Is a schism in the Catholic Church on the horizon? That was the question posed to several of the writers at this blog in the first of a series of webinars planned to allow contributors to debate pressing ecclesial questions of the day and to interact with our growing audience. This inaugural topic certainly raised a few eyebrows: SCHISM! Are things really that bad?
For many on the Catholic right, the answer is yes, and has been almost since the start of the Francis pontificate in 2013. Already in 2014, New York Times columnist and resident exponent of Catholic conservativism, Ross Douthat, was suggesting that Francis’ pastoral ways were threatening “a real schism” by pushing the most faithful Catholics (i.e., conservatives like himself) to the brink of a break. Douthat continued to push the idea that Francis would “break the church,” as he wrote in an Atlantic cover story in 2015, and others on the right have carried that message forward ever since: “We are the loyal Catholics,” they say, “and Francis is creating the schism.” It’s a bit like conservatives who blame liberals for turning them into Trumpist authoritarians.
On our webinar, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter noted that he had used the “s-word” in a 2018 column, but that he had rightly put the onus for such a break on the modern-day Jansenists who are placing their own beliefs and ideologies above the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church itself.
Other colleagues weighed in with equally important insights: Christopher Lamb, Vaticanista for The Tablet of London, said that the synodal process launched by Francis is key to heading off a schism. And Tina Beattie, emerita professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton and a popular writer on all things Catholic, said that the future of Catholic unity will depend on how much Francis can get done while he is pope, and who comes after him: someone who can continue to push for change and reduce the schismatic, culture warrior class to a negligible splinter, or someone who will reverse the legacy of Francis and the Second Vatican Council.
The discussion continued in this vein, with many pointed and a few hopeful observations. But a central theme of the conversation was trying to define what counts as a “schism.” It was a question I pondered as I prepared for the webinar.
A schism of the sort we normally associate with that venerable word to my mind connotes a genuine separation into competing entities, complete with papal bulls and mutual anathemas. There is a juridical threshold but also per force a geographical element to what we tend to think of as a schism: the Eastern Church and the Western Church divided in the Great Schism of 1054, for example, and the Reformation enshrined the principle of cuius regio, eius religio–the religion of the ruler is the religion of the ruled.
Catholicism is so connected to a physical sense of space and worship and community and tradition that it’s hard to launch a wholly new church. If you’re a Baptist all you need is a Bible to preach from, a river to baptize in, and maybe a tent to shield the revivalists from sun and rain. A Catholic church needs altars and priests to serve at them, and bishops to ordain them, and other bishops to consecrate new bishops, ad infinitum. Plus, people in the pews. That’s a lot of ecclesial infrastructure.
At the same time, as I looked into what a schism originally meant I learned that it had less to do with setting up a rival church than it did with breaking the bonds of charity, or what Pope Francis has called the “affective and effective communion” that the church is based on. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ, wrote in his venerable Catholic Dictionary, the early church was careful to distinguish between heresy and schism, both of which plagued Christianity. “By false doctrines concerning God,” wrote Saint Augustine, “heretics wound the faith; by sinful dissensions, schismatics deviate from fraternal charity, though they believe what we believe.”
In that sense, schism has arguably already happened. Those opposed to the direction that Francis and Vatican II are moving the church are fighting tooth and nail and fomenting all manner of dissension. And this sin against charity is harder to quantify and identify, and probably harder to heal, than a juridical or geographic split. In today’s digital world, would-be schismatics can follow the priest or bishop or cardinal of their choosing, whichever one makes the most noise from the biggest Internet platform–and there are plenty to choose from.
As the preacher of the papal household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, said in a powerful Good Friday mediation last year, “Fraternity among Catholics is wounded!” The division is not over dogma or the sacraments or ministries, but “stem from political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations.”
“Pastors,” Cantalamessa said, “need to be the first to make a serious examination of conscience. They need to ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks–to their position or Jesus’.”
Will it all end in schism, or someplace else? In 2019, in response to a question about the Catholic right in America, Francis said that he is “not afraid of schisms” but that he prays it does not come to that. Then again, in a general audience talk this month, he stressed that for him, even if some Catholics may break communion with the church, the church will never give up on them. Referring to “those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the church, who have denied their baptism,” the pope asked: “Are these also at home? Yes, these too. The blasphemers, all of them. We are brothers. This is the communion of saints.”
It’s an expansive vision of the church but, paradoxically, so generous that for some Catholics it’s a reason to split the church.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.