Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Schism?

Something’s got to give. Lately, that’s what a number of observers have been warning. The Body of Christ is being tugged in too many directions simultaneously; it can only be a matter of time before limbs start tearing away. Just this past week, Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch predicted “a very great split over the Vatican’s failure to listen to European Catholics.” MacCulloch never says exactly what European Catholics are shouting into the Church’s deaf ear, but since he refers to its recent “rewriting” of the Second Vatican Council, it’s not hard to guess: married priests, women priests, remarriage after divorce, contraception — all the usual suspects.

Last fall, in Catholic Answers and on the Anchoress Blog, Elizabeth Scalia shared what she called a “schismatic fantasy” for the American Church. In fact, she predicts two major schisms — roughly, one among progressives in thrall to the age, and another among traditionalists in thrall to their own sense of being uniquely ortho in doxy and praxis. Apparently recalling the Moscow Patriarchate’s cooperation with the KGB, she imagines the Progressive Church enjoying some kind of official recognition from some future authoritarian government.

It would be crazy to dismiss the possibility that one segment of disaffected Catholics or another could strike out on its own. Over the past century and a half, the Church has been replicating itself like an amoeba. To protest Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, German Catholics united with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. Outrage over the reforms of Vatican II whelped a litter of traditionalist sects. In a slightly different category, you’ve got the Society of St. Pius X, whose founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, did not willingly leave the Church, but was shown the door and given instructions on where not to let it hit him. Schism has become part of the order of things.

But before anyone panics, let’s remember: none of these counterfeit Churches is particularly large. The Society of St. Pius X claims a million members — enough to fill a good-sized archdiocese. About 25,000 people belong to the Polish National Catholic Church. It’s hard to find reliable estimates for the membership of the various sedevacantist churches. In a blog titled “The Way Back to the Mainstream,” one blogger claims there are “sixty to one hundred twenty million faithful true Catholics” walking the earth today. If you’re going to be vainglorious, you might as well leave yourself a comfy margin of error.

Let’s face it: schism takes work. Not only must a schismatic leader hack his way through a tangle of legal and financial red tape, he’s got to come up with a solid intellectual foundation for schism, and he’s got to make that foundation plausible for a decent number of believers. To do any of this, he’d better be a person of ability and stature. Lefebvre was no chump from the block. He was the Superior-General of the Holy Ghost Fathers and an archbishop who sat at the Second Vatican Council. And even he got only so far.

Diarmaid MacCulloch might know something I don’t, namely, that somewhere in Europe is a man (or woman) with force and charisma enough to become the next Lefebvre, or even the next Luther. But I don’t see any such person at large here in America. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who incurred a latae sententiae excommunication for ordaining women priests, is fighting to remain in the Maryknoll Society. The groups served by Roman Catholic Womenpriests — which go by titles like “Inclusive Catholic Community” and “Welcoming Community of Hope” — seem to be catacombs-sized. R.C. Womenpriest’s website lists seven on the Eastern Seaboard.

It’s bad form to impose American political nomenclature on intra-Church divisions unless the point of contention is politics, but for the sake of convenience, as I offer grounds for hope, I’m going to do it. These grounds are simple: We liberals have the hardest chins in the business. We’re Weebles. We’re the guys in the Chumbawamba song. We’re Chuck Wepner and the hierarchy is Muhammad Ali. We stuck around through Humanae Vitae and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, through Pope Benedict’s ban on gay priests and Don Escriva de Balaguer’s first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame. After that, ain’t nothing going to pry us out.

Much has been made of the sternness — some would even say harshness — that characterized the future Pope Benedict’s tenure as CDF prefect. What gets less attention is the number of theologians and other Church figures who accepted his censure, observed whatever conditions came with it, and went on about their business. After losing his missio canonica and his professorship at the Catholic University of America, Fr. Charles Curran simply set up shop at Southern Methodist University — without becoming Methodist (or, for that matter, a Southerner). After being silenced on the subject of homosexuality, New Ways Ministries co-founder Fr. Robert Nugent remains a priest in good standing. In leaving the priesthood and the Friars Minor following a decade of run-ins with the CDF, Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff tacitly acknowledged the Church hierarchy’s jurisdiction. He chose to eat his cake, recognizing he couldn’t have it, too.

So much for liberals. Conservatives present no problems because they have no schism-sized gripes. None of the points on which their views and the Church hierarchy’s are most likely to diverge — environmental protection, immigration reform, the budget — touches on infallible teachings. Last October, when Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace president Cardinal Peter Turkson issued a document calling for more regulation of the global economy, George Weigel was able, in lordly tones, to dismiss it as the work of “a rather small office in the Roman curia,” and the expectations it raised as “rubbish.”

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II urged restricting the death penalty to cases “of absolute necessity,” meaning “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” These days, he added, “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” In his 2002 essay, “God’s Justice and Ours,” however, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dissents, as it were, from the pope’s reading. Citing Romans 13: 1-5, he argues that retribution against the criminal is a perfectly valid motive for putting him to death, one that justifies executions that the need to defend society doesn’t. The current queasiness regarding capital punishment, including the pope’s, he writes, “is the legacy of Napoleon, Hegel, and Freud rather than St. Paul and St. Augustine.”

The point here is not to call Justice Scalia a rebel. He came out against that section of the pope’s encyclical only after trusted canonists assured him that it — like Turkson’s recommendations — was non-binding. Like any good Catholic, he sized up the wiggle room that remained him and found it large enough to fill with his own reasoned judgment. Most conservatives should find as much space to maneuver on the points that irk them. Incredible thought it might seem to anyone tasked with managing a combox, I’m convinced that, in 50 years, most of us will still be inside the tent, pissing in.

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Rest Among the Catholic Doodads
Purgatory-Schmurgatory, As Long As You’re Hopeful
  • deiseach

    Oh, no! Diarmuid McCulloch thinks there might be a schism? You mean, as in the time of the Arians? Or the Great Schism between East and West? Or there was this thing somewhere over there on the continent – I think it was called the Reformation? Or when the Nonconformists split off from the Church of England?

    And of course, the answer to the problem is to become wedded to the Spirit of the Age. How many scholars and gentlemen does this make now that have forecast the end of the Roman Catholic Church – unless, of course, it trims its sails to the prevailing winds?

    [Hey, deiseach. I thought you'd quit this place for Unevenly Yoked. Glad you haven't lost your taste for slumming. ;)]

  • Patrick

    I’ll add two more problems with the “Liberal Catholic Schism Theory”. The first is that most of it’s vocal members are over 60 years old. Tick tock. Tick tock. It’s going to be difficult to run a proper schism from a nursing home. C’mon: aren’t these “liberal Catholics” mostly “Aging Boomers” who in their formative years were convinced that hierarchy and authority were the world’s worst things? Take the “liberal orders” of nuns, for example: all of them are the “60′s/70s feminist age”, and they’re not being replaced. People under 40 who still go to Church when there is no expectation of Church-going aren’t likely to be schismatics – they’re Catholics because they *want* to be Catholics, not because of some ethnic background or social habit.

    The second problem is that there is *already* a place for “liberal Catholics” to go if they wanted to leave the Church: they could just become Episcopalians/Anglicans. They wouldn’t even need to bother with a “schism”. That few liberal Catholics are becoming Episcopalians, who agree with them on every single thing besides Roman Authority indicates that they’ve got no interest in leaving.

  • Jo Ann Elder

    I agree with Patrick. Love her or hate her, Mother Church is still our Mother and there are countless “liberal Catholics” who have stated that they refuse to leave her even as they pick yet another fight with her.

    I also agree with him about the Baby Boomers. I am coming to the end of attaining my Master’s Degree in religious education from a Jesuit school. I am so glad that I waited until I was in my 50′s and had access to Catholic bloggers to help keep me centered while being forced to consume this stuff. I have just been amazed at the pride and hubris of the authors and theologians that we have had to read. Over and over again they promote their own ideas as “enlightened” and “mature” Catholicism bashing everyone from St. Paul and St. Augustine to St. Thomas Acquinas and ALL pre-Vatican II theologians. Those apostles and Doctors of the Church *CLEARLY* did not have the benefits of modern sociological and psychological theory to inform their praxis! My take on it is that these aging boomers are forever in rebellion to authority. They are asking me to be a religious educator who promotes individualism and rebellion to younger generations who no longer even know who the Church is and what she teaches.

    What I want the people of my parish to know is that God loves us so much that he made us a family to belong to forever. A family with siblings who squabble, a mother who sees that we are fed with the Word and the Eucharist, and a father who we look to in order to have our disputes settled before murder and mayhem ensue. No family is perfect because human beings are not perfect. But we can strive to love one another a little better today than we did yesterday.

    Thanks, Max, for being a unique voice in our Catholic family. I don’t always agree with everything you say, but I love the way you say it! :)

  • Billy

    Now Max, I surprised to hear what you said about Abp. Lefebvre being shown the door. It’s the kind of thing the “trads” (meaning no disrespect to them) like to say.

    I think when you decide to consecrate bishops (and priests) without permission you’ve shown yourself the door, haven’t you?

    Anyway, I don’t get it. Can you help? Please don’t make me read _The Horn if the Unicorn_. :)

    [I suppose I'll have to cop to a bias here: I'm not crazy about SSPX. It's the Jewish thing. No one who voted against Nostra Aetate, as Lefebvre did, is going to be a favorite of mine. For that reason, I find it satisfying to think of him being told, "Beat it," which is technically what happened. But your version is accurate in a broader sense.]

  • http://catholicboyrichard.wordpress.com Richard G Evans

    I am going to begin by disagreeing with Scalia’s assessment (Judge Scalia that is) on the death penalty and Catholics. There were a few high-ranking Cardinals who disagreed with Paul VI on Humane Vitae too, but that does not make them correct. So if some canonists advised him on his writing I would simply say that they are ill-advised. Why?

    Teachings in an Encyclical are binding. The only non-binding part was already placed in there by Blessed JPII himself and it was if, and only if it was for the actual protection of society. Granted, that does allow for questions to be asked such as a) the so far non-existent discovery that the death penalty DOES deter crimes or certain crimes after all or b) think zombie apocalypse and the prisons are all broken open with rapists littering the streets, martial law or no law in place, and the like–so the only choice becomes to shoot the prisoners. In short, it is extremely rare and that is precisely what the late Holy Father meant by it. Scalia forgets or perhaps ignores that this point make it into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and that too makes it binding unless we believe that we can pick and choose through that Magisterial document as well. Like many things, I believe it is a small “t” tradition, meaning if and when proven otherwise it could be overridden, but only by a decision from Rome. But we are still bound to those teachings as well, no matter what our personal feelings are, until if and when that would occur.

    But as to your original concept in the post, I mostly agree. Those who seriously dissent from Rome may find other pastures, but that is not something new. There are already 30,000 plus Protestant groups and Catholicism (unlike those rather odd figures given by the “Back to the Mainstream” blogger, the Church is 1 billion strong. That is 1/8 of humanity. If half or even 1/3 of those are practicing even partially, then his or her figures are extremely low (although as you pointed out, conveniently flexible). In any case the Church is not going away. We may get leaner, but we will be there. On that I am with you totally .

    [By "true and faithful Catholics" the Back to the Mainstream blogger meant traditionalists outside communion with Rome. The numbers sounded wildly inflated to me; I included them as evidence of just how hard those people are to count.]

  • Melody

    Max, I agree with you, I don’t think there’s going to be any large scale schism. We’ll just keep on being one big dysfunctional family, because that’s what we’re good at.
    A few months ago you proposed a “Catholic drinking game”. I don’t remember what the subject was, but if we had a shot of vodka every time somebody dumped a cup of dirt on the Baby Boomers’ collective grave we’d have been over the legal limit a long time ago. Thanks for the thought, Patrick and JoAnn Elder, but keep in mind that everyone on earth is a day closer to their death than they were yesterday. And people will find new things to argue about, or they will just keep recycling the old things.

    [Some people forget that Catholics are used to following leaders of a certain age. Teen cardinals went out with the Renaissance. Actually, I think the one person who could have started a large and successful schismatic movement is Hans Kung, but he preferred to remain in the tent with the rest of us.]

  • Melody

    “Teen cardinals went out with the Renaissance.” Good point. In fact the next pope is likely to be one a them dratted baby-boomers!

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    “The first is that most of it’s vocal members are over 60 years old. Tick tock. Tick tock.”

    Almost as funny as Elizabeth’s musings on schism. Mainly because I’m going to enjoy reform3 Catholics eviscerate the traditionalist ascendancy.

  • Patrick

    I didn’t mean to be rude about the Boomers – seriously. Sorry if it comes off like that. All I meant was that a schism would require a group of progressive dissenters who 1) view the hierarchy as “in the way of real Catholicism” and, more importantly, 2) still think it’s important to be called a Catholic (hence a schism rather than becoming a liberal Protestant or a secular liberal). That phenomenon only exists among Catholics of a certain age, and it isn’t the future of the Church. Younger people have fewer ethnic ties to the Church, no social pressure to come to church, and heck: the Catholic Church is less “respectable” than it’s been in decades (and their experience with the hierarchy isn’t so much nuns-with-rulers but cuddly Pope John Paul II!) There are fewer reasons for young progressives to remain Catholics that aren’t religious. And if a youngish progressive has made a decision independent of ethnic ties/social expectation/”respectability” to be a Catholic, they’re not going to schism. They may dissent on this or that teaching, but they won’t schism.

    If there was going to be a schism of progressive dissenters, it would’ve been in the late 1970s-early 1980s at the “high water mark”, as it were, of the Spirit of Vatican II. Those people will be riding into the sunset in ten years, and the Church will be a bunch of Latinos, reactionaries, and poor people. The Maureen-Dowd-Nancy-Pelosi-style “white ethnic Catholic progressive” won’t even exist, let alone in numbers enough to schism.

  • Bill

    Being born in 79, growing up during the awful 80s for Catholicism in the US, then moving to the Diocese of Rochester (coincidentally, today is Bishop Clark’s 75th birthday, so the most left-wing bishop currently in office today, resigns) in the late 90s, I’ve seen every form, every trajectory of left wing Catholicism.

    It never could regenerate really. Progressive Catholicism always came across as your dad and mom trying to be hip. Nothing about it appealed to me, or really any of us in my cohort. I went to a Catholic college (that has actually gotten more Catholic and orthodox), that was an admixture of old school traditional minded priests, and middle aged (at the time) progressives. The progressive Mass at the college, which rivaled the craziness as the now excommunicated Spiritus Christi, only appealed to kids who grew up in Rochester, or, frankly, left wing kids who were Catholic due to ethnic background and were too young to consider abandoning religion. The kids who went to the school and were on fire Catholics avoided it like the plague.

    I left Rochester and moved to the somewhat, actually quite a bit compared to Rochester but hardly Lincoln Nebraska, more normal Diocese of Buffalo. Orthodoxy is really appealing to a lot of people.

  • deiseach

    Max, I only comment here rarely because this site is like expensive fine wine – you don’t chug it down from a gallon jug, you sip and savour ;-)

    [That's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I've got something in my eye.]

  • Robster

    Well, I guess formal, official schism is meant. But we have effectual schism, like effectual excommunication. Whether anything “official” is done by institutional church or schismatics, the schism will exist. “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,…” Separating sheep and goats…., etc.
    That will be the real effective, and eternal schism!

  • Patrick

    @ Jo Ann Elder:

    “My take on it is that these aging boomers are forever in rebellion to authority.”

    Yeah, exactly; but can you really blame ‘em? In that age, Authority meant some priest who thought human sexuality was suspect and Lyndon Johnson/Richard Nixon lying to you. If the post-Vatican II Church is too sentimental, the pre-Vatican II Church was a bunch of Calvinist heretics: they thought too little of human beings, and were too obsessed with sins of the flesh. The Boomers fought a necessary fight, and they’ve won it, and now the Church will “retrench”.

    The young orthodox owe their parents some gratitude: instead of “pray, pay, obey” because they’re Irish or Italian or Polish or Hungarian, they’ve been allowed to *think* their way to orthodoxy.

    @ Bill: “Progressive Catholicism always came across as your dad and mom trying to be hip.”

    Haha. I had the same experience with a “Catholic Youth Group” when I was a boy. Come on: it’s the Protestants that pick guitars around the campfire. That said, the “traditionalist” priest who berated me in my first confession (*way* before I discovered women and booze!) convinced me that the progressives sort of had a point about someone who prefers orthodoxy to human beings. (The guy ended up being a molester surprise, surprise!)

  • Nina Evans

    You forgot to mention the schism that took place back in 16th c and 17th c England. It is the Anglican Church which is only schismatic and not heretical as are other Protestant denominations. I cannot tell you how many RC’s have wandered into our pastures and some wandered back(notably so saints or two). Still like C S Lewis(staunch Anglican that he was), I can appreciate the woes and trials of the RC Church, as these are fellow Christians struggling to keep the faith. But if there is an alternative place to express ones liberal leanings(the Episcopal Church being the extreme example), why are liberal RC’s persisting in changing the Church’s centuries credo? Just wondering, not sure of what the real answer is except that inertia has its effect on humans regardless of theology. It is not lost on me that some of greatest examples of faith came from persons who were called out of their comfort zones and into a wandering existence. What is it about “Mother Church” that keeps liberals so tied to her? Now I understand that is a real Protestant question and coming from one Anglican who is wandering, perhaps a question that I could not understand thoroughly. Yet I am always looking for something while wandering out here. And answer is always appreciated.

  • Bill

    I guess for me it was never orthodoxy vs compassion. Some of the most intolerant people I ever met in the Church were the progressives who tried to stamp out any piety at all.

    I found the most orthodox, if not necessarily traditionalist, were the ones who were the most laid-back and understanding.

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    “…in 50 years, most of us will still be inside the tent, pissing in,” lol. Well said!

    “Apparently recalling the Moscow Patriarchate’s cooperation with the KGB, she imagines the Progressive Church enjoying some kind of official recognition from some future authoritarian government.”

    Well, it’s not that farfetched, because it is exactly what is happening in China. And you know who our leadership has been taking its cues from for the last ten or twenty years, right? Moreover, and more to the point, it wouldn’t need to be a recognizably Soviet- or PRC-style regime. It could simply provide all sorts of material assistance, scholarships, grants, etc., for schools, hospitals, etc., that comply with its regulations, and tax, penalize, mandate, or whatever into obliteration those that do not comply with its regulations. In fact, that is exactly the road we are on now.

    How many folks out there put their kids into Catholic schools without caring too much what exactly is meant by “Catholic”? They have nice uniforms, discipline, makes you feel like you’re a good mom and dad, good test scores. Sweet. I know a dozen such schools in my metro area, whose faculty and administrators make only the thinnest pretense of believing, living, and worshiping with the heart and mind of the Church. And how much more so when these schools are new and shiny, and those “conservative” “reactionary” schools are dilapidated and crumbling? What respectable affluent young couple wants their kid in such a place?

    The Enlightenment regime that dominates the West has almost finished corroding out its own Christian foundation. When that has gone, and respect for justice, liberty, and personhood, have gone with it, the utopian dreams of heaven on earth will remain.

  • Zita

    Yeah, well Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is not infallible either. Just because JPII said “it’s infallible b/c I say so” doesn’t make it so (also pissing in the tent). Your liberalism is indeed wimpy.

  • lindenman

    Hell you say. Read my last post. I was building guillotines when you were crushing on Archie and Jughead.