Australia's Archbishop Mark Coleridge: Finally, a Bishop Who "Gets It" !

Below is the next installment of Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.

There’s still just under a week to go at the synod, but I think it’s not too early to say that my vote for “Star of the Synod” would have to go to Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia.  Coleridge was one of three guests at the press briefing yesterday, and he easily stole the show.  It’s not just his substance which is so good, but the fact that he is so forthcoming with information, instead of talking in vague generalities.  (Coleridge is maintaining a daily blog about his synod thoughts and experiences which you can access by clicking here.)

I was amazed at what he was saying because they were things that I have wished church leaders would say publicly for decades now.  They are the simplest things, hardly revolutionary, but just a more common sense approach to the way our Church could be operating. [If you want to watch the YouTube video of the entire one-hour press briefing–which includes two other participants: Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Bishop Enrico Solmi of Parma, Italy –click here.  It’s worth a view to get a sense of Coleridge as a personality.  He has a very positive media-presence.]


Archbishop Mark Coleridge at yesterday’s synod press briefing.

I mentioned him in an earlier post from the synod, when he first caught my eye because of some positive remarks he made about lesbian and gay couples.  But, more recently, he has expanded on an important theme that has emerged here at the synod:  a move to less judgmental church language about marriage, family, and sexuality.  I have to admit that when I first heard about this idea, I was more than a little skeptical.  It sounded like trying to dress up old concepts in different terms as a way to attract people.  It also sounded like a theme we have heard a lot of from U.S. bishops, namely, that if church leaders would just present traditional teaching more effectively, people would start accepting it.

But when Archbishop Coleridge talks about changing language, his approach is much more comprehensive.  Trained as a Scripture scholar, he is very aware of the power of words, and the misuse of them, too.  His insights into language show he is aware of the importance of social and cultural changes which affect communication.  For Coleridge, changing language is a lot more than just replacing words.  It involves a whole new attitude, one that is more sensitive to new realities.

In an email response to me, inquiring about his views, Coleridge stated:

“To me the key thing . . . is that people like me, the pastors of the Church, actually listen to real human stories, the truth of human experience.  This is what I’ve called a new listening for a new language.  When I speak of language, I don’t mean something cosmetic, because (as Scripture insists) words create worlds.  We need a new language to speak about homosexuality in the Church, and a new listening is where that will begin.  At this stage, therefore, the pastoral question is: How can that new listening happen?  It seems to me that there’ll be no change to the core of what the Church teaches on homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is possible.  A great deal is possible, and it’s a challenge to our pastoral creativity (the Synod and the bishops generally) to work out what that creativity might mean.  They’ll need help in that.”

In a wonderful two-part interview with National Catholic Reporter’s  Joshua McElwee, Coleridge explained that while some people think the synod should toss out church teaching and others think they should do nothing, he sees an opportunity in a vast middle ground of pastoral care.  In the first installment of the interview, he explained:

“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 part two of the interview, McElwee asked him specifically about church language concerning gay people.  Coleridge responded:

“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.

Finally! A bishop who gets it!  And who is not afraid to state it publicly and point out a major problem in the Church. That’s one of the things I’ve been liking best about Coleridge:  he’s a truth-teller, not afraid to say where he thinks problems lie, instead of glossing them over with ambiguous words.

Coleridge’s approach has another important element, and that is the distinction between public and private. He basically sees a major problem in the fact that church leaders will often say very severe things publicly, even if they act quite mercifully privately.  That has always seemed a form of hypocrisy to me, even if it doesn’t follow the general form of hypocrisy which is to say one thing nice publicly, while doing something opposite privately.  Coleridge explained his concept to McElwee:

“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. . . .

“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?”

Coleridge also recognizes that pastoral care is about reading particular people and situations, not generalizing broadly about ideas and theories.  When asked about people who remarry after divorce or about gay and lesbian couples, he responded:

“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 principles but modulate the way those principles 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.”

Coleridge has a frankness about him that is refreshing in a bishop.  He brought a bit of laughter to the press briefing yesterday when he told a story:

“Last year a married couple told me that this was primarily a synod about sexuality, but you wouldn’t know that necessarily from the working document or from the interventions in which sexuality was mentioned, obviously, but it tended to be rather muted and abstract, which may have had something to do with the composition of the synod assembly.”

While obviously he was alluding to the fact that the assembly were all vowed celibates, he may have also been referring to the fact that they were all highly educated, theoretically-minded people.

Coleridge is perhaps most like Pope Francis when he promotes the idea that the Church needs to be a “listening Church”  (a concept Pope Francis elaborated on in a talk on Saturday during the Vatican’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod.  Coleridge contends that all pastoral care must begin with listening.  At the press briefing yesterday, he said:

“Pope Francis said on the weekend that a synodal church is, in the first place, a listening church.  I think it’s been one of the deep enduring themes to emerge from this synod, that we need to listen in new ways.”

“New ways,” huh?  There’s kind of a nice ring to that phrase, don’t you think?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

National Catholic Reporter:  “Aussie Catholica: Archbishop Coleridge, one to watch”

Crux:  “Bishops get specific about what ‘new language’ on family means”

15 replies
  1. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    I am responding to today’s entry, Oct. 20th, Archbishop Coleridge. It’s great on so many levels, ‘but.’ I wince when the statement like “the teaching will not change” is in the midst of the life-giving exhortations of public mercy and becoming a listening Church. I am one of the last people to advocate a watering down of truth or to even suggest an “anything goes” mentality. I believe that we have to get to the core of understanding human sexuality instead of defaulting to an understanding of human sexuality constructed by men only since the beginning of time. I am not suggesting that there is not some truth in what men have said, I am saying it is incomplete without the voice of women.(I find inconsistency in the church’s insistence of the complementary nature of men and women but obviously only in the bedroom and not at the altar or any where else)
    In fact, it is incomplete without the voice of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender persons!
    When I have had rare and privileged moments of listening to an intersex or queer or transgender person, my understanding of human sexuality is enlarged and dare I say helps me get a bit closer to the truth. Finally, it’s not enough for the bishops to hear our stories, we have to be at the table! We can speak for ourselves, thank you very much.

  2. Roderick W Rogers
    Roderick W Rogers says:

    Those of us in Australia know more about Archbishop Coleridge. In a prestigious TV program he recently displayed what seemed a remarkably insightful and understanding attitude to the LGBT community. However when responding to a question from another panellist his explanation of intrinsically disordered as meaning in plain language exactly what is seems to mean left the audience and panellists gasping. According to him intrinsically disordered means dysfunctional, not as it should be. In a few seconds he destroyed the impact of the whole of his previous commentary. As for not generalizing about remarriage after divorce or same sex marriage, does anyone really believe that? Are these really options under consideration? Coleridge seems able to put on a convincing performance, but the substance may well be very different. I think he gets the spin, but not the issue. Caveat emptor.

  3. Joseph McTaggart
    Joseph McTaggart says:

    PLEASE!!! When will you guys (and women) put a link in your material so it can be sent to others easily and reach a wider populace?. I requested this before. Surely you must see the need as well. Help……​


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