The Australian media of all colours are running with the story of a petition launched by assorted disaffected Australian bishops calling for a Vatican III to address the underlying causes of the child abuse scandal.
- The ABC reports the bishops' claim that they hope to generate an 'Arab Spring' movement in the Church (yep, because the rise of militant Islam we've seen in the middle East in the wake of that movement has been such a positive thing for Christians, women, and others hasn't it?!);
- The Australian reports that "A group of rebel Catholic bishops have today launched a petition to tell the people at the top - the Pope and the Vatican - to act to stop the abuse of children within the church.";
- Barney Zwartz of The Age kicked off the story on Saturday, lauding Bishop Robinson as a 'crusader recruiting Catholics 'to force Vatican rethink about sexual abuse'.
Meanwhile in the real world, Pope Francis has once again emphasised his strong support for the reform agenda introduced by Pope Benedict XVI.
Sounds ok? Read more closely!
The Robinson and friends petition adopts that classic liberal ploy of wrapping up its poison in nice sounding rhetoric that we can all agree with.
The opening line of the petition, for example, says:
"We, the undersigned members of the Catholic Church, have been sickened by the continuing stories of sexual abuse within our Church, and we are appalled by the accounts of an unchristian response to those who have suffered."
Similarly, it is hard to object to the call for a Church that is as much for women as for men, for laypeople as for clergy, for the marginalised as for those in the mainstream; greater openness; greater participation and consultation; and a greater sense of mission.
I'm all for the need for reform in the Church to address the abuse scandal, as I argued yesterday.
But this one, if you examine it a little more closely, it is really just a rerun of past attempts to push the tired old - failed - liberal agenda of the abandonment of priestly celibacy, women priests, the rewriting morality in the light of societal norms and the like.
Time for Vatican III? Not yet!
The petition calls for a Vatican III to look at the underlying reasons for the mishandling of the abuse scandal:
"When so many people either offend or respond poorly, we cannot limit ourselves to blaming individuals, but must also look at systemic causes. The situation is so grave that we call for an Ecumenical Council to respond to the one question of doing everything possible to uproot such abuse from the Church and produce a better response to victims."
But is a council the best way to do this?
On this one, I agree with Cardinal Pell that the answer is clearly no.
As I've argued previously, Ecumencial Councils have not, in the main, proven an effective means of dealing with pastoral problems as opposed to doctrinal ones - as Vatican II so well illustrates. They generally cause years of disruption afterwards too, and frankly we need more time to recover from the last one.
Moreover, while there are undoubtedly many common heresies around at the moment that might in due course benefit from treatment by a Council (false ideas on individual conscience for example, in relation to morality), I don't think enough of the theological groundwork has yet been done to counter the false directions set by twentieth century Nouvelle Theologie.
More fundamentally, I don't think we should put the power of the Holy Spirit to turn hearts and minds to the test unnecessarily! Despite the clean up effort of the last few years - which resulted, inter alia, in the propagators of this petition, +Morris, Power and Robinson being given the boot from their respective dioceses - all too many bishops and Cardinals remain out and out liberals. That's largely due to some continued poor appointments (including in Australia). And of course, the fact that those with these kind of 'liberal' (read heretical) views thing they still have the numbers is in itself telling.
Accordingly, I'm with those who argue that what is really needed now is a syllabus of errors style document from the Pope. Such a document could potentially go a long way to addressing the doctrinal and other errors (such as acceptance of the false psychology that has led to the widespread acceptance of homosexuality as 'normal') that led to child abuse being seen as a mere 'mistakes' or 'misbehaviour'.
What's wrong with the petitions propositions?
The need for a Vatican III (and the call for laypeople to be part of it) aside, if you take a close look at what the petition identifies as the issues, you can see just how much it reflects the 'liberal' agenda rather than something that is genuinely Catholic.
A lot of it seems to be based on some fairly fundamental confusion on just what is and isn't Catholic theology and teaching.
In some cases, it is not at all clear just what the petition's authors are really getting at. Perhaps all would become clear if one could be bothered to read Bishop Robinson's latest book. But I'm betting most of those who have signed up so far (and who will sign up) haven't done that, so I do think more clarity is called for.
Let me go through the list of issues the petition's authors would like to see on the table.
1. The continuing influence of the idea of an angry God
First, it is hard to see that the idea of an angry God has much influence at all at the moment, quite the contrary! But more fundamentally, the occasional existence of God's anger, though something of an anthropomorphism, is not something concocted by the Church, but rather is Scriptural. In particular, Scripture repeatedly instructs us that 'fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'. Catholicism (unlike old style Protestantism) teaches, of course, that we should strive to progress in our spiritual lives, as quickly as possible from servile fear (fear of getting into trouble) to filial fear (reverent awe). But please, let's not ditch the fundamentals of revelation and try and pretend that hell does not exist.
2. The immaturity that arises from passive obedience in adults
Technically, like the 'angry God' concept, 'passive obedience' is actually a protestant concept rather than a Catholic one - it refers to Christ's suffering on the Cross for our sins (Catholics do not separate out active from passive obedience). I suspect what they are actually complaining about is the idea that we should accept things on the authority of the Church, including both doctrines and pastoral decisions.
Again, true obedience - even unto death - is actually something mandated by Christ, who instituted the hierarchical nature of the Church through the Apostles. What we are asked to give is not 'passive' obedience, but true obedience, a wholehearted commitment to doing God's will assisted and supported by the Church he has set in place.
3. The teaching of the Church on sexual morality
Teachings on subjects like homosexuality, abortion and contraception cannot be changed, they are part of the deposit of faith.
4. The part played in abuse by celibacy, especially obligatory celibacy
Celibacy is not the cause of the abuse crisis - the problem is just as endemic amongst married clergy of other ecclesial communities and elsewhere. In reality now more than ever we need a recommitment to celibacy and virginity for the sake of the kingdom as a counter to the sick sexuality that pervades our society.
5. The lack of a strong feminine influence in every aspect of the Church
Actually the overwhelming evidence is that women run most parishes, holding virtually every position open to the laity. If there are issues to be addressed, it is around the need to revive religious life, which traditionally institutionalised the power of women in running many Church institutions, and in role of the laity in Church decision-making processes more generally, not the role of women in particular.
Or is this one (sigh), just code for the (impossible) ordination of women?
6. The idea that through ordination the priest is taken above other people (clericalism)
There is no doubt that clericalism is indeed rife - encouraged by 'look at me' style liturgy and the clericalisation of the laity through liturgical ministries inter alia. We don't need a council to address this though. Already Pope Francis has been vigorous in preaching that the priesthood is a ministry of service, not self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence, and doing his best to fight careerism and other failures of our times. Fixing the liturgy (bring back ad orientem worship) would help though!
7. The lack of professionalism in the life of priests and religious
I'm not sure what this means.
8. The unhealthy situations in which many priests and religious are required to live
Again, without having read Bishop Robinson's latest book, I'm not sure exactly what he means here. But if it is the lack of adequate support and community experienced by most priests and religious these days, I agree. Again though, solutions need to be found adapted to local conditions. We don't need a Council in Rome to address this.
9. The constant placing of right beliefs before right actions
Is this code for saying right belief is not actually required? That certainly seems to be implied by the introduction to the petition which suggests that we need "a greater concentration on the person and mission of Jesus Christ rather than on authority, laws, obedience and theological conformity."
Yet in reality surely both are needed - we act rightly because we believe rightly, not despite our beliefs! Hardly a matter for a Council.
10. The passion for secrecy and the hiding of faults within the Church, especially in the Vatican
But things do seem to be changing.
11. The ways in which the protection of papal authority has been put before the eradication of sexual abuse
What ways would those be exactly? Again, this seems to be code, in this case for rejecting the authority of the Pope despite all of the formal definitions of the faith on this subject.
Don't like papal authority? Become an Anglican or go Orthodox!
12. The provision of structures to make a reality of the ‘sense of faith’ (sensus fidei) of all Catholic people
Vatican II has already thoroughly dealt with this issue (have a read of the Decree on the Laity). One can either argue that its proposals have been tried and failed (have a look at the US history on national consultative bodies this one) or have never truly been implemented properly. Either way, what is needed is local action, not another Council.
13. The need for each Conference of Bishops to have the authority to compel individual bishops to follow common decisions in this matter.
Bishops Conferences have more often proved an instrument for the lowest common denominator rather than a force for good! And the Australian version is conducted entirely in secret, not even allowing lay observers to be present. Theological considerations on the nature of a diocese and its bishop aside, the last thing that should happen is for these bureaucratic empires to be given even more power.
Dealing with 'dissident' bishops
Before leaving this topic I wanted to comment on one other aspect of this sorry story, and that's the media handling of it.
That a petition of this kind can get any media traction at all is due to the status of its sponsors to be bishops of the Catholic Church.
This petition, as well as +Robinson's series of books, surely illustrates why those who clerics who are unable to uphold the actual teachings of the Church and instead of keeping quiet, actively dedicate themselves to its subversion should be stripped of titles like 'Emeritus' and ideally laicized.
Secondly, where is the Australian Church on this subject?
There have been no declarations on Bishop Robinson's latest book, and as far as I know, no comment on the petition either from the bishops, 'Catholic Voices' or anyone else. I don't think this sort of thing should go unchallenged.