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book review

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus
(John Garratt Publishing 2008)

By: Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
Review By: Conrad T. Gromada, Ph.D.

Recently asked about his book by an Australian interviewer Bishop Geoffrey Robinson insisted that “it’s not an attack on the church; it’s a desire to see a better church.” This comment aligns this book precisely with the basic aim of FutureChurch. This is a must read for our members and for reform-minded Catholics everywhere.

In 2004, Robinson resigned his post as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney after having served for nine years as the one chosen by the bishops of his country to exercise a leading role in their formal investigation into the sexual abuse by clergy and religious. One can feel the energy with which he writes and he himself has stated that “if you’re going to have the kind of [church] reform I see as necessary, you need an energy, and I think it is [fighting] sexual abuse more than anything else that I’d look to for that energy.”

One is tempted to avoid the title “pastor” in referring to the author because of that word’s connotation of “leading sheep” — acquiescent and dumb sheep at that! But this is a book by a good pastor who knows his sheep and accepts them as equals, as called to adult faith, and as called to be “healthy people in a healthy relationship with a healthy God” (the title of Chapter One). It is a down-to-earth book, straight-talking, colloquial in style, and profoundly in touch with where we actually live life day to day.

As Robinson and many teachers of the faith insist, our faith life must be based on our image of God, a God who made us to be completely good and completely free. But God’s love is “tough love.” Robinson insists that God wants us to be entirely free but also entirely responsible in pursuing lives of moral growth and goodness. For if we believe in a God that is an angry or demanding God who simply wants blind obedience to divine laws (or commands) we will likely make decisions that will not lead to true human and moral growth, for we will not be taking personal responsibility for our decisions. On the other hand, if we believe in a God who is over-indulgent with soft love, we will probably seek the easiest way out, the softest opinion, the answer that asks the least amount of effort and sacrifice on our part. If, however, we work to find the middle way between these two extremes, we will believe in a God who loves us unconditionally but also, like a good and loving parent, wants to see us grow and so is not afraid to challenge us to see where true human growth lies.

This is a book for all reform-minded members of the church. Its fourteen chapters proceed from a description of a healthy relationship with a healthy God to a marvelous description of the relationship between and among the contents of the bible, tradition, and ordinary human experience — all three viewed in the mode of dynamic processes rather than as finished products or projects. The author is very conversant with the flow of church history over the centuries, including current events in the church, for example, the Vatican’s investigation of the theological works of the Jesuit Jon Sobrino.

The first seven chapters covering what and in whom we are called to believe during our faith journey, today and through the centuries are grounded on solid and insightful historical references and are easy to understand because of his colloquial style. Chapters eight through eleven are devoted to moral questions (what we should do). Here he is especially critical of the inadequacy of our present approach in the church in teaching sexual morality.

In the twelfth chapter he offers an impressive list of “particular issues” in church teaching which he sees as requiring a new approach in light of possible mistakes of the church overreaching its exercise of authority or being caught in what he calls “a prison of the past.” He distinguishes between essential truths and those not so essential for the church’s identity. It is this chapter that may prove to be most controversial as it touches upon issues like the ordination of women, birth control, divorce and remarriage, general absolution — even infallibility and the infallible declaration in 1950 of the Assumption of Mary.

Then in the last two chapters, while indicating a respectful acceptance of the need for the structure of the church as a local and global institution, Robinson is critical of the workings of the various hierarchical offices, including the papacy and the Roman curia. To his critique he adds some practical and somewhat detailed steps for reform.

Although the book lacks an index it does include helpful endnotes and, at the end of each of its fourteen chapters, a summary entitled, “Meditation.” The reader could very well find in those summaries a rich source for much intelligent and prayerful theological reflection.

Some words and phrases that occur to this reviewer in describing this blockbuster book are the following: balanced, inclusive, transparent, pastoral, ecumenical, politically savvy, “traditional” without being “traditionalist,” critical but hope-filled. There is one poignant moment toward the end of the book when Robinson waxes eloquent about his own “right to be wrong.”  He goes on to wish that the leaders of the church could more clearly acknowledge that right and exercise it more freely!

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus is published in Australia by John Garratt Publishing, 32 Glenvale Crescent, Mulgrave Victoria 3170. The U.S. publication contains a Foreword by Father Donald Cozzens and will be available in April 2008 from Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota.  It is available now for pre-orders on Amazon.com.

[Conrad T. Gromada, Ph.D. is a professor of theology at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio.]

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson will speak in Cleveland in early June. Date to be determined.
Watch the FutureChurch website for details.

Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2008


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