Talk of schism in the Church is “promiscuous” now, writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Pope Francis addressed it at length on his return flight from Madagascar. But where is the danger of schism? It is far more likely from Germany, where bishops are openly defying the Holy Father, than from the United States.
The question of potential schism was raised on the recent papal flights to and from Africa. On the outbound flight, presented with a book accusing some Americans of plotting to overthrow the Pope, the Holy Father said that “it is an honor when the Americans attack me.”
Papal spokesman Matteo Bruni then quickly turned that inside out to mean that the Holy Father greatly respects American viewpoints. That didn’t fly with the press corps, so Pope Francis was asked about it on the flight home, in response to which he confessed that he didn’t want schism, but “did not fear it.”
Also on the plane to Mozambique, Pope Francis, answering a question about concerns raised by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: “He has good intentions; he is a good man. The Pope likes him. But he is like a child.”
Despite being reported by German and Austrian Catholic news agencies, the Holy See Press Office did not comment upon that astonishing characterization of the accomplished theologian.
The two comments together invite consideration of where the schismatic danger, if it exists, lies.
An American-led schism seems so remote as to be impossible.
There is a not a single U.S. bishop who has said or done anything that would point toward anything even approaching schism. That there are sectors of U.S. Catholic opinion that are critical — even hostile — to Pope Francis is true, but internet chatter does not a schism make.
In any case, since Vatican II there have been entire countries where the theological establishment — university professors and seminary formators, not internet journalists — have publicly dissented from Catholic teaching and no schism resulted.
Even direct criticism of the Holy Father’s teaching or decisions does not constitute a schism. It may well erode trust and fraternal goodwill, but it does not rupture communion. In any case, though, in terms of national episcopates, the Americans are hardly leaders in offering criticism of this pontificate.
The Polish bishops have publicly offered an interpretation of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that is at odds with the favored interpretation in Rome. The Ukrainian bishops have spoken clearly about Russian “aggression” and “invasion” of Ukraine when the Holy Father preferred to speak of “fratricidal conflict” without assigning blame, seeking not to offend Moscow. The Venezuelan bishops have long denounced the Maduro regime in terms that have gone far beyond what Holy See diplomacy has been willing to concede.
As recently as this month in Hong Kong, Catholic leaders have taken the lead in protests against the regime in Beijing while the Holy See remains entirely silent. It would be difficult to think of any bishop who has been more directly critical of any decision of Pope Francis than Cardinal Joseph Zen has been of the Holy See’s 2018 accord with China.
And nowhere were ordinary Catholic voices more critical of Pope Francis than in Chile, where the Holy Father’s appointment of Bishop Juan Barros, against the advice of the Chilean bishops, set off a sexual-abuse conflagration that has consumed the Church there. Those Chilean critics were vehemently denounced by Pope Francis until he completed reversed himself.
So if the danger of schism is measured even by the misleading criterion of public criticism, the danger does not lie in the United States. For that reason, the Holy Father himself conceded on the flight home that “criticism comes not only from the Americans — it’s coming from all over.”
The danger of schism, if present anywhere, comes, instead, from Germany, where there is little public criticism at all. Nevertheless, the German episcopate — not journalists and commentators — is in open defiance of the Holy Father’s express wishes, led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who is one of the closest advisers to Pope Francis, one of six members of the council of cardinals, and chairman of the Vatican’s economic council.
The German bishops have proposed a “binding” national synod involving bishops and lay associations, which will examine questions such as married clergy and sexual morality. The German bishops have already been granted by Pope Francis some of their key priorities — Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, according to their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia and national authority over liturgical translations and admission of Protestants to Holy Communion, or at least a refusal by Rome to declare their initiatives in that regard to be out of bounds.
The binding “synodal process” does not have the unanimous support of the German bishops. Cardinal Müller, for one, has offered his own serious criticisms of the proposal, as have Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg.
Pope Francis wrote a public letter to the German bishops in June, asking them to rework their proposed synod to take into better account its impact on communion with the Church universal. In August, the German bishops voted 21-3 to continue as they originally planned, the most public refusal of any episcopal conference anywhere in the face of a direct request of the Holy Father.
On Sept. 4, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and Council for Legislative Texts sent a detailed analysis of the German synod proposals to the German bishops, concluding that the proposed synod was not “ecclesiologically valid” and contrary to canon law, in addition to being contrary to the instructions of the Holy Father in his June letter. It is not possible that such an analysis would have been sent without the Holy Father’s approval.
Cardinal Marx took note and dismissed the Vatican’s concerns out of hand in a letter dated Sept. 12, released to the press and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine the following day.
Far from threatening communion with the universal Church, Cardinal Marx argued that the entire Church would benefit from a German re-examination of settled matters of doctrine and discipline. The message was clear: It is not the Church in Germany that must remain in communion with the Holy Father as universal pastor, but rather the universal Church that must remain in communion with the majority of the German bishops. The defiance of Rome is forthright, deliberate and unapologetic.
The synod will move ahead as planned, Vatican objections notwithstanding. Currently, Cardinal Marx is spending three days with the Holy Father at the meeting of the council of cardinals.
If there is to be a schism, Pope Francis will be the first to know. Its potential leader is sitting at table with him.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.