Reshaping the Church with Bishop Robinson and Pope Francis


Geoffrey Robinson's book 'For Christ's Sake' features that title superimposed over the image of a person in silhouette holding up a crossCulture has become a popular word to analyse organisations whose members do bad things: football clubs whose players dismantle bars and their patrons; political parties whose members are paraded before courts; and churches in which sexual abuse has been rife.

The culture of an organisation comprises the shared attitudes, values, patterns of relationship and practices that make it more likely that members will act in particular ways. In an army unit where there is a culture of binge drinking and contempt for women, more incidents of sexual assault may well occur than in other units where these features are absent.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's recent book on the culture of the Catholic Church carries on his critique of the factors that have contributed to clerical sexual abuse of children and to denial and concealment of it. The aspects of Catholic culture that he believes conducive to it include: a relationship with God dominated by fear; immaturity; compulsory clerical celibacy, an exclusively male caste standing over the church; a lonely way of life; a cult of privacy and secrecy; a compulsive need to defend the actions and attitudes of the Pope.

Together these things made it more likely that priests will be tempted to abuse children, will have the opportunity to do so, will abuse with impunity, and have their actions denied and covered up by others.

If this is the culture, how can it be changed? Robinson's answer is to call for a new Church council that includes an equal number of laypeople, with women proportionately represented. Its one topic would be to identify the aspects of the Catholic culture that encouraged sexual abuse and to make the changes necessary. He together with Bishops Pat Power and Bill Morris have initiated a petition endorsing this proposal.

Robinson's analysis of harmful aspects of Catholic culture and endorsement of a Church council as the remedy are persuasive. He has the personal authority that comes from himself having been abused, and from giving many years to persuading Catholics to attend to the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, to recognise their responsibility to them, and to begin to institute effective safeguards.

A Church council could lead Catholics to address the harm done to people by the sexual abuse of children and to endorse structural changes. It may be a necessary condition for addressing the evil of clerical sexual abuse.

But a council focused on sexual abuse may not alone be sufficient to deal with the issues Robinson raises. It would assess the contribution made to sexual abuse by the aspects of Church culture identified by Robinson and by other participants, and make the institutional changes it believes necessary. But if it decided that some of the aspects of Church culture indicted by Robinson were not material to sexual abuse, they may be inconsistent with the Gospel. They would still need to be addressed.

Institutional changes, too, are insufficient unless relationships and attitudes change. Australians infatuated with cricket will recognise the truth of this in the contrast between the measures introduced by the Argus report and the performance of the national team. Medieval reformers certainly recognised it when they described the church as always needing reform in head and members. They insisted on the importance of good preaching, particularly embodied in the person and words of the pope, to make central what the Church is about.

From this perspective there is a happy conjunction between Robinson's project and the way of proceeding of Pope Francis. He has put his authority behind the deconstruction of a clerical culture built on the power and incontestability of the papacy. He has done so in in the name of the deeper Gospel values that the church serves.

His constant description of himself as the Bishop of Rome rather than as Pope, his preference for simplicity of life, dress and liturgy, his immediate contact with ordinary people as human beings and not simply as members of a religious or ethnic group, his concern for the poor, his conversational forms of teaching and listening and his focus on the example of Christ are the antithesis of churchiness and of clericalism. They also enable people to imagine a Church culture more deeply grounded in the Gospel than that criticised by Robinson.

Institutional reform of the Church and imaginative leadership are complementary. To shape a church which reaches out effectively to victims of sexual abuse, in which sexual abuse is seen as abhorrent, and in which appropriate structures discourage it, is essential. This can happen only if Catholics' imagination is captured by something freshly discovered as well as by something abhorred. That is where radical leadership comes in.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Geoffrey Robinson, For Christ's Sake



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Existing comments

When there is a culture of abuse within an organisation what is often needed is intervention from outside that organisation to bring about changes, to see with 'fresh eyes' as it were. That's difficult to achieve within a Church. Geoffrey Robinson's call for a Church council comprising an equal number of laypeople, with women proportionately represented seems definitely a good strategy. And Francis' counter-cultural leadership in the Catholic Church must be very welcome indeed. I've been reading a bit about his current time in Brazil.
Pam | 24 July 2013

Thank you Andrew for your review of Bishop Robinson's book. It is a timely reminder for us that it is not just the structure but an underlying desire for right relationships and a willingness to change attitudes that is most significance .Otherwise we will look good but be rotten in the core.Any change " guru" will tell you that it is much easier to change a "thing" like a structure, with new policies and procedures.The real work is in changing hearts - that hold the attitudes , hearts that have built the relationship and minds that have built the structures. Careful reflection on the fullest implications the message of Jesus - love god and love one another as I have loved you. Pope Francis has a refreshingly humble take on his role and does auger the potential for a new heart and mind to be created...... how willing are we?
Mary Leask | 25 July 2013

How much notice will the established church take of what Bishop Robinson says? My guess is the above review is the only one we will see in any Catholic publication. For sure the diocesan papers such as the Sydney Catholic Weakly (sic) and the Brisbane Catholic Leader will not be allowed to touch it. Recent evidence from the child abuse tragedy in country New South Wales show how pathetic our church has been led in recent times. I see no brighter future while we are saddled with unimaginative self serving Bishops.
grebo | 25 July 2013

The research evidence says you're half right, Andrew: relationships are a huge component of behaviour change and the problems you address won't change until the homosocial peer networks within which the Church is governed change. But I'm afraid there is no evidence that changing "attitudes" works well. In fact, it's the other way around - change behaviour and attitudes follow. There's a good model at . This is where I think Geoffrey Robinson is "spot on". What he calls "culture" is in fact the organizational values, habits and practices that need a radical shake-up. There, Pope Francis seems to made a remarkably good start at dismantling the group-think.
Terry | 25 July 2013

'Lonely priest'-my eye! To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; To heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; To have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity To teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ. —Lacordaire
Father John George | 25 July 2013

Thankyou again, Andrew, for putting the focus finger on where the problem pulses lay - Francis has given us cause to hope that crooked paths may be straightened - dare we dream of better times ahead, be it ever a test of spiritual patience. Cheers to Bishops Morris, Power and Robinson but I think they have a hard garden to hoe. It's over the top but what a catholic world it would be if for some time of forced ferment and gestation the pew folks just stopped putting money on the plate - sadly our church institutional culture might start to take notice of the 'little people'.
p goodland | 25 July 2013

I've been following the NSW Special Inquiry into the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and it seems to me that the most important thing needed is for a Diocese to execute their responsibility for people under their care effectively, with appropriate delegation to experts in the area. The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle started up a child protection service, now called Zimmerman Services, which responds to the needs of that Diocese in this area, in terms of training, advice, police checks, healing support. This seems to me to be a logical way of addressing the issue of child sexual abuse in the various instrumentalities of a Diocese. The issues that Bishop Robinson raises may well be important in creating a culture of mature faith within priests but it doesn't deal with the issue directly. The hurt of victims of sexual abuse seems to be compounded when a supposedly loving church doesn't take their responsibility to care and support them seriously on the one issue that gives them the most need of it. Having appropriately delegated people working on the issue day in and day out, can have a major impact on the culture of an organisation.
AD Stephens | 25 July 2013

The culture of an organisation ("the shared attitudes, values, patterns of relationship and practices that make it more likely that members will act in particular ways") is critical to an organisation's mission. That culture is a direct outcome of the leadership and governance of an organisation. The Church's dysfunctional culture can only be fixed by a leadership that rejects the authoritarianism and discrimination that is the essence of clericalism. The petition of retired Bishops Robinson, Power and Morris at last names the problems with some authority. I pray that current bishops will display the necessary leadership and true commitment to Christ's teachings, to listen to the people of the Church, and to speak out on the need for immediate change. A good start would be to appoint some of the many top women theologians to head some of the Vatican's dicasteries such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, posts that do not require ordination but exercise great authority. The failure to introduce gender balance in the Church's leadership has nothing to do with the ban on the ordination of women and suggests that a major failing in the Church's culture is sexism.
Peter Johnstone | 25 July 2013

Well written and enough to have me sign the petition, something I just don't do, until now. How can the hierarchy be so heartless and blind. Heartbreaking for all the wonderful priests who dedicate their lives to God. Laity and there are still plenty of us - we need to pray a whole lot harder for good to come out of this crime.
Jane | 25 July 2013

I never cease to be amazed at the lucidity and conciseness of Andrew's articles on a variety of issues - not just on the state of the catholic church in the 21st century as in this article. He is a fine product of a Jesuit education, as is our current Pope. Of course a Jesuit education itself doesn't guarantee that the graduate who emerges will be a person of moral rectitude with a keen social conscience. Knowledge may be power but it does not equate with goodness. Knowing what needs to be done doesn't equate with getting it done. I regret to say in a situation where revolutionary change is required the church needs someone with the strategic analytical powere and the tactical organisational skills of a Vladimir Lenin. Better still the skills of the Jesuit-educated Marxist Fidel Castro. Maybe some of the South American flair of combining passion with performance is just what the church needs. Forget the theory let's get on with the praxis!
Uncle Pat | 25 July 2013

It's pretty hard to read the Pentateuch and come away with the idea that God prefers "simple" liturgy. Pius XII had it right: his liturgies were of the highest degree of solemnity, yet privately he slept on planks of rough wood and ate very modest meals.
HH | 25 July 2013

It would help if both Bishops (Robinson and Morris) would give evidence at the Royal Commission of what they knew and encountered in their times as appointed Bishops and perhaps they might reflect on the claim that they are "ontologically" changed. If so how can they possibly be of use to us the real people of the Church, those not "ontologically" changed? Is this another statement made under papal infallability?
Laurie Sheehan | 25 July 2013

Thank you Andrew. We have Francis: courageous,willing to lead by example and his humility enables him to be open to others and LISTEN.We have many christian men and women who have not been heard, some ex communicated (St Mary McKillop) and Bishops Robinson and Power's voices have been silenced as though they are blasphemous. The Vatican is so far from Christ's message I feel it is blatantly and perilously blasphemous. Without humility how can we accept and share all our gifts? Pope John 23rd began this liberation and celebration of a living God challenging us to prune dead wood. The Christian message offers radical personal transformation. Emotional,imaginative and rational intelligence enable us to experience God and help us to open the doors and windows and see,hear and breathe the spirit of God who cannot be contained.God's Love and Spirit cannot be monopolised, branded, exclusive.Not blinded by tradition Francis espouses true humility, the message of Christ: LOve One Another: How can you love from behind a closed,secretive and self- pontificating (Idolised) structure/fortress.
Catherine | 25 July 2013

Andrew – thank you yet again for your deep thinking article that inspired such comment so far. What effective reflection and preaching! We God’s People need to act – behaviour leads the way to attitude change. It seems you, Geoffrey Robinson and Pope Francis are encouraging renewal and reshaping the Church via Hope, the Christian virtue we have down played since Vatican 11 went in reverse. How different in approach compared with the evidence (and long standing influential attitude expressed) this week at the Maitland Inquiry reported for ABC News by Dan Cox yesterday and commented by Catherine Armitage (SMH 24 July 2013). Will our Bishops Conference defend, remain silent or act?
Kevin O'Flaherty Kirra | 25 July 2013

This article (lucidly written as always) raises a number of questions, Andrew. 1. What has happened in response to the results of the longest and most comprehensive enquiry into sexual abuse (the Irish commission over 9 years)? This commission reported that of all reported cases of abuse since the 1940's, 2-7% occurred in the 40's-50's, a massive leap to 23% in the 60's, followed by a continuing rise over the 70's and 80's to some 35-37% and a dramatic fall to 9% and continuing downwards during the 90's-20's. The societal revolution of the drug-coloured sixties or the aftermath of the liberalisation of Vatican II as far as the Church was concerned??? 2. Why is there a need for "proportional' gender representation in any proposed advisory council? Surely any such council should be based on expertise not on gender and thus would include both genders not necessarily proportionally represented. Gender has no individulal characteristic which qualifies it as expert on any matter (other than the experience of childbirth and motherhood!) but would exclude many of both sexes on matters of knowledge and expertise. 3. Are the retired bishops 30 years too late? Doubtful that their petition will influence Pope Francis whose life and performance as Pope to date indicates quite clearly that he is well advanced in reforming the Church.
john frawley | 25 July 2013

The culture of the Catholic Church not only contributed to clerical sexual abuse of children but also, shamefully, promoted "denial and concealment of (the abuse)." Today's Newcastle-Herald (25 July 2013 - ) reports that a senior priest defended his decision not to tell the police about an abusing priest "on the grounds that the victims who had come to him for help were adamant that they did not want the police involved." This was clearly a dilemma for the senior priest concerned, but surely this apparent protection of a victim's privacy prevents the police protecting other possible victims of that alleged abuser. A more accountable and Christ-like culture, less concerned with the protection of the institution, would surely have the Church at the very least discussing with the police how they could report an alleged abuser while protecting the privacy of the reporting victim. It seems that the Church's culture did not encourage its authorities to think that way.
Peter Johnstone | 25 July 2013

Who needs AN ecumenical council to shore up deficiencies when a beach of 1 plus million international youth enthusiastically endorse the magisterium [Pope and bishops], symbols of the cross and Our Blessed Mother, on Copacabana Beach, Argentine versus 1 retired bishop and lame duck petition:?
Father John George | 25 July 2013

Please advise, urgently, where and how we church members may sign Bishop Robinson's petition?
Margaret | 25 July 2013

Thank you for this article Father Hamilton, I am so disgusted by the revelations of the Victorian and NSW investigations into clerical sexual abuse and the secondary crimes of church leaders covering up these crimes against children, I struggle to have any trust in the Catholic Church as an institution. I am so pleased that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has once again shown leadership and courage by putting forward his new book along with the Petition to Pope Francis. I am so pleased he has been joined by Bishop Pat Power and Bishop Bill Morris. Pope Francis has given so many Catholics including myself a reason to hope that our Church may once again "reclaim the Spirit of Jesus" to quote Bishop Robinson.
Margaret M.Coffey | 26 July 2013

Its about time that : 1/married priests were allowed again. After we already have them in the form of ex Anglican clergy. 2.Open dialogue was encouraged at grass roots. 3/Social Teaching was taught to youngsters and practised locally as the norm. 4/Communication was stimulated especially within the local and county press
Patsy Stevens | 26 July 2013

I think it's right to name relationships as the key to the culture of any organisation. Once it's a large organisation power seems to creep in to how some people see their role, and abuses of authority then happen. But the one other relationship that needs to be a point of focus is each person's relationship with themselves - if our personal values are in order and we are mindful of how we conduct ourselves in our dealings with other people, our behaviour will have more integrity and we willbe less likely to violate the rights and well-being of others. I don't mean a culture of fear of God, rather a culture that accepts our responsibility for our own life and actions, and values the gift we have of being able to determine right and wrong, aided by our faith - in fact, a celebration of who we really are. The idea of a council holds merit, and having equal numbers of men and women would be a great way to increase the range of voices being heard. The scope of the council's deliberations would need to be wider than the culture that has accepted abuse, it needs to be about relationships at all levels, including those in positions of authority whose role is to serve others, especially the vulnerable. I continue to admire Geoffrey Robinson's contribution to the Church and to this particular issue - his courage is inspiring.
Carmel | 26 July 2013

Bishop Robinson’s words are a breath of fresh air and stand in dramatic contrast to the way high profile church representatives have been conducting themselves of late. Over the past few days, I have been wincing at the testimony of Fr Lucas who seems to think that the church has no responsibility or duty of care outside its own cloisters. Let us all pray for much needed honesty, openness and humility and a willingness for change.
MARK MEEHAN | 26 July 2013

Margaret, you will find the petition at . Or it's probably simpler to google geoffrey robinson petition and go where you are pointed
Anna | 27 July 2013

Ulaanbaatar. Dear Andy, congratulations on a wonderful and balanced article, I consider this the best of all your many articles that I have read. Michael Kennedy
Michael Kennedy | 27 July 2013

The Church is in continual need of redemption. The paedophilia scandals - not confined to the Catholic Church alone in this country and also effecting that Church worldwide - were/still are an indicator that all was not well with the Church or the society in which this flourished and was continually covered up by the Church and its hierarchy and supporters. For a good on-the-ground assessment of this in a particular parish under what was laughably referred to as the spiritual oversight of the retired Bishop Ronald Mulkearns I would most strongly recommend Unholy Trinity - The Hunt for the Paedophile Priest Monsignor John Day by Dennis Ryan. It would be liberating thinking this mindset and modus operandi are things of the past, but, given some recent statements by people such as Brian Lucas, I am not sure they have been quite excised. It is indeed the clericalist mindset in both clergy and laity which perpetuates this. Pope Francis, with his life of radical simplicity and humility in discarding some of the more vainglorious forms of address and lifestyle, is possibly a beacon to a new way of being Church. I am unsure whether a General Council of the Church, as suggested by Geoffrey Robinson, would necessarily provide the answers. My feeling is that only a genuine coming together of Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism may lead to the spiritual renewal necessary to save the Christian Church.
Edward F | 30 July 2013

Copacabana Beach demonstrated His Holiness as the consummate antithesis of +Robinson. The clergy mitred or not were ensconced appropriately well above, beyond the 3 million [clergy enhanced beneath canopied dazzling lights']. The Pope like average preconciliar pastors dropped in on the people. PPs of yore could corroborate with preconcliar rain stained visitation books[instead of turning up at some talkfest postgonesillier seminar] Pope Francis[in return flight] reaffirmed rock solid ban on women priests! priestesses- the cynosure of all liberal platforms-and while consoling gay orientation, shored-up traditional teaching against mortal sin by gay sexual acts. To align +Robinson on the same continuum as His Holiness is unmitigated wishful thinking - I grant the pope is no grinning from ear to ear Torquamada, but he is a daily communicant and fervent Catholic! Viva Papa!
Father John George | 30 July 2013


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