The slow road to Catholic schism

The anti-Francis spirit in American Catholicism was the “schism” my Times colleague was asking about, and it clearly preoccupies the pope’s inner circle. But meanwhile conservative Catholics fear that a different “elitist separation” is happening — one led by liberal theologians and funded by German money, which seeks a kind of Episcopalian evolution on contested moral issues. Conservatives see this version of schism being advanced in Germany itself through a doctrinal renovation that the Vatican keeps trying to gently redirect, and in Rome through the upcoming synod on the Amazonian region, which they fear will undermine clerical celibacy and welcome pantheism and syncretism.

The underlying dynamic is basically what I anticipated years ago. The partway-liberalization of the Francis era has encouraged the church’s progressives to push further, while many conservatives have been flung into intellectual crisis or a paranoia-flavored traditionalism. And the overlap of theological and national divisions means that national churches could evolve away from one another at a rapid pace.

But having been alarmist in the past, now that everyone is talking schism I want to be more cautious. The pope has risked a great deal in his pontificate, but he has consistently avoided pushing conservatives into a theologically-untenable position, choosing ambiguity over a clarity that might cleave his church.