In my spiritual formation as a young adult, the idea of a future schism–refusing to submit to the teaching of the pope–was presented as a “liberal” concept. The idea was that in the name of progress, some Catholics rejected papal teaching on subjects like contraception, same-sex marriage, and women priests. This kind of schismatic believes that Church teaching on these matters hasn’t “developed” far enough, that the truth of their ideas is certain, and that Church teaching needs to catch up.
In recent years, however, I’ve grown aware of another kind of schism: a “conservative” schism. This occurs when Catholics reject official papal teaching in the name of maintaining tradition. This type of schismatic attitude holds that a when a pope’s teaching has exceeded an acceptable level of development, there has been a rupture with true doctrine. (To be clear, I’m using the word “schism” simply to describe Catholic’s refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff [see Catechism 2089] and not in the extreme historical sense, as with the the split between Orthodox Christians and Rome in AD 1054.)
This conservative schism is a rejection of the idea that our faith is alive. Catholic teaching is more like a growing tree than a set of historical texts. Pope Francis is keenly aware of this distinction and has reiterated it multiple times during his papacy, perhaps most explicitly during a meeting with the superior generals of women’s religious orders this past spring. There he said:
“The Church is not only Denzinger, that is, the collection of dogmatic passages, of historical things. This is true, but the Church develops on her journey in fidelity to Revelation. We cannot change Revelation. It’s true the Revelation develops. The word is ‘development’ — it develops with time. And we with time understand the faith better and better. The way to understand the faith today, after Vatican II, is different than the way of understanding the faith before Vatican II. Why? Because there is a development of knowledge. You are right. And this isn’t something new, because the very nature — the very nature — of Revelation is in continual movement to clarify itself” (May 10, 2019 meeting of the International Union of Superiors General).
Notice how closely this teaching follows something Pope Saint Paul VI wrote in a 1976 letter to SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre,“Tradition is not a rigid and dead notion, a fact of a certain static sort which at a given moment of history blocks the life of this active organism which is the Church, that is, the mystical body of Christ.”
Revelation is always unfolding, teachings develop as we come to a greater and greater understanding of what God has revealed to us. And it is the role of the Magisterium–the successors of Peter and the other apostles–to be the divinely assisted guides in this dynamic and living process of development. Now, this isn’t some kind of magisterial positivism where the truth is created by papal fiat. Rather, Church teaching proclaims and clarifies the Truth. It’s the difference between the Magisterium writing its own truth and the Magisterium interpreting the Truth.
This is why, in his interview with Ross Douthat, the idea expressed by Cardinal Burke–that because his beliefs haven’t changed that he couldn’t possibly be wrong–is problematic. In reference to Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Burke said, “I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas. But now suddenly this is perceived as being contrary to the Roman pontiff.” Then, regarding the Amazonian Synod, the cardinal makes this claim:
“The working document doesn’t have doctrinal value. But what if the pope were to put his stamp on that document? People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism — and I maintain that I would not be in schism because the document contains elements that defect from the apostolic tradition. So my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”
That a magisterial teaching of the pope could possibly be schismatic (i.e. not submissive to the teaching of the pope) is logically incomprehensible. Isn’t it a blatant contradiction to say that the pope could be disobedient to himself?
Further, the idea that one couldn’t possibly be in schism because their beliefs haven’t changed is also false. To present as Church teaching something the Magisterium has clarified further is to misrepresent the Church. For example, during the Council of Florence, the Church taught that “none of those who are outside of the Catholic Church” (mentioned by name are pagans, Jews, heretics, and schismatics) can be saved and all of them are damned to Hell “unless before the end of life, they are joined to her” (Denzinger 1351).
If a Catholic today was to insist that the Church believes all Jews are damned to Hell, they would be misrepresenting the Catholic faith. The doctrine of salvation has developed significantly since the fifteenth century (see Lumen Gentium 16, for example). If a Catholic was to obstinately persist in teaching this they would be presenting something other than what the Magisterium teaches. Additionally, such persistence might lead to canonical sanctions, as with Fr. Leonard Feeney in 1949 when the Holy Office condemned his literal understanding of the doctrine of salvation saying, “This dogma must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it. For, it was not to private judgments that Our Saviour gave for explanation those things that are contained in the deposit of faith, but to the teaching authority of the Church.” In other words, it is the Magisterium that interprets historical magisterial texts, not individual clerics or theologians.
Obedience can be a heavy cross. When someone believes that the Church has progressed too far or not enough, it can be incredibly difficult to submit to a teaching that violates what one believes to be true. This is something many people wrestle with and have had to wrestle with for as long as there have been religious authorities to disagree with. We all must strive to allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds according to the teaching and example of Christ. We must have compassion as we accompany our brothers and sisters when they struggle to believe what the Church teaches. The problem isn’t this wrestling with papal teaching. The problem is the public assertion that one knows better than the Magisterium, and the public assertion that one is more orthodox than the pope.
May the Holy Spirit bring us all closer to the Heart of the Father, where love will purify our minds and faith will allow us to see our struggles from His divine perspective. May the Holy Spirit protect us from the audacity to think we know better than the Church.
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.