Why Not Kick Modernist Dissenters Out of the Church?

Why Not Kick Modernist Dissenters Out of the Church? October 30, 2018

[written in 2002, so I refer a lot to Pope St. John Paul II]


The role of the pope is much different, ecclesiologically and strategically, from the role of a local bishop. Pope St. John Paul II is most definitely effecting positive long-term change by forcefully teaching truth, promulgating the Catechism and various reforms, of schools, of architecture, of moral teaching, etc. The damage of liberalism has been so profound that one must look at cures in terms of decades and generations, not “right now” (as in a certain perfectionist and utopian mindset). A major reason (if not the sole one) for this strategy, I firmly believe, is to avoid schism, because schism is generally longer-lasting (and arguably, even more damaging) than even heresy.

I think John Paul II’s and the Church’s primary concern is for souls. There is no easy choice. If one acts with principle but excludes a corresponding prudence or foresight as to result (as Luther and Calvin did), then one barges ahead and slashes away at all the heretics and de facto schismatics. The pope wants the same result that people who ask this question do: how to have an orthodox Church and how to retain as many souls in the Church (and for ultimate salvation) as possible. He thinks it will take a long time. His critics (or those who are simply bewildered) often think the solution is instant and simple: slash and burn!

I don’t think it that simple at all, given the situation in the Catholic Church in America that we have today. De jure schism is even worse than de facto schism. If the former is the almost-certain result, then it will be even worse than it is now. Time is on the side of orthodoxy. That’s what we learn from history. In the meantime, people are still individuals. If they truly want to learn about orthodoxy and Tradition, there are plenty of means to do that.

Each person still stands alone before God, accountable for their actions. They can crack the door of a library; dust off their Bible from the attic, hit the Internet and find Catholic sites, watch EWTN, go to a Mass, talk about the faith with an educated, committed Catholic friend or relative, or take their life savings and invest $10 for a Catechism. Is the pope at fault for all these people who don’t do these things, too?

Without getting into discussions of blame and cause (usually both sides of any split are at fault to some extent), it is indisputable that schisms usually last a very long time:

1. Orthodoxy: 948 years (almost half of the entire period since Jesus).
2. Protestantism: 485 years.
3. Anglicanism: 467 years or so.

We might perhaps achieve a breakthrough with the Orthodox, but no end of the split with Protestantism is in sight. This involves the better part of a billion souls, most of whom are born into these communions and who will never learn adequately about Catholicism: all because of splits hundreds of years ago. And these are fellow Christians. On the other hand, heresy generally involves far less numbers, and many heresies have essentially died out, whereas the schisms continue on with full force (largely by the very fact that they are Christian; hence have the inner vitality needed for longevity).

I think these facts alone establish that schism is more damaging — in terms of the sheer numbers of those affected, and all the ill will generated, having to do with mistrust and misunderstanding of other systems (hence, anti-Catholicism, as we know and love it). Schism is often, if not always, a sin against charity, and that is an extremely serious and grave matter. St. Paul often condemns it in the strongest terms.

As for the disciplinary question of how the Church ought to deal with modernism, dissenters, theological liberals who no longer hold to its teachings, but who continue to claim the title Catholic, I can’t give documentation of actual historical examples of a “strategy.” But it seems apparent to me that the Church has generally tried to resort to diplomacy and dialogue and patience more so than the instant threats of excommunication and interdict which characterized the Middle Ages. Sure, we took a hard-line stand with Henry VIII. That was principled.

What did it achieve, though?: the loss of England to the Catholic faith (and by extension, all its colonies and its Empire, and the United States as a majority Catholic country), and untold hardships and suffering of Catholics in England, Scotland, and especially Ireland for almost 500 years — in some cases (e.g., Belfast) right up to our own time.

Obviously, Henry VIII’s lust and hubris was far more to blame for the separation of English Christianity than the Catholic Church was, but that unfortunate event serves as an example of what often occurs when a hard line is taken, pertaining to a country. One might see an analogy to Pope Pius XII in World War II. It is said that he didn’t protest loud enough, so that he was compromised and cowardly. But we know that when louder protests were made, more people were killed, as in the Netherlands, where they grabbed St. Edith Stein and took her to her death. That was a matter of prudence. Such difficult scenarios are now legion in the Church, with the modernist and dissident crisis, not to the point of physical death or persecution, but with regard to the even more serious question of possible spiritual death of many souls.

We know that the situation in America (in particular) could easily blow up into schism, and almost did in the controversy surrounding Humanae Vitae in 1968, where theologians flat-out rebelled en masse against Pope St. Paul VI’s heroic teaching reaffirming the age-old Christian ban on contraception (with which all Christians of all types agreed before 1930, when Anglicanism first softened the prohibition). I know this to be a verified fact in the dilemmas faced by, and approach of Pope Paul VI, with regard to the dissent, because the late Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J. (a leading catechist and thoroughly orthodox Catholic scholar, and personal adviser to Paul VI) has stated this at Ignatian catechist meetings where I was present. Msgr. George A. Kelly (another rock-solid orthodox Catholic and no-holds-barred critic of modernism) writes:

A massive effort to enforce Catholic law at this time and at all points would mean repressions — or schism, with civil courts asked to adjudicate important aspects of this religious conflict. What then can be done? How should the bishops of the United States support the obvious policies of the Pope? How must they deal with Rome’s concern of several years standing that an emerging American Church is in the offing — one likely to create as much trouble for Catholicism as French Gallicanism did for several centuries prior to Vatican I. (The Crisis of Authority, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1982, 93-94)

Noted orthodox Catholic historian and writer James Hitchcock confirms that the dissenters are virulently anti-papal (if anyone didn’t know that already):

Granting that all this analysis is true (and I see no reason to doubt it), it is quite reasonable to assume that strong, sweeping papal disciplinary actions in America would almost certainly result in a tragic schism. And since schism is to be avoided at all costs, the pope and orthodox bishops must proceed in a slower, more deliberate, long-term fashion. Catholicism is neither Puritanism nor Donatism.

Heresy and schism are both extremely grave sins. Schism has the additional characteristic of being a sin against people and charity. The problem here is that if the pope plays a strong hand, he gets schism as well as heresy, because the heresy will continue right on within the schism. So then two very bad things would be present, and the heresy would have much more chance of lasting for decades, maybe centuries. At least now the Church is held together in some fashion (mostly abstract, in America, Canada, and Europe), and the pope can continue to forcefully assert the truth in his encyclicals, by promulgation of the Catechism, etc.

He can bide his time, and let the liberals grow old and die off (which they are doing in big numbers now). History shows that terrible periods in the Church are followed by massive revival. That is how this mess will be overcome (as always before, in the past). As G. K. Chesterton wrote:

I suspect that we should find several occasions when Christendom was thus to all appearance hollowed out from within by doubt and indifference, so that only the old Christian shell stood as the pagan shell had stood so long. But the difference is that in every such case, the sons were fanatical for the faith where the fathers had been slack about it. This is obvious in the case of the transition from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. It is obvious in the case of a transition from the eighteenth century to the many Catholic revivals of our own time . . .

At least five times, . . . with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died. (The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 250-252, 254)

This is why I am always an optimist (in taking a “long view” of history and the Church). It is a stance of faith, but with the backing of clear historical precedent — at least five times before, as GKC says.

According to Catholic moral theology, the only way one can justify toleration of a known evil is if a greater evil is demonstrably prevented by such toleration. In this instance, the “greater evil” (than the rampant heresy in Catholic institutions) would be schism and the massive damage that would do to souls. The pope’s dilemma is twofold: he can’t really be expected to do all that much by himself (as Msgr. Kelly said) because liberalism is so absolutely entrenched. What do concerned orthodox Catholics who want immediate action want him to do: come to the liberal Catholic universities and magazines with tanks and helicopters?

He “inherited” this situation; he didn’t create it. But even if he pulled out all the stops; excommunicated several million dissidents, put the American Church under interdict (as in the old days of the Middle Ages), burned Charles Curran, Hans Kung, Rosemary Ruether, and Richard McBrien at the stake, that would be even worse: far worse. So it is quite doubtful that he is even able to “prevent” the heresy going on now. Therefore, he is not at fault.

He is taking the most prudent course. He’s between a rock and a hard place. That’s what radical Catholic reactionaries who habitually bash John Paul II never get, because of their shallow Puritan  / Donatist / rigorist / Pharisaical-like social analysis and inability to take the long view of history. What the Holy Father can do is exactly what he has been doing in superb fashion: teaching orthodox, traditional Catholicism in his official documents and a host of speeches, audiences, books, etc.

Anyone who knows that the Catholic Church has a leader can get to his writing and learn for themselves what the Church teaches (especially now with the Internet). People have responsibility for their own souls, too. They can’t expect the pope to wipe their noses for them and change their diapers.

It is true that souls are lost in the meantime in the nearly-barren wasteland of American Catholic catechesis and higher education (oftentimes secondary education as well), and the liberals who have caused that will stand before God and give account for it, and will be lucky to be saved themselves (see James 3:1 — a verse which should make all teachers and apologists tremble and fall on their knees).

But the pope can’t do much more than he is doing, without far worse results happening. His hands are tied by the nature of the problem. Until this is clearly understood, the “slowness” or “failure” to discipline or excommunicate dissenters will never be comprehended, and will tend to be lambasted by concerned orthodox Catholics (a group I am proud to be part of, but we have our problems, too).

If one prominent dissident, such as Hans Kung, were to be excommunicated, then it is logical to boot out all the prominent dissidents, which would run into the thousands. What would ensue would be absolutely scandalous and horrifying: a huge social-theological cultural fiasco. I agree with Msgr. Kelly’s scenario of a crackdown (cited above).

One of the problems with reactionaryism is that it correctly observes that the crisis in the Church is very serious (arguably the most serious crisis ever), but it is wrong with regard to both its causes and its cures, and doesn’t seem to realize that if the crisis is as grave as it claims, that it is no easy matter at all for the pope or even the pope and a significant minority of orthodox bishops with some spine, to put an end to it. 

Reactionaries fail to see what that very level of crisis implies for any possible massive disciplinary move to wipe it out. It took the Spaniards 700 years to reconquer their country. Internal dissent and infiltration is even more difficult to weed out, in many respects, than foreign invaders. Not that it will take the Church 700 years, but it won’t be accomplished in a day or a week.

I suppose one could fault the pope for imprudence and the dogged pursuit of a strategy proven over 23 years to be ineffective in opposing heterodoxy-in-practice-at-the-diocesan-level. But that’s a far cry from accusing him of being compromised with liberalism (a sort of useful idiot, as Lenin would put it), a wimp, or actively crusading for heterodoxy and moral evil.

In this instance, however, I think one must judge his plan, tactics, or strategy for recovering the institutional orthodoxy of the Church against the backdrop of the entrenched modernist rebellion or revolution. I maintain that anything his critics and “armchair popes” might say he “should” do would have a far worse effect than what he is doing. To casually assume that the liberals are not capable of literal schism is to vastly underestimate both their power and resolve.

What would his critics on the matter of Church discipline have him do? Burn every heretic at the stake? The Church used to do that, after all (or at least gave approval to secular authorities to do so). I exaggerate, but this did indeed occur, and it was a way of “removing” heresy. The Middle Ages were very “decisive” in that way. Should he remove every modernist professor? That would almost certainly produce schism, etc.

But the Holy Father can continue to write about and preach truth (which is not without effect, and plants many seeds), and there’s not a thing the liberals can do about that. They can’t fault him for it because of their belief in free speech and right for anyone to have any idea (kinda sorta). And they can’t totally publicly denigrate the papacy because of their perpetual pipe-dream of getting a “liberal pope.” So some reactionaries think they already got their wish with John Paul II?

That would be news to the dissenters themselves (as it would be to the pope himself, who has put up with their rank insults and stupid slanders these past 23 years). Whatever myriad deficiencies liberals have; one thing that can be said for them is that they recognize their own. They’re as fond of “Panzer-Cardinal” Ratzinger as they are of John Paul II . . . . . :-)


1) If the Church has definitively stated that heresy is a greater evil than schism; that’s fine. I accept whatever the Church teaches. In any event, all Catholics agree that both are evils and should be avoided as much as possible.

2) One of my points above was that they usually go hand-in-hand. If a schism is created by absolute and sweeping disciplinary action, we then have schism and heresy (because the heretics are less likely to become orthodox if they are formally separated from the Church – perhaps even without sacraments at some point in the future, just as many Anglicans now are), whereas now we have the latter, and it is decreasing as the liberals die off, and revival slowly picks up speed. The calculation is that the present course will be much better in the long run. There simply is no easy or clear-cut choice: that is central to my thesis on this. If to do one thing makes matters worse, then perhaps that would implicate the one doing it, having known better, and having foreseen (by reasoning and analysis of history) the likely outcome?

On the other hand, it is not the pope’s fault that heretics are in the Church. The dissent was in full flower ten years before he assumed his pontificate. I think a stronger case might possibly be made against Paul VI’s irresponsibility in not nipping this thing in the bud (I do not myself take that view; I’m just thinking out loud) — or Pius XII’s, or John XXIII’s, for that matter (Fr. Hardon used to say that the “revolution” in the Church began around 1940). But the beginning or infancy stages of a revolution are different from the same revolution being firmly entrenched. And that calls for a different response, prudentially.

3) My primary point was to argue that schism is longer-lasting and could have deleterious consequences on many more souls, potentially. Even granting that heresy is a greater sin, that still doesn’t necessarily call for responses which will likely lead to schism, which might last 1000 years or more, as we observe in the history of Christianity. It is wrong to deliberately commit or cause the lesser of two evils, just as it is to commit evil, period. It’s fine to have all these moral absolutes and ideals (I agree with that), but there is such a thing as prudence and wisdom in applying the ideals and principles, as well, and there are literally millions of souls in the balance, whatever route the pope and the Church decides to take on this. Those are things (it goes without saying) which call for prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and I think the pope does and has much more of that than us laymen.

I could easily imagine Dietrich von Hildebrand (or anyone who might criticize his approach to the problem of modernism) talking to Pope John Paul II today about this subject and the pope saying, “I understand and appreciate your points, my dear Dietrich, and I know your heartfelt concerns about the evil influence of modernism, with which I am in full agreement, but we disagree as to the wisest, most prudential course of action to eliminate such influences in the long run, because of [reasons a, b, c . . . . ].”

Those reasons might include some I have given (which were Paul VI’s reasons — as communicated to me by Fr. Hardon), and/or perhaps many that those of us not in such a high position have not even dreamt of, or thought of at all (just as we don’t know a host of things that the President of the United States has to deal with: top secret stuff, etc.). That gets back to the trust issue. The Holy Father knows many things we don’t know, and God has entrusted the leadership of the Church into his hands, not ours.


1. Fr. Jacques Pohier, a French Dominican with heterodox views on the Resurrection, lost his license to teach theology and left the Dominicans in 1984.

2. Fr. Hans Kung lost his license to teach in 1979, partly because of his erroneous teaching about papal infallibility.
3. Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx questioned the virginity of Mary and received “notifications” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) saying that his writings conflicted with Church teaching.
4. Fr. Charles Curran lost his license to teach in 1986. He was the most prominent American opponent of “Humanae Vitae.”
5. Fr. Leonardo Boff, a proponent of liberation theology who taught a skewed Christology, was silenced twice, then left the Franciscans and the priesthood in 1992.
6. Fr. Anthony Kosnik formerly taught at Detroit’s seminary and was forced to resign because his writings on sexuality conflicted with basic Catholic teachings.
7. Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, another proponent of liberation theology, had his writings criticized by the CDF.
8. Fr. Karl Rahner was silenced by John XXIII and was rehabilitated by Paul VI. In later years he became heterodox on contraception and priestly ordination. He also was at odds with the CDF.
9. Fr. Matthew Fox taught pantheism and eventually was expelled from the Dominicans. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1994.

10. Sr. Mary Agnes Mansour was the director of the Department of Social Services in Michigan, where she oversaw funding of abortions. She was forced to choose between that job and the religious life, and she chose the former.
11. Srs. Elizabeth Morancy and Arlene Violet served in the Rhode Island government. Told to choose between their jobs and their lives as members of the Sisters of Mercy, they chose the jobs.
12. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, of Seattle, was investigated by the Vatican after numerous allegations of liturgical abuse. An auxiliary bishop was appointed, and Hunthausen lost much of his authority.
13. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal was the minister of culture in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. He was chastised by John Paul II when the Pope visited that country in 1983. Cardenal refused to quit his government post and lost his priestly faculties.
14. Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, proponents of homosexuality, were forced to leave New Ways Ministry in 1984. In 1999 the Vatican levied additional sanctions on them.
15. Fr. John McNeill was investigated by the CDF in the 1970s for his views on homosexuality. He was expelled from the Jesuit order in 1987.
16. Srs. Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey signed a 1984 “New York Times” ad that backed abortion and refused a Vatican order to retract their support for the ad.

17. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained four bishops without papal consent and thereby suffered automatic excommunication.
18. Fr. Tissa Belasuriya published heterodox writings on Christ’s divinity, Mary, and original sin. The CDF notified him of errors and ordered him to sign a profession of faith. He refused and was excommunicated in 1997. A year later he was reconciled to the Church.
19. Fr. Eugen Drewermann questioned the Virgin Birth and the reality of the Resurrection. He was expelled from the priesthood.
20. Sr. Ivone Gebara publicly advocated legalized abortion. She was silenced for two years.
21. Bishop Jacques Gaillot lost his position as bishop of Evreux, France, in 1995 because of his promotion of contraception and homosexuality.


(originally 3-7-02. Addendum added: 4-28-05. Updated with new terminology [“reactionary”]: 10-30-18)

Photo credit: Hans Küng; photo by Muesse (3-2-09) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license]


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