A Tenable Theology?
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.