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Defining schism down

If Pope Francis is looking for signs of old-style schism or schismatic tendencies, he should look to Germany and the north, not to the west and the New World.

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Antananarivo, Madagascar, to Rome Sept. 10, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The thing is, Pope Francis hit the nail right on the head. Odd as it might sound to hear Peter’s successor say he is “unafraid” of schism, there’s no reason for him to lose any sleep—not over the particular case of the Church in the United States, to a query about which the Pope was narrowly responding when he made his remark while on the Rome-bound flight from Mauritius—and no reason to dwell on what is really little more than the pet narrative of a few talented scribblers with a good bit of book-learning and more imagination.

For one thing, most Catholics in the United States are mostly oblivious to the controversies and troubles—real or perceived—of this pontificate, and that majority includes regular churchgoers. There’s a good deal of comfort in that. For almost all of Catholic history, almost nobody knew what the pope was doing or saying, and few of those who did cared much one way or the other. Plus ça change.

So there was something almost surreal about Pope Francis’ lengthy entertainment of a question about the possibility of “schism” in the US Church and his fears for such a thing. In the autumn of 2018, at what was then the height of the crisis and the low point of their still-hemorrhaging credibility, the US bishops could not agree to ask the Pope if he could maybe, someday, possibly consider showing some inclination to make good on his promise to report on what the Vatican knew and when regarding the disgraced former cardinal archbishop of our capital see, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.

A few US bishops have talked a little smack here and there, but every one of them has toed the palace line on every single thing that really counts. The purveyors of the schism narrative seem to think Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, poor man, is the likely candidate. If he were willing—he is not—he would be incapable. Cardinal Burke is a lawyer, not a politician. He thinks like the lawyer he is, and speaks like one, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself, but it is not the stuff of which tragedy is made.

Even the psychology of Francis’ implacable and unreasonable critics is wrong for schism. They like to be the “faithful remnant,” irreducible in their opposition, but the allure of confessing the true faith in the face of official displeasure—even the vision of martyrdom glimpsed in fever—is nevertheless ultimately tethered to loyalty. Even if this were not the case, there is no market for schismatics—not real schismatics—and we are talking about the United States of America, after all. It’s a big place, where anyone with enough gumption can eke out at least a meager living—ask “Pope” Michael—but there’s no real money in it.

The real accomplishment of Pope Francis’ remarks on the plane will likely prove to be the advancement of a project one might fairly describe as defining schism down.

The word means, or at least it used to mean, something—something terrible, in fact, and something very specific: a formal separation or division of a definite group, acting corporately, from the hierarchical leadership of the Church and the body of the faithful. If one is looking for signs of old-style schism or schismatic tendencies, he should look to Germany and the north, not to the west and the New World. If the letter Pope Francis reportedly sent by way of his Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops to the hierarchical leadership of Germany regarding the “binding synodal process” the Germans have in the works is any indication, the Pope knows this.

Now, we have “pseudo-schismatic Christian paths” that are somehow less severe expressions of “an elite condition of an ideology separated from doctrine,” to hear Pope Francis tell it.

“[A] morality of ideology, such as Pelagianism, to put it that way, makes you rigid—and today we have many, many schools of rigidity inside the Church,” Pope Francis explained. “They are not schism, but they are pseudo-schismatic Christian paths,” he went on to say, “that in the end finish badly.” Then, a list of the usual suspects: “When you see rigid Christians, bishops, priests, behind them are problems; there isn’t the holiness of the Gospel.”

“For this we should be meek, not severe, with people who are tempted by these attacks, because they are going through a problem,” Pope Francis said, “and we should accompany them with meekness.” Perhaps this explains why he did not have the dubia cardinals’ hats when they took their questions public — and he might have — nor even to this day. That explanation, however, loses some of its plausibility when one considers what Francis praised as the right way to criticize him: “I criticize [the pope] and wait for the response, I go away from him and I speak and I write an article and I ask him to respond.” Pope Francis said, “This is fair, this is love for the Church.”

That’s what lots of folks apparently now styled “pseudo-schismatics” have been doing, for years.

Not the implacable and unreasonable critics, mind: they’ll never be happy. As my dear mother, of happy memory, was wont to say, “Some folks’ll whine about a hot fudge sundae.” They’re the ones who “criticize without wanting to hear the response and without dialogue,” which, Francis also rightly says, “is not desiring the good of the Church.” It also sounds a lot like the modus operandi of the German hierarchical leadership these days.

The most interesting thing about Pope Francis’ response to the question about schism in the US Church was that it came after he’d spent a good deal of time warning journalists of the pitfalls of imposing narratives.

Whether it is a story about a geriatric cabal of left-leaning churchmen trying to rig a papal election, or tales of a small but highly-organized, well-financed group of mostly-American malcontents out to force a papal resignation and put their own guy on the papal throne, we have more than enough narrative-weaving going around. Whether Pope Francis intended it or not, he just fed one of those narratives.

If we take his admonition to journalists to heart, and keep strictly to the facts, Pope Francis isn’t worried about schism in the US because there aren’t real schismatics to worry about there. To the extent he is worried about schism, the danger comes from other quarters, and he knows it.

(Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of other CWR contributors or of Ignatius Press.)

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About Christopher R. Altieri 221 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Well done, Chris.
    Truth of the matter, which I hate to say, is that this Pope has made himself irrelevant. I speak all around the country (and abroad), to clergy, Catholic school teachers, Religious, seminarians. I do not exaggerate when I say that in all those gatherings, it is most rare for the name of Francis to come up, except in the Eucharistic Prayer. Those folks do talk about — and quote — John Paul and Benedict, but not Francis. They have concluded that what little he has to say is not worth quoting; further, as not a few have told me, “the mention of his name sucks all the oxygen out of a room.”
    Aside from his ecological stuff, not even The Left are pleased with him since they feel he has not delivered on what they perceived were his promises/their hopes.
    Very sad.

    • Yes Father, I would have to agree, sadly. I am a catechist for Confirmation students, and I never quote from pope Francis, and at times have to reassert Church teaching in contradiction to some of what our Holy Father asserts. I sew, with difficulty, a stitch with one hand only to have our Holy Father undo it with his own.

  2. Altieri alleges that the Pontiff’s charge schismatic against Am Catholics is bogus. If “rigid” Am Catholics are perceived by Pope Francis as Pelagian Schismatics for rigidly following tradition then the Germans, that is those following their fuehrer Cardinal Marx – who practice the opposite, are not Pelagian schismatics and must be in accord with that logic adhering to the Pontiff’s authority. Then the charge of schism is itself bogus since in either instance the German or the Am it cannot be reasonably shown how in fact they are repudiating his authority. The correct legal description of events is Apostasy. Perhaps what I perceive in this can be repudiated and I welcome a response.

    • Dear Father, “that this Pope has made himself irrelevant”. Perhaps you should bhave gone with your gut feeling, Father, i.e. “which I hate to say” If there’s “hate” in making the statement, then why make it at all – even if it’s not “exaggerated”? Encouraging to hear that Pope Francis’s name still comes up in the Eucharistic Prayer. Is Pope Francis still the Vicar or Christ for all the hierarchy, clergy, Catholic school teachers, Religious and seminarians – even if “the mention of his name sucks all the oxygen out of the room”?

        • Mr. Carden-

          Being the “vicar of Christ” is simply a standard to live up to, the standard being Jesus, and the pope is His “representative.” Since we know from the long history of past popes that being Pope doesn’t make a man holy, being pope can end up being as little as the juridical status of holding the office.

          Since we know some popes have been immoral, we know that the office confers no “enchantment” to imitate Jesus.

          And I return your best wishes that God will bless all of the faithful.

        • Mr. Carden –

          Since you seem desirous of a response, may I begin by asking what your concern is about the pope being called the “Vicar of Christ?”

          What is the meaning of the “Vicar of Christ?”

  3. I suppose some take comfort in the idea that Bergoglio’s carryings-ons are just “churchy” matters, “Vatican inside-baseball” that Catholics can snooze through just fine.

    The problem is that Bergoglio is partnered with tyrants–those who have engineered the invasion of Europe and North America with non-Christians who hate Christianity; those who are battening down a regime of abortion and contraception–both, in many cases, compulsory; those who are campaigning relentlessly to cut off energy to billions of people–ensuring death for billions, starting with the poorest. Bergoglio and the American bishops know perfectly well that immigrants–including the “Catholics”–vote 80% pro-abortion, and have already flipped ten or so formerly pro-life states.

    According to Henry Sire, at the very moment when Hillary was PROMISING to coerce the Catholic Church to endorse abortion, Bergoglio sent her a huge check from Peter’s Pence. This shows that, if Bergoglio had his way, the Catholic Church in the U.S., and everywhere, would be under the heel of the government, as it now is under the McCarrick-Bergoglio regime in Communist China.

    The unconsciousness of the typical Catholic is nothing to rejoice about. It means they will sleep-walk into the ape church, the anti-church that Bergoglio is erecting.

  4. With by our almighty God’s grace given prime talents to us, which are known as sensus fidelium et ratio, every of us, the true Catholics, should and must know that everyone who in fact is a true Catholic cannot be(come) in schism with one who is heretic and apostate. Already, for a long time.
    So there cannot and shouldn’t be any talk in the so-called schism terminology. because the great accuser is the one who accuses the righteous with his lies for the purpose to blame them for exactly that what he is doing, and again, not just a schism, but much worse,- heresy and apostasy.

    Is that man not the one about whom prophet Isaiah speaks:
    “Vae qui dicitis malum bonum, et bonum malum; ponentes tenebras lucem, et lucem tenebras; ponentes amarum in dulce, et dulce in amarum!” (Is 5,20)

    And further, when apostle saint Paul in his letter to Galatians says:
    “Miror quod sic tam cito transferimini ab eo qui vos vocavit in gratiam Christi in aliud Evangelium: quod non est aliud, nisi sunt aliqui qui vos conturbant, et volunt convertere Evangelium Christi.
    Sed licet nos aut angelus de caelo evangelizet vobis praeterquam quod evangelizavimus vobis, anathema sit.
    Sicut praediximus, et nunc iterum dico : si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit.” (Gal 1,6-9)

  5. I am attempting to ignore possible entries in a “caption contest” for the photo of Bergoglio accompanying this article and not succeeding.

    I agree with Fr. Stravinskas. Not only has Bergoglio made himself “irrelevant” like a constant stimulus no longer perceived , he has become less of an original song writer more like a DJ (no longer a bouncer) for the New World Order/NGO Church who doesn’t take “rigid” Catholic requests (like answers to the Dubbia or the OpenLetter).

    He is also clueless that rather than “progressive” theology his set list is primarily the Greatest Hits of the Theological Seminary of the Seventies …”dated” vs Tradition.

    And yes millennials and more and more Catholics of every age are opting out.

    But let’s also admit that this “irrelevance” does indeed push forward the Agenda just like his imprecision.

    Please note how much of this papacy is built on deprivations vs clarity and affirmations. Some might call that metaphysically “evil.” I’m one of those people.

    After initial German giddiness (if there is such a thing) the greater proposed “relevance” of the Synodal mess will be seen for what it is: no reason for most people to even show up…and pay money.

    The fact that the instrumentum laboris of the Amazon Synod has nothing to say about child abuse and infanticide says it all.

  6. “His Forgetfulness of Argentina” is a smooth operator.

    He has “The Mind of McCarrick.”

    Every word, and every silence, every act and every omission, functions to attack “the communion of faith” and substitute “the communion of McCarrick,” where the only “currency” is the mutual esteem between apostate viceroys in the “McCarrick Establishment.”

    Since we all know that “His Eminence” Cardinal Marx of Germany is part the dwindling “magic circle” of now 6 (?) “Cardinal Coordinators,” and we all know that “His Forgetfulness” is a shrewd and highly intelligent and well-informed man, we can be assured that “His Forgetfulness” is delighted with what “His Eminence” Marx is doing to the (Roman…does that have any residual meaning after these 50 years?) Catholic Church.

    But not to worry: the chair of theology at Fordham University (co-signers of McCarrick’s Land of Lakes “manifesto” in 1967) is a non-Catholic man who lives in sodomy publicly “married” to another man.

    Everything is “progressing” as intended by the “McCarrick Establishment,” of which we all partake in “the communion of McCarrick,” under-the-hand of “His Forgetfulness of Argentina.”

  7. The “relevancy” of Pope Francis is that he has invigorated liberal dioceses and parishes. With all due respect to the opinion of Father Stravinskas this Francisco-energy in my own diocese has stifled the opportunities and good morale of several orthodox priests. Some of our best clergy have sought assignments outside of our diocese and have been “allowed” to pursue these assignments (only after they have been kept down from pastoral and preistly roles within) as a subtle way of purging the diocese of so-called rebels. Everything from youth formation to pastoral planning has taken on the flavor of Francis. Without ever knowing of it, Father Stravinskas would never be welcome to speak at one of our new diocesan conferences, so how could he possibly glean the Francis effect in such a locale.

  8. Pope Francis and the rest of the “McCarrick Establishment” are doing a good job at making the Church irrelevant, while living like kings and viceroys.

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