Flirting With Schism

There has been much written about the ecclesial politics at play within the Catholic Church in the United States in the fallout from the revelations of the extent of child sexual abuse perpetrated by bishops within that part of the Universal Church and the coverup and unacceptable response from other bishops within that same element of the Church. I suspect that much more will be written by many different writers from many different perspectives, and from many different ecclesiological positions. That the issue is being talked about is a good thing; unless it is openly discussed it can never be addressed, rectified, and excluded from the future life of the Church.

In the wake of those revelations as well, there has been much written about the so-called Vigano affair. The “testimony” of the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States has been picked over, pulled apart, and forensically examined by many writers. Again, these have come from various ecclesiological positions and bring different perspectives to bear on the issue. There will, again, continue to be articles and columns written on this issue as we move into the future, not all of it helpful I would suspect.

I say all this by way of introduction to the latest contribution from Massimo Faggioli for Commonweal magazine. You can read the entire article below, and I would strongly encourage you to do so as it sets out a number of things very clearly, things that must be considered in assessing whatever is written about the Vigano affair going forward. Of most significance, at least in my estimation, is the recognition that the kind of culture-war inspired rhetoric we are seeing from parts of the Catholic Church is inspired by a misrepresentation, or misunderstanding if I’m to be generous, that “the whole Catholic Church is the American Catholic Church writ large”.

The simple response to such a misrepresentation or misunderstanding, of course, is that it’s not. The Church, the Universal Church, is much larger – by degrees of magnitude – than the American Catholic Church regardless of whether some elements of that Church recognise it or not.

At the heart of Faggioli’s article is the assertion that there is the potential for schism within the Church because of both the revelations of child sexual abuse and the Vigano affair, because they together have highlighted in the public domain the growing rifts within the Catholic Church in the United States. As Faggioli observes

A growing number of conservative Catholics no longer accept the pope’s legitimacy. What happened in the past few weeks exacerbated tensions that have been building for years. In truth, the people behind this attempt to force Francis to resign are a small minority of Catholics in the United States; they do not reflect Francis’s relationship with the whole U.S. church, much less the Catholic Church globally. It is unlikely, therefore, that the current crisis will lead to an open schism with two popes, two Curias, two colleges of cardinals, and two “obediences.” But the situation is complicated by the fact that there is still a pope emeritus in the Vatican. Benedict XVI has become a symbol of resistance for traditionalist Catholics who oppose Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s theology as more aligned with their own. It is too soon to say whether Viganò’s “testimony,” which unintentionally underscored serious problems with the way Benedict’s Curia dealt with charges of abuse, will end up forcing them to reconsider their uncritical allegiance to the pope emeritus. What is clear is that some have certainly tried in these past five-and-a-half years to use Benedict against Francis and to signal a different obedience, in an act of defiance against the bishop of Rome that would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.

Schism is, unfortunately, not new within the history of the Church. It is, however, always something to be avoided wherever possible because it diminishes the effectiveness of Christians to proclaim the Gospel – which is the primary raison d’etre for the Church. If intra-ecclesial politics get in the way of the evangelising mission of the Church is endangered.

And there is the true danger.