A house divided…

By Robert Mickens, 8 December 2023
St Peter's Basilica. Image: Àlex Folguera/Unsplash.

 

The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing deep and polarizing divisions at various levels. How might that influence the election of Pope Francis’ eventual successor?

It’s no secret that the Roman Catholic Church is deeply divided right now, perhaps as much as it’s ever been in the six decades since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The fractures are most obvious on social media where even priests, bishops and cardinals preach from cyber pulpits all along the theological (or, more correctly, the ideological) spectrum.

Pope Francis recently moved against the latest online episcopal celebrity from the doctrinally rigid end of that spectrum when he relieved Bishop Joseph Strickland from his duties as head of the Diocese of Tyler. Appointed to the small Texas see in 2012 by Benedict XVI, Strickland has been one of the most vocal critics of the current pope, whom he has publicly accused of undermining the Deposit of the Faith.

Francis like John Paul II and Benedict XVI

The bishop marked his 65th birthday on Halloween by joining other like-minded traditionalists at a conference in Rome where he quoted a letter accusing Francis of being an “usurper”. Using the words of someone else to even suggest the current pope is illegitimate is huge, even by Texas standards. Doing so in the pope’s own diocese was a huge and lethal mistake.

Strickland has since gained a few more supporters from among the various anti-Francis critics and crackpots, including non-Americans who probably had never heard of him before he was removed from Tyler on November 11th. If anybody in the pope’s inner circle thought this might in any way lead to a cessation of hostilities towards Francis, they miscalculated. The pro-Strickland crowd that uses social media as its preferred battleground, have called the pope every name in the book. Dictator is one of their favorites.

Interesting how they have forgotten that Benedict XVI and John Paul II also removed a number of bishops in their days. The snipers have also attacked Francis and his “magic circle” — including the papal nuncio to Washington, Cardinal Christoph Pierre — for lack of transparency and for refusing to state the reasons why Strickland was removed. The Roman Pontiff is under no obligation to do so. Benedict and John Paul never did so, either.

No one can hold a candle to Archbishop Viganò

Bishop Strickland is only the most recent high profile Catholic to rail against the current temporal head of the Catholic Church. But he is certainly not the only one. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to the United States, was one of the first to really veer off the reservation. And he did so in a spectacular and unprecedented way in August 2018 when he issued an excoriating open letter urging Francis to resign, accusing him of covering up abuse committed by the former cardinal and now defrocked priest Theodore McCarrick.

No one (at least up till now) can hold a candle to the 82-year-old Viganò, who lobs his deranged rantings and conspiracy theories like bombs in order to discredit the Jesuit pope. He does this from a secret hiding place, no less, so much does he have the courage of his convictions. It’s not too difficult for most reasonable people to see that the attention-seeking Viganò is more than a bit of a “nutter”. We’ll have to see if Bishop Strickland, who also seems to like the limelight, intends to follow him down that same road. After all, he was the first bishop to publicly vouch for Viganò’s credibility the very morning the former nuncio issued his open letter attacking the pope.

More credible critics of the pope

But if a loose cannon like Viganò can be easily dismissed, other fierce critics of Francis cannot be. Cardinal Gerhard Müller immediately comes to mind. The German theologian and former bishop of Regensburg, who turns 76 on New Year’s Eve, is not stupid. One can disagree with his theological and ecclesiological views, but he represents some of the most classic positions on issues concerning Catholic faith and morals, issues that Francis — legitimately — has opened up for review and reformulation.

Müller, of course, is also the former head of what is now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). Benedict XVI appointed him to the post in July 2012, just months before resigning the papacy. Francis kept him as head of the doctrinal office after being elected pope in March 213, made him a cardinal in February 2014 at the first consistory of the new pontificate, but then decided not to reappoint him DDF prefect in 2017 when Müller completed his first five-year term of office.

The German cardinal has criticized Francis openly and publicly, most thoroughly in a book-length interview with Italian journalist Franca Giansoldati of the Rome-based daily, Il Messaggero. He’s been more or less respectful in tone, while not hiding his bewilderment at the way the Argentine pope has broken with longstanding Vatican protocols and business-as-usual practices — the same reason why many Francis supporters express their jubilation.

The Synod’s way of describing the divisions

There are arguably scores (or more) of bishops and untold numbers of priests who are more sympathetic with some variation of Müller’s point of view than with the pope’s. And the lay faithful are all probably over the board. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the divisions. But, for sure, the Church is deeply divided.

However, you probably would not draw that conclusion if your first introduction to present-day Catholicism was the “Synthesis Report” that the Synod of Bishops issued on October 28 at the end of the first session of its two-pronged assembly on synodality. Just take the 42-page text and do a simple word search. You will find “division” only once in the context of the Church. It’s in a section that is listed as number 8, “Church is Mission”. In paragraph “f”, one finds the following:

In all contexts, there is a danger, that was expressed by many at the Assembly, of “clericalizing” the laity, creating a kind of lay elite that perpetuates inequalities and divisions among the People of God.

It would be a stretch to say this is any sort of reference to the current divisions mentioned above. Similarly, words like “disagreements”, “fractures”, and “factions” do not appear. And, for obvious and good reasons, the Synthesis Report — which is inspirational in many ways, but also rather anodyne — avoids naming any sort of “liberal” (“progressive”) vs. “conservative” (“traditionalist”) tensions or divisions that are, perhaps with the use of more appropriate “labels”, a glaring reality in the Church today.

“Labels” is actually found in a section 15 on “Ecclesial Discernment and Open Questions” where it states that, in the Gospels, Jesus “never begins from the perspective of prejudices or labels, but from the authenticity of relationship…”. Meanwhile, the word “controversial” is found six times — three times in reference to “matters”, twice regarding “issues”, and once for “questions”.

Bishops, cardinals, and the next conclave

As for the divisions with the hierarchy the document says this:

Some bishops express discomfort when they are asked to speak on matters of faith and morals where full agreement within the Episcopate is lacking. Further reflection is needed on the relationship between episcopal collegiality and diversity of theological and pastoral views (section 12, paragraph “h”).

Our Catholic leaders, we’re told, don’t feel comfortable talking about matters about which they disagree. Once again, this does not seem to properly reflect the reality of what is happening in the Church right now. And that, in and of itself, is alarming. But divisions there are and, in fact, not a few bishops are publicly giving voice to them, from one side or another (and everywhere in between).

So… what will all this mean when the cardinals are finally called together to elect Pope Francis’ successor? Will they adopt the method of the Synod assembly’s Synthesis Report and refuse to acknowledge straightforwardly and descriptively the divisions that exist? More importantly, on what side of the divide (or where along the spectrum) do the cardinals who will be casting ballots for the next pope line up?

Francis, who will be 87 in a few weeks’ time, has named more than 70% of the cardinal-electors. But don’t be fooled into thinking they will pick someone who will continue leading the Church along the path he has mapped out. It may sound strange, but a good number of these cardinals could hardly be called “Francis bishops” in the sense that this term has come to mean. It is more than likely that they will be forced to choose a compromise candidate. Whether that will be enough to heal the Church’s divisions, however, is anyone’s guess.

Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.

 

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