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the shape of schism yet to come?

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jul 05, 2006

Back in 1994, professor James Hitchcock wrote an article in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review called "How Schism May Come" -- an elaborately articulated scenario of soft schism based on the all-too-real proliferation of Priestless Eucharistic Services in certain dioceses. Most of the elements of Hitchcock's speculation are already up and running, and indeed in some countries --parts of Holland and Switzerland come to mind -- the process is all but complete. One hard shock and the dead meat would fall from the bone. You can read the whole article here. Below are some key steps in the sequence:

1) The priest who visits the parish once a month is delayed. Rather than delay the distribution of communion, once the stock of consecrated hosts has been exhausted, the pastoral minister herself prays over a ciborium of unconsecrated hosts and distributes them to the worshippers.

2) Before long it begins to seem unnecessary to almost everyone -- the circuit-riding priest, the pastoral minister, and the parishioners themselves -- to observe the inconvenient formality of having a priest visit the parish occasionally. Instead the pastoral minister's distribution of unconsecrated hosts becomes normal.

3) Other parishes hear of this and wonder why they too may not follow the same practice. Unofficially they are told by diocesan officials that they may, although there is no formal announcement to that effect.

4) The practice soon becomes normal in all the priestless parishes of the diocese. Those who insist on having a priest visit in order to consecrate the eucharistic elements are dismissed as rigid legalists.

5) The practice begins to spread even to parishes with resident priests, in the same way that "extraordinary ministers" of the Eucharist function even when priests are sitting in the sanctuary. Pastoral ministers preside at services even in large city parishes, functioning in the same way as their rural counterparts.

As this practice becomes known, there will of course be vigorous protests from conservative Catholics, as well as genuinely puzzled inquiries from many others. At this point diocesan officials will give studiously ambiguous, even confusing, answers: "The Church's teaching about the priesthood and the Mass is undergoing development, and certain matters are not clear. No unordained person can celebrate Mass as traditionally understood. But the kind of communion services now in use are perfectly legitimate given our present understanding." ...

The practice will be justified purely empirically -- does it not help to mold and inspire precisely the kind of warm, eucharist-centered community which the parish is supposed to be? Is not the pastoral minister a deeply caring person much beloved and respected by the parishioners? Does the system whereby a priest from the outside visits once a month, leaving a stock of consecrated hosts, not seem very artificial and cold? Is abstract doctrine to get in the way of a vital faith community?

There are two respects in which Hitchcock's time-line may need adjustment. First, though they are still in the minority, several of the newly appointed bishops are combative in the best sense. When the schism occurs, it may not be equally slushy in all places. Second, a sizable percentage of the young people who would fit into Hitchcock's category of "ill-catechised" have turned out, a dozen years later, to be either "nil-catechised" (whence they don't practice at all) or well catechised, by home-schools, etc. As events such as WYD show, while few young people take their faith seriously, those who care at all don't seem thrilled by nuns in business suits. The situation is both better and worse than it was in 1994.

Yet it's noteworthy that Cardinal Mahony's introduction of Lay Ecclesial Ministers into the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is precisely the kind of move that Hitchcock envisaged, and even the accompanying rhetoric of justification is eerily similar to that predicted. What's most telling, however, is the unmistakeable relish for the changes, an underlying eagerness for the shortages that make lay ministry an expedient remedy. Even while the Archdiocesan apparatchiks pretend to deplore the diminishing number of priests and seminarians, they can't quite get the smirk off their faces.

As so often, the outcome rides on the bishops, especially the constitutionally timid vacillating bishops in the middle. If they see the very worst occur in the Anglican Church -- i.e., dioceses parted from property -- they may be moved to preempt schism at home. But their reflexive response will be committees, assisted by sub-committees, assisted by task forces, instructed by workshops ... you get the point. We have recently seen several examples where secular news outlets have reported the ordination of women as "Catholic priests" -- ordinations described not as null or invalid but as "not approved by the Vatican." Many people are genuinely confused, and the incidents deserved an unambiguous response from the bishops, speaking with one voice. Will we get it?

Prof. Hitchcock, twelve years ago, predicted a schism would occur not over invalid priestly ordinations but by gradual assimilation of layfolk into priestly activities. In either case, episcopal inaction or equivocation sends the message that a right answer, if one exists, isn't really all that important:

By the time this pattern of unordained "priests" becomes well known it will be so widespread as to pose a serious disciplinary problem. Liberal bishops will in effect tell people to choose their own theology: "You can either believe that the pastoral minister really is a priest and really does celebrate Mass, or that she is not and merely presides over a ceremony which happens to resemble the Mass." But even to be concerned with such questions will itself be taken as evidence of a retarded theological viewpoint.

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