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Outlook from the outback
by Stephen Crittenden
1 September 2007

 A devastating critique of the Catholic Church in Australia recently published by one of the country's most respected bishops has ignited debate about its future and pushed the progressive majority of the Church back to prominence after years in the shadows

Like the rural horizons of Australia after the worst drought in 100 years, the Australian Church is tinder dry, and a retired auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Geoffrey Robinson, may have lit the match. His new book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: reclaiming the spirit of Jesus (John Garrett Publishing, Melbourne), accuses the leadership of the Catholic Church of treating the clerical sexual crisis as something to be "managed" in the hope that it will go away and never be referred to again. He says that until it confronts the root causes of this crisis, the Church will continue to be crippled.

One of the most intelligent and capable of the Australian bishops, Geoffrey Robinson, 70, is a former lecturer in canon law and was seen by many as the logical successor to Cardinal Ted Clancy as Archbishop of Sydney. Erudite, shy, rather unsmiling, and certainly no wishy-washy liberal, he is esteemed by Australian Catholics for his integrity in coordinating the Church's national response to the abuse crisis in the late 1990s. I interviewed him for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at that time, and his bleak and careworn demeanour left a deep impression.

Thanks to this book, we now know that he was struggling both with his own sexual abuse as a boy and his mounting frustration at Rome's silence and lack of support in relation to the crisis: "I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could no longer be a bishop of a Church about which I had such profound reservations."

The story behind his book is about the falling away of a disillusioned company man who nonetheless remains a company man at heart. But this is not a memoir. Instead it reads like a local encyclical addressed to the world Church by a bishop in full teaching mode. Drawing heavily on Scripture and his training as a canonist, it is structured like a religious textbook, with points for reflection at the end of each chapter. Melbourne's leading broadsheet, The Age, has made comparisons with Martin Luther, and it is not hard to see why when he raises so many foundational questions for discussion. Bishop Robinson is adamant that he is not attacking the Church he loves, yet many people will see it that way.

In language reminiscent of a court martial, he lays the charge of "failure to give leadership in a crisis" squarely at the feet of Pope John Paul II: "I am convinced that if the Pope had spoken clearly at the beginning of the revelations, inviting victims to come forward so that the whole truth, however terrible, might be known and confronted, and firmly directing that all members of the Church should respond with openness, humility, honesty and compassion, consistently putting victims before the good name of the Church, the entire response of the Church would have been far better. With power go responsibilities. The Pope has many times claimed the power, and must accept the corresponding responsibilities."

Bishop Robinson says his experience in dealing with offenders has convinced him that there is a strong case to be made for mandatory celibacy having triggered the abuse crisis, even if it is not the only cause. He says there is no evidence that homosexual priests are any more likely to abuse minors than heterosexuals. He also argues that seminaries and novitiates may not be healthy places to form priests and Religious. In Sydney, this is a story that goes back 40 years to when a group of priests wrote to Cardinal Norman Gilroy calling for St Patrick's Seminary, Manly, to be closed down, on the grounds that it was an environment that fostered immaturity in the students and paternalism in the staff, a "hush-hush attitude to the subject of celibacy", and little of the "flexibility and toughness needed to cope with the outside environment".

But Bishop Robinson believes the deepest sources of the abuse are embedded in the power structures of the Church, and he calls for a major corporate restructure, including a constitutional papacy: "Papal power has gone too far and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise." He says the College of Bishops has been marginalised, and that in his time as an active bishop it was rarely asked its advice and never asked to vote, even on controversial matters: "We were not asked to vote before the publication of the document on the ordination of women, not even when the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI] spoke of this teaching as ‘infallible', with the Pope doing nothing to contradict him. If bishops are not asked their opinions even when the word ‘infallible' is in the air, the College of Bishops would seem to have no practical importance in the Church, and the statement of the Second Vatican Council that the college is a co-holder of supreme power would seem to have no practical importance."

Continuing further, Bishop Robinson says that "many bishops are uneasy" about the Church's present teachings on marriage and divorce, and questions whether the constantly repeated teaching that both the unitive and procreative aspects must be present in each act of sexual intercourse is anything more than an unproven assertion ("If it is only an assertion, is there any reason why we should not apply the principle of logic: What is freely asserted may be freely denied?"). He says that there is no proof in the New Testament that Jesus acted with divine knowledge, and no evidence of an explicit order by Jesus that there must be successors to Peter and the 12 apostles.

Venturing on to even more dangerous ground, he says the arguments put forward in 1870 in support of the doctrine of papal infallibility were flimsy, asks whether it was "prudent" of Pope Pius XII to make an authoritative statement on the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, and even suggests that "a few phrases" of the Nicene Creed might be considered in need of change.

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church single-handedly propels the progressive majority in the Australian Church back to centre stage after years of being pummelled and pushed out. Calls for the ordination of married men and women priests are becoming more and more urgent in Australia, and they are coming from ordinary Catholics who want priests, the Mass, more articulate sermons and less of the second-rate shambles they fear is probably in store for them.

Bishop Robinson's book also confirms Australia's place at the forefront of debates about reform in the wider Church although, in all fairness, this is where a more critical assessment is in order. It is the result of what has undoubtedly been a difficult journey for him personally, but many other Australian Catholics such as Dr Paul Collins, Bishop Pat Power (auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn), the late Bishop John Heaps of Sydney and the late Fr Ted Kennedy have been making similar arguments for at least two decades. Many Australian reformers believe the time for theorising is far in the past.

In these early years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, we can all feel the centrifugal forces in the Catholic Church beginning to pull the various continents further apart. The reason is simple. Rome seems unable and unwilling to engage with the practical problems that local Churches are facing on the ground, and more and more they are looking to local solutions. In Australia, an acute personnel crisis is now being experienced, and in rural dioceses vast distances magnify the problem. For some of these areas the point of no return has passed, and they are now facing institutional collapse. The bishops know that merely repeating the Vatican line is not going to solve anything. This is why Australia is one of the places where the Catholic ecclesiology of the future - how the Church will look in 10 years' time when there are no priests - is already being worked out. And because the solutions will be Australian ones, they are likely to be practical, low-key, non-ideological and user-friendly.

To give just one example: late last year, Bishop William Morris published a pastoral letter predicting that by 2014 his Diocese of Toowoomba in Queensland - territorially the size of Germany - would have just 19 active priests remaining, including the bishop. Mostly they would be old men, and they would be expected to spend their lives on the road. He outlined a list of options including the ordination of women and married men; welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry; and recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders. However, this year the Vatican responded to the bishop's letter by appointing Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver as apostolic visitator to the Toowoomba Diocese. On his arrival, the bishops of Queensland banded together in Bishop Morris' defence and told Chaput to back off.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Cardinal George Pell is a much-reduced figure, too often playing the tub-thumping reactionary. Things came to a head recently when he went beyond the stand of the other bishops by threatening Catholic politicians with denial of the Sacraments during a stem-cell debate, thereby making himself the issue. This prompted one New South Wales government minister to brand him a "serial boofhead" (the ultimate Australian term of dismissive abuse). Appointed to the Sydney Archdiocese in 2001, he is regularly described as a bully by the Australian media. There are some who say that quite a few priests agree. He has never been elected president of the Australian National Bishops' Conference. Now Cardinal Pell is facing significant problems finalising plans for World Youth Day in 2008. With less than a year to go, the major outdoor venue for the final papal Mass is still in doubt, and Rome must be wondering what is going on.

The launch of Bishop Robinson's book in Sydney last weekend was like a large tribal gathering, with a very significant group of Catholic lawyers, judges, doctors, business people, senior priests and one bishop present. Many others sent their support but chose to remain anonymous for the moment because of their senior positions. The Sydney historian, Fr Ed Campion, reminded the crowd that the venue, St Patrick's Church Hill, had been the meeting point of Sydney Irish Catholicism - the place where the Irish took a stand in the early nineteenth century to defend their faith and demand just and fair treatment. In his address, Bishop Robinson said he knew what he had written was probably about to change his life forever, and that it was quite possible that the Roman authorities would come after him: "I do realise, at least in theory, that I could end up outside the Church. Whatever happens, let it happen."

So far, Cardinal Pell's response has been to ignore the book, and the Vatican may not know what to do about him. But if Rome does come after Geoffrey Robinson, it should be prepared for a conflagration.


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