Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

A whiff of schism: when different Catholics hold radically different beliefs

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 23, 2016

At a Catholic parish in Athy, Ireland, a lesbian couple who resigned from parish ministry after entering a legal marriage has returned to active participation—and to loud applause. So now everyone is welcome in St. Michael’s parish, right?


Anthony Murphy, the editor of Catholic Voice—the man who objected to the lesbian couple’s prominent role in parish life—has received so many threats that he is, on the advice of the local police, staying away from the parish. But then again, if you know the whole story, you may wonder why Murphy would ever want to attend Mass at St. Michael’s.

The bitter dispute in this Irish parish is an extreme example of a sort of conflict that has become sadly familiar within Catholic communities. These conflicts erupted in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, then subsided for a few decades. They have escalated again during the past three years, since the election of Pope Francis. They involve fundamental disagreements about what it means to be Catholic: debates between people with irreconcilable views, who sometimes suggest (and sometimes forthrightly proclaim) that their adversaries must be excluded from the Church. These conflicts pose a clear and present danger to the unity of the Catholic faith, and they will continue until the fundamental questions that are now in dispute have been resolved.

Many good Catholics, motivated by the best of intentions, have sought to downplay these tensions, to avert a showdown. But the conciliatory approach cannot succeed when two sides are irreconcilable. A healthy Church cannot long accept a situation in which some members anathematize what other members endorse. (The worldwide Anglican communion, desperately fighting to avoid formal recognition of a schism that is already apparent to the world, illustrates my point.) Fundamental questions cannot be ignored and finessed and explained away indefinitely. Eventually the failure to answer a question is itself a sort of answer: a judgment that truth and integrity are less important than temporary peace and comfort. Such an answer is unworthy of Christians.

Since the shocking case of St. Michael’s in Athy is the starting point for this essay, let me recount the story:

Jacinta O’Donnell and Geraldine Flanagan were prominent members of the parish: both singing in the choir, one the choir director, the other an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. They were also lesbian partners, united in a civil marriage ceremony. (Invitations to the wedding were passed out at choir practice.) When Anthony Murphy registered an objection, saying that their active role in parish ministry suggested an endorsement of their union, the pastor, Father Frank McEvoy, brushed away the objection. But Murphy’s protests made the couple uncomfortable enough so that they voluntarily stepped down… for a while.

The reaction from parishioners—support for O’Donnell and Flanagan, hostility toward Murphy—brought the couple back into the sanctuary. In their triumphant return at a Saturday-evening Mass on September 10, they led the choir in singing “I Will Follow Him”—which is not a hymn but a 1960s pop song, memorably performed by Whoopi Goldberg and others in the film comedy Sister Act—and were rewarded with raucous, shouting applause, which the pastor judged “well deserved.” At the conclusion of the Mass the couple stood before the altar together, arms raised, fists clenched, to new applause. They had won; Anthony Murphy had lost.

But not just Anthony Murphy.

“Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared,” wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy. It is impossible to believe that the “human achievement” prompting applause in this case was the couple’s musical performance. (If you listen to their rendition of the song, readily available on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean.) No; this Catholic parish was saluting the couple for their homosexual union. And Yes, the essence of the liturgy had totally disappeared.

After that appalling display, one of the five priests who was on the altar at St. Michael’s said that he was sorry he had been there. Father Brendan Kealy explained that he had intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a fellow priest’s ordination:

I was not present to promote or condone same-sex ‘marriage’ or what appeared to be the apparent triumphant and victorious return of our musical directors which seemed to become the focus of the evening. In my opinion, the Mass was hijacked to support the cause of same-sex ‘marriage’ which is clearly in breach of Catholic Church teachings…I felt Saturday evening’s principal purpose of the Mass was grossly lost and I regret my participation.

Now what does it mean, when a Catholic priest regrets his participation in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Something is seriously wrong there, is it not? Father Kealy recognized that the Eucharistic liturgy had been exploited for political purposes—and for purposes that are incompatible with Catholic teaching, at that.

Notice that the exploitation of the Mass for any reason in unacceptable. Even if the distraction takes the form of a magnificent musical performance, that is, as Cardinal Ratzinger argued, an abuse of the liturgy. The Mass is Christ’s Sacrifice and the liturgy belongs to Him; we have no right to turn it to our earthly purposes.

But when those purposes are at odds with the Church’s teachings, the offense is even more grievous and the threat to Catholic unity more acute. American Catholics have been wrestling with this difficulty for years, as prominent Catholic politicians—from Kennedy and Cuomo through Pelosi and Kerry to Biden and Kaine—have continued to approach Communion despite their clear violation of Church precepts on key moral issues. Timid prelates tell us that they do not want to turn the Communion line into a political battleground, but that excuse misses the point. It already is a political battleground; the politicians had made it so, by refusing to acknowledge their break with the Church.

The canon law of the Church stipulates that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin”—such as those openly involved in illicit sexual unions, and those who publically support the legalized destruction of innocent human life—“are not to be admitted to holy Communion,” primarily because of the scandal involved. But there is another reason for this policy as well: a matter of that it means to be “in communion” with the Catholic Church.

To say that we are “in communion” with other Catholics is to profess that we believe what they believe, we worship as they worship, we are members of the same faith and recognize each other as such. We are not “in communion” with our Protestant friends, no matter how much we might love and respect them; nor are they in communion with us, since they “protest” various aspects of our faith. Nor are we fully “in communion” with the Orthodox, even if their belief in the Eucharist matches our own.

How can it be plausibly argued that Jacinta O’Donnell and Geraldine Flanagan—and, apparently, most of the parishioners at that Saturday-night travesty—share the same faith as Anthony Murphy and Father Brendan Kealy? It cannot. Murphy thought that the lesbian couple should be excluded from parish leadership; the couple’s supporters made it clear, on a sympathetic web site, that they rejoiced in having purged Murphy’s “right-wing” views from their community. Clearly these people cannot profess a common faith, until the major issues that separate them have somehow been resolved. They are not “in communion” with each other.

Nor is their problem unique. More and more frequently, Catholics disagree on what it means to be in communion, what it means to be Catholics. Radically different beliefs are held, and dramatically different goals pursued, by different members within a parish, different parishes within a diocese, different dioceses within the universal Church. (To take just one prominent example, the indissoluble nature of the marriage bond apparently now means something different in Philadelphia and Phoenix from what it means in Argentina and Germany.) These divisions will continue to stretch the fabric of Catholicism, straining the seams, threatening a serious rift, until they are confronted. The unity of the faith requires unity of belief, and unity of belief requires clarity.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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