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.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!