Thursday, July 17, 2008


by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Picking up at chapter twelve:

Far too often the Catholic Church has believed that it had such a level of divine guidance that it did not need the right to be wrong. As a result, both theologically and psychologically it can be bound to decisions of the past. It can be unable to move forwards, even when clear evidence emerges that earlier decisions were conditioned by their own time and that the arguments for them are not as strong as they were once thought to be. It has not been able to face the idea that on important issues and for centuries of time it might have been wrong. ...

I strongly believe that the future health of the church depends upon its being set free from the prison of the past. Only then can the church as a whole have the freedom to grow.
(p. 236)

When I consider the old thinking on the Jews and what has emerged since Vatican II, I have to say that Bishop Robinson makes a valid point. If we are to take past encyclicals as infallible, we cannot be engaging in the kinds of ecumenical and interreligious activities that the last and current popes are leading.

Are there a number of important issues where serious questions have been raised, but the prison of the past makes it difficult or even impossible to have an open and intelligent discussion? Do the following matters come into this category? (p. 250)

In this category Bishop Robinson lists:

1. Original Sin.

Under this heading he writes:

...it does not seem wise to base religious belief on the idea that a state of original justice and innocence once existed and that the whole human race fell from this state through the actions of the first hominids to possess some beginnings of a sense of self-consciousness and moral responsibility, whatever their names (if they had any). There is an obvious problem in claiming that death did not exist until the fall had occurred....

The story of Adam and Eve is part of a longer story of human beings making progress in technology and culture, but not always making the same progress in morality. The
stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood and the Tower of Babel must be seen as parts of the one story. The answer of God to this story was not final punishment and destruction, but the call of Abram and the beginning of salvation history. (p. 252)

2. A 'Tradition' Outside the Bible:

The Second Vatican Council did much to raise the profile of the bible within the Catholic Church and there is universal agreement that it made lasting changes to the balance between the bible and what has been handed on within that church. And yet this is one more example of where that council moved away from the past but did not find a clear statement to replace older statements, leaving us with compromise and even contradiction. (p. 253)

3. The Ordination of Women:

I have not been impressed by the arguments put forward to claim that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, so whenever I mention bishops or priests in this book, I do not assume that they will be exclusively male forever, and I hope that the language I use reflects this. (p. 253)

Robinson reiterates the teaching of JPII on the subject, acknowledging that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all Christ's faithful", and Ratzinger's claim that "the question had been decided 'infallibly'", and that "Catholics were not free to discuss a question that had been infallibly decided once and for all." But then he goes on to question it, asking, among other things, "Does the teaching on the ordination of women meet the essential requirements for an infallible statement?" (p. 253-254)

4. The Assumption:

The declaration of Pope Pius XII in 1950 expressly invoked infallibility and certainly fulfilled all the technical requirements for an infallible statement.

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.
(p. 255)

5. Birth Control:

In fact and in practice, there has been no discussion of the morality of birth control since July 1968 when Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humane Vitae. Since that time all discussion has been about papal authority. To make progress on this question, do we need to turn the discussion back from authority to birth control and look at the arguments again in the light of both the First and Second Testament teaching on sex? (p. 256)

6. The Sacrament of Reconciliation:

In their own way, the crowds [at reconciliation services with general absolution] have been a profound affirmation of the essentials of the church's tradition in this field, for they have been examples of people voting with their feet. To find out why fewer people are using individual confession today, we should look more closely at past defects of individual reconciliation. (p. 256)

7. Infallibility:
If we must assume infallibility in order to proclaim it infallibly, can it ever be a question that has been finally resolved and is beyond review? (p. 257)

8. Divorce and Remarriage:

Many Catholic bishops express a real uneasiness about the present teaching of their church on the subject of divorce and remarriage. They want to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus Christ, but 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. (p. 257)

9. The Certainty of Faith:

The Nicene Creed would remain basically as it is. There are only a few phrases in that Creed that might be considered in need of change. (p. 258)

It's quite a chapter! When I had finished it, it occurred to me that if he got his way, everything I believe in would be subject to debate and potential cancellation. Essentially his questions undermine the entire body of Catholic doctrine. And yet, as I said, there are areas in which I think he is correct. It is a very unsettling book.

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