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An Aussie insider reveals what is happening in Rome’s family synod

COMMENT | John Sandeman

Friday 16 October 2015

Hot button issues like marriage and divorce and how the church should treat LGBTIQ people have meant that Protestants as well as Catholics are following the Synod (gathering) on the Family in Rome.

It turns out that an Aussie insider, Archbishop Mark Coleridge from Brisbane is the source journos are quoting. Veteran vaticanologist John Allen of Crux ( and the reporters from National Catholic Reporter (NCR) have both used him as a source.

Because hot-button issues are involved, both conservative and liberal Christians have projected their fears and hopes on the Synod, with predictions of radical moves and of no change at all flying around the Internet.

Coleridge provides a more nuanced view of what the Synod might actually do.

Asked by NCR what Coleridge means when he says Christians need to change how they talk about key issues, he responds, “The language of intrinsically disordered (which Catholics have used of gays) … 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.”

Coleridge, who leads one of the English language groups within the Synod on the Family, wants a bold Christianity that does not submit to a totally negative view of culture, but is fearless and confident.

“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.”

Coleridge’s blog can be found here.

Coleridge is clear that the Bible needs to be the driving force behind what the Synod does. In today’s blog he writes “It’s clear that there are certain overarching themes emerging from the Synod. Perhaps the clearest is that we need to draw more deeply on the Bible in shaping our vision of marriage and the family and the way we speak about them. This doesn’t mean just sticking a few more quotes from Scripture into the text but seeing the Bible as the matrix for what we say and do. This has many implications, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. Given my biblical background, I’m intensely interested.

“This relates to a larger question of language, keeping in mind what the Bible says – that words create worlds. To speak of language therefore is to speak of something that is far more than cosmetic.” 

Late last year at the first session of this Synod, a liberal-leaning summary document hinting at loosening the church’s stance on divorce and openness towards gays served to set coverage of the Synod in the classic media “conflict paradigm” of left-versus-right, liberal-versus-conservative. For observers both outside Catholicism and within, that frame may still be useful. But if a more subtle change like Coleridge is predicting that fuses mercy and doctrine, then the Synod might prove useful, well beyond Rome.

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