ROME – An Australian archbishop taking part in the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family says that if the idea of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion were put to a straight up or down vote right now, it would probably lose by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent.
That proposal is most associated with German Cardinal Walter Kasper, and although Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said he can’t personally support it, he also finds some of the criticism of Kasper for his position “scandalous.”
Coleridge stressed that his estimates of how a hypothetical vote might break are simply “intuitions,” and that things could change before synod’s end. He also emphasized that ultimately the only vote that matters belongs to Pope Francis, since the synod’s role is simply to make recommendations.
Coleridge said that if the question on the Communion ban were rephrased to allow local bishops or bishops’ conferences to make decisions for themselves, the split among the 270 bishops taking part in the Oct. 4-25 synod might be closer to 50/50.
Coleridge also said there’s strong support in the synod, something on the order of 70/30, for a “less condemnatory” language about gays and lesbians.
Although the 67-year-old Coleridge did not take part in the first Synod of Bishops in October 2014, he does not lack for Roman seasoning. He studied at the Biblicum, the prestigious Jesuit-run institute on scripture, and later worked in the all-important Secretariat of State.
During the synod, he’s posting his own reflections on his archdiocesan blog.
Coleridge sat down on Wednesday for a talk about this year’s three-week synod, which is just in its third day. He emphasized that although it’s possible to do some preliminary political handicapping, he also has a sense that the synod is capable of surprise.
He also cautioned against “conspiracy theories” about behind-the-scenes manipulation of the event, saying he finds such speculation “unhelpful and even un-Christian.”
The following are excerpts from the Crux interview.
Crux: What’s struck you about the synod so far?
Coleridge: What the pope has done is to move from a synod as an event to a synod as a process. In that sense, he’s made it more like the Second Vatican Council where much of the action was between the sessions. … I think this synod is radically linked to the journey and even the ongoing agenda of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis delivered a speech, as bishops in foreground listened, during the opening session of a Italian Episcopal Conference meeting at the Vatican May 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis faces an uphill climb to get the synod he wants
Pope Francis, shown on a big screen in the front of the synod hall, prayed with the assembled bishops on the first day of the three-week Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome Monday. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Synod Notebook: On Day One, a debate about process and taking things off the table
Pope Francis listened during the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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The way the process was presented was that the one-year interval between the 2014 and 2015 synods would allow consensus to emerge. Judging from the outside, it doesn’t seem consensus on the more controversial questions actually has taken shape. Is that right?
I think that’s true, and I think it was naïve to expect that there would be a consensus achieved in a short space of time. I suspect it’s a kind of Vatican-speak … I worked here for some years, and I know Vatican-speak, and there’s a tendency to downplay controversy … everything is fine, calm. In fact, the issues brought up go to the heart of things and stir deep passions.
I don’t think there’s open warfare, but it was certainly clear in the year between the two synods that despite the papal plea for unity at the end of the first synod, there were rival camps established. That was, to put it mildly, unhelpful, but probably also inevitable.
Those rival camps still exist?
They still exist, including in the synod itself, but I don’t think it’s going to lead to a shipwreck.
What’s clear even now is that trying to make universal pronouncements about the issues concerning marriage and the family is so tough as to be almost doomed. I think there will be strong pressure, and there are already signs of this, for local consideration of issues that are heavily shaped locally.
Bishop [Johan] Bonny [of Antwerp, Belgium] yesterday made a plea for certain pastoral decisions with regard to people in difficult situations to be referred to local bishops …
At least in part, he was talking about allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion?
Absolutely, that wasn’t hard to see, but there are a whole array of other issues. The pope has pointed in this direction by allowing some things to be referred to the local bishop. I think in Pope Francis’ mind, he would like to see a decentralization where more authority is passed to the local bishop or the bishops’ conferences.
There’s been talk in the synod about the need for a ‘new language’ on marriage and the family. What does that mean?
[We need] a new way of speaking about the situation of those who are same-sex attracted or in a same-sex partnership of some kind, or those who are divorced and civilly remarried.
I personally think it’s just not in touch with reality to say there is no good in those relationships. I understand that there’s no continuum between good and evil, but that’s all theory. The reality is, and any pastor knows this, that when you meet people in these relationships, it’s not black and white.
Keeping Church teaching intact can still open up a vast field of pastoral creativity. It’s a challenge to the pastoral imagination. More and more, this synod seems to me to be a summons to that kind of thing. Our danger, and not just the bishops but others in the Church, is to think that we’re condemned to dance in chains unless we can change the Church’s teaching.
There is a Catholic pathology sometimes of all or nothing. If it doesn’t conform to our ideal of what a marriage is, then somehow it’s nothing. It’s a Catholic absolutism.
It’s very early, but based on your sense of where the synod stands right now, if the Kasper proposal for the divorced and remarried were put to a straight up or down vote, how would it go?
I think it’s about 65-35 against, and it’s been clarified over the last year. I think there would certainly be a majority of bishops – this is a guess, but an informed guess – who would not favor the Kasper proposal.
Because they see it as touching the indissolubility of marriage?
Not only that, but also the understanding of the Eucharist and of the Church. That’s a kind of Trinity, and if you touch one, you touch the lot. That said, there are all kinds of positions along the spectrum within that 65 percent who are against.
I’ll quote one bishop, and this scandalized me, who said, “This synod basically has to choose between the way of Jesus and the way of Walter Kasper.” It wasn’t in the public session, but it was said. I don’t scandalize easily, but that did it.
There has been a lot of that going on … all of this stuff that the synod office is trying to hide things, that the “Instrumentum Laboris” is part of the plot, that the selection of the group of 10 the pope has established is part of it. In my view, this is absurd, it’s paranoid, [and] it’s seriously unhelpful. Yet, inevitably, there are bishops within the synod who more or less think there’s something to it.
I don’t believe there is any kind of conspiracy, and I find it deeply helpful and even un-Christian for all kinds of reasons.
That said, you don’t believe the synod will end in an endorsement of the Kasper proposal?
I can’t see it, I really can’t. I have to say, however, that I also have a sense of unpredictability about things, so we won’t really know until the end.
Suppose it wasn’t yes or no to the Kasper proposal, but yes or no to allowing these decisions to be made at the local level, either by bishops or by conferences. What’s the split then?
That’s a different point. I think that would stir significantly more interest and support, maybe along the lines of 50/50. My sense is that there would be significantly greater interest in a proposal of that kind. Some would want a confirmation from the Holy See to ensure checks and balances.
Personally, I don’t think I could find my way clear to support the Kasper proposal, even though in some ways I’m quite sympathetic to it and I think it’s been much travestied in some of the critiques. But I am seriously interested in looking at ways in which decision-making power could be decentralized, depending on how it’s done.
What about the issue of the need for a more positive, inclusive language about homosexuality, without getting into precisely what that language would be?
I think there would be very large support for that, something like 70/30. There’s very strong support for a less condemnatory approach, and language is at the heart of that. There’s a desire to include [people], without taking on board the claims of what’s sometimes called ‘gay ideology.’
That may involve not just words, but also the language of gestures, of which the pope himself is such a master.
What do you mean by ‘gestures’? I assume you’re not talking, for instance, about blessing ceremonies for gay couples?
No, absolutely not. There’d be no support for that kind of thing, any kind of comparability between marriage and same-sex unions. I doubt there would be a bishop in the hall who would support that.
What I have in mind, for instance, is simply being ready to sit down and talk to people who are gay or in same-sex unions. In other words, not treating them as some kind of diabolical plot, but recognizing their human face and the cry of need, in the belief that somehow the truth of God is to be found there and not in some disembodied world that takes its leave of human experience.
By John L. Allen Jr.