Last week a bishop offered the faithful some timely reassurance. Bishop Steven Lopes leads the American branch of the ordinariate – a group within the Catholic Church mostly composed of former Anglicans, which preserves much of Anglican liturgy and spirituality. Bishop Lopes’s document, A Pledged Troth, comes amid the chaos and controversy dogging Amoris Laetitia. It is full of wise words, so I was pleased that his British counterpart, Mgr Newton, also sent the document to his clergy.
Bishop Lopes stresses that the marriage service expresses a deep, exclusive loyalty and lifelong faithfulness. He reminds us that the marriage covenant is, by its very nature, perpetual and exclusive. He goes on, quoting the Catechism: “No one, not even the Church herself, has power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.”
This contradicts the thinking of other bishops who, by treating their interpretation of ambiguous footnotes within Amoris Laetitia as magisterial teaching, have concluded that some divorced and remarried persons can be admitted to Holy Communion without resolving to live in continence.
Ordinariate members will be relieved to hear Bishop Lopes stress the unchanging teaching of the Church because, as former Anglicans, this controversy rings alarm bells for us. We ordinariate members have already fought once against moral relativism (and lost). Our experience of living amid confusion helps us discern that, while the presenting issue is “divorce and re-marriage”, what is really at stake is the nature of divine revelation. Is divine revelation, as Catholicism ever claimed, “the same yesterday, today and forever”? It was because we believed it to be so that we joined the Catholic Church. Or is revelation open to correction by man, depending on his situation and culture?
A lesson we former Anglicans learnt is that “middle ground” between diametrically opposed positions is an illusion. It can be tempting to conceive of pastoral space between praxis and doctrine, but the two cannot flourish in tension. What transpires on the ground is meaningful change by stealth. After all, the Church of England itself never actually changed official teaching on divorce, but people routinely re-marry without need for annulment. Thus Anglican doctrine now teaches one thing – the indissolubility of marriage – but her practice encourages the opposite: an acceptance of serial monogamy.
Ordinariate members also discovered that slippery slopes exist. If you abandon Scripture and tradition once it can happen again. If the Church ignores Christ’s teaching on divorce today, why not disregard it concerning women priests tomorrow? Soon the dance re-occurs over a range of issues: to what extent can Scripture be overruled to appease societal desire?
A final lesson from Anglican days. When conservative minds question progressive desires, progressives first appeal to “new workings of the Spirit”, which is the only possible argument when Scripture and tradition are against you. But because the Spirit cannot contradict the Son – how could disunity exist within the Godhead? – the answer from tradition remains negative. And it is this firm refusal to abandon Scriptural teaching that enrages those impatient for change. All too often disunity results: the use of name-calling to silence traditional voices for failing to get with the programme.
As one who has witnessed the disintegration and collapse of an ecclesial body due to the ravages of moral relativism, my prayer is that orthodoxy will prevail. Otherwise the fracture that has already occurred within Anglicanism will arrive in Rome. Martin Luther will have won a battle regarding conscience and authority that has been raging for centuries.
Fr Ed Tomlinson is an ordinariate priest and blogger