Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Recent Statements on Need for Catholic Reform: Father Tom Doyle, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

From my previous week of blogging silence, I have a number of articles all related to the theme of the need for reformation of the Catholic church, which I had bookmarked for mention on this blog:

First, Father Tom Doyle responds in the Irish Times to the recent Vatican report on the apostolic visitation to Ireland (the second links points to a pdf file with the report).  Tom Doyle finds the Roman report "an exercise in irrelevancy."  In his view, the Roman visitors may have listened, but they did not hear, and they offer the standard list of apologies and excuses that in no way engage the dark heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church--the colossal abuse of power and authority by church leaders.

His conclusion: 

The agenda [of this report and of the current leaders of the Catholic church] is not that of the victims. The true goal is rescuing the Irish clerical institution from its descent into irrelevance by imposing a return to the model of church as monarchy. The “renewed call to communion” is a thinly covered call to docile, unthinking submission. 
Catholics in Ireland are walking away not because they need a “deeper formation in the content of the faith” but because they no longer equate faith in God with childish obedience to a clerical establishment that feeds on control.

Next, the National Catholic Reporter recently published an editorial statement endorsing the call of Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson* for a new sexual ethic in the Catholic church.  I discussed Bishop Robinson's appeal for such a new sexual ethic in a posting last month.  The editorial lists three ways in which Robinson's appeal for a rethinking of the narrowly biologistic natural law theory of sexual ethics that now dominates magisterial thinking would correct what is awry in the present magisterial outlook:

1. It would evaluate the morality of sexual behavior by looking at the relational context within which sexual acts occur and not by focusing exclusively on the acts themselves.
2. It would take seriously the intention and circumstances of those engaging in erotic acts, and would retrieve a focus on love as the central criterion for assessing the morality of the erotic dimension of life. 
3. And it would move from the exegetically and theologically untenable technique of biblical proof-texting to support preconceived theological understandings of human sexuality, to listen more deeply and carefully to scripture as a whole as the foundation for a moral understanding of sexuality.  

The editorial argues, 

By rebuilding Christian morality in the area of sexuality in the way Robinson suggests, we will achieve a teaching that can better challenge the message about sexuality trumpeted by the dominant culture in television, music and advertising, a sexuality that idolizes self-gratification and that puts “me” before “you.” By placing the needs of the other first, our sexual ethic would reject sexual violence -- physical and psychological, the idolatry of self-gratification, the objectification of people, and the trivializing of sex when it is separated from love.

And, finally, in NCR Joshua McElwee also recently reported about a lecture Bishop Robinson gave in Chicago as part of a U.S. speaking tour in which he's currently involved.  Bishop Robinson argues that the abuse crisis demands a fundamental reassessment of Catholic faith and culture, because the crisis is deeply rooted in the culture of the church itself.  (Later addition: as Colleen Baker has pointed out in a note below, she has a wonderful posting about Robinson's lecture up at her site Enlightened Catholicism right now, along with a video clip of Robinson speaking.  I appreciate Colleen's bringing this to my attention, and highly recommend this valuable resource.)

Among aspects of current Catholic culture or practice that contribute to the abuse crisis at a fundamental level, Bishop Robinson singles out the requirement of mandatory celibacy for priests, the "mystique" that views priests as  "above other human beings," and the "creeping infallibility" that has marked the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, in which any and all papal decrees are expected to treated as if they are infallible.  Bishop Robinson argues that this notion of "creeping infallibility" has been and continues to be used by the current church leaders to protect "all teachings ... in which a significant amount of papal energy and prestige have been invested."

And it is, in his view, primarily because of the dominant role that the notion of "creeping infallibility" played under John Paul II and continues to play under Benedict that the leaders of the Catholic church find it impossible to admit that they have seriously mishandled the abuse situation.  But as Bishop Robinson notes, 

With authority goes responsibility.  Pope John Paul many times claimed the authority, and he must accept the responsibility. The most basic task of a pope is surely to be the "rock" that holds the church together, and by his silence in the most serious moral crisis facing the church in our times, the pope failed in this basic task.

It's abundantly clear to me as I read these and other statements that the call for reformation--for thoroughgoing reformation--within the Catholic church is being sounded at ever higher levels.  It's also abundantly clear to me that Father Tom Doyle is absolutely right when he says that the current leaders of the Catholic church are incapable of hearing that call.

Under such pressures, institutions crack wide open.  And that is perhaps what has to happen--cracking wide open and tumbling to the ground--to the Catholic church if its currently much-needed reformation is ever to get underway.

*Also a pdf file.

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