignity, courage, and humility of this great man will be honored far beyond any other in times to come. Robinson said he listened to survivors by the hundreds and it changed him profoundly. By contrast our bishops were and are tone deaf about their culpability, preferring non-apology apologies in the passive voice to the truth. Their dissembling, evasions, denials, and spin are offensive in the extreme. Robinson is a breath of fresh air! May God bless his work abundantly.
Carolyn Disco | 5/29/2008 - 11:20pm
Gaillardetz distorts Robinson's points about the Ascension, collegiality, and infallibility. Why? Robinson's letter, published later, answers Gaillardetz persuasively. The book deserved a more honest appraisal than it received. Here's the reality of Robinson's positions in his own words: "First, he says that I state that the Ascension is a nonessential truth. What I do say is that the fact that Jesus, at the end of his time on earth, returned to his Father is an essential truth, but that the particular means by which he did so (ascending vertically from the earth?) are not essential. Second, he says that I appeal to a secular “parliament” as a model for church governance and that a more fruitful path would be to speak of conciliarity, collegiality and synodality. I do speak of conciliarity, collegiality and synodality, but in the chapter he refers to I make the important point that these terms will remain beautiful but empty unless we give them concrete form in specific, though imperfect, structures. Consequently I suggest some such structures, though I do not use the term “secular parliament” and I specifically reject the idea that the church could function as a liberal democracy. Third, his main example concerns the fact that I question the necessity of the church’s teaching on infallibility, that I refer to infallible statements when Vatican I spoke instead of acts of judgment and that I falsely presume that dogmatic statements are unchanging. I freely acknowledge that Richard Gaillardetz is a far better theologian than I will ever be, but I have difficulties with these ideas. Surely infallible judgments are expressed through infallible statements. Is this not what Pastor Aeternus itself says? Surely, also, if doctrines can develop, the prohibition of any discussion on the ordination of women is out of place. When I first heard the news that a theologian of standing had reviewed my book, I was delighted and hoped to learn much from the review. While again grateful for the many good things said, I have to add that I am left disappointed." I heard Robinson speak this evening to an overflow crowd. Indeed our hearts were burning as they have not before. The dignity, courage, and humility of this great man will be honored far beyond any other in times to come. Hearing truth spoken forcefully by a bishop is a novel experience for me after six years of dissembling, denial, evasion, and spin by those complicit in the endangerment of children. The pectoral crosses seemed to get larger and larger during this period. By contrast, Robinson's unassuming attire was so welcome. He is a breath of fresh air! He actually listened to victims by the hundreds, and said it changed him profoundly. Ours seem tone deaf in comparison, with conditional non-apology apologies in the passive voice their main pastoral achievement.
Paul Misner | 3/7/2008 - 3:01pm
I have read Bishop Robinson's book and I concur with the general drift of the review and the two comments already posted. Robinson does seem to assume that papal infallibility applies to propositional statements as well as to the irreformable judgments that lay behind them. But do not most commentators? As for suggesting that the doctrine of the First Vatican Council could use a thorough reinterpretation, in 1970 Hans Küng (no mean theologian) proposed that infallibility be regarded as an aspect of the church's indefectibility in proclaiming the faith. It does not seem to me that Robinson is going out on that weak a limb in his questioning. The book's argumentation is mostly a matter of raising questions in a way that will surprise readers, but also in a way that can deepen their Catholic sense of church. It is certainly not written mainly for professional scholars (theologians); among other things, it lacks the apparatus that we look for. But "shoddy" is too strong a criticism.
leonard Nugent | 3/5/2008 - 5:40pm
"I find it strange that, if I were to tell a cardinal in the Vatican that I was struggling with doubts about the existence of God, I would receive sympathy and support. But if I were to tell the same cardinal that I had doubts about papal teaching on contraception and the ordination of women, I would receive a stern lecture on loyalty to the pope." In the above quote, doubt about the existence of God is usually an indication of a dark night of the soul. Doubt about church teaching tends toward protestantism, hence the different response.
leonard Nugent | 3/4/2008 - 10:32am
Interesting article. It's refreshing to know the the Jesuits are always there to help open a discussion about rethinking church teaching on sodomy and fornication. I was somewhat disappointed that adultry wasn't included in the list, but perhaps incremental change is the thing needed
Peter Price | 3/1/2008 - 1:34am
Professor Gaillardetz' review is an excellent one. One thing only - perhaps the "infallible statements" example is not a good one - Vatican I spoke more of "irreformable" rather than "infallible", but the Ultramontane Press such as the 'Dublin Review', Louis Veuillot's "L'Univers", and the Jesuit publication, "La Civilta Cattolica", as well as the Ultramontane pamphleteers, made frequent mentions of "infallible statements" as part of the whole environment and political manouverings that surrounded the Council between 1869 and 1870 [and later]. Bishop Robinson, may in my view be absolved from a marginally 'loose' usage of the terminology criticised in the example.