Australian archbishop: Synod must change church’s language, actions

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, right, holds the Sept. 19 issue of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica before a session of the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican Sept. 20, 2013. (CNS/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

Rome — The ongoing worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops on family is being called to explore the “vast middle ground” between never-changing church teaching and committing iconoclasm, an Australian archbishop who leads one of the meetings’ English-language groups has said.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge said that while there are many opinions among prelates at the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops, one impression that has emerged is that some believe the choice facing the gathering is either to “abandon church teaching” or commit to a “bubble of immutability.”

“Between those two extremes … there is in fact a vast territory … to be explored,” said Coleridge, who heads the eastern Australia archdiocese of Brisbane.

“That's what the synod should be about,” said the archbishop. “The words and exercise of pastoral activity -- saying, 'OK, we don't go to one extreme and say we're going to chuck church teaching out the window or the other extreme and say we're going to do nothing.'”

“I think we have to explore all kinds of possibilities in that vast middle ground, where I think the Spirit is moving and calling us to be,” he said.

Coleridge, who also has been serving as the relator, or secretary, of one of the four English language working groups at the synod, was speaking Monday in an NCR interview. During the encounter, which lasted some 45 minutes, the archbishop touched upon an incredible number of themes.

The Australian gave his thoughts on how the synod relates to the Second Vatican Council, defended its organizers as having good intent in their work, called for the church to use more inclusive language towards gay people, said the church must propose a “less negative” reading of reality, and spoke of how bishops should be “unafraid of the future.”

In order to present Coleridge’s thoughts in their entirety, NCR is printing the full interview in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday.

Interview, part 2: Australian archbishop: Synod should propose 'less negative' reading of reality

In this first part, Coleridge begins by speaking of the similarities between the synod and Vatican II. The archbishop says this synod is “probably more directly and deeply related to Vatican II than any other synod I've known.”

Coleridge also comments at length on the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the synod, and says he does not subscribe to “theories of conspiracy and manipulation” about the organization of the gathering.

Above all, he calls for the church to renew its language -- saying that even words like indissolubility need refreshing.

“I think our language has to become more biblical,” states Coleridge.

“I'll give you a case in point that's come up today in a number of groups,” he continues. “The word that we cling to: Indissolubility.”

“First of all, it's canonical,” states the archbishop. “Secondly, it's negative in its form -- in-dissolubility.”

“Can we speak about what we mean when we use the word indissolubility in a way that is not canonical and is not negative in form?” he asks. “I think we can.”

Following is the first part of the interview with Coleridge, edited only lightly for context.

NCR: You have compared the synod to Vatican II, saying that Vatican II was a language event.

Coleridge: I think that's fundamentally important. I didn't expect to be elected to this synod. But when I was elected, I was very pleased to be part of it. But I was immediately conscious of the need to prepare, because one of the things I've learned in the past with the synod is that if you're not prepared it tends to sweep over you a bit.

So I worked very hard from early May until now to prepare. One of the things I did is read a considerable amount of John O'Malley, the Jesuit historian now based in Boston. And I was very struck by something O'Malley said in various places.

It was that it [Vatican II] was a language event. In other words, in a sense it left the church's core teaching untouched but spoke differently and in a way that was far more than cosmetic. Now, that seems to be really where we are.

And the other thing, in my own thinking I came to think that this particular synod -- or this synod journey, reaching back to late 2013 -- is probably more directly and deeply related to Vatican II than any other synod I've known.

But one of the things that Pope Francis has done is he's moved from the synod as event to the synod as journey, as process. And in that sense it's like Vatican II. Because Vatican II was a great fermentation, where a lot happened between the sessions, not just during the sessions.

And I hope -- it's still hard to know -- but I hope that's true of this journey, too.

It's becoming increasingly clear to me, and I think to all of us, by Oct. 25 we're not going to have done the work. It's just another step along the path of this journey. And clearly the Year of Mercy is radically linked, in the pope's mind I think, as part of this synod process. And it will continue in ways that are hard to foresee.

After the first week of this synod, I think there's a great sense of uncertainty as to where it's all going. And that also includes a sense of confusion about the process, because I've been part of an earlier Synod on the Word of God and the process was much clearer and more manageable.

By contrast, this has a feeling not quite of chaos but of confusion. It's been difficult enough to know what the task is, let alone to know what the method might therefore be. So, I just think that in me and in others -- perhaps many of us -- there's that growing sense of uncertainty about the new format.

And that's primarily an uncertainty about the Instrumentum Laboris as not only the base working document, but the document that frames the entire work of the synod.

The earlier synod that I was a part of the, the Instrumentum Laboris was nowhere near as dominant a frame for the synod discussions.

I personally don't think that this particular Instrumentum Laboris -- which was an extraordinarily complicated document to produce -- I don't think it's a strong enough document to sustain the weight that's been imposed upon it. I think in many ways it's a weak document.

It's just not a strong and rich enough document to sustain the entire work of the synod. I think that there is a fairly basic difficulty at that point. Where that will lead us, I don't know. But I know in my small group the question of how we should go about the task has come up again and again and again.

The first part of the Instrumentum Laboris generated 473 modi, many of which were requests to rewrite, which is almost impossible to do. The second and third parts are longer and more complex. God only knows how many they will generate.

I think the intention underlying the new format is fine. I'm not sure that it was thought through as carefully as it might have been. But that may be easy to say. I don't for a moment question the sound intention of those who reshaped the format. I don't subscribe to theories of conspiracy and manipulation.

That there's a political undercurrent in the synod is undeniable and it's a platitude to say it. I'm not at all convinced about some of the theories of conspiracy and manipulation that are doing the rounds in your trade.

Maybe I'm naive, I don't think I am -- I've worked in Rome and know the way Rome can function. But I just think that there are difficulties at the point of an understanding of what our task is and therefore how to go about it.

Cardinal Tagle said it's even unknown if there will be a final document from the synod, or if there will be an apostolic exhortation or not. Is this new a process of doing discussion in the church for you? Is there a way we're going where we won't get something so definitive, it may be a sort of in-discussion moment?

It may well be. I don't know. I have heard certainly that there will be no apostolic exhortation. Now, if that's true, I presume it's because Pope Francis does not want to give the impression that the synod journey is complete.

Some apostolic exhortations in the past have been powerful documents. Many have not. They've just gone into the black hole of history, in fact. I think the pope is keeping his options open. There's no question that Pope Francis is listening.

I just don't know. What we were told was that there is this commission of ten -- which has been shrouded in some controversy -- that they would be responsible for putting together a final document. But whether that happens or not -- again the question of process.

All of these modi go into some kind of modification of the synod working document. Perhaps, are we looking at some radically modified form of the Instrumentum Laboris that will become the final document of the synod? I don't know.

That uncertainty or un-clarity is itself unusual. It's disconcerting.

I agree that a certain kind of confusion is not an unhealthy thing, if we are serious about a process of discernment. But discernment presumes an openness to the surprises of the Spirit.

I just hope that's the kind of confusion we're dealing with but at times one wonders, inevitably.

On your blog you mentioned that there seemed to be two specific separate camps among the synod bishops.

I wouldn't overstate that. It seems to me there are many positions; there really are. To talk about just in terms of two camps is a gross over-simplification.

But what I was keen to try and say ... was that the impression given at times is that either we abandon church teaching or that we simply opt for a kind of immobilism.

In other words, as I've put it at one point: The only two options we face are iconoclasm or immobilism. I just don't believe that at all. In fact, I don't think either of those two extremes is a real option. It's a theoretical option.

I don't think the synod is going to reject what is regarded as fundamental church teaching, by which I mean the untouchable trinity of marriage, Eucharist and the church. Because if you touch one of those three, you touch them all. This is not marginal stuff. It is fundamentally important.

That's not going to happen, but I also think it's unthinkable that all we do at the end of this synod process is simply say and do what we have long said and done in the area of marriage and the family.

I just think, at that point, you have to ask: Why would we have bothered with this process, this extraordinarily long, demanding, costly process. Why would we have gone through it all if the only thing we can do is speak and act exactly as we have?

When in fact in many parts of the world we know that the language we speak is not communicating and we know that the ways in which we have acted are not touching the lives of many people and, in fact, are proving to be deeply alienating in the lives of many people who need help.

What I was keen to say is that between those two extremes -- even though at times the impression given is almost no space between them -- there is in fact a vast territory between them to be explored.

And that's what the synod should be about: The words and exercise of pastoral activity -- saying, 'OK, we don't go to one extreme and say we're going to chuck church teaching out the window or the other extreme and say we're going to do nothing.'

I think we have to explore all kinds of possibilities in that vast middle ground, where I think the Spirit is moving and calling us to be. And that's where I begin to talk about a language event.

As I have said in the small group, one of the things this synod could profitably and practically do is to compose a list of very practical things that we could do to support families and to help families in trouble.

Not just come at them with waffly churchspeak -- as I have said, there's oceans of that. But to push beyond that kind of churchspeak, to speak a language that is utterly faithful to what we believe and teach but is simpler and more accessible and more contemporary and less gobbly-gook.

In a sense, that's what Vatican II did. That's, in part, what it means to speak of the Council as a language event.

I think our language has to become more biblical. I'll give you a case in point that's come up today in a number of groups.

The word that we cling to: Indissolubility. First of all, it's canonical. Secondly, it's negative in its form -- in-dissolubility. Can we speak about what we mean when we use the word indissolubility in a way that is not canonical and is not negative in form?

I think we can. And that's a practical example of what I mean by a language event. I've also said publicly ... that there are these expressions that we just kind of throw around and everyone just nods or cheers -- things like "the domestic church" and "the Gospel of the family" that I personally think have become clichés and they need to be given a rest.

All of that can sound like semantic quibbling, but it's not. In the Bible, words create worlds. And that's one of things we need to explore as we enter this vast middle ground, the territory between the two extremes.

[Editor's note: This is the first part of NCR's full interview with Archbishop Mark Coleridge. Part two is available here.]

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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