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September 2002

Vatican II: from pause to forward

The great issues still to be resolved are sex and power, argues Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.

When bishops come together, they are at ease with discussion of pastoral issues, but much less comfortable with discussion of profound theological issues. This is true whether we are speaking of a meeting of the Australian bishops in conference or of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, and I believe it was true also of the Second Vatican Council.

The Council opened up perspectives, raised questions, indicated directions and made many beautiful and inspiring pastoral statements, but it frequently did not give the clear theological foundation on which to plan confidently for the church of the future. All too often the Council's treatment of a topic involved a tension between very different theological positions. This was certainly true of the Council's treatment of collegiality, conscience and marriage, among others. This is one of the major reasons we must speak of Vatican II as unfinished business.

It is important to understand that these tensions were present in the Council itself and in the documents it produced. Opposing groups within the church can quote different statements to support their own positions. It is not surprising, therefore, that these tensions are still with us.

Despite this, I am an optimist about the final outcome of the Council. In large part my optimism comes from the least likely source imaginable, the crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors that has engulfed the church.

It is my hope that, somewhere around the year 2100, an historian will be able to look back and say that serious change took place in the Catholic Church over the 100 years between 1960 and 2060. At first it was the Second Vatican Council that caused changes in most aspects of the church's life and had a quite profound effect on the way Catholic people lived their lives. Eventually, however, the changes of the Council seemed to come to a stop and go no further. It was then, in the 21st century, the historian will say, that the issue of sexual abuse forced further change. Serious change in an organisation as large and ancient as the Catholic Church requires an immense energy and it was the issue of sexual abuse alone that had that level of energy, for it was this issue that finally caused vast numbers of Catholic people around the world to rise up and say, 'This is not good enough. There must be change.'

And so, our future historian might report, a further series of profound changes came over the church in the first half of the 21st century. They were mainly in the two areas of sex and power. They did not come without fierce opposition, but the energy for change arising from sexual abuse was so great that eventually they did come.

Human development came to be put beside spiritual development and the two began to walk hand in hand. What was spiritually healthy and what was psychologically healthy began to shed light on each other. Sexuality was distinguished from sex, spirit and matter were reunited and joy in all of God's creation began to spread. The gifts of women came to be better appreciated. Power came to be seen as service, as Jesus had intended, and collaboration and empowerment became daily more common.

It is extremely unlikely that our historian will be able to report that everything became as perfect as this, but I hope that she will be able to report serious progress.

In bringing about these changes, I am not calling for a revolution or battles in the street in front of cathedrals. The issue of abuse is complex and sensitive, and it does not allow of instant and sweeping solutions. The whole church must work together. But the immense energy for change that the issue of sexual abuse has generated must not be lost. It must grow stronger, and it must be harnessed and used effectively.

I cannot speak of the whole issue of abuse here, but let me give a few examples. I would like to see a massive request from the Catholic people of the whole world to the pope, asking him to put in motion a serious study of any and all factors within the church that might foster a climate of abuse or contribute to the covering up of abuse. I would like to see an insistence that obligatory celibacy, attitudes to sex and sexuality and all the ways in which power is understood and exercised within the church at every level be part of this study. I would, however, want a truly serious and scientific study, far deeper than anything I have so far seen in newspapers or heard around a table.

As a second example, I would like to see a massive request/demand that the collegiality the Vatican Council spoke of be used to the full in responding to this crisis. If collegiality is not fully used in an issue so important, so down-to-earth and so crucial to the effectiveness of the church, then the Vatican Council is truly unfinished business. This surely means the Vatican listening to the needs of each country and not imposing solutions.

As a third example, I would like to see the 32 diocesan bishops and 150 leaders of religious institutes in Australia give up some of their independence for the sake of all of us acting as one on this issue. However, I realise that in the Catholic Church people treasure any independence they do have and are slow to surrender it. I also know that in the 19th century bishops rode roughshod over the rights of religious, especially women religious, so some religious can today be resistant to any suggestion that comes from a bishop. As I said, the issues can be complex and sensitive.

My thesis is simple. The Second Vatican Council was the greatest event in the church in my lifetime. It has inspired my life over the last 40 years. But because its theology was frequently far from clear, it is unfinished business, and two of the areas that demand further work are sex and power. For these two issues the crisis of sexual abuse alone gives the enormous energy that is needed for further change to occur. We should respond to the crisis of abuse for its own sake and the sake of the victims, but we should also seek to use its energy creatively, sensitively and intelligently in order to take further the unfinished business of the Council. n

Geoffrey Robinson is Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney. This text was his panel speech on the opening night of the Catalyst for Renewal Forum, 'Vatican II: Unfinished Business', held at St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, Sydney, in July 2002.

Graphic by Siobhan Jackson.

   
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