The Temptation of Schism

The Temptation of Schism November 12, 2019
Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics (finished 1486) by the Vergós Group. Public Domain).

For it is the Church that gives birth to all, either within her pale, of her own womb; or beyond it, of the seed of her bridegroom—either of herself, or of her handmaid. But Esau, even though born of the lawful wife, was separated from the people of God because he quarreled with his brother. And Asher, born indeed by the authority of a wife, but yet of a handmaid, was admitted to the land of promise on account of his brotherly good-will. Whence also it was not the being born of a handmaid, but his quarreling with his brother, that stood in the way of Ishmael, to cause his separation from the people of God; and he received no benefit from the power of the wife, whose son he rather was, inasmuch as it was in virtue of her conjugal rights that he was both conceived in and born of the womb of the handmaid. Just as with the Donatists it is by the right of the Church, which exists in baptism, that whosoever is born receives his birth; but if they agree with their brethren, through the unity of peace they come to the land of promise, not to be again cast out from the bosom of their true mother, but to be acknowledged in the seed of their father; but if they persevere in discord, they will belong to the line of Ishmael.St. Augustine, De unico baptismo contra Petilianum, I, XV

I have been thinking about St. Augustine. Not first of all because of Rick Yoder’s excellent recent dissection of the Jansenisms of today and yesteryear (whatever that may mean), nor even because of the old bishop of Carthage’s well-known mellifluousness, but because of all this talk of schism. The word seems to be on everyone’s tongue—liberal, conservative, traditional, modern, whatever. “Schism” hangs here and there, peddling its divisiveness in well-meaning minds and bad faith arguments all the same. Every man would believe he lives at the end of history; thus, every man must make his peace and stand up for what is right—damn the consequences.

Most Catholics will be aware that, in the aftermath of the Amazon Synod, there is renewed talk of schism on all sides. Of course, it is always the other side causing the division—no one cops to dividing the Church. Schism is always the fault of the other.

But this is far clearer in contemporary Orthodoxy than in Catholicism. There are, of course, the Old Believers. Then there was the brief disunion brought about over Estonia in the late 90s. Never mind the countless sects of “genuine” and “true” Orthodox that have popped up over the last century—mostly because they disagree about calendars (I kid you not—just Google the terms. You’ll get more groups—splintered and small—than you can imagine). What’s on my mind is the current schism between Constantinople and Moscow. It caused some hubbub when it first started, but now most seem desirous to forget. This would be fine, were the conflict not deepening. Only a few days ago, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow ceased commemoration of the Patriarch of Alexandria. Before that, the Russian Church published a list of “dioceses undesirable to be visited” by laity who would wish to remain in good standing. This followed a synod, which, in part, decried the Greek Orthodox Church (not the same thing as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) for recognizing the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. To put this complicated matter briefly: schism is spreading in Orthodoxy today—and it shows no sign of stopping or slowing down.

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