Has the pastoral rubber met the theological road? Today, the Los Angeles Times’ Tom Kingston reports that the debate over Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia and the proposals to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to fully participate in the sacraments has produced a conservative reaction that threatens to divide the church. Some have even begun to whisper one word in particular — schism:

As Francis enters his fourth year in office, his conservative opponents have chosen to stand and fight over his 2016 apostolic exhortation titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” in which he suggested bishops can use discretion in granting Communion to Catholics who divorce, then remarry in a civil ceremony.

Francis’ guidance was seen by many as contradicting the ruling, which dates to the early days of the Roman Catholic Church, that couples are living in sin if they remarry, because their first marriage is still valid in the eyes of the church.

Francis’ opening was part of his mercy-before-doctrine drive, which welcomes outcasts to the church rather than use dogma to keep people out. But for conservative Catholics, it was another reason to feel aggrieved, after Francis appeared to suggest in 2015 that Lutherans could receive Catholic Communion, and, when asked about gay people in 2013, said, “Who am I to judge?”

It was enough to start talk of a schism in the church.

That’s not a word taken lightly in Catholic circles. Debates over doctrine and their application go all the way back to Peter and Paul, after all, as does the passion that surround them; the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s epistles certainly demonstrate that much. Schism implies more than just a debate, though — it suggests a fracture among bishops that threatens the unity of the church.

For that reason, the word sometimes gets applied where it shouldn’t. In this case, others have heard the same rumblings among church leaders as Kingston, although not within the Curia; one well-placed observer cautions that it’s a distinctly minority position, but the word has begun to float. The 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family took up this issue in order to settle the matter after it had been pressed primarily by German bishops, where African bishops in particular objected strenuously to the proposal. Kingston notes Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s argument about the necessity of this doctrine to move people away from polygamy in Muslim and animist cultures, and how changing to meet Western culture can undermine those efforts in a region where the church is experiencing strong growth and conversions. At the 2014 Synod, from which I reported for Hot Air, the African bishops provided a unified call to remain constant on the issue of sacramental marriage and the sacraments.

The final report from the 2015 synod appeared to leave the church in its consistent position, but the subsequent issue of Amoris Laetitia muddied the waters sufficiently for all sides to claim some kind of advance in their positions. Two months ago, a leading figure within the Curia wrote a “personal” observance that claimed that Amoris backed the German bishops’ argument. At the same time, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller — the prefect for the Congregation of the Faith and the man in charge of doctrinal discipline — took the exact opposite stance in an interview with Il Timone.  In between, the dubia submitted by five cardinals on this doctrinal confusion has yet to get an answer from Pope Francis, which is apparently fueling the passions on both sides.  The lack of clarity may have been intended to satisfy everyone to some extent, but it has perhaps resulted in a situation where no one is satisfied to just let the matter stew.

In one sense, the hints at schism are most unfortunate, because Pope Francis has made some strides to repair an actual schism and reincorporate a small group of conservative Catholics into the church:

Pope Francis’ decision to approve a way for the Church to recognize marriages celebrated by priests of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X is a helpful step toward the priestly fraternity reconciling with Rome, but full communion is most probably still some way off.

This is according to sources both inside the Vatican and the priestly fraternity who, in April 6 comments to the Register, said that the Pope’s decision, made in a March 27 letter to the SSPX and publicized April 4, is not a sign of acceleration toward an agreement.

Rather, they believe it paves the way to creating a possible canonical structure to allow the society to come into full communion in the future.

If the Vatican does not take action to resolve the confusion, perhaps the next ordinary synod in 2018 will take it up directly. Until then, it has become abundantly clear that more clarity rather than discernment is needed. It’s still too early to discuss schisms, but perhaps a little late to offer specific answers to legitimate questions raised by church leaders.