Fr. Nicholas, assistant priest of St. Anselm’s, has produced a challenging and thought provoking article for this month’s Portal; the online magazine of the Ordinariate. In the article he muses on the present furore surrounding Amoris Laetitia and especially on the silence of many bishops in response to the crisis. I reproduce it here with his permission.
“They Don’t Like It Up Them Sir!” Some Thoughts on Amoris Laetitia and a Pledged Troth
Two men presently occupy the Chair of St Peter. One, somewhat oddly, does so in the relative humidity of downtown Houston: the other, late of The Argentine, now does so in Rome. Francis, by divine permission Lord Bishop of Rome has given to all the faithful a thoughtful and beautifully written presentation of God’s plan for marriage helpfully entitled Amoris Laetitia. Steven, presumably also by divine permission, Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, has penned what ought properly to be called an epistle which he has called “A pledged troth A pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia”. Whilst I quite understand that much of what flows out of Rome is written in a most peculiar way and appears to have been rendered into English by Albanian emigrees it really is quite something that a bishop should have felt it necessary to explain in such an engaging way what the Pope was driving at when he penned his reflective thoughts on marriage. He does so because his flock contains many who as former Anglicans have been nurtured by an Episcopal church in which divorce is an ever present reality and the teaching on the sacraments has been less faithful to the generally understood thoughts of the church on the subject than it should have been.
Bishop Lopes too writes beautifully, although his prose style is blighted by the hypnotically dull footnotes which are required of all who do Roman theology. This is the essence of what he says. Marriage is lifelong: that is what the words “till death do us part” mean. One cannot marry unless one is free to do so and understands what marriage entails. Marriage is a sacrament. Christ told us what he thought marriage entailed and since he remains God we really have no power to change His views on it which, one way or another, ought to be ours. I may have missed some of the theological nuances but that really is the gist of it. You will all be relieved to hear that Bishop Steven is quite sure that this is what Pope Francis was driving at in Amoris Laetitia. The two of them also agree that marriages break down rather a lot and that society as a whole has a rather different view on the consequences of that than does the church.
Where they apparently part company is on quite what we need to do about this. The former Bishop of Bevendon, Dr Spacely Trellis, would not entirely have approved of the unhelpful stance taken by the Ordinary; rooted as it is in the teaching of the church founded upon the most ancient of theological reflection and buttressed by both doctrine and dogma. Fortunately, the Pope can boldly go where no one else dares to tread. Having noticed that Catholics have a thing about Holy Communion and that an unfortunate consequence of divorce is that people quite wrongly think they can remarry and have sexual intercourse without committing adultery (so that they take communion to the great peril of their souls) the Pope thinks we really ought to do something about this most unsatisfactory state of affairs. Quite a lot of really enlightened Churchmen have come to the conclusion that in a world in which Christians are being driven out of the Middle East and in which the population of Rome is not really Christian and is distinctly anti clerical it would be a good idea to stop erecting barriers to the faith and to allow people to keep doing this. I may have got some of this wrong, because there is a very large extract of mercy to be added to the mix, but that is the general drift of the argument. The Pope, of course, would never fall into any sort of error and clearly would never do so about marriage or indeed any other sacrament, such as penance, and that is something that Bishop Steven is also really pleased to reassure us about.
What Bishop Steven tells those committed to his charge is as follows. The church has always taught us that marriage is a lifelong commitment and that divorce is impossible. It simply is not within the church’s power to alter the nature and consequences of marriage. Adultery is a grave sin. Having sexual intercourse with a person who is not your spouse, even if you have been permitted to enter into a relationship with them by the state, is adultery. Those in a state of mortal sin must not take communion. That too is a rather important rule because otherwise the communicant sinner purchases to themselves the greatest peril to their soul. Naturally, this, according to Bishop Steven, is the general line taken by the Pope. Given that this is so one wonders what on earth prompted the bishop to put pen to paper.
The answer, of course, although Bishop Steven is too dutiful a son of the church to say so, is that the Pope thinks that bishops and priests should exercise the mercy for which the church is justly famous by letting adulterers who have a settled intention to continue sinning to take communion. That is the current battle exercising the minds of the College of Cardinals and every bench of bishops throughout the world. The English and Welsh are uncharacteristically silent about this because they are split down the middle on the subject.
This pastoral letter bluntly tells us what we all know but would sometimes rather not hear. Actions have consequences, promises taken before God are vows, sacraments are just that and frailty, although all around us, is not the most sensible reason for abandoning that which we have always known to be both true and right. The Pope has no more power to change the church’s teaching on this than did Parliament in the mid-1530s when it had the little matter of the King’s divorce to deal with. That experiment has not been entirely successful and the Roman Church would do well to remember that. The Anglican Church used to believe that its task was to take the church to the people and to conform the people to the faith of the church, and it did so with great fidelity. Although it would deny it absolutely it now firmly believes that its mission is to take the church to the people and to conform the church to the image of those to whom it is taken. That is a dreadful consequence of liberal relativism of which, unfortunately, we hear so much today. It has destroyed the Anglican church and it will destroy any other church which permits the devil the luxury of employing it in our midst.
Bishop Lopes tells us gently but firmly that those of us who married must stick to the bed we have made. Marriage breakdown is often awful but its inevitable consequence is not ‘re marriage’. Nullity may sometimes be an option, stigma never is. Taking Communion is not something that one just does. Confession without a settled intention of avoiding the same sin does not lead to absolution. Priests, and bishops for that matter, cannot just make things up because it suits the moment.
How remarkable that Anglicanorum coetibus has produced a bishop who believes it to be his duty to ensure that the faith of the church and its teachings are to be protected against error and who is not afraid by public pronouncement to put down the mighty from their seat. How strange that the other 6,000 bishops have apparently not done so. But then, as L/Cpl Jones so shrewdly observed, most of them really don’t like it up them Sir.