RETIREDCatholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson has burst into print with a new book:Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, produced by JohnGarratt Publishing.The Age and the ABC's The ReligionReport on Radio National have thrown caution to the wind to the extentof likening its effect to Luther's nailing of his 95 theses to theWittenberg church door and beginning the Protestant reformation.
On the contrary, I think that, to the extent it's remembered at all, it will come to be seen as old hat.
Robinson has a reputation as a competent canon lawyer who went on tobe an assistant bishop for 20 years, before retiring early on groundsof ill health in 2004. He was never entrusted with a diocese of hisown, let alone made cardinal Edward Clancy's successor and archbishopof Sydney, as his supporters would have wished. It's just as well,because it's hard to see how many of the arguments mounted in the bookcould be seen as consistent with his episcopal oath of fidelity to theHoly See.
As a bishop, the work for which Robinson is probably best known is aset of protocols covering child abuse involving monks and clergy. Heseems to have brooded on the subject for a good many years, although,judging by the book, to surprisingly little effect. Much of what he hasto offer on the subject is either journalistic cliches of the early1990s or clumsy theological attempts to relativise sexual sins out ofexistence.
In the former category, consider his summary in the book'sintroduction, on the discipline of celibacy. "At least in the Westernworld, celibacy has come to be seen as the acid test of whether thechurch is truly serious about overcoming abuse. Much that is said canbe simplistic and involve misconceptions, but this does not change thefact that unless and until the church puts celibacy on the table forserious discussion, people will simply not believe it is serious aboutabuse.
"To start with, the statement that the requirement of obligatorycelibacy cannot and will not be changed or even examined, as both popeJohn Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have done, is to lose credibilitybefore the discussion even begins. Some may speak all they wish for thebenefit of this celibacy for the church, but others will not stopasking: 'How many abused children is celibacy worth?"'
Much of Robinson's analysis suggests that celibacy is tangential tochild abuse rather than its main cause. He rightly argues that mostclergy are either heterosexually or homosexually attracted to otheradults, for example, and that neither disposition of itself inclinespeople to abusive relations with minors. Such abuses, whether habitualor occasional, might once have been seen in the pre-Vatican II world,especially by the perpetrators, as less serious lapses than sex with awoman capable of resulting in a child. But it's hard to see whatbearing this has on contemporary debate.
He also makes a reasonable case that the practice of putting12-year-old boys into junior seminaries, as recently as the 1960s insome English-speaking countries, may conceivably have arrested thepsycho-social development of some priests in mid-adolescence andprecluded their developing an adult sexual adjustment. Perhaps so, andperhaps it can partly be blamed on the discipline of celibacy, butagain it's hard to see what relevance it has to the present day.
The strangest element of Robinson's argument is that he admits thatmany of the arguments against celibacy are "simplistic" and "involvemisconceptions", but says the church still has to go through themotions of taking them seriously and open up the subject fordiscussion, for fear that people won't take its commitment to remedyingabuse seriously. He thinks the Pope should sanction the staging of anuninformed, even disingenuous, debate for the sake of street cred. Butsurely this is to pander to ignorance, a stratagem that betrays nothingbut contempt for people.
The Pope, along with most regular churchgoing Catholics, believes inthe discipline of clerical celibacy, except in special cases such asthe re-ordination of married Protestant clergy. He also thinks, notunreasonably, that no good can come from raising and ultimately dashingthe hopes of men who'd like to combine being a Catholic priest withmarriage. Some may go on asking, until the cows come home, how manyabused children celibacy is worth, but it will still be a stupidquestion. Robinson can conjecture all he likes about credibility, butthe Pope has it in spades.
Clerical celibacy tends to loom large in the thinking of modernisingbishops, especially in countries where the church is increasinglymoribund. Last year the Pope singled out Australia as the most extremeexample of the problem. Some of those bishops bitterly regret thesacrifices celibacy entailed for them and could never quite see thepoint of following Christ's chaste example.
They also assume that, along with ordaining women, married priestsare the most convenient and more or less inevitable answer to thelong-heralded shortage of priests. However, in many anglophone diocesesacross the world and a couple in Australia, where bishops go out oftheir way to encourage vocations, there is no shortage of suitablecandidates for the priesthood.
What Robinson is doing is proposing an ecclesiology - a model forconceiving the church - framed by the problems and assumptionscharacteristic of one of its most benighted backwaters.
That this is so becomes even more apparent when he unveils his newtheology of sexual relations. He told The Religion Report's StephenCrittenden on Wednesday: "There is a crying need to reconsider suchissues as sex outside marriage, contraception and homosexuality. I askif we should move to a morality based on relationships, on good or harmto people.
"A sexual sin is a real sexual sin when it harms someone else." Hecontrasted it with "a morality based on offences against God: I findthat quite inadequate".
Robinson had previously explained his preference for posingquestions rather than making statements. He told The Age's religiousaffairs editor Barney Zwartz it was partly that he didn't want tosuggest he had the answers and "because it was harder for the Vaticanto condemn questions".
The immediate consequence of taking God out of sexual ethics in thisway is to turn any activity into a matter of subjective harmassessment. It's a convenience morality rather than one based on stablerelationships and commitment, perfectly adapted to the way most whollysecular Australians already choose to live. If it feels good at thetime to both parties, it seems that, according to Robinson, it'sprobably OK.
For adolescents, solitary diversions such as masturbation wouldbecome blameless - the embodiment of victimless crime - because no oneelse was involved. The notion, although not the reality, of self-harmor self-abuse would become emptied of all meaning and with iteventually all sense of purity. The same would apply to any notion ofsexuality ordered in obedience to holy writ and the church's teachings.Freed of all inhibitions about the use of contraceptives, sex would beuncoupled from its procreative possibilities and begin to approximatepopular culture's fantasy of it as a form of recreation.
I have bad news for the bishop and for his publisher. Somehow Idon't think the Vatican is going to find it hard to condemnpropositions such as these, whether or not they're put in the form ofquestions.
Nor are most lapsed Catholics in the market for this sort of earnestrationale for loose living. It might have had more of an audience inthe libertarian early '90s, but in good Pope Benedict's reign, it justseems strangely anachronistic.