An African archbishop has reiterated his wish to see an opening in the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, suggesting the Church should consider copying some Protestants in “unbinding” their unions. 

Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, said in a new interview with Aleteia that the Church has taken a “very tough line” when it comes to who can and cannot receive holy Communion. “Some Protestant churches believe that Christ gave them power to unbind those who have bound themselves in some marriages that are irregular,” he said, referring to the Gospel passage in which Jesus gave the power of the keys to Peter, saying: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. 

He pointed out this is “an interpretation,” one the Catholic Church has, until now, never interpreted within the context of marriage. “The marriage must go through the whole channel and be annulled before [the couple] are allowed to go further,” he said, but added: “I think we are going to look at what ‘the power of the keys’ could mean in this context.”

“Rules and regulations are ideals, points or arrival,” Palmer-Buckle said later. “They are the perfection to which we aspire. However, we are walking on, and when we fall we should be able to rise and to go ahead. And that is why the Pope is asking us: How do we help people whose marriages are broken down beyond repair to rise up, get the medicine they need, and continue walking?"

Later in the interview, he appeared to compare a more welcoming attitude towards homosexual couples to the amnesty President Obama recently offered to illegal immigrants. 

The archbishop, who has been chosen to represent the Ghanaian Church at the Synod, raised concerns among some of his fellow African bishops last week when he reportedly said he would be disposed to “vote yes” to the proposal of Cardinal Walter Kasper to admit some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive holy Communion. After being confronted by an African cardinal, he backtracked on his comments, saying he was talking in a “very general way”. 

It’s likely some figures are giving the archbishop prominence to give the impression Africa’s hierarchy is not as unified in upholding the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage as it seems. The majority of the Church in Africa is understood to be solidly against the Kasper proposal and changing pastoral practice with regards to homosexuals and cohabiting couples, the other controversial issues of the Synod on the Family. 

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban cautioned African Church leaders last week “not to get sidetracked” by problems “without first looking at the good things that are there, and how can we strengthen the Church through good marriages and good families.”

Meanwhile, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah recently warned that detaching Church teaching from “pastoral practice” – which critics say the Kasper proposal would do – is a form of “heresy.” 

The idea of placing the Magisterium “in a nice box by detaching it from pastoral practice – which could evolve according to the circumstances, fads, and passions – is a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology,” Cardinal Sarah said. “The African Church will strongly oppose any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and the Magisterium,” he added. His comments are to appear in a book of interviews published by the French publication Fayard.

Distinct fault lines on these controversial issues are developing between bishops of various countries. African nations, the United States and Poland generally appear to be strongest in favor of upholding the Church’s traditional teaching on these matters ahead of the October synod. 

In his Lenten Message this year, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow underlined the importance of referring back to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio for guidance when it comes to assessing the Church’s pastoral approach to civilly remarried divorcees. 

By contrast, German bishops yesterday elected three prelates to represent the German Church at the synod, all of whom are said to openly support the Kasper proposal.