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.