The church should not strive for “false clarity,” says Australian archbishop

Archbishop Mark Coleridge thinks some of his fellow prelates are afraid of confronting reality.

As the head of the Archdiocese of Brisbane on the east coast of Australia, the archbishop was a delegate to the synod of bishops in Rome in 2015. There, he said, he witnessed healthy disagreement about issues important to families during the two-week meeting—prompted by Pope Francis’ call for open and honest dialogue. That debate has continued more than a year after the synod came to a close, with some bishops calling for greater clarity from the pope.

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But Archbishop Coleridge told America that uncertainty is simply part of modern life.

“At times at the synod I heard voices that sounded very clear and certain but only because they never grappled with the real question or never dealt with the real facts,” he said in a recent interview. “So there’s a false clarity that comes because you don’t address reality, and there’s a false certainty that can come for the same reason.”

The archbishop, who worked in the Vatican’s secretary of state’s office in the late 1990s, was responding to a question about critics of Pope Francis who have taken issue with his apostolic letter, “Amoris Laetitia,” in which the pope calls for a pathway to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Critics of the pope have stepped up their attacks on the document in recent months, emboldened by a letter sent to the pope by four cardinals in September asking for yes or no answers to five questions about the document. They say the pope is sowing confusion in the church on questions settled by previous popes, including St. John Paul II.

But the pope’s supporters, including Archbishop Coleridge, say Francis is simply asking the church to confront challenging questions.

“I think what Pope Francis wants is a church that moves toward clarity and certainty on certain issues after we’ve grappled with the issues, not before,” he continued. “In other words, he wants a genuine clarity and a genuine certainty rather than the artificial clarity or certainty that comes when you never grapple with the issues.”

During the 2015 synod, Archbishop Coleridge blogged about his experience as a synod delegate, offering Catholics a window into a process that, aside from occasional interviews with participants, was conducted in private.

He is a proponent of church leaders using social media, and he tweets on an eclectic range of topics from @ArchbishopMark. In recent weeks, he’s tweeted his thoughts on the unification of Italy, his desire for a heavenly dinner with Leonard Cohen and Fidel Castro and the mental fortitude of Australian professional athletes.

Archbishop Coleridge said he agrees with a fellow Aussie, Cardinal George Pell, who said in London recently that some Catholics are “unnerved” by the debate about “Amoris Laetitia.”

“I think that’s probably the right word, and I sensed in the words of the four cardinals men who were unnerved,” Archbishop Coleridge said. “Clearly, they had been spoken to by a lot of people who were unnerved. I can understand that.”

But where Cardinal Pell went on to suggest the pope needed to offer clarity on the issue, Archbishop Coleridge said Francis is simply acting like a pastor.

The pope, he said, is “bringing out into the very public setting of the papacy what any pastor does in his parish or diocese.”

He noted that pastors are “very often dealing in a world of grays and you have to accompany people, listen to them before you speak to them, give them time and give them space, and then speak your word perhaps.”

Ultimately, individual believers have to discern where God is at work in their own lives—a process that doesn’t always lend itself to simple yes or no answers.

“Some people expect from the pope clarity and certainty on every question and every issue, but a pastor can’t provide that necessarily,” he said.

He said Francis is moving the church from a static way of doing business to one that is kinetic, something those used to a different kind of papacy are finding difficult.

“But there are still people who are more comfortable, for various reasons, with a more static way of thinking and speaking,” he said. “And there are people who are perhaps more comfortable in a world of black and white and who find the process of discernment, which deals in shades of gray, messy and unnerving.”

As for how Pope Francis is handling the criticism, Archbishop Coleridge said not to worry.

“I can’t imagine that Pope Francis is deeply anguished over some of the opposition that he faces,” he said. “He’s a man who doesn’t seem rattled by that sort of thing.”

Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 CharactersFollow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

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Jeanne Kalvar
1 year ago
The problem with clarity is that it causes the law that derives from it to end up either cruel or it creates loopholes by which those of a serpentine nature can slip through. It is very clear from the spirit of Amoris Laetitia that Pope Francis intends that, for some people under some circumstances at the very least, there is a way to receive the Eucharist after having remarried and without 'annulling' the previous marriage. That's the whole intent. And that means that, in some cases, marital relations on a second marriage without annulment are not sinful. This could also be fine and true. If a spouse was abused or abandoned, for example, and left without recourse. But then there are those in a second marriage who /were/ the ones who acted immorally and caused the divorce, or were the one who abused their spouse or children, or are the ones not paying child support and who are continuing to treat their ex-spouse in a cruel fashion, who will use that loophole and think that that means it's OK for them too, and it's not. If you abandoned your wife for another woman, left her destitute, and then married that other woman and cut your ex-wife out of your life entirely while flaunting your new life with this new woman, you /are/ continuing to commit sin, and you are continuing to commit adultery by your ongoing harm of her, and you should not receive communion. You shouldn't be able to use loopholes put in to allow your ex-wife to go on with her life and start over to justify yourself. But so many scenarios are so unique, trying to specifically encode one case from the other is too complicated to not leave loopholes. Mercy and discernment, however, will guide through any obstacle.
Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
Jeanne: A couple of the examples you gave are pretty clear, cut and dry, black and white, to me. I can think of 100 others that are much more ambiguous in that netherworld of the gray. Those are the ones the church is wrestling with. As I read the Bible, The New Testament, the Book of Acts etc. it strikes me that there is a dichotomy in the history of the church. There were Gentiles and Jews. Pretty clear. There were circumcised and uncircumcised. Pretty Clear. The waters got a little muddy with what were called the Jewish Christians.... Jews who became followers of Christ lost their status in the Jewish temple, maybe lost their property, status or wealth. It took a lot of courage to break with their tradition and status to become Christians. . Now, at this point in the Book of Acts, we have three labeled categories described in Scripture. Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we have over 3000 denominations under the umbrella of Christianity. In the United States anyway, if a few people in one of these denominations gets mad or has a falling out, they walk down the street and start their own church. What happens when a Catholic falls in love with a person in one of those 3000????? Who is to say that those two people were not brought together by the Holy Spirit?? Who is to say that those two people were not brought together by God to foster healing unity and ecumenism and maybe bring two denominations together?? I don't think the church should be in the business of second guessing God. Today, there is what is often referred to as a RAINBOW. The many shades of gray and all other colors and their hues that don't fit into those nice neat little black and white boxes. That is where the church struggles. I have at least one, maybe more, in my own family. I believe one of the biggest challenges is that of a well formed conscience. If two people have a relationship issue as you describe, they must be reminded that one day they will meet their maker. If they choose to ignore that perspective, that is their choice that stems from their free will. Scripture states that we will have to give account for every word we uttered. I can imagine in the examples you gave what kind of words may have been uttered and how will those individuals give account for those words that passed through their lips??? I can only imagine but at the end of the day it is NOT MY BUSINESS! I have enough challenges with my own mouth and conscience without trying to judge someone else's. The church's role is to make this crystal clear and they have done that already. The individuals then make a series of choices. Some of us get on the wrong path. Some of us get back on track and some don't. That seems pretty clear.
Jeanne Kalvar
12 months ago
I think we are mostly agreeing with each other. Yes, I chose very 'clear' examples intentionally, to make it obvious how false clarity leads to people finding for themselves loopholes and therefore not look to further improving themselves. But you are absolutely correct that conscience, hopefully with the guidance and support of the Church, should be the real path. I think Pope Francis is trying to educate the church in how to guide people's consciences. Because there is so much gray, like you describe, it's not a situation where a false clarity is a strength. Instead mercy and discipline both need to be weighed by the cleric advising and the persons being guided. Which is, by its essence, ambiguous. But we're all good.
Jim Lein
1 year ago
In this morning's Reflection in the Give Us This Day prayer book, I read: "We must remember that obedience comes from the Latin for listening intently. That focus, that listening, gives Christ the space to enter us, to change our mortal bodies, to conform with his glorified body." Nathaniel Peters. Obedience is much more than following some written laws; it is listening with all of ourselves, including listening to the needs of others, listening and not judging others, especially by written laws. You don't need to be Christian to do that. We need to let Christ into our lives, into our listening. Pope Francis seems to be doing this, showing us how, as Jesus did many years ago.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year ago
The same kind of "false clarity" is the reason for the current state of paralysis regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
Paralysis describes a state where something was moving but now no longer moves. As far as I know, the Pope has closed the case on the ordination of women. Paralysis implies that there may be a chance of regaining former movement or at least a portion of former movement if the paralysis can be overcome. That does not appear to be the case.
Andrew Di Liddo
1 year ago
"Ultimately, individual believers have to discern where God is at work in their own lives—a process that doesn’t always lend itself to simple yes or no answers."
DUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH ! The church of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine has forgotten this?
Joseph Manta
1 year ago
This article sounds like the moral relativism condemned by Pope Benedict.
Jim McCrea
12 months ago
Bishops break out in shingles in the face of ambiguity; laity live with it each day in their homes, jobs and social life. Chancery offices constantly view the faithful as so befuddled that, without unctuous instruction, they would confuse the holy water fountain with a birdbath. (from the book “Tim Unsworth”, a collection of his articles in NCR between 1982 and 2007, published by Acta Publications in 2008)

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