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On the Road Together – Some questions and answers

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I enjoyed speaking yesterday afternoon with the respected and widely read journalist, John Allen. John wrote a story that was published on the Crux website. Here’s an excerpt of the interview that was published as part of that story:

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.

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.

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