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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