Opinion: The slow road to Catholic schism

Some years ago, when I was younger and somewhat more excitable, I wrote a series of essays about Pope Francis’ liberalizing efforts, arguing that the supreme pontiff’s choices risked a schism in the Catholic Church.

At the time my argument was criticized by Catholics on both sides of the church’s theological-political divides. Liberal Catholics accused me of hysteria, disloyalty or both. More conservative Catholics suggested I was importing anxieties from my childhood Protestantism into the more stable ground of Catholic faith.

But in the seventh year of the Francis pontificate, those “Protestant” anxieties are now everywhere in Catholic discussions, and both liberals and conservatives are deploying the “s” word promiscuously to describe developments that they dislike.

Thanks to a question from my colleague Jason Horowitz, the pope himself weighed in recently, noting that “there has always been a schismatic option in the church, always.” That’s demonstrated by recent history as well as the deep past, the miniature schisms after the First and Second Vatican Councils as well as the big 16th- and 11th-century breaks.

That papal formulation is an excellent way to understand what the different Catholic factions think is happening right now. When liberals talk about schism, they have in mind the activities of the conservative wing of the U.S. church, which they believe is engaged in an “elitist separation” driven by right-wing ideology and money — one that simultaneously seeks to depose Francis and indulges in narratives that veer close to sedevacantism, the belief that the pope is not, in fact, the pope.

The anti-Francis spirit in U.S. Catholicism was the “schism” my Times colleague was asking about, and it clearly preoccupies the pope’s inner circle. But meanwhile conservative Catholics fear that a different “elitist separation” is happening — one led by liberal theologians and funded by German money, which seeks a kind of Episcopalian evolution on contested moral issues.

The partway liberalization of the Francis era has encouraged the church’s progressives to push further, while many conservatives have been flung into intellectual crisis or a paranoia-flavored traditionalism. And the overlap of theological and national divisions means that national churches could evolve away from one another at a rapid pace.

But having been alarmist in the past, now that everyone is talking schism I want to be more cautious. The pope has consistently avoided pushing conservatives into a theologically untenable position, choosing ambiguity over a clarity that might cleave his church.

The sharpest conservative opposition is online rather than institutionalized, or among retired cardinals rather than governing archbishops. The U.S. church as a whole is not opposed to Francis; websites and Twitter feeds cannot make a schism.

In Germany, the schismatic spirit isn’t just a matter of the maximally online; the German church’s current leaders are well advanced in a coherent ideological project that could require a break with Rome.

But the German churchmen are also convinced that Francis and his appointees are ultimately on their side, that Catholic history is bending in their direction, that the next conclave will bring a still-more-liberal pope. So their incentives are to push and then pull back, to advance but then accept correction, rather than pressing their differences with the Vatican to a breaking point.

Which suggests that while the Francis legacy includes certain preconditions for a schism, any true break awaits some new development — another ecumenical council, or at least a different pope.

And this, to return to an argument I have made before, should create incentives for a more open and charitable style of debate between Catholic factions, rather than just endless suspicion and invective. Because if everybody is talking about schism, for the time being nobody is in it — and that “for the time being” could last, like many situations in a fallen world, for an unexpectedly long time.

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Writes for The New York Times