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Best of 2009: St Mary's, Bishop Robinson and the value of dialogue


Confroning Power and Sex in the ChurchFirst published March 2009

On Monday I passed St Mary's Church South Brisbane, en route to a national human rights consultation at the local Convention Centre. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were flying outside the church as were proclamations of Aboriginal treaty and the protest chant, 'We shall not be moved'.

I had seen and heard Fr Peter Kennedy in the media. His interview on Richard Fidler's ABC Conversation Hour was one of the most moving presentations about priestly pastoral ministry I have heard on the national airwaves. He wept openly as he recalled the death of an Aboriginal man in jail. His Q&A appearance with Tony Jones left me a little perplexed about what he actually believed about Jesus and the Church.

Knowing him and Archbishop Bathersby I was saddened that the standoff between such a pastoral bishop and a pastoral priest had come to this. Talk of mediation by retired High Court judge Ian Callinan has done nothing to lift my sadness. These disputes are not about property rights, and they are not resolved by assertion of property rights or conflicting claims of orthodoxy and pastoral practice.

The mainstream media has now canonised Kennedy and demonised Bathersby. The former may be justified, but the latter is not. Bathersby and Kennedy are both very pastoral, down to earth, no nonsense men. And yet it has come to this.

On Saturday I will participate in a public seminar in Sydney with over 300 Catholics gathering to discuss Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.

This is a pastoral book, which does not purport to be a learned theological text. It is a broad sweeping tome which highlights the concerns of a pastoral bishop reflecting on his years as a teacher and administrator. He devoted most of his later years as a bishop to improving the exercise of authority in shaping policies and practices appropriate for dealing with the curse of sexual abuse within the Church.

Bishop Geoffrey will be in attendance. Unsurprisingly Cardinal Pell declined the invitation to speak at the seminar. But he went one step further and prohibited the use of church property for such a discussion.

Last year the Australian Catholic Bishops provided Bishop Geoffrey's publisher with a bonanza when they issued their brief, simplistic statement claiming that 'the Church's Magisterium teaches the truth authoritatively in the name of Christ. The book casts doubt upon these teachings.'

Though Robinson's fellow bishops conceded that 'the authority entrusted by Christ to his Church may at times be poorly exercised, especially in shaping policy and practice in complex areas of pastoral and human concern', they went on to claim: 'This does not invalidate the Church's authority to teach particular truths of faith and morals.'

The condemnation of the book without detailed argument but with the bald invocation of episcopal authority guaranteed sales which would otherwise have eluded the author and publisher.

The Church cannot thrive when its bishops feel constrained by fear, seeing no need to explain how and why they differ even from one of their own number who is game enough to express dissent from the Vatican's position. In his general acknowledgement of thanks to the unnamed persons who helped him with the book, Robinson writes, 'It says much about the need for change that, in the atmosphere that prevails within the church, I would be creating difficulties for them if I gave their names.'

Robinson expresses doubts about the Church's prudence and wisdom in making infallible declarations about Mary. He questions papal and Vatican declarations prohibiting discussion about the ordination of women. He asserts that the Church has locked itself in 'the prison of not being able to be wrong'. He nails the danger for church authorities who deny the primacy of the formed and informed conscience of the individual, and who purport to teach and rule authoritatively with power which is neither transparent nor publicly reasoned.

The recent PR disasters out of Rome, with the reception of the holocaust denying bishop and with the public's genuinely misinterpreted reading of the Pope's prescription for solving the AIDS crisis in Africa, highlight that hierarchical and secretive management of debate and dissent is no longer a prudent option for a Church committed to proclaiming the gospel as good news for all.

It is time for dialogue under sponsorship of our bishops. We all know that the majority of our bishops agree with many of Bishop Robinson's assertions. They might not choose his arguments or mode of public expression. But the time has long passed for the landowners to deny the peasants an opportunity to reflect conscientiously on the truth and on good pastoral practice. Were the bishops to participate more openly in the dialogue we would all be able to appreciate their human, pastoral presence and not just that of the Kennedys and Robinsons.

If there had been more open dialogue between John Bathersby and Peter Kennedy and between George Pell and Geoffrey Robinson, the Catholic Church would be more the Church that Jesus would want it to be.

The community roundtables in the national human rights consultation provide a public space where people of wildly divergent views can respectfully speak and be heard. Why can't we provide such spaces in the Church which, as John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor, 'puts herself always and only at the service of conscience'?

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. He will speak at the Catalyst for Renewal seminar on Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church this Saturday at the Salvation Army Hall, 140 Elizabeth St, Sydney.


Topic tags: st mary's south brisbane, peter kennedy, john bathersby, george pell, geoffrey robinson, power and sex



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Existing comments

As regards Bishop Robinson, Frank is spot on. But when it comes Peter Kennedy, he is treading muddy waters. My objection to Kennedy's behavior is his casual treatment of the sacrifice of the Mass. Slovenly dressed priests and equally inappropriate laity around the altar participating in the most sacred part of Catholic belief, the consecration and transubstantiation of the bread and wine. On this matter, Peter Kennedy deserved the wrath of all conventional and traditional Catholics. If he chose to go against the tide the he should have resigned his priestly duties and not challenge the Pope's representative in the Brisbane diocese.

philip herringer | 07 January 2010  

Thanks Philip Herringer. Spot on! We owe a great debt to Father Frank Brennan for the way he deals with these contentious issues but he is perhaps erring somewhat in charity through disregarding the offence given by Father Peter to many Catholic worshippers by the manner in which facilitated the dumbing down of the Eucharistic celebration. It is the Mass that matters!

Denis O'Leary | 07 January 2010  

Thank you Frank Brennan. Common sense again!!

When will 'the church' and all its members realise there is room for all and dissenting views do not mean that one is against the teachings of the church or against Christ Himself. Surely we have room in our church and our hearts for the Peter Kennedy's of this world and I continue to pray for George Pell to come down just a little from his ivory tower and LISTEN to us all.

Rosemary Keenan | 07 January 2010  

When Jesus was at table with friends in the upper room, John tells us that he removed his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. The 12 friends who were at table with him had all removed their sandals and were barefoot. Would you declare this slovenly attire? Priestly vestments are a hangover from the days of the Roman Empire, and as the consensus is with most human beings - hangovers are best not had!

Damien | 07 January 2010  

Frank BRENNAN is the sort of bloke I would choose to "have beside me in the trenches" in war or in peace. the TRUTH as each of us sees it in his own heart must be stated without fear of consequences or all adherence to dogma is false and cowardly.

jack kennedy | 07 January 2010  

I disagree with Fr Brennan, so I must be a traditionalist?

We are talking about the Catholic FAITH here and, for me, that is not something to debate in the marketplace, which I am sure is why Cardinal Pell declined the seminar?

Bishops (and priests) 'game enough to express dissent from the Vatican's position'; - IN PUBLIC FORUMS; - are the ones to explain themeselves, particularly if the VATICAN has condemned their views!

A major crisis for Catholicism today is clergy who believe the Church is 'old fashioned or out of date' and who see seminars as the place to debate doctrines proclaimed since Christ was with us!

Sadly their numbers seem to be growing; - but they are delusioned if they see this as the work of the Holy Spirit!

I should add,I have no issue with them expressing dissenting views; - the question I have is why they don't do it in appropriate Church forums, and why, WHEN THE POPE SAYS NO, they seek to move the 'debate' to public seminars.

If a Qantas Pilot did that in the business world he would be sacked before flying another company plane yet these priests seem to see nothing wrong with attacking Church leadership in any forum they can?

Geoff Sargent. Toowoomba | 07 January 2010  

Well expressed Frank. I have read and discussed Geoffrey Robinson's book with clergy and friends. It is a shame that open discussion is frowned on by the powers that be.

Gavin | 07 January 2010  

An excellent article by frank Brennan. What & where is this conference? Wiil we receive feedback on the conference deliberations?

Bev Smith | 08 January 2010  

Thanks again for a succinct appraisal of two seemly disparate areas in our contemporary church, Frank.

Why do we as Catholics have a problem with constructive critique? We all make mistakes from the Pope down? Bishop Robinson’s insights are different from the Peter Kennedy issues. However there is a link around the theme of personal power and how it is used. Peter Kennedy was attempting to be inclusive in many ways that some might not agree with. Bishop Robinson is addressing the abuse of sacred trust and power.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 09 January 2010  


"Priestly vestments are a hangover from the days of the Roman Empire, ..."

Actually, priestly vestments in the Judeo-Christian tradition are a "hangover" from what God commanded in Exodus 28:

"Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen."

But I agree with you entirely on the matter of hangovers as such ...


Hugh | 12 January 2010  

No, it is definitely a hangover from the Roman Empire, just ask any priest who gets dressed up in that clobber to celebrate Eucharist, I'm positive they will confirm this.

Another hangover from the Roman Empire is patronage. This is evident in our bishops. Very rarely does a man of the people actually become bishop, which is why it was so surprising, and refreshing, for a man like Terry Brady to be made a bishop. There is this unfortunate tradition that keeps seeing the same kind of men made bishop, those who fancy power. I wonder if the Vatican could ever host discussions on how this could be done differently? I'm sure if they bothered to consult the members of the Church whose shoulders they sit on, they would be confronted with a harsh reality.

I genuinely feel sorry for Bishop Robinson because he had the guts to speak about something that is an important issue for the Church. What a sad state of affairs that none of the other bishops in Australia could have had half the guts Bishop Robinson had. He will be remembered because he dared to speak the truth. A quality all bishops should have.

Damien | 13 January 2010  

Damien, the style of priestly vestments is influenced by the courtly attire of imperial Rome, but the obligation to wear non-slovenly clothing whilst officiating at the liturgy goes back, as I say, to the scriptures.

Moreover, we shouldn't assume that the Last Supper was a 1960s style bean bag/coffee table affair. It was a sacred ritual at which specific prayers were said and psalms sung. What was the nature of the "outer robe" Jesus removed? The very fact that He had to remove it suggests it was no ordinary attire.

As for Bishop Robinson, if he's a Catholic, then I'm obviously not: our beliefs differ markedly.

Hugh | 13 January 2010  

Hugh, I'm not really interested in debating the dress up routine of priests, although I think some decent biblical exegesis may assist you in re-evaluating your own position.

I think it is highly possible that bean bags, or an ancient form such as cushions, were used at the Last Supper. It was definitely not a meal had in the way that has been depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous painting of the event. And bean bags or cushions do not take away from the fact that it was a sacred meal involving prayers and rituals. In the same way, do you think that footwear should be removed during Eucharist. I know I personally enjoy removing my footwear to partake in Eucharist, especially when it is nice, soft carpet.

It is unfortunate you can dismiss your Catholic identity so quickly, simply because you disagree with a Bishop. Try not to let such things get to you so easily.

Damien | 18 January 2010  

Interesting responses, Damien - I haven't been here for a while.

I majored in Biblical studies, but try as I might I can't find anything that suggests that the Jews at any time BC (or after, for that matter) treat the requirements for solemnity in worship - including vesture - as anything other than obligatory, nor any that suggests Christ and His early followers spurn these Divine commands. Any tips?

Last Supper not a la Da Vinci - agreed there. However it was celebrated, though, it wasn't with a "let's get away from those hoary old nitpicking rituals, mate" that we were forced to endure at coffee-table Masses in the late '70s and early '80s with Father "call me Ted".

And no problems with no shoes in the right context - eg we creep to the Cross unshod on Good Friday (EF): then it's a mark of profound respect.

Relax, I'm ditching simply the title 'Catholic' if that's what accurately designates Bishop Robinson's belief-set. His radically contradicts mine, which I see fully expressed in the creed of my parents, Pope Benedict, Mary Mackillop, Chesterton, Bellarmine, Aquinas, Irenaeus, and I believe, Peter. I'm sticking with them. What's in a name? Cheers.

Hugh | 20 January 2010  

This is a wonderful article and a healthy debate. Something that strikes me most particularly is the ability of some to embrace democratic and feudal values simultaneously. One may, on the one hand, enjoy every freedom to speak out on any social issue, to debate, to lobby, to campaign: this is a democratic Australian privilege. On the other hand, as an Australian Catholic, one must simply obey. As in Communist China discussion within the Church is centralised and directed. Debate or disagreement with directives is seen as a threat to authority and discouraged, sometimes to the point of ex-communication. Some, it seems, simply want to obey, without question. They are able to do this whilst exercising democratic privilege in every other aspect of life. For many others the tension within this contradiction is simply too much to bear. They need to speak and should speak. A Church directive ordering silence on a matter of sexual misconduct does not come from Christ. Likewise a directive against offering communion to homosexuals does not come from Christ. It comes from an institution stifled with fear about its own fallibility; stifled by a chronic inability to confess and discuss its own fears and failings.

James Waller | 25 January 2010  

Weeping to the Cross unshod on Good Friday??? Is this a ritual you partake in Hugh? Does this mean you also have straw as a matress, sand in your pillow and wear a hairshirt? Robinson is a Catholic who seeks to bring healing to a very unfortunate situation. The situation is made worse by those in power who choose to ignore it. They are not in their Office to have it easy, they are there to work. Cardinal Newman said, distinction not division.

Damien | 02 February 2010  

Damien, I have no idea about "weeping" to the Cross, but it sounds like an excellent exercise. (There is a "Mass for the Gift of Tears" in the Roman Missal- New and Old - perhaps that's a link?) Our simple "Creeping to the Cross" partially recapitulates the more elaborate, inspiring exercise of medieval monarchs: I would be very moved to see our PM or GG perform same.

And hair shirts, etc are regarded as commendable exercises by us non-Albigensians who believe in the fundamental unity of matter and spirit in man AND in the reality and impact of original sin.

In any case, we are in happy agreement that being unshod at a liturgy doesn't necessarily merit damnation! I still look forward, though, to your (shall we say, peer-reviewed?) evidence that the Jews, Our Lord, and the early Church didn't give a fig for the liturgical strictures of Exodus relating to vestments, etc.

I'm sorry to see that you identify B'p Robinson's cluster of beliefs as "Catholic". It seems that you (and he) and I worship on two different mountaintops - I care not for labels. Oh well, time to drag out my ecumenical dialogue suit once more.

Hugh | 06 February 2010  

P.S. Damien, of course, I'm entirely in accord re. the mess the hierarchy has made with respect to clergy abuse. I don't know what you believe, but I believe in the perennial teaching of the Magisterium in the Church I belong to* regarding mortal sin, the specifications as to grave matter (including sexual sins), the existence and eternity of Hell, the responsibilities of pastoral office, the gravity of scandal, etc, etc.

I also take note of a saint, bishop and doctor of my Church - John Chrysostom, who wrote: "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." Good enough for me.

* I was wont to call it "Catholic", but apparently others professing entirely different religious opinions to mine - opinions I hope I would die resisting - may have purloined this brand name. No matter - it's the substance which counts.

Hugh | 06 February 2010  

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