Is the Catholic Church Headed For a Schism?

As Pope Francis tries to shift the focus of the Catholic Church from homosexuality and abortion, many powerful and conservative figures within the church seem to be hinting at a possible schism. And the fact that the last pope, far more conservative than the current one, is still alive and living at the Vatican only complicates things all the more.

Almost from the beginning, there have been rumblings of discontent about Pope Francis. While the world’s media fell in love with him, there were more conservative bishops who felt that Francis’s popular appeal came at the expense of carefully worked-out Church rituals and teachings. They saw Francis as chipping away at established Church teachings on sexuality, kowtowing to the liberal media, and acting aggressively towards conservative church leaders.

Criticism of Francis has come to a head with the publication of the final report of the Synod on the Family. Despite changing absolutely nothing doctrinally, the Synod’s recommendations for a more understanding attitude to those in unconventional family arrangements have ignited a firestorm of controversy among conservative commentators. The possibility that Catholics who had divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment might be readmitted into full communion with the Church has made many apoplectic.

Writing on his diocesan website, Bishop Thomas Tobin accused Francis of being fond of “making a mess” and stated that the Synod voting concept “struck [him] as being rather Protestant.” A funny argument, since Catholic bishops have been voting on key issues since the Council of Nicaea in 325, but that’s beside the point. Tobin seems to be suggesting that with Francis at the helm, the Catholic Church is no longer acting like the Catholic Church.

For over a year conservative Catholics have had their chastity belts in a twist over Francis and apparently, the chafing has finally grown too much to bear.

Over at The New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat, a convert to Roman Catholicism, warned that Francis’s current path could “eventually lead to real schism.” With the threat of schism hanging in the air he then encourages a kind of rebellion: “True Catholics,” he writes, must “resist” the Pope’s pressure to change the Church.

Other conservatives agree, pointing to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in which the upstart self-proclaimed Apostle Paul describes a meeting when he called out Peter—the first Pope—for hypocrisy. To his face and everything. According to Paul, Peter backed down. Now traditionalists want to use this as a precedent for calling out the Pope when he’s not Pope-y enough.

Benedict is hanging back for now, but there’s no doubt that he could easily become a figurehead for traditionalists harkening back to the good old days. Proof-texting from scripture in order to criticize the Pope—now who’s being Protestant?

Conservative Cardinals seem to be getting in on the act. Last weekend Australian Cardinal George Pell unnecessarily reminded his congregants not only that Pope Francis is the 266th Pope, but also that “history has seen 37 false or antipopes.” Antipopes? Does Cardinal Pell intend to hint that Francis isn’t a true Pope? Was Cardinal Pell not there when Francis was elected?

All of this is very interesting. Could this turn into an actual schism? I doubt it. But the potential is there, made all the more odd because the rank-and-file Catholics tend to be in line with Francis, not with the conservative dissidents. The brouhaha at the recent synod over the church’s relationship to gay people was just one skirmish in what could break out into a much larger war within the church.

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  • dingojack

    Who’s bringing the popcorn?

    Dingo

  • D. C. Sessions

    What if they held a schism and (almost) nobody came?

    A bunch of bishops and Bill Donohue, maybe.

  • dingojack

    Don’t underestimate the conservative pull in Africa… (Just as long as the really old white guys remain with the real power, of course).

    Dingo

  • illdoittomorrow

    “Other conservatives agree, pointing to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in which the upstart self-proclaimed Apostle Paul describes a meeting when he called out Peter—the first Pope—for hypocrisy. To his face and everything. According to Paul, Peter backed down. Now traditionalists want to use this as a precedent for calling out the Pope when he’s not Pope-y enough.”

    Speaking of hypocrisy, what happened to papal infallibility?

  • Artor

    Dingo beat me to it. All I can say about this is “Bring it on!” I’ll be over here watching the idiots rumble.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Neat. He’s white Obama.

  • grumpyoldfart

    They’ll just show each other their shit-files and the ones with the most to lose will back down. That’s how it works in politics and religion.

  • raven

    ??? I thought the Pope was infallible. God’s representative on earth. And the RCC was The One True Church of god on earth.

    Why doesn’t one of the RCC pantheon just settle the issues? God, jesus, Holy Spook, Mary, or even one of the Saints, many of whom are…former Popes.

    This is the obvious problem with religion. While they claim authority from the gods, they look exactly like a bunch of weird old white men fighting over trivia. “Should we hate more or try to look like we care about our 1 billion members?”

  • dingojack

    grumpyoldfart – paedophilia, can one get any more shitty?

    I’m thinking Benny ain’t coming out of retirement, ever…

    Dingo

  • raven

    Who cares really?

    If a few warped old men decide that misogyny and gay hate are going to be the center of the Catholic church, let them. Smile and wave bye bye. Have a nice farewell party.

    The church would be better off without them. A lot better without them.

    Pope: “So you want to leave? Great idea. What can we do to help your exit along?”

  • raven

    Schisms are no big deal. They happen every few months at the least somewhere.

    That is why there are 42,000 xian sects with more being formed often in an ever expanding cloud of silliness. My natal sects have done this so many times, no one has any idea just how many there are any more.

    The real sticking point is, Who gets the stuff and treasury. Most of the churches have huge assets being old and untaxed. It’s mostly property these days, often choice land in the big cities. It isn’t billions, it is trillions USD worth.

    Pushing the weirder Cardinals and Archbishops out the door is no big deal. Cardinals are like buses, there is always another one coming along. However, it’s a cold world out there without your support system. Cardinals need to eat and pay the rent too.

  • Steve Morrison

    “Papal infallibility” only means that the Pope can speak ex cathedra, which happens very rarely. It doesn’t mean Catholics believe the Pope is always right.

  • Dave Maier

    If there’s an antipope, we better keep him away from the real Pope, or there could be one heck of an explosion.

  • dean

    “If a few warped old men decide that misogyny and gay hate are going to be the center of the Catholic church, l”

    They have been two of the cornerstones for church fundraising for a long time: neither position is going anywhere soon. Just follow the money.

    This pope really hasn’t done anything other than good public relations. He says the church needs to value women (as long as they are content to keep churning out babies and realize that they aren’t qualified to speak to any serious issues). They church needs to welcome gays into the fold (and then tell them why what they are is wrong and the church can help them – just the reverse order of the traditional ideas).

    If he ever has any serious ideas for change, and actually tries to work for them, that will, and should be, news. As it is, his continuing minor statements are inconsequential.

  • noe1951

    So…they’re going to admit that god doesn’t guide their pope electoral process, right? Or, conversely, admit that god wants Francis to be pope, but they just don’t think god knows what is right?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Given what the media feeds us, most Americans contemplating the Catholic Church focus on doctrinal issues.

    However, the Vatican also has other concerns – most notably at present, its Bank. John Paul I’s attempts to clean up some of that institution’s peccadilloes fed a lot of the conspiracy rumors around his sudden death, and Francis/Bergoglio’s replacement of certain key personnel there deserves more attention. (One [more] thing Francis hasn’t changed is the opacity of the Bank’s operations, so the net effect of these changes is hard to read. Actual reform or whitewash – who can tell?)

    But if reporters started digging into the Vatican Bank’s operations, somebody might start asking questions about what other big banks are doing, so we need have no fear that Anglophone coverage will swing in that direction.

  • John Pieret

    made all the more odd because the rank-and-file Catholics tend to be in line with Francis

    Rank-and-file AMERICAN Catholics tend to be in line with Francis but that is hardly the heart-and-soul of Catholicism any more. That has shifted mostly to South America and, to a certain extent, Africa.

    The fear, I suspect among the traditionalists, is that Frankie, as a South American himself, might infuse those people with something like USAian free thinking.

  • LightningRose

    Ever since I learned that dead popes are never autopsied, I assumed this is how the cardinals keep the pope in line.

  • karmacat

    It would nice if they could schism themselves out of existence, but that is just a fantasy.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    The Prophecy of the Popes, a late medieval forgery attributed to an early medieval saint, puts Maladict in the position of the last legitimate pope. After that is “the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church” which will end with the rise of “Peter the Roman,” who will destroy Rome.

    I find myself entertained at the idea that conservatives might be using this “prophecy” to justify themselves.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    So…they’re going to admit that god doesn’t guide their pope electoral process, right? Or, conversely, admit that god wants Francis to be pope, but they just don’t think god knows what is right?

    An idea I’ve actually heard floated is that Pope’s can’t resign, so the last conclave was invalid. They wait for Benedict to die, declare the seat open and hold their own conclave to choose a pope.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    What I’d like to know is the exact nature of the brain glitch that makes me substitute Pope’s for popes.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    I’d pay money to see a Swiss Guard give Cardinal Burke a snoot full of pepper spray.

  • abb3w

    @21, Dr X

    An idea I’ve actually heard floated is that Pope’s can’t resign, so the last conclave was invalid.

    That only works if every conclave since Celestine V has been invalid.

  • iangould

    “Rank-and-file AMERICAN Catholics tend to be in line with Francis but that is hardly the heart-and-soul of Catholicism any more. That has shifted mostly to South America and, to a certain extent, Africa.”

    Latin American Catholics are far more liberal than they used to be.

    On a different note: my understanding is that the Pope has virtually unlimited power to appoint and remove Cardinals. Virtually, the only requirement is that they need to be priests. In the past, even lay persons were appointed Cardinal on occasion. Currently, they have to be bishops but the Pope can simply appoint a priest as a bishop and then immediately make them a Cardinal.

    JPII and Benedict stacked the College of Cardinals with conservatives but just over half the current college is over age 80. Even without the Pope sacking people, there’s going to be a pretty decent rate of turnover over the next few years.

    Because of this, it’s virtually impossible to remove a Pope from office. Dissidents can leave the Church but they’d most likely have to leave most of their money and other assets behind.

    Hence any schism is likely to be minor, on par with the groups that left the Church after Vatican II.

  • Akira MacKenzie

    Pope Franny isn’t any less conservative than Pope Hitlerjunged I, he’s just better at PR.

  • mithrandir

    My two cents: rather than risk a schism, my money is on Francis not pushing too hard for liberalization of Catholicism. That’s not much of a stretch; I don’t think he actually believes that homosexual behavior and abortion are okay, after all. History tells us that the Catholic Church changes its dogma slowly, primarily because it must maintain the fiction that it never changed it at all.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    Cardinal Pell, October 24, from his written homily read at a Mass for traditionalist Catholics:

    Pope Francis is the 266th Pope and history has seen 37 false or anti-Popes.

    And this backhanded compliment:

    Today we have one of the more unusual popes in history, enjoying almost unprecedented popularity. He is doing a marvelous job backing the financial reforms.

  • =8)-DX

    I don’t really think so – there have always been these ultraorthodox fundie Catholics and naysayers alongside a more practically minded membership. These people are however stuck: obedience to the pope/hierarchy means they’ll squirm and pooh-pooh the pope but wont do anything.

    It’d take women priests, gay marriage or getting rid of hell for them to actually leave.

    I’ll have to ask my RC family about this..

  • dingojack

    =8)-DX – I think you’re right. Probably the conservative Catholics would simply create a nice little cult for themselves within the ‘community of the faithful’, like, for example, the Opus Dei, others would be accepting of the hierarchy but not the doctrine, such as the Sedevacantists, and still others still would break away entirely, respecting neither the hierarchy nor the doctrine, such as the Conclavists (mostly known as complete Catholic nutters, if one can get beyond the apparent oxymoron). For more details on each see Wikipedia.

    Dingo

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Speaking of the Holy Roman Catholic Church:

    Pope sacked Church official for selling annulments

    Wow, creating a false shortage of a commodity leads to corruption. Who could have predicted it?

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    No, there won’t be a schism. Pope Francis will just quietly cave on everything and let the hardcore reactionaries have the last word. They already knew that, which is why they had the nerve to publicly diss their leader in the first place.

    Francis was hired for his smile, nothing more, and everyone who’s honest knows that.