Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

To the Left of Martin Luther

by Michael Gilchrist


In this article Michael Gilchrist analyzes the ideas brought forth by retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in his book titled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. Some of the statements are so obviously heretical that Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses pale in comparison. Among other things, Bishop Robinson calls for a democratic Church and a major overhaul of the teachings contained in Humanae vitae.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


28 – 30

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November 2007

The new book by Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired since 2004 as a Sydney auxiliary bishop and once touted as a future archbishop of Sydney, makes some of Martin Luther's 95 theses look moderate by comparison.

Launched on August 27 and titled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (John Garratt Publishing), Bishop Robinson's book presents a wish list of radical changes to the Catholic Church's teachings, disciplines, and structures that is allegedly based on his deep dissatisfaction with the Church's handling of the sex abuse scandals.

Bishop Robinson, after 1994, was closely involved in formulating and implementing the Towards Healing process of responding to victims of abuse, resigning from this role in 2003. It seems this involvement — and his perception that Pope John Paul II (and Benedict XVI later) did not respond forcefully enough to the crisis — have colored his thinking. Further, he confides in his book that he was sexually abused as a child, though not by a priest or family member.

He is highly regarded by many as a Scripture scholar and expert on canon law and has had close associations for many years with the Sydney educational establishment and, more recently, with Catalyst for Renewal, an organization of liberals seeking reforms in the Church. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Australian Catholic University in 2004 in recognition of his role with Towards Healing.

In some respects, the book is not new, as it revisits demands made in an earlier book by another retired Sydney auxiliary bishop, the late John Heaps, titled A Love That Dares to Question: A Bishop Challenges His Church (1998), and also by Paul Collins in his book Papal Power (1997).

But Bishop Robinson's book goes further than these, moving well beyond merely calling for optional celibacy or more accountable Church governance as necessary responses to the sex abuse scandal. It is revealing that someone favored by local elites as the logical successor to Cardinal Edward Clancy as archbishop of Sydney in 2001 should hold such extreme views.

It is not surprising that the elites were shocked and dismayed at the appointment instead of Archbishop George Pell (formerly of Melbourne) and that Bishop Robinson took this hard and retired. While ill health was a factor in his retirement, he confides in his book, "I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations. I resigned my office as auxiliary bishop in Sydney and began to write this book about the very foundations of power and sex within the church."

Promoted by the Australian Media

Predictably, the liberal sections of the secular media in Australia have given lavish and sympathetic coverage to the book, with The Age (Melbourne) calling it "extremely impressive: thoughtful, open and constructive" and the Sydney Morning Herald describing it as "an explosive critique of the church."

The Brisbane Times praised the book as "a radical vision for the church that questions the very nature of its power and sexual ethics and slays the sacred cow of papal infallibility" while a supportive editorial in The Canberra Times was titled "A bishop calls his church to account."

The Religion Report on ABC Radio National in August presented a lengthy and sympathetic interview with Bishop Robinson which was essentially a rerun of an earlier interview it did with Bishop Heaps following publication of his controversial book. During the interview, Bishop Robinson said he thought many of Australia's bishops "would agree with quite a number of things that I've said within the book." If so, this would explain the condition of Australian Catholicism, which is seen by Pope Benedict XVI as close to terminal.

In brief, Bishop Robinson argues that the gravity of the sex abuse scandal across the Church and her failure to respond adequately are largely due to non-accountable, authoritarian power structures and defective teachings on sexuality. A radical overhaul of all these is therefore necessary.

Bishops generally prefer not to comment publicly on other bishops' words and actions, however outrageous, as I found out when I made inquiries with a few of them about Robinson's book. Nevertheless, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn chose to respond to a report on Bishop Robinson's book that appeared in The Canberra Times.

In a letter to the editor of that paper in August, Archbishop Coleridge said he had not yet read the book, but on the basis of the report the book appeared to contain "a number of well-worn and distracting misperceptions, chief among which are these:

  1. that the Catholic Church is monolithic, and that the Pope can therefore act or speak over the heads of the bishops at any given time and on any given issue;
  2. that clerical and religious celibacy is a major cause of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church;
  3. that the Catholic Church's culture of forgiveness is an aggravating factor;
  4. that the problem of sexual abuse is special if not unique to the Catholic Church;
  5. that the Catholic Church has not really begun to tackle the problem."

Undoubtedly, the Church in many parts of the world, including Australia, has responded poorly to the sex abuse scandals. But the story has been essentially the same in a host of other churches and secular bodies where vulnerable minors are exposed to potential abusers. The recent revelations of endemic and horrific child abuse in outback aboriginal communities, which prompted belated federal government action, underline that this crime is far from a Catholic monopoly.

Robinson's Theses

The abuse scandal is an obvious product of Original Sin. Yet Bishop Robinson believes this doctrine needs revision:

Since the Council of Trent we have come to realize that what we know about Adam and Eve comes from a story, not an eyewitness account of what happened.

Also, through scientific discovery we have been made aware that the development of the human race was slower and more complicated than the biblical story of Adam and Eve allows for.

The question of the origin of evil in the world is a profound one, deserving of lengthy and serious consideration, but there have always been problems with the story of Adam and Eve as an adequate explanation of this problem.

Is it safe to base religious belief on such an affirmation . . . Does revelation give us 'the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents' (Trent)?

Bishop Robinson then questions Jesus' knowledge of his own divinity and what this implies: "At a time when we are coming to realize that Jesus himself might have given up the privilege of perfect knowledge and have had to struggle through his life and mission with only limited knowledge, should we not be looking again at claims which imply that the church has access to a level of knowledge that even Jesus might not have had access to?"

Nor are the Christian creeds exempt from his critical scrutiny: "How could mere human beings claim such certainty concerning the inner life of God or the exact manner in which Jesus was both human and divine? Is there not a point, quite early in this speculation, at which we should bow before the mystery of God rather than attempt to spell it out in poor human words?"

As for credal mention of the Ascension, "only Luke speaks of this," so "it would seem more prudent to place this question of the exact manner in which Jesus returned to his father in the category where freedom reigns." In other words, belief in the Ascension is optional.

The Nicene Creed, however, "would remain basically as it is" with "only a few phrases in that Creed that might be considered in need of change" along with a few additions to update it.

As for the pope, Bishop Robinson considers "papal power has gone too far and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise." He later adds, "If the whole body of the church is to have the freedom to grow, it must have a say in the foundational beliefs of the church." In other words, Catholics in the pews might vote on Our Lord's real presence in the Eucharist, the number of sacraments or Sunday Mass obligation.

Here, according to Robinson, Vatican I's teaching on papal infallibility rests on unsure scriptural foundations, so he asks whether there is "now a need to reassess what happened in 1870?" In fact, he considers all earlier decisions by Church councils should be open to review in the light of later knowledge: "To escape the prison of the past, a later church authority, including a later universal church council, should have the power to change the teachings of an earlier and equal church authority, including an earlier universal church council."

The Church's moral teachings, Robinson suggests, are in particular need of a major overhaul. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church's teaching on contraception, is taken to task, with Bishop Robinson asking whether "it is God's will, and indeed order, that both the unitive and procreative aspects must necessarily be present in each act of sexual intercourse . . . If a proven fact, what are the proofs?"

He concludes, "Should the basic rule for all sexual relations be the same as the basic rule for all Christian living: 'This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you'?" Clearly he believes it should be, despite posing it as a question. This general approach would allow for assorted forms of "loving" sexual expression outside of marriage, including pre-marital sex and active homosexual relations particularly, as in this latter instance the Scriptures, in Robinson's view, are an unreliable guide: "We have already seen that Paul and other writers of the Second [New] Testament outside the gospels failed to maintain the radicalism of Jesus on both purity and property laws. If their sayings on those subjects are not divinely inspired truth, we must have serious reservations as to whether their other sayings on sexual matters can be taken, in and of themselves alone, as final proofs."

He thinks the Church's position on divorce and remarriage is also problematic. Bishop Robinson notes that "many Catholic bishops express a real uneasiness about the present teaching of their church on the subject of divorce and remarriage . . . after many years of pastoral practice, after much thought and prayer, they are not convinced that the current teachings of the Catholic Church on this subject fully reflect the mind of Jesus."

He himself wonders whether the teaching of the Catholic Church on divorce is "fully in harmony with the person of Jesus as revealed in the gospels?" Apparently Jesus' words, "what God has joined together . . ." were out of character with his real "person." Compulsory clerical celibacy is also a prime target: "If the church is serious about overcoming abuse, then the contribution of celibacy must be most carefully considered." The bishop then warns that "others will not stop asking, 'How many abused children is celibacy worth?'"

He believes Pope Pius XII's infallible 1950 declaration on Mary's Assumption into heaven was a mistake: "The problem is that there is no evidence from the bible for the Assumption, the tradition does not go back to the event itself, and the arguments from the world around and within us are weak."

As for women priests, he remains "unimpressed by the arguments put forward to claim that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood . . . This is particularly true if one again asks whether it is a proven fact that Jesus acted with perfect knowledge and authority at the Last Supper, laying down eternal and divine rules for the church." On this basis, just about everything else — including the Church's sacramental teachings — could be jettisoned as well.

Doctrine and Governance by Vote

Bishop Robinson concludes with a detailed framework for a reformed church government: "There should be legislation that clearly sets the Peter-figure within the church and accountable to the church, just as Peter was. Among other matters, it should set out when the Peter-figure must have the consent of, or at least consult with, the bishops and/or the whole church."

There should also be a system of appraisal every six years for priests, bishops and even popes with procedures set in place to allow for wider participation by the Catholic population: "It would be possible today to know the mind of all the members of the church by means of a process of preparation and education that ended in a vote taken at the Masses on a given Sunday."

But given that in Australia fewer than 15 percent of Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday and many of them are religiously illiterate or strongly secularized, this exercise in church democracy could prove a challenge.

Ironically, for all of Bishop Robinson's concerns about "papal power," for much of the time since Vatican II the Church in Australia (as in most Western countries) has been effectively run by people sharing many of Bishop Robinson's views — the local elites in religious orders, Catholic education offices, liturgy bodies, theologates, universities, seminaries, etc. Notwithstanding "dictatorial" statements from popes and Vatican congregations, it has been a case of business as usual, generally under weak or supportive bishops with only the barest of lip service paid to Rome's directives.

Those calling loudest for "democracy" in the Church really mean a form of "guided democracy," with Rome leaving the local elites to continue running things, unhampered by strong "papal" bishops like Cardinal George Pell. Meanwhile, the legacy of this "spirit of Vatican II" period has been a steady decline in knowledge, belief and practice of the faith, aggravated by the inroads of secularism.

Doubtless there are areas of discretion in Church disciplines and structures that can be fine-tuned from time to time. But putting not only these but virtually all the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings under the microscope, as Bishop Robinson has done in his book, is another matter. Re-evangelization (as sought in Sydney's current "Pastoral Plan") is the immediate, basic priority if the Church is not to fade further into a small remnant, like the more liberal Christian denominations.

As Christopher Pearson, one of the few media commentators to be critical of Bishop Robinson's book, remarked in the Weekend Australian in September, "I have bad news for the bishop and for his publisher. Somehow I don't think the Vatican is going to find it hard to condemn propositions such as these, whether or not they're put in the form of questions . . . Nor are most lapsed Catholics in the market for this sort of earnest rationale for loose living. It might have had more of an audience in the libertarian early '90s, but in good Pope Benedict's reign, it just seems strangely anachronistic."

Michael Gilchrist is author of the recently published study of Australian Catholicism, Lost! Australia's Catholics Today (

© Ignatius Press

This item 7927 digitally provided courtesy of