Australian archbishop: Synod should propose 'less negative' reading of reality

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, is seen after receiving his pallium from Pope Benedict XVI during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2012. ((CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

Rome — The ongoing worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops should adopt a "less negative" reading of reality that recognizes and encourages the good aspects of modern societies, an Australian archbishop participating in the gathering has said.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who leads one of the working groups of the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops, said "crude and bleak readings" of modern society "are not what the doctor ordered."

"It's always the language of crisis," said Coleridge, speaking of how the church talks about marriage and family life.

"I understand what crisis is, but sometimes I think that when we talk about that marriage and family are in crisis that in part what we mean is that our understanding of marriage and the family are in crisis," said the archbishop, who heads eastern Australia's Brisbane archdiocese.

"You can't all the time be saying, 'It's out there; there's the problem,'" he said. "The problem is often within us and within the church. And we have to have the honesty and the clarity of vision to say that."

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Coleridge was speaking Monday in an NCR interview. During the encounter, which lasted some 45 minutes, the archbishop touched an incredible number of themes. In order to present the archbishop's thoughts in their entirety, NCR is printing the full interview in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday.


Interview, part 1: Australian archbishop: Synod must change church’s language, actions


In this second part, the Australian gives his thoughts on how the church might modulate its language towards gay people, calls from synod bishops that certain pastoral issues handled at the Vatican might be devolved to regional or national bishops' conferences, and how the bishops are being called to act with fearlessness in their work.

Coleridge begins by speaking of discussions at the synod about the church using more inclusive language when speaking to gay persons.

"I don't think we can any longer say that we condemn the sin but not the sinner," states the archbishop.

"A person will say in the cultures that you and I come from that my sexuality isn't just part of me, it's part of my whole being," he states. "Therefore, you can't isolate my sexuality by identifying it with this act that you call intrinsically disordered that is somehow distinct from or separate from me, the sinner."

Later, Coleridge speaks on what the synod bishops are being called to do. He reflects on Monday's Gospel reading, when Jesus is said to tell a crowd: "There is something greater than Solomon here."

"As I listened to that, I thought this is the word being spoken to us at the synod: 'There is something greater than Solomon,'" said the archbishop. "And if there's not something greater than Solomon, then we should all pack up and go home."

"There is a maelstrom, there's no doubt," said Coleridge. "And everyone's feeling it. But that may well be what happens when you get into the very turbulent, and in the end uncontrollable, process of discernment. Once you're into that maelstrom of discernment you really have to make an act of faith that there is something greater than Solomon."

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

NCR: You've given a couple examples of language that might be changed by the synod. We were hearing that some bishops had talked about more inclusive language, particularly toward gay people. Is that an area where you would identify church language perhaps changing?

Coleridge: That's right. The language of intrinsically disordered -- that kind of thing.

If you're one of the insiders, you know what that means. But see a point that I have made ... is that some of that language we simply have to revisit because it no longer communicates in the way that we think it does.

For instance: The distinction between sin and sinner breaks down, particularly in the area of sexuality. I don't think we can any longer say that we condemn the sin but not the sinner.

Because, you see ... a person will say in the cultures that you and I come from that my sexuality isn't just part of me, it's part of my whole being. Therefore, you can't isolate my sexuality by identifying it with this act that you call intrinsically disordered that is somehow distinct from or separate from me, the sinner.

So to say that this act is intrinsically disordered is now taken for granted to mean I am intrinsically disordered.

Another distinction that's broken down is the distinction we relied on for a very long time between public and private. We do truth in public and mercy in private. In other words, the compassion of the confessional tempered the clarity of the pulpit.

That doesn't work anymore. I think you see in Pope Francis -- and it's one of the most powerful things about his pontificate -- the public enactment of mercy. And I think that's one of the directions we have to move in. I'm not saying we cease to minister mercy in private. Of course we do. But we've also got to enact mercy publicly.

Now, when the pope when asked a question about homosexuality says 'Who am I to judge?' he's not changing church teaching, but very publicly he's enacting something else.

When he washes the feet of a young Muslim woman at a detention center -- again, it's a public enactment of mercy. And when he says that absolution, mercy will be more freely available to women who have had abortion during the year of Jubilee, it's the same kind of thing.

One of the key questions, I think, in exploring this vast middle ground is what might it mean for us to enact mercy publicly? Just as, I've suggested, how might we speak differently of sin and sinner in a way that communicates with people today?

Because in ways that we scarcely imagine the language we bishops take for granted, and perhaps even find wondrous, it is absolutely incomprehensible and alienating to most people, even Catholics -- let alone those who are not Catholics.

There's also the language of gesture, and I think Pope Francis is a very good case of that. He's modeling something that we need to ponder very carefully. And the question becomes how in the area of marriage and family do we enact mercy publicly and not just privately?

And that can be a tough question to ask for Catholics, who for so long have been used to a particular understanding and arrangement of public and private. It's not easy for us to imagine what the public enactment of mercy might look like. But I hope the Year of Jubilee will prompt us to do that. I'd also like to see the synod will.

In another interview, you spoke about divorced and remarried couples and same-sex couples, saying: "I personally think it's just not in touch with reality to say there is no good in those relationships."

To generalize is extremely risky because there are all kinds of second marriages.

I've known people who have been divorced and civilly remarried who are still people of quite striking faith, who have a stable, enduring, and fruitful relationship that has all the signs of grace upon it. But I've also known second marriages that are brutal and dehumanizing.

I'm not prepared to generalize about second marriages just as I'm not prepared to generalize about same-sex unions.

I think in these extremely complex situations, we as a synod have to be very careful about broad generalizations. At the same time, we have to keep an eye firmly on core principals but modulate the way those principals are applied by looking at particular situations.

That's what the Catholic church has always done. I've been a priest for over 40 years and in the confessional, in a counseling situation, you've got to negotiate the detail of this person's situation or these people's relationship. That's why I say that broad generalizations are simply not enough.

At this synod what's become clear, too, is the vast cultural modulations of marriage and family. And that's why in our group, and I think in other groups, there has been at times a tendency to say that some of these questions have to be addressed locally. Now that's alarmed one or two of the bishops. They see this as a fragmentation of the church.

I don't see it in those terms. I just think that marriage and the family are modulated so differently from continent to continent that certain questions or arguments should be addressed locally or regionally.

But at the same time, there are some fundamental truths about marriage in any time, in any place, in any culture. And the Catholic church needs to articulate those truths. But at the same time, those truths are modulated from time to time, place to place, culture to culture.

I don't see this as one or the other. The unity in diversity of the Catholic church has always been a very complex arrangement. That's putting it mildly. Some people tell me the Catholic church is monolithic. My God, it's the least monolithic institution I know, like herding cats.

Whilst there have been voices expressing anxiety about referring certain to the local and regional level, I don't share the anxiety. And I think a certain degree of healthy decentralization is almost essential, if we really want to come to grips with the reality of marriage and the family life around the world.

Has there been any discussion of what things might be decentralized?

No. Not really. We haven't got to that point. It may come up. I would think that the synod could in fact propose an answer to that sort of question.

In other words, not waffle. What are the things that might be referred to the local and regional level? Just as what are the things that might be done to help us speak and act differently? Give me, or give the pope, concrete suggestions.

Because last year's synod was supposed to be a taking stock of the situations -- the reality of families and marriages around the world. This synod, as I understand it, was supposed to be about saying, 'OK, that's where we are. What are we going to do about it?'

This is an essentially practical synod. And that's what I think it means to call it pastoral. If all that we come up with is either nothing, or waffle, I don't think the synod will have succeeded.

And we'll just have to keep moving along the road of the synod journey until we do come up with something that is faithful, creative, practical, realistic, merciful. That's all we're after.

There's a lot of chatter, especially in the U.S., from people who do not want anything to change.

There are people who are passionately committed to immutability, a kind of immobilism. I think that, personally, is quite unrealistic. And is a path to nowhere.

If, on the other side of things, the synod goes forward but doesn't do much -- maybe issues a very 'waffly' document -- what do you think happens? What do you think that means for the church going forward?

Well, I think there will be an enormous sense of frustration and disappointment -- and by many, many people. There will be a huge sense of frustration and disappointment. And perhaps the sense of missed opportunity.

But it will certainly mean that we just have to keep journeying on this path. We haven't yet come to a point where we can bring peace to the church and find that convergence of truth and mercy that everyone wants.

In fact, among the bishops here, whatever the differences of view on hot button issues, every bishop would say, 'Yes, I am passionately committed to finding the point where truth and mercy embrace.' On those deep things, there's no difference at all. It's a question of what that then means.

And a lot of the differences are about the understanding of the relationship between the church and history, the Gospel and culture. They were the great questions underlying Vatican II. They're still the great questions. If you even breathe the phrase "development of doctrine" with some of the synod fathers, they think you're on the way to the stake.

But John Courtney Murray said the great underlying issue of Vatican II was the development of doctrine. In some sense, and this needs to be carefully parsed, but in some sense that remains true now.

I personally don't think it's a realistic option to think that we can inhabit this bubble of immutability that prescinds from history and culture. The church is immersed in both. But again, what does that mean in practice on the ground? That's the question.

[Yesterday] you blogged about your visit to St. Paul's Outside the Walls and getting a model of leadership as a bishop from Paul, calling it: "faithful to the past, able to read a messy present, unafraid of the future." To me, that's a model I would not identify some bishops being comfortable with or knowing.

Possibly not. That's Paul. I'm a biblical scholar by training. I taught scripture for years.

One of the inspiring things about Pauline literature is the way it presents Paul as a kind of a transcendent paragon of leadership. He becomes the message. I was very conscious of that yesterday.

Faithful to the past: A bishop's got no option. We have to safeguard and promote the apostolic tradition. That's the core of the episcopal ministry. But you've got to be able to read now, and you're not faithful to the past unless you do that. That's why we are faithful to the past, in order to give us the eyes that read the mess of now. It's always a mess. It was for Paul; it is for us.

But unafraid of the future. And sometimes I hear voices at the synod -- they seem to me to be the voices of fear. And one of the things that strikes me about Pope Francis is there's quite a fearlessness about him. And perhaps it's the wisdom of old age -- that sense of having nothing to lose. But it's also borne of faith, not just of the years. In the sense that in this maelstrom the Holy Spirit is there.

The Gospel reading we had at Mass today: "There is something greater than Solomon here." As I listened to that, I thought this is the word being spoken to us at the synod: "There is something greater than Solomon." And if there's not something greater than Solomon, then we should all pack up and go home.

There is a maelstrom, there's no doubt. And everyone's feeling it. But that may well be what happens when you get into the very turbulent, and in the end uncontrollable, process of discernment. Once you're into that maelstrom of discernment you really have to make an act of faith that there is something greater than Solomon.

And the only sign we will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah -- so we're in the belly of the whale. Not for three days, but for three weeks.

I was thinking, too, the other day of the upper room. It is an upper room, the Synod Hall. And locked doors. And I thought to myself of Pentecost; why were they huddled behind locked doors? Because they were afraid. In a process like this, fear is the enemy.

Perhaps the quality we need most of all is a kind of fearlessness, which is also -- the other side of that same coin is trust.

Your small group had suggested perhaps a "less negative" reading of reality.

The reading of history; that sort of 'it's all going to Hell in a hand-basket.'

We can't afford to be Pollyanna, but it's not all doom and gloom. That whole Catholic reading of modernity, against which Vatican II stands as the enduring anti-note, I think just has to be questioned.

Similarly, the reading of contemporary cultures: Of course there are destructive forces at work in contemporary cultures. But there are other forces that are luminous and exhilarating.

These crude and bleak readings on contemporary history and culture I think are not what the doctor ordered. And also, a good deal of our language which flows from those views of history and culture is negative.

It's always the language of crisis. And I understand what crisis is, but sometimes I think that when we talk about that marriage and family are in crisis that in part what we mean is that our understanding of marriage and the family are in crisis.

As the cleavage between our understanding and where society is going widens, that it just might be that one of the things we have to do is to consider, or revisit, our own understanding of marriage and the family -- broaden and deepen it. And find another language to speak out of that broader and deeper understanding of marriage and the family.

You can't all the time be saying, 'It's out there; there's the problem.' The problem is often within us and within the church. And we have to have the honesty and the clarity of vision to say that.

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

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

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