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Why there won’t be an American schism

Genuine schisms have been few and far between, and none is brewing in American Catholicism now.

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

A schism in American Catholicism? I think not. As a matter of fact, I have no hesitation saying there is not now and will not be a formal break between any significant body of American Catholics and Pope Francis–and this despite a disturbing amount of media chatter on the subject lately.

There are at least two large reasons why a schism won’t happen.

The first reason is that no ecclesiastical personage of stature in American Catholicism has arisen who gives any indication of wanting to lead a schism. And without a leader, a handful of would-be schismatics–even supposing such to exist–has no place to go and no way of getting there.

The second and far weightier reason is that serious American Catholics understand very well that the Church’s unity is willed by God. Understanding that, they further understand that fundamental to this divinely willed unity is the communion of local churches–their leaders and their members–with the Bishop of Rome. And so, finally, they understand that any group or individual proposing to disrupt this communion, even in the name of some supposedly higher principle, could not possibly be acting according to the will of God.

Cardinal–as this is written, soon to be Saint–John Henry Newman summed it up neatly in his landmark Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

As the Church grew into form, so did the power of the Pope develop; and wherever the Pope has been renounced, decay and division have been the consequence. We know of no way of preserving the Sacramentum Unitatis [Sacrament of Unity–here, the Church] but a center of unity….We see before our eyes the centralizing process by which the See of St. Peter became the sovereign head of Christendom.

But supposing American Catholics can be counted on not to go marching off into schism one of these days, where does this talk of schism come from?

Without claiming it’s the total answer to that question, I think it’s reasonably clear that certain people in Rome who do not know much about the United States or American Catholicism yet mistakenly imagine otherwise must shoulder a large part of the blame. Most likely, they have shared their misperceptions with Pope Francis–a pope who has had very little personal exposure to the United States–with regrettable results.

That includes the much-publicized incident on the Holy Father’s return flight from his visit to Africa last month when, replying to an American reporter’s question (prompted by a French journalist’s book) about opposition to him said to exist in the United States, the Pope  said he doesn’t fear schisms and “there has always been a schismatic option in the Church.”

Perhaps so. But the point here is that a “schismatic option”–whatever that is–is not the same thing as a schism, and there is no schism in America. Yes, there are people who disagree with Pope Francis on some things (and reasoned, respectful disagreement is much more an “option” than schism is), just as there were people who disagreed with Pope Benedict XVI and people who disagreed with Pope St. John Paul II and, so far as I know, people who disagreed  with all the popes before them. But genuine schisms have been few and far between, and none is brewing in American Catholicism now.

Cardinal Newman famously remarked that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” To which one might add–they don’t make one schism either. Let’s leave it at that.

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About Russell Shaw 294 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


    • Pope v pope is, in essence, evidence of the schism.

      “For There is nothing that is hidden, that won’t be revealed.”

      The Veil has been lifted exposing the schismatics, those who deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, thus denying The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

      We can know through both Faith and reason, (and thus The Law Of Noncontradiction), that a Baptized Catholic cannot both affirm the Sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and deny the Sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and remain in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

      You cannot have Bishop v. bishop, Cardinal v. cardinal, and Pope v. pope, unless there are a multitude of persons who profess to be Catholic, who have conspired to attempt to destroy Christ’s Church from within, creating a god, according to their own desire to declare what is good. If you believe the election of a man to the Papacy who stated in regards to same -sex sexual unions and thus same-sex sexual acts could possibly be valid:
      “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected. Now, if the union is given the category of marriage, there could be children affected…”, making it appear as if sin done in private is not an offense against God, then you are following a false prophet who is anti Christ , anti Catholic, and thus anti Pope.

      “1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”121
      1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.”122 Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,”123 knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”124 In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.125”

      “Reflecting on the new permissive attitude of some bishops toward homosexuality”, (and I would add, some cardinals and Jorge Bergoglio) Fr. Murray condemned homosexual acts in blunt terms:
      “A relationship based on sodomy is intrinsically evil,” Murray said, (and I would add, abusive) “You don’t sodomize someone and do a good act. That’s an immoral act”, (and I would add, an act that regardless of the actors, or the actor’s desires, because of the abusive inherent nature of the act is always devoid of Love).

      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion, due to a The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”; “It Is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), that Holy Mother Church exists.”

      “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles. ”
      “Hail The Cross, Our Only Hope.” Amen.

      • There certainly could be schism of the heart, or dwelling within an individual. Recognizing the Pope as a mere figure and long for the next one to come. How can the Church take a tact of such epic proportions accepting homosexual unions.I could Biblically cite chapter and verse many places where homosexuality is wrong. How could such a thing be disregarded. Someone please tell me…how is this disregarded? Does this vilify the cataclysmic priest molestation scandal supported by the church through omission by way of now accepted homosexual acts? Exactly where does procreation come from that? I cannot believe that this would EVER be a position that my church would take. I pray and have prayed for the souls of homosexuals, But biblically I am not permitted to accept it.

    • @Where do I sign up? The one true faith, the moral linchpin of the World is succumbing to ideology that DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS TEACHINGS OF THE BIBLE!!! The Bible is clear on homosexual unions! Not even the Pope has the right to rewrite the Bible. Lets get down to the real issue! The Church is losing parishioners at alarming rates, mass attendance is way down and so are the coffers $. The answer…disregard doctrine and the Bible itself to increase the numbers. The Church already initially (and for a very long time) concealed satanic sexual activities between Priests and CHILDREN which decimated the church (I have yet to fully reconcile that)….are we going to accept that? Is that considered a same sex union? Where is the line drawn…where does it stop? These types of actions are the devils playground. Lets throw abortion in there…is it open for interpretation just a happy little accident?. There are a lot of parishioners to be gained accepting abortion. This is not coming from a heart without compassion. This coming from a Catholic who is seeing changes in this world that are not for the better in fact many evil, and a Church that is actually considering embracing them. The United States is on the brink of disintegrating into a Socialist pit. Our first amendment freedom of religion is under attack. Look at Chile…with Churches burning to the ground. We are not far from it. I wonder where “my” church will be when it is our turn? Conservative Americans will rise up and fight back. There will be bloodshed the likes this world has yet known. I wonder where my church will be.

  1. I think Professor Shaw is too sanguine about the threat to unity posed by such a Pope as Francis. Nevertheless, I agree that a formal schism is very unlikely. Still, disunity can be experienced within the Church even if not formally expressed.

  2. For better or worse there will be no schism. Mr. Russell acknowledges two circumstances in place which preclude a formal schism but there is without doubt a third and it is the most serious. He leaves me astonished that he did not cite it. How can a national expression of Roman Catholicism go into schism when it has been uncatechized, inaccurately catechized or erroneously catechized for sixty years?
    From whence the oomph for schism?
    Ardent believers go into schism.
    Germany might go into schism – it would appear it has even though not formally acknowledged. The Bergoglian Vatican appears to have gone into schism though circuitously denied.
    From whence their oomph?
    Concupiscence, narcissism and pride amount to the shortest response.
    Marx, Darwin, Freud and the communion of academic atheism provide a few key bibliographic references, Let alone Luther, Calvin, Voltaire and Nietzsche The midget in the pack, but not to be ignored since in large measure notions such as his are the kool-aide fuel for the present metamorphosis – Alfred Kinsey – you don’t need a college degree or even an S.T.L, S.T.M., or a Ph.D. to get some self-gratifying justification from him for erroneous notions substituting for moral theology.
    Sophomores such as Kinsey provide the reasoning for “Who am I to judge?” not Jesus Christ. Or are we to refer to the eminent Jewish holy man simply as Jesus of Nazareth these days as jungle fever sweeps down upon Rome like the plague?
    Whoever would have thought global climate change would provide for the confluence of the Rhine, the Tiber and the Amazon?
    The waters are rising indeed, but the Jordan appears no longer to be on tap.

  3. Schism, as referred to by the Pontiff can be understood a subterfuge in order to achieve a goal. Author Shaw is correct Americans, that is those of us among the faithful [minus the politicians who betray the faith and their supporters] in the main will honor the Chair of Peter and disagree with policy and suggestion none of which approaches binding matter. Schism as canonically defined requires direct repudiation of papal authority, which doesn’t exist here. In Germany more likely. Although Reinhard Marxist Germans who are actually adherents of the Pontiff’s inexorable direction toward paradigmatic change stand in opposition to the official Magisterial teaching of Catholicism. This was discussed on World Over by canon lawyer Msgr Murray and editor writer Robert Royal. They seemed to acknowledge a schism in the making that doesn’t appear to actually exist for reasons given. They do recognize the emergence of an ecclesial duality, two churches with the One Church. That is the apparent “goal” of the Pontiff although not achieved by Schism rather by Apostasy. Again the allegation of schism is a distraction from the continued distancing from Revelation and Apostolic Tradition in guise of a Lerinian development of doctrine that Prof Eduardo Echeverria recently described so well in his article published here. In it Echeverria isolates a hermeneutics more historiography than scriptural theological exegesis. What caused Dr Royal Msgr Murray alarm were the pagan Vat lawn ceremony attended by the Pontiff a presumed ‘blessing’ of the Amazonia Synod and the remarks of journalist Scalfari alleging the Pontiff’s denial of Christ’s divinity. Msgr Murray Dr Royal both dismissed the Pontiff’s identifying himself with either. Nonetheless there are multiple ways to skin a rabbit [less wary less clever than cats].

    • Royal and Murray, for all their gifts, and they are abundant, know how to wiggle out of it. The dismissal of Bergoglio’s presence “in the garden” served them in my eye quite poorly, but then you do have to watch out for your neck — and I don’t mean that cruelly. It is rather more a comment on the way authority is presently abused by the Bergoglian pontificate rather than the character of these two fine men who make an enormous contribution to the faithful. Would that there were more such men and women in the Church. Not unlike you, Father Morello. God reward you.

    • It was brought to my mind this morning the plight of King David and the ill and erroneous King Saul and how David handled this. He treated Saul as King and said he was there by God. We also know this came about because of the wrong wishes of Tthe people. They did not choose God’s way (might we say this about artificial Birth control and divorce and gender confusion in our day?) Also Jesus answered this by saying “honor those who sit in the chair etc. but do not do as they do.”
      So to me the message is the same Live the virtues, live the beatitudes make use of all my graces and gifts, pray like never before, and look up for your redemption draws nigh.” We hear the voice of Truth as it rings out from some.
      That’s all I have to say about that. None of the saints who walked across all these lands to bring the gospel and sacraments to native peoples for all these centuries had to embrace paganism or married priesthood or any of these problems, just bring TRUTH who is JESUS and He will raise up the people to serve.

    • agree, most american catholics and i would say many bishops do not know the faith so they will go along with whatever comes down the pike and those who use such as cnn will welcome the changes. there has been no instruction in the faith fir fifty years and in many diocese this is still the case.

    • Schism requires “Ecclesial duality”, Thus Ecclesial duality necessarily results in schism because of the denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

      To deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is to deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

      Christ Has Revealed Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, that no Greater Love is there than this, to desire Salvation for one’s beloved.

      The “Charitable Anathema” exists for the sake of Christ, His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, all those who will come to believe in The One Word Of God, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, and all those prodigal sons and daughters, who, hopefully, will soon return to Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside which, there is no Salvation.

      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, thus we can know through both Faith and reason, that the failure to use The Charitable Anathema, is due to those who do not desire that all God’s beloved come to know, Love, and serve God in this world, so they can hopefully, be with God, Forever, In Heaven. Those who do not desire Salvation for God’s beloved, lack both Love and Mercy.

  4. Agree with the prior comments of harry, Fr. Fleming, James, and Fr. Morello. With all due respect to Mr. Shaw, I have to wonder if he is even paying attention to what has been transpiring in Rome for the past 6 1/2 years. And where does he get the notion that a single “leader” is necessary for a schism to occur? Is this not simply a thinly-veiled and unjustified calumny against Archbishop Lefebvre? In any event, the quite real possibility that the occupant of the See of Peter himself might lead a worldwide schism from the true Church seems not to have occurred to him. I pray that this does not occur, but the events relating to the Amazon “synod”, which more resembles a left-wing NGO convention than an ecclesial gathering, do not bode well for the future.
    I’ll be surprised if this comment makes it past the CWR moderators.

  5. Schism won’t be in the future, but maybe a rapid collapse as the Latin churches fail to reform themselves while continuing to ally with SJWs on domestic issues. “Where did Catholic real men go?” They left because they couldn’t influence reform.

    • Sol, REAL Catholic men do NOT leave the Faith. REAL Catholic men stay the course of Jesus Christ, not today’s “leaders” of the so-called church. In that sense, we are the TRUE Catholics, not all of those with letters after their names who bow to the secular ideas of the day. I am not going anywhere – I will defend Jesus Christ & his 2000 year old teaching until the day I die, consequences be damned. I don’t need anyone with a “PhD” after his name to tell me how to be a Catholic. I also don’t need a “pope” or a “bishop” to lead me – I need Jesus, & that is who I follow. Anyone who uses the current papal/clerical idiocy to leave the faith is a coward. True Catholics stand & fight for Jesus, we don’t turn tail & run, saying “I can’t believe anymore.” I am so unbelievably sick of these stupid debates, it’s obvious who is right & who is wrong here, & I don’t need a lot of big words & “impressive” degrees to tell me that. Yet, this is what we see today. “Let’s debate this & let’s debate that…” – wrong on all fronts. Let’s look to Jesus, see what He has to say, & go from there. Make no mistake, we are in a schism, if not formally, then ideologically. It will not go away until this false pope, along with all of his marxist/socialistic/communist prelates are gone. That includes the ever-present James Martin (I refuse to call him “father”) & all of the others of ill repute with whom this false pope has surrounded himself.

      • “Sol, REAL Catholic men do NOT leave the Faith. REAL Catholic men stay the course of Jesus Christ, not today’s “leaders” of the so-called church. ”

        I didn’t say anything about them leaving the Faith. I did say something about leaving the (institutional) church.

        • It can be a question if leaving the Church precedes leaving the faith or vice-versa.

          But it is out of question, that leaving the Church – even in the name of more intensive faith – is the definitive step into death. Examples are abundant in the history of postlapsarian man. Scripture speaks about “ruler of this world”. And it is not a surprise at all for it was God himself who founded Church.

          By the way, even the opposition to “(institutional) church” itself sounds quite like visions of noninstitutional socialism. Visions popular back in the day, now completely waned.

          But there is a real trouble. It is called American Church – Catholic Church shifted in the way of good old national “churches” of Reformation.

          • That is a rather simplistic analysis of why men no longer go to church based on a priori assumptions. Try talking to them instead.

          • @SOL
            “That is a rather simplistic analysis of why men no longer go to church based on a priori assumptions. Try talking to them instead.”

            Of course. Everyone has their own explanation. One dislike music, another one dislike lights, and so one. But if I would like to analyze why men no longer go to church (not just to speak about result, i. e. the lost of faith, as I did in previous post)… It is simple. It is done using personal decision. Contrary to – say – church attendance at China where it is driven by decisions of post-maoistic state.

            As of decay of Church, this personal decision seems to be much more effective than persecution.

          • as the church has the faith to leave the church would be to lose the faith. to me the question is if the pope teaches error has he lost the charism to teach the faith.

  6. A “formal” schism may not be in evidence but an informal schism is. As the American Catholic Church continues it move to the left politically members are walking out the door and not returning. It is a silent movement without a leader that Church leaders appear to be ignoring as they embrace the move left politically.

  7. With the emptying of the message of “salvation from sin, from eternal death and from isolation for goodness, eternal life, and communion with God and one another”, the Amazon has been emptied of Catholic faithful who go to evangelicals who are preaching the gospel. The pews in the western world are also emptying because Jesus Christ is not preached. This synod is worse than a waste of time; it is pernicious with the effect of silencing Jesus, His message, and His faithful messengers by substituting worldliness which cannot save.

    • To deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is to deny The Filioque.
      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, For It Is “Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, that Holy Mother Church exists. Denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost is formal schism as is denying The Filioque.

  8. Pope Francis has emptied the term “schism” of its prior significance. He is clearly not in communion with his predecessors, therefore…

  9. Schism or not, the central issue which will destroy the faith of individual Catholics is the scandal which seems to permeate every parish, every diocese, and St. Peter’s, itself, and that is the homosexual rape of children and teenagers by too many priests and hierarchs, and the systematic cover up and obstruction of justice which ensued. As a survivor of sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest, I can tell you I will never again cross the threshold of a Catholic Church. My faith in the Creator is solid; my faith in Catholicism is nil.

    • If one’s faith is in fallen human clergy and not Christ and the Church He founded, then that faith was never built upon solid ground.
      Each one of us is a member of the Church and the Body of Christ. We all can betray Christ in varying degrees. Why would clergy differ?

  10. I can see that Catholic World Report cares nothing for survivors of homosexual priest predators or you would have published my letter.

    You’re just as bad as the unorthodox priests who support heresy.

  11. There is already a de facto schism in the Catholic Church. It will spread and become de jure, unless there are radical changes and it will not depend on the bishops As usual, they will be forced to follow.


    St. John Henry Newman, one of the most perceptive theological minds in the tradition, made this rather startling and sweeping observation: “The whole course of Christianity . . . is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing . . . Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony.”

    There won’t be a schism…. We’ve been here before….

    • I think you are misreading the Newman quote. There certainly will be a schism, just as there have been many schisms in the past, as Newman points out. In fact, we are living a historically unprecedented schism right now. The overwhelming majority of Catholics – including those in the Vatican itself – no longer believe anything Catholic. That is the definition of schism, regardless of formal “membership” in the hierarchical Church.

  13. An American schism already exists.
    God’s Truth will not contradict The Word Of God Made Flesh, thus those Baptized Catholics who deny The Deposit Of Faith, are already separated from Christ, and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

  14. I was wondering how long it would take a Francis apologist to cite Newman’s Development of Doctrine in defense of this pope once Newman was set to be raised to the altars. Not long at all, it turns out.

  15. Another factor is that real schisms are understood to be serious matters, and they result only when the schismatic party sees no alternative. In this case, however, there is a simple alternative: outlive the 82-year-old Pope Francis.

  16. No such thing as an American Catholic, only Roman Catholics that live in North, Central or South America. For such a wordsmith as you, this is quite remarkable.

  17. Let him who stands take heed lest he fall. In England many would not have expected the schism and persecution brought on by the actions of Henry VIII and his corebellionists and enablers. Within a relatively short time period England was no longer Catholic. Here in America the sentiment has been “it can’t happen here” which is simply delusional and irresponsible. Sun Tzu said, in the timeless quote: “It is a principle of war, that we do not assume that the enemy will not come, but rather that we are prepared for him when he arrives.”

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