In the last several days, many Catholics have been discussing Pope Francis’s comments about a potential schism in the Church, specifically in reference to a movement (in the U.S. Church and elsewhere) that is highly critical of Francis and his teachings. In his comments, Francis described the causes of schism, suggesting that they occur when:
Ideologies enter into doctrine and when doctrine slips into ideology that’s where there’s the possibility of a schism. There’s the ideology of the primacy of a sterile morality regarding the morality of the people of God.
“The ideology of the primacy of a sterile morality” — doesn’t that sound a bit like the “imagisterium” I described earlier this year? This is the false idea that there is some objective standard against which the official magisterial teachings and statements of the pope can be judged by the faithful. These papal critics grant primacy to a “sterile” understanding of doctrine, discipline, and pastoral teaching over the primacy and supremacy of the pope.
Pope Francis’s detractors were quick to reject any insinuation that they have any role in fomenting schism. On Monday, a priest attacked this idea in his homily during EWTN’s daily Mass broadcast, denying that the Holy Father’s “faithful critics” are schismatic.
The notable papal critic Phil Lawler wrote a defiant piece, and speculated on why Francis spoke about the possibility of schism and the reasons why the discussion of schism among the Holy Father’s supporters has increased in recent days. He believes it is part of a scheme:
The most “progressive” Catholics recognize that they cannot engineer the radical changes they want without precipitating a split in the Church. So they want orthodox Catholics to break away first, leaving them free to enact their own revolutionary agenda.
This is not true. Lawler ignores the fact that many of Francis’s supporters can hardly be called “the most progressive.” Speaking for myself, I have no agenda to change Church doctrine or to drive conservatives out of the Church. Ironically, I am trying to call the pope’s detractors to be more orthodox and traditional than their current behavior suggests. I’m calling on them to observe the Church’s traditional teachings on the Primacy of the Successor of Peter and to adhere to the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium with religious assent. My “agenda” — such as it is — is to encourage them to assent to what our Church teaches.
Lawler closes his piece with a repudiation of the suggestion that he and those of his mindset will ever leave the Church:
We are thinking of—and working and praying for—the preservation of Catholic unity, a unity that keeps us in full communion not only with the Bishop of Rome and with our fellow Catholics around the world today, but also with all the faithful Catholics of previous generations. It’s our Church: the Church of the apostles and saint and martyrs and of us poor sinners. We’re not leaving. Hell no; we won’t go.
This piece is missing a very important point. “We’re not leaving” implies that he sees schism as a one-way street: that those who enter into schism always do so voluntarily. Historically, however, that’s not the only way schisms come about. Certainly some schismatic Christian movements have broken ecclesiastical communion by rejecting the concept of papal authority or by repudiating the Catholic Church altogether. But quite often, the official split has been brought about by an official act of the pope. Sometimes schismatics leave, but at other times they’re kicked out.
Two obvious examples where this has happened are the cases of the 20th-century figures Fr. Leonard Feeney and Abp. Marcel Lefebvre. Certainly, neither of these men saw themselves as schismatic (and they certainly have their defenders today), but the Church took action despite their protests. They might have claimed to be defending true Catholic teaching. They might have argued that their suspensions and excommunications were null or unjust. From the official standpoint of Church authority, however, the sanctions against them were applied validly.
Keeping this in mind, one can make a strong argument that one of the main factors that has prevented an actual mini-schism from happening in the US Church thus far has been Francis’s toleration of those who reject his authority and teachings. Indeed, many of these critics seem to be rejecting his papacy outright.
One clear example is Bishop Rene Gracida, Emeritus of Corpus Christi, TX. Bp. Gracida has openly and repeatedly advocated for a new conclave because he believes Francis’s election was invalid. Certainly, that would seem to be an open-and-shut case for excommunication. One might take into consideration his advanced age (96), but he has demonstrated in recent interviews that he is quite lucid and is capable of thinking on his own.
Yet Francis has taken no action against him. He’s still listed as the Bishop Emeritus on the diocesan website, for example.
Gracida is an extreme example, but there are many other theologians, priests, & bishops in the US and elsewhere who have publicly rejected the authority and teachings of the pope, without punishment. (The signatories of the “open letter” to the college of bishops come to mind.)
A few decrees of excommunication for the denial of Francis’s papacy have been given out at the diocesan level, but none, to my knowledge, have come from the Vatican.
Certainly, there have certainly been some professional consequences (John Rist lost his parking pass at a pontifical university, Fr. Thomas Weinandy was forced to step down from a USCCB position as an unpaid consultant, Cardinal Burke has been demoted from various posts), but very few, if any, canonical punishments have been doled out by the Vatican.
And it seems to me that this is clearly a result of Francis’s desire to avert a formal schism.
His most ardent detractors seem oblivious to this. And they certainly aren’t grateful. Then again, who would expect them to be?
Image: Adobe Stock
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.