Who benefits from all this talk of schism?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 17, 2019

Why are we even talking about schism? Who began this extraordinary conversation, and whose interests are served by it?

Ross Douthat of the New York Times admits that he used the term “schism” long ago, as a theoretical possibility—which he now (rightly) regards as remote. But now Pope Francis speaks calmly about the prospect of schism, and even says that it does not frighten him—which, as I’ve pointed out, is frightening in itself.

How did we come so far, so fast? How did we reach a point at which the nation’s most prestigious secular newspaper raises the notion that American Catholics might split from the universal Church, and the Pontiff treats that prospect as a serious possibility?

Have the Pope’s American critics threatened to break with Rome? Never! Quite the contrary, the most important critics of this pontificate insist that they—we—are doing our utmost to preserve the unity of the universal Church, to maintain our strong ties with “all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, often cited as the leader of a rebellious faction, has in fact repeatedly and adamantly pledged his loyalty to the Roman Pontiff. One cannot cause a schism by defending the established doctrine of the Church.

(One can, on the other hand, cause a schism by holding a meeting of a nation’s bishops, seeking to change teachings of the universal Church, and ignoring admonitions from the Holy See to drop this divisive plan—as the leaders of the German bishops’ conference are doing right now. Yet when the New York Times mentions schism, the threat is said to come from “some conservatives—especially in the United States,” rather than from the rambunctious “progressives” in Germany.)

So again I ask: How did this conversation arise, about the alleged threat of an American schism. And if you follow Catholic conversations on the internet, you know the answer. The topic has been raised—and promoted, and repeated, and touted as an imminent threat—by the Pope’s busiest and most aggressive online defenders.

Which prompts another question: Why are these folks—who have so enthusiastically championed the Pope’s moves to alter Church teachings on issues such as marriage and the Eucharist—so anxious to talk about breaking with the Pope? And again I think I know the answer.

Why did President Lincoln maneuver the Confederacy into the bombardment of Fort Sumter? Because he saw that war was imminent, and he wanted the South to take the first shots. Similarly, 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.

So let me conclude with a heartfelt plea to my fellow Catholics, and especially to my more excitable friends on the internet. Don’t take the bait. We are not thinking of schism. 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.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Sep. 23, 2019 11:32 PM ET USA

    The unborn benefit. Fewer of them will go through the meat grinder as soon as the forces of moral heresy and anti-Catholic bigotry leave to pursue their own syncretic and secular Church.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Sep. 17, 2019 10:14 PM ET USA

    If it's called a schism if the faithful leave the pope, what's it called if the pope leaves us? That seems a more accurate description of the situation, IMHO.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 17, 2019 5:46 PM ET USA

    "One cannot cause a schism by defending the established doctrine of the Church." Almost verbatim the argument used by AB Lefebvre while under attack decades ago. "No authority, even the very highest in the hierarchy, can constrain us to abandon or diminish our Catholic Faith..." Did he see this day coming? Lefebvre insisted he wasn't leaving, but the popes didn't see it his way. New accusations of schism arise today. Some say: "Hell no; we won't go." Will Pope Francis see things their way?

  • Posted by: JM4294870 - Sep. 17, 2019 3:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent Phil, fully agree and great work! The dissenters can leave, those of us faithful to 2,000 years of Church teaching are staying!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 17, 2019 2:41 PM ET USA

    There is no need to precipitate a schism where the orthodox Catholics would "break away," "break off," or "form their own church." Why? Because of the great diversity within the Catholic Church herself. We have numerous Latin rites and numerous Eastern rites. These are all Catholic, and last time I checked, the Eastern Catholics have not gone off the rails, nor are they heading in that direction. But even if this could possibly happen, there are Orthodox Churches with valid sacraments and marks.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 17, 2019 11:34 AM ET USA

    If the statistics are correct, why does it matter? For every person joining the Catholic Faith 6 are leaving. (Bishop Barron quoting recent Pew survey). At this rate, the Church in the US will be “purged” before anything of a schism has a chance to take hold. Painful, Painful topic. We need to hold fast to what we know to be true and to Christ. With Padre Pio: Pray, Fast, and be conveted.