African bishop on polygamy, homosexuality & divorce (oh my).

In a wide-ranging, at points jaw-dropping interview with Aleteia, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, signaled his openness to finding a way for remarried Catholics to be readmitted to Communion--and suggested the church might reinterpret Scripture to allow the "unbinding" of marriages. Palmer-Buckle, who is sixty-four years old, was selected by his brother bishops to represent Ghana at this October's Synod on the Family. Early in the interview, the archbishop makes it clear that he takes seriously Pope Francis's call for open discussion of the challenges facing Catholic families today.

There are people in polygamous relationships, who were involved in it before becoming Christians. Their family had to make a choice: to let go of one women or two women with all their children without hurting the children, without hurting the wives. So it is an issue.

How do I baptize children of polygamous marriages? What do I teach them? If I’m going to tell them, “Your daddy must let go of your mommy,” will that not hurt the child emotionally, even spiritually for the rest of his or her life, to the point that he or she may even decide the Church is bad because it broke up my family?

I can tell you for sure that there are polygamous marriages where you will be amazed at the harmony between the husband and his different wives, among the different wives, and among their children. It’s amazing. There are many, many other instances where there is so much hurt going on among the different women, among the different children, and these must be brought to the fore. How do we help all of those involved to look at Christ, and to what Christ invites them to?

On the question of gay people, despite the fact that "Africa has always frowned upon that," Palmer-Buckle refuses to "close my eyes to the fact that there are instances in Africa of homosexuals, people with homosexual tendencies, people with lesbian tendencies." Of course the church teaches that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, Palmer-Buckle says; that dignity must be protected. "And that is why we must help that individual listen to what God says about his or her state," he continues. "And I think that is the beauty of what the church teaches us."

This vexes the interviewer, Diane Montagna, who asks Palmer-Buckle whether last October's synod could have been clearer about what the church really teaches about homosexuality. Wasn't he worried that some had "hijacked" interim report--which suggested there might be "positive values" in "irregular" relationships--to claim the church was poised to approve of gay relationships. But the archbishop doesn't share her concern.

"You know, if there is anything I find beautiful about Pope Francis, it is how he calls us back to the question: How would Christ act in this circumstance?" That's what the pope was gettting at when he delivered his famous line about the gay person who seeks God, "Who am I to judge?" He continues: "I don’t blame [the media]. Most probably we have for so long a time made people suffer just because they are not 'like us.' We’ve made them suffer, discriminated against them, we have ostracized them. So if today the gay lobby is very loud it’s because we have almost de-humanized them."

Palmer-Buckle's emphasis on welcoming God's children doesn't sit well with the interviewer. "Some readers," she says, are confused. Is it welcoming to say to the remarried that they can rejoin the Communion line? Or is it more truly welcoming to say, actually, no, you're not worthy to receive the Eucharist? Palmer-Buckle responds by mentioning the immigration crisis in the United States. "Obama is saying that there are so many people who have gotten into America illegally. We cannot drive them away back home. So let us see to legalizing their state so that they can contribute helpfully and worthily to the country’s good. There are many Americans who are against it. Am I right?"

Montagna has an unusal take on the issue: "Many Americans think that’s not really why Obama wants people legalized in the United States. They see him as trying to change the character of the electorate." This doesn't deter the archbishop from making his point: "When it comes to the boat people at Lampedusa, look at the attitude here in Europe. What I think the pope is trying to bring home to all of us, especially with regard to divorced and remarried people in the church, is that he didn’t say yes or no. He said, 'think.' Holy Communion is medicine for the sick. It is not a reward for the perfect." (In a later interview with Crux, the archbishop said he supports allowing local bishops to decide--which is all Cardinal Walter Kasper has ever proposed.)

"But according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church," Montagna replies, "whatever your sin may be, one must be in a state of grace in order to receive the Holy Eucharist." At which point things get even more interesting. "Over the centuries, we have made a very tough line in that context," according to the archbishop. Some Protestant churches believe that Jesus "gave them the power to unbind those who have bound themselves in some marriages that are irregular, that are difficult, that are counterproductive."

So, you see, it’s an interpretation. We have interpreted it to mean that, yes, the Church has the power of the keys, but not in this particular context of marriages. Therefore, the marriage must go through the whole channel and be annulled before [the couple] are allowed to go further. I think we are going to look at what “the power of the keys” could mean in this context.

Montagna cites the Scriptural mandate not to put asunder what God has joined. But Palmer-Buckle points out the gospel passage in which Jesus says that what is bound and unbound on earth is bound and unbound in heaven. "So what did he mean by that?" the archbishop asks. "Are they two statements that contradict one another?"

"Well, Your Excellency, they can’t contradict one another if the Lord said them," the interviewer replies, "because He is Truth."

The archbishop agrees. But for him that means the church must reflect more deeply on what to do. "Every institution like the Church must have rules and regulations," he explains. "But the rules and regulations are ideals, points of arrival." What should the church do about those who strive for the ideal but don't achieve it? "Are we going to keep them perpetually feeling guilty about themselves and about the children they’ve had thereafter, and so on." How does that help? "I believe very strongly that we should be able to say: 'Lord, this is the situation but we lift it up to you in your great mercy, and allow them.' It’s going to be tough, but we may have to do that."

"It’s daring to say what I’m saying." 

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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