Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church – Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (BOOK REVIEW)

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church - Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. The Columba Press 2007, £12.99

Reviewed by Martin Penergast

If there is a phrase to sum up Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s explosive book, it is this: “Confront power and sex in the Church; don’t manage it!” One of the major problems bedevilling the Roman Catholic Church in recent years has been that its management of matters sexual has been to sweep it all under the carpet, be it abuse crises, clergy celibacy, increasing social and theological dissent on issues of sexual orientation, or reproductive health.

Too ready to point the finger at other Christian Churches trying to struggle more honestly and openly with these matters, the Vatican appears increasingly to ignore not just ‘the elephant in the room’, but a whole herd of them!

Attempts to regulate human sexuality through prescriptive directives wrongly focus on individual behaviour, rather than the cultivation of healthy and holy relationships. They define people by their sexual characteristics rather than understanding human sexuality and its manifestations as integral to the development of human personality.

Geoffrey Robinson was an Auxiliary Bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney from 1984 until his retirement in 2004. In 1994 he took responsibility, on behalf of the Australian Catholic bishops, for coordinating their response to growing sexual abuse allegations, and was co-chair of this committee from 1997 until 2003. It is said that a precipitating reason for his retirement was his inability to work with his conservative Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, himself accused of cover-up allegations, as well as other unsubstantiated accusations. (1)

There were those who criticised Robinson for not speaking out as an active bishop, leaving publication of this book until after he had retired. It becomes clear to anyone bothering to read “Confronting Power & Sex …” that a fundamental reason for this was that he was only able to write the book after he had dealt therapeutically with the coming to terms of his own experience of sexual abuse, as a boy. That said, this is no raging victim, railing at either his abuser, or the social or ecclesiastical institutions that have protected them. This is a faithful and committed bishop who wishes to see the body of Christ, the people of God, as it is meant to be.

Robinson sees the sexual abuse crisis as the immediate challenge to be grasped but recognises that this is but a symptom of a pathologically dysfunctional system. In his analysis, echoed by others such as the American Jesuit clinical psychologist J.A Loftus (2), the sexual abuse crisis was a disaster waiting to happen for a Church where the exercise of centralised, hierarchical power and authority had failed to be “received” by people in the pews, including many of the Church’s bishops and priests. In such abuses of power, institutionalised in the Church’s ‘modernised’ corporate structures, the sin has to be “named”.

Robinson’s book is a work of popularisation at its best. He takes us back to the original vision behind Roman Catholic Church reforms envisaged by the 2nd Vatican Council, reaffirming the insights of critical biblical and theological scholarship, and the principles behind a pastoral ministry consistent with those foundations. This, of itself, is a valuable exercise in a Church which currently seems to be seeking pre-Vatican 2 forms of retrenchment. He questions calmly the basis of current teachings on sexual ethics within a framework of broader ethical principles with as much attention given to property as to purity ethics in scripture and tradition:

“If the Catholic Church is to regain some credibility after the many scandals of sexual abuse, it must first learn to speak with humility, intelligence, realism and compassion about all aspects of human sexuality.”

Rightly giving prominence to a person-centred ethic and the centrality of a fully-rounded, informed conscience, Robinson might disappoint many readers by giving only one answer to the huge number of questions he raises: a change of heart and mind. Nevertheless, at the end of each chapter, he offers a succinct meditation on key-points which might serve as useful material for small group discussion, reflection, and action.

“What is needed is an open and honest discussion of such matters by the whole church. When I see this … taking place, I will believe that the church is serious about confronting abuse. Until that happens, I cannot have this conviction. Change in external structures can help, but they cannot of themselves produce a new church.”

(1) ‘Bishop admits abuse money offer’, BBC News 3 June 2002; ‘Catholic Church in fresh abuse row’, BBC News, 20 August 2002.
(2) ‘Aftermath of Abuse’ in Opening Up – Speaking Out in the Church, ed. J. Filochowski & P. Stanford, reviewed in CSCS News 28, Winter 2005.

Martin Pendergast

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Undergoing God – dispatches from the scene of a break-in, James Alison (Book Review)

Undergoing God – dispatches from the scene of a break-in, James Alison, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2006, £12.95 – ISBN 0–232–52676–1

Who was the only living English theologian referred to by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a lecture given during his recent formal visit to the Vatican? No prizes for guessing right – James Alison! Rowan Williams also had this to say about the first book by Alison, published in the UK following the latter’s return after many years lecturing in Latin America and the USA: “James Alison’s many admirers will find in this book (Faith Beyond Resentment – fragments catholic & gay) much that is new, but also all that they will be used to – wit, clarity, depth and surprises.”

Like its two immediately preceding volumes, Faith Beyond Resentment and On Being Liked, Darton, Longman & Todd have brought together in James Alison’s latest title more of his recent writings and lectures. The sub-title not only hints at James’ penchant for television crime thrillers, but also reveals something more profound about Alison’s theological reflections. The notion of ‘undergoing’ “is the corollary of the Christian claim that we are talking about a happening irrupting into and upon the world.” The Son of Man also comes like that of ‘a thief in the night’, not as a Deus ex machina but as the divine break-in which really is Good News.

Importantly for Alison, the sense of ‘undergoing’ has both personal and ecclesial implications, and these he explores in themes of Monotheism, Worship, Atonement, Transubstantiation, Evil and Reconciliation in the more systematic first part of Undergoing God. His treatment of these, and other themes, is biblically based, reflecting his early evangelical upbringing, while embracing the growth and development of his adult Catholic faith, not least from the perspective of a gay man. In common with many of his Dominican former confreres, he has an extraordinary knack of turning language, concepts, doctrinal understandings upside down, not in any glib or iconoclastic theological terrorism, but in ways that are “almost frighteningly profound.” (Stanley Hauerwas)

As always, Alison’s approach draws heavily on the methodology of Rene Girard. Given the Girardian key concept of scapegoating, how can you resist a chapter entitled,‘Reconciliation in the wink of a hippo’? James has always preferred to be known as
someone reflecting theologically on basic Christian doctrines from, amongst others, the perspective of a gay man, rather than as a ‘gay theologian’.

His much earlier works, ‘Knowing Jesus’, ‘Raising Abel’, and ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’, reveal his concern to do theology in a way that implies an undergoing of divine things. This transformation is not as if an object called ‘transformation’ falls from the sky like a badly targeted missile: “The very word ‘to undergo’ is an oddity, an active verb with a passive meaning. It is more active than ‘suffering’, more passive than ‘confronting’, more objective than ‘experiencing’, and more involving of subjectivity than ‘being handled’. This also shows just how literally adept James is in breaking open the Word/word.

Chapters 8–14, forming the book’s second part, show Alison dealing more specifically with LGBT issues insofar as they form the bases of current debates within the Roman Communion. These are welcome updated versions of previous lectures and essays, dealing with the use of scripture and tradition, same-sex unions, and the recruitment and ordination of gay men in the Roman Catholic Church. It is rumoured that Chapter 9, which first appeared in Opening Up (recently reviewed in this Newsletter), was photocopied and doing the rounds of various Vatican departments as an example of the best contemporary expression of the ‘status questionis’ regarding homosexuality and Catholic teaching. We have yet to see its full impact in those quarters

James Alison’s work is never a ‘doddle’. Some chapters are easier to read than others, but
be not deterred! While his many fans may not be holding their breaths that he will be appointed as a Consultor to the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, all Christians ignore, at their peril, his attempts to flesh out a critical form for a more adult Christianity. He is undoubtedly one of the brightest younger stars in the British theological firmament.

Martin Pendergast

Note: James Alison’s latest work can be found on www.jamesalison.co.uk where links to
various Girardian sites may also be found.

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“Opening Up”, Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford (editors) (BOOK REVIEW)

Reviewed by John Cook

Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford (editors), Opening Up, Darton Longman and Todd, ISBN 0-232-52624-9. £14.95.

The sub-title of this book is “Speaking Out in the Church”. The 24 contributors (almost all of whom are Roman Catholics) write about the need for the Church to go back to Jesus, his example and teaching, his life, death and resurrection: but to note what life in the world is like now. The book is a plea for the Church and the Gospel Message to escape from the shackles of past thought and practice, and to address the realities of human life in 2005.

Several contributors point out that the Church should be a listening and learning Church, not just a teaching Church. “We are Church. Together. We are multi-hued, we are female as well as male, we are gay and straight, we are all sinners and all would-be saints. And we must learn again to listen to each other.” It is “a global people united in sacrament and solidarity striving to follow the Lord in this broken and divided world”.

Down the centuries the Church has been impoverished by concentrating power and authority in the ordained, and under-valuing the experience, the thought and the insights of its lay members. Baptism has primacy over ordination. Having an all-male ordained ministry has further weakened the understanding and the applying of the Gospel. Chapter after chapter is a plea for the Church to get real about sexuality, poverty, and peace. Theological seminaries should ensure that students (and staff) understand the realities of God’s good gift of sexuality. “What you don’t know can hurt you”. Sexual intercourse is for expressing and building up a loving relationship, not just a means of producing babies.

Believing that Jesus showed God’s love for all people, clergy, nuns and others have worked amongst gay and lesbian people. Unsympathetic members of the hierarchy have tried to stop them. Priests have been rebuked for welcoming gay and lesbian people to receive the Holy Sacrament.

No one doubts that the Church needs rules. There is no virtue in chaos. But “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath”. To forbid the wife of an HIV-infected man from insisting that he uses a condom, is to promote death not life.

The Church also needs to get real about Options for the Poor. God is described in the Bible as “the Father of orphans, defender of widows”. The cancelling of unpayable debt, and the promoting of fair conditions of trade are urgent. There is no salvation for the rich if the poor are ignored. “Extra pauperes nulla salus” – outside of the poor there is no salvation.

I am typing this review on the day that newspapers report the publication of “An Instruction concerning Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders”. The document, from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, says the church deeply respects homosexuals. But it also says it ‘cannot admit to the seminary and the sacred orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support so-called gay culture.’ The document reiterates the Church’s traditional teaching that homosexual acts are ‘grave sins’ and also intrinsically immoral and contrary to natural law.

Writers in Opening Up point out that respecting Natural Law means the Church has to take account of scientific discovery. The Earth does revolve around the Sun. Human beings do not choose their sexual orientation. All of us, lesbian, gay, straight, need to live our sexuality in ways which conform with the two great commandments: to love God whole-heartedly, to love our neighbour as ourselves. God calls some of us to a life of celibacy, God calls others of us to a faithful sexual relationship of love.

“Traditional Church Teaching” emphasises the importance of applying church rules carefully to particular circumstances. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and the levite obeyed the rule of purity (do not touch what might be a corpse) rather than the rule of compassion. The Church needs its members to cultivate and obey an informed conscience, rather than be unthinkingly compliant.

The book has been published to mark the beginning of the leadership of Pope Benedict. As the introduction states “Opening Up is not a monochrome or tidy gathering. There is no common experience, temperament, register or angle of vision. But each voice, in its individual and sometimes contrary way, is a reflection on love, truth and justice in the Catholic Church spoken in honour of a friend.”

The friend is Martin Pendergast, who ”hast given most of his life to cherishing those who are on the margins, whether of society or the Church”. Martin is a member of CSCS.

Our CSCS leader, Jane Fraser, is one of the contributors. She has written the chapter “Teenage Pregnancy: are the Churches to Blame?” You cannot read this chapter without being forced to think very deeply indeed.

Reading this book is like opening the window of a stuffy room, and receiving breath after breath of fresh air. I recommend that as many people as possible read it. With thinkers and writers such as these, there is hope for God’s Church on earth.


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