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Pope Francis has conservatives talking schism. But a split is easier said than done

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Bethlehem during his trip to the Middle East on May 25, 2014. Since returning, Francis has maintained an interest in the area, most recently personally calling the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories on July 18, 2014, to push for a cease-fire.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Bethlehem during his trip to the Middle East on May 25, 2014. Since returning, Francis has maintained an interest in the area, most recently personally calling the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories on July 18, 2014, to push for a cease-fire.

Creative Commons image by Michael Swan

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Bethlehem during his trip to the Middle East on May 25, 2014.

(RNS) Many conservative Catholics have long viewed Pope Francis with suspicion thanks to his effort to shift the church’s focus away from a culture war agenda and toward a more welcoming approach and a greater emphasis on serving the poor.

But last month’s controversial Vatican summit on the modern family, with the push by Francis and his allies to translate that inclusive view into concrete policies on gays and divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, seems to have marked a tipping point, with some on the right raising the specter of a schism — a formal split that is viewed as the “nuclear option” for dissenters.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative, crystallized the peril in an Oct. 25 column warning the pope not to “break the church” to promote his goals, saying that if Francis continues to alienate conservative Catholics it could lead to “a real schism.”

Douthat had raised the possibility of “an outright schism” earlier this year, as well, and his warnings have been echoed by a number of other church leaders and commentators. The anxiety on the right has also drawn increasing media speculation about the possibility of conservatives splintering off.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Photo courtesy of Josh Haner/New York Times

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Photo courtesy of Josh Haner/New York Times

So is a schism, with its echoes of medieval debates and heretics burning at the stake, a realistic possibility? And can an independent Catholic church be successful in the modern world?

In today’s church, the track record indicates that breaking away is much easier said than done. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical institution organized around a pope who consecrates bishops who ordain priests who celebrate the sacraments in parish churches.

That’s a lot of infrastructure to create, and pay for; it’s not like a zealous Baptist who can start a new congregation with a Bible, a river and maybe a tent.

Then there is the psychological factor:

“There is a huge priority on unity” in Roman Catholicism, said Julie Byrne, a religion professor at Hofstra University and author of “The Other Catholics,” a book due out next year that looks at groups that have split from Rome over the years.

“To do something differently you have to make a huge psychic jump to where independent Catholics are — saying that visible unity is not important and invisible unity is already there,” she said.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, noted that to reach a critical mass “you need ordinary people in the pews to get concerned and engaged.”

Cummings doubted the issues being debated in Rome and among Catholic intellectuals would resonate with most parishioners. “There are a lot of people who disagree with the church on a range of issues,” she said. “But leaving, actually severing the connection, is a different thing.”

Yet over the years there have been a surprisingly large number of attempts to set up an independent Catholic church, with varying degrees of success: Byrne has counted as many as 250 independent Catholic bodies in the U.S. — with at least one bishop and several priests — and between 500,000 and a million followers, a figure she said is a “very loose estimate.”

Just trying to keep an accurate tally is hard, she said, because the vast majority of schismatics start and end as single congregations, renting space from another church or meeting in homes. They also go in and out of existence all the time, like fauna in the Amazon. If they last 50 years, Byrne said, that is “completely amazing.”

Most breakaway Catholic churches tend to define themselves by standard Catholic characteristics: an apostolic succession — meaning a bishop as overseer — and priests and the sacraments. They also cling loyally to the word “Catholic.”

Beyond that, there seem to be as many reasons for splitting as there are schisms, and they range across the spectrum from liberal groups that want women priests to Latin Mass traditionalists who want an old-style liturgy. (The actor Mel Gibson, a devotee of the old Latin rite, built his own church near his home in Malibu, Calif.)

Mel Gibson at the 2nd Annual Sean Penn & Friends "Help Haiti Home," in Los Angeles, Calif., on Jan. 12, 2013.

Photo courtesy of s_bukley via Shutterstock

Mel Gibson at the 2nd Annual Sean Penn & Friends “Help Haiti Home,” in Los Angeles, Calif., on Jan. 12, 2013.

Back in 1946, for example, a former seminarian in Atlanta, George Hyde, was so upset that the church denied Communion to gay Catholics that he set up a gay-friendly Catholic church.

Racial and ethnic tensions have often been the source of schisms. In 1990, an African-American priest in Washington, the Rev. George Stallings, split with the archdiocese and set up his own church — the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation, which recently moved to the Maryland suburbs — to minister to black Catholics in particular.

A century earlier, Polish immigrants started the Polish National Catholic Church because they were upset that there were so few Polish priests for their parishes and hardly any Polish bishops in a U.S. hierarchy they saw as deaf to their needs.

The PNCC continues to thrive; it has some 25,000 adherents in five dioceses and its parishes are reportedly in the black. The PNCC used to be affiliated with another, older independent denomination, the so-called “Old Catholics” who broke with Rome in the 19th century over issues of papal infallibility.

Ethnicity and local control,  which, like liturgical disputes, are the chief driver of church splits, remain powerful forces, as seen by the successful effort of a Polish parish in St. Louis, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, to split with the archdiocese in 2013 in a fight over control of the church’s assets.

While there are as many stories as there are schisms, a common motivator in the splits is authority — as in too much authority exerted by the bishops and the popes. As the Catholic Church has centralized authority in the Vatican and in the person of the pope, many Catholics have chafed as they want to maintain customs not in keeping with the Vatican’s wishes.

Francis has in fact said he wants to decentralize authority and increase collegiality, and he met last week (Oct. 30) with leaders of the Old Catholics and told them that there have been “grave sins and human faults” on both sides. The pope added that “change is inevitable” as they move to restore unity.

The paradox is that even if Francis is successful in downsizing the pope’s central role and in healing a schism like the one with the Old Catholics, the steps he would need to take to accomplish those goals might wind up alienating another set of Catholics.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Schism? really? Whatever happened to that vow of obedience, and infallibility in matters of faith and morals, and Vicar of Christ, and all that?

    and all over Cardinal Burke’s personal issues with treating gay people as fully functioning human beings.

  • “There are a lot of people who disagree with the church on a range of issues,” she said. “But leaving, actually severing the connection, is a different thing.” – Kathleen Cummings

    But it is happening.
    The Catholic Church is being abandoned. Even the Pope appears fed up with it.

    As a former Catholic and regular churchgoer who stopped attending in my late 40s, I can attest to the sense of betrayal this criminal organization has inflicted on millions of us. Not only in blatant shocking crimes against humanity through hundreds of years but right up the present day; harboring pedophiles, rapists, murderers and thugs – and worst of all proclaiming a boatload of blatant claims about a risen god without the slightest evidence and insisting on inhuman actions against innocent people in the name of this deity.

  • First I must say, that Cardinal Burke is a beautiful and holy Cardinal. The Church is blessed to have this wonderful teacher. Regarding “gays” and the civilly divorced (I do not say re-married, as it is impossible for a Catholic to be re-married without annulment), the Church loves and respects them all. We are made in the image of God, who IS mercy and love, so Catholics MUST treat all people with mercy and love. Gays and the civily divorced are “welcome” in the Church. How can they not be. If one is in the state of mortal sin, one must not receive Holy Communion, until one makes a good confession, a good act of contrition, with a real intention to change, to move toward thengoal of personal holiness, as we are all called to be saints. This is for ALL the faithful.

    Regarding the discussion of “schism”? That is nonsense. Yes, there are conservative and liberal Catholics, still, if one is a FAITHFUL Catholic, one knows WHO our Pope is, he is the Vicar of Christ. Pope Francis has said “he is a son of the Church.” That says it all. Doctrine will not, can not, change. What can change, for this papacy, is the face of the Church. Pope Francis is a publicly compassionate man. His experience is the experience of a priest in the street. I believe the world needs to see this “face” of the Church today. But the Church today is not any different than what it was before, under the papacy of John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church was and is compassionate and merciful – it CAN only be compassionate and merciful as it is the Bride of Christ.

    Jesus Christ acts in the world THROUGH his Church.

  • In John’s Gospel Jesus warns that if one does not remain in Him, that person will wither.(Jn 15:6) For 30 years, the Catholic Church has been withering. The withering branches must be pruned and burned so that the vine, the Church, can be fruitful. At the Last Supper, Matthew (Mt 26:27) quotes Jesus as saying …”drink from it all of you”. This is at the time of the Third Cup of the
    Passover Seder, the Cup of Redemption. Unfortunately, this importnat theological connection is obscured with the current mistranslation as “Chal;ice ” in the Eucharistic Prayer.

  • and infallibility in matters of faith and morals, and Vicar of Christ, and all that?

    Were Francis to reverse an established teaching of the Church – part of the ordinary Magisterium or the extraordinary Magisterium, – not merely a common theological opinion, papal infallibility as defined by 1st Vatican council would be discredited. It is for this reason that well-informed lay Catholics like John Zmirak have been speaking of the possibility of decamping to Orthodoxy.

  • Your missing the point of this discussion. Francis is in danger of inducing a schism by trashing the teaching office. The clown car behavior at the most recent synod is one aspect of his bad teaching.

  • Do I hear the chains of Ebenezer rattling as he moans in pain of the schism between Jesus, the Church, and the people?
    Since before Jesus was nailed to the cross, there have been schisms. If you know your history, you know what I speak of. For those who care, they will search; those who don’t, need not worry.
    In my despair of Church teachings, social debauchery, I realized, like a teenager whose universe of sex, self-indulgence, and narcissism has little meaning in time. Once you understand that so much of the Church has come and gone in the last 2,000 years, makes my passage but a comma on a page. Leaning over, I looked the pastor in the eye. “Father”, I said, “When you and me are gone, when the building we are in is no more, all those on earth and their possessions will no longer exist. The Church will be.” Father slowly looked me in the eye, with a soft, quiet voice of agreement, and said,”Yes, you are correct. The Church will be here.”

  • So all you’re saying is if the pope speaks with infallibility ex cathedrl in a matter of FAITH or morals, and you don’t agree, or Zmirak doesn’t agree, then you don’t believe that the pope can speak ex cathedra, infallibly on a matters faith and morals. Which means you don’t believe in this very orthodox belief.

    Ok. Got it. So it really Is about Cardinl Burke’s obsession with gay people.

  • Or the clown car no more believes that the pope is the vicar of Christ and all of that than I do.

  • @ Ben

    “Now, it is manifest that the Roman pontiffs, with their adherents, defend [and practice] godless doctrines and godless services. And the marks [all the vices] of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents. For Paul, in describing Antichrist to the Thessalonians, calls him 2 Thess. 2:3-4: an adversary of Christ, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God. He speaks therefore of one ruling in the Church, not of heathen kings, and he calls this one the adversary of Christ, because he will devise doctrine conflicting with the Gospel, and will assume to himself divine authority.” Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope

  • All this ink and not a word about the Society of Saint Pius X? OF COURSE an independent Catholic body is possible. Not only possible, but thriving. Around this already existing international nucleus a conservative body could coalesce easily. All you need is one, just one bishop. Cardinal Burke?

  • Since 8 out of 10 American Catholics disagree with the church’s teaching on contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and on and on, it seems two Catholic churches already exist here – Roman and American.

  • No, you are wrong. As you presented no coherent argument, neither do I need to. Quod gratis assertitur, gratis negatur. (What is limply asserted can be limply denied.)

  • What is wrong with hating a bad idea?

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    How does anything get better in the world without addressing the problems?
    Should we not hate ISIS beheadings?
    Should we not hate lack of alternatives to gasoline?
    Should we not hate lack of civil government in favor of fascist regimes?

    Calling people ‘haters’ who challenge your comfort zone is not much of an argument.

    For Peace, Honesty & the Separation of Church and State

  • “Atheists may go to Heaven” – Pope Francis

    I’d say the entire Catholic Church is a shambles of worn out notions which were never true and a primitive idea about authoritarianism and lemming-like ‘obedience’ – profoundly immoral positions for our informed times.

    The glue that holds it all together is a patchwork of criminal enterprises: pedophile networks, obfuscations and outright lies about reality.

    My Catholic rosary remains a bauble from a childish time gone by.

    For Peace, Humanity and the Separation of Church and State

  • I was most impressed by the deacons words. However, I am firmly of the belief that Pope Francis has an agenda that will leed to a betrayal of the faith. His job is to define and defend the sacred deposit of faith. And what he has done has caused widespread confusion and left the church a rudderless ship wallowing on the waves. The synod was an unmitigated disaster that promoted division in the church snf even more confusion. Francis has failed as Pope and should retire back to Argentina. And how csn anyone take seriously a Pope who drives a Ford Focus.

  • For those of you who are disillusioned with the Church, maybe memories will guide you home, a some point in the near future, I pray…


    His grace is no longer called for
    before meals: farmed fish multiply
    without His intercession.
    Bread production rises through
    disease-resistant grains devised
    scientifically to mitigate His faults.

    Yet, though we rebelled against Him
    like adolescents, uplifted to see
    an oppressive father banished –
    a bearded hermit – to the desert,
    we confess to missing Him at times.

    Miss Him during the civil wedding
    when, at the blossomy altar
    of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
    to be fed a line containing words
    like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.

    Miss Him when the TV scientist
    explains the cosmos through equations,
    leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
    aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

    Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
    of plainchant from some echoey priory;
    when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
    to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
    or the forces of the oratorio converge
    on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
    and our contracted hearts lose a beat.

    Miss Him when a choked voice at
    the crematorium recites the poem
    about fearing no more the heat of the sun.

    Miss Him when we stand in judgement
    on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
    its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.

    Miss Him when the gamma-rays
    recorded on the satellite graph
    seem arranged into a celestial score,
    the music of the spheres,
    the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.

    Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
    for the first time and an involuntary prayer
    escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
    our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
    a transfusion of foaming blood
    sacrificed anonymously to save life.

    Miss Him when we exclaim His name
    spontaneously in awe or anger
    as a woman in a birth ward
    calls to her long-dead mother.

    Miss Him when the linen-covered
    dining table holds warm bread rolls,
    shiny glasses of red wine.

    Miss Him when a dove swoops
    from the orange grove in a tourist village
    just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.

    Miss Him when our journey leads us
    under leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
    of overlapping branches that meet
    like hands in Michelangelo’s Creation.

    Miss Him when, trudging past a church,
    we catch a residual blast of incense,
    a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
    which Milosz compared to happiness.

    Miss Him when our newly-fitted kitchen
    comes in Shaker-style and we order
    a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.

    Miss Him when we listen to the prophecy
    of astronomers that the visible galaxies
    will recede as the universe expands.

    Miss Him when the sunset makes
    its presence felt in the stained glass
    window of the fake antique lounge bar.

    Miss Him the way an uncoupled glider
    riding the evening thermals misses its tug.

    Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging
    shoulders outside the cheap hotel
    ponder what their next move should be.

    Even feel nostalgic, odd days,
    for His Second Coming,
    like standing in the brick
    dome of a dovecote
    after the birds have flown.

  • I find this view of Pope Francis’ papacy to be quite..problematic.
    If we can agree that many millions of people love him for being “publicly compassionate”, we cannot agree that such a status necessary is a good thing. I never did have much taste for John Paul II’s “rock-star” status in the media, especially in the US, and I think the image of Pope Francis might actually be worse.

    I must blame mainstream media to some extent for this, but I think I also must blame the Vatican Curia to a fair degree. Too often, the various curia of the Church do exceedingly poorly at emphasizing message of justice and mercy being complementary, not adversarial. Too often, many wish to portray the Church as mean-spirited and old fashioned because they don’t like the Church’s teachings, nor the consequences of those teachings. …And, too often, many bishops don’t seem to understand that efforts to be accommodating to the world don’t often lead to repentance and conversion of souls, but to badgering the Church to change her beliefs.

    We saw this with last month’s Extraordinary Synod. Many bishops apparently wished to soft-peddle the Church’s teachings, only reluctantly admitting that gay lifestyles and “remarried” Catholic most likely are actually living sinful lives.
    Too often, the Church’s leaders spend too much time emphasizing compassion, too little time remembering that a world that’s in love with sinful lifestyles will hate being called to repentance.
    ..And Pope Francis seems to me to be one of the worst!

    He did, indeed, say that he was a loyal son of the Church and couldn’t change doctrine. Such comments unfortunately came only AFTER the entire world had been broadcasting the notion that he could and would change doctrine for several days.

    He either doesn’t care that his remarks are frequently taken as carte blanche to toss both Bible and Catechism, or else he doesn’t realize how far his “compassion” can encourage people to sin.
    Too many will take any excuse they may find for why a sinful lifestyle is acceptable; he seems frequently to toss them a bone.

  • @Deacon Brian,

    WHAT ?

    “MISSING GOD” is a shocking assault on every wonderful thing we know about. DID YOU LEAVE ANYTHING OUT?

    It is the most sweepingly nihilistic, miserable screed of horrors I have read in years. Rarely is the depravity of religion so vacantly and brazenly embraced.
    Proof positive that religion infects our deepest integrity – our loves and our lives!

    Who is this audacious divine dictator claiming to be that we are to “MISS HIM” instead of to being fully present in joy at our own beloved children?

    Who is this NIGHTMARISH intruder? I demand your answer!
    Who is this person I am supposed to MISS while I enjoy the honest loving heart of my daughter beside me?

    Absolutely depraved!!!


    God: “Kill your daughter to protect your honor”
    “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly …to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22: 20-21)

    ONLY a barbarian could miss this!

    for Peace, Honesty, Freedom of Religion
    and the Separation of Church & State

  • “Too often, many wish to portray the Church as mean-spirited and old fashioned because they don’t like the Church’s teachings, nor the consequences of those teachings.”

    Ppossibility #3: the church is mean spirited/

  • What constitutes ‘Bad Christian teaching’?

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    “you…will be punished for all these things!” – Jesus (Matthew 23:36)

    “Drown him with a millstone” – Jesus (Matt 18:6)

    “I have come to bring FIRE…What constraints! I am impatient to bring..DIVISION.” – Jesus (Luke 12:49-51)

    “Hate your parents…hate your life” – Jesus (Luke 14:26)

    All of this is ancient, incoherent gibberish.

    The only healthy way to deal with it is to abandon it.

    For Peace, Humanity and the Separation of Church and State

  • The church is deficient when the Beatitudes are ignored. Let Burke have his multi-thousand dollar robes and let those who help the poor and the captives follow Jesus.

    People are objecting to mercy. They are not disciples.

  • Tell the Holy Spirit that. It has survived much worse and will survive until the end of time regardless of what people like you say. You don’t know the Mind of God and, if you don’t believe in God, you have no right to make statements like this because it shouldn’t concern you.

  • Would you mind keeping your replies shorter? Most people haven’t time to read comments that are as long as your’s.

  • “if you don’t believe in God, you have no right to make statements like this because it shouldn’t concern you.”

    1. Criminal organizations, religious or otherwise, are the concern of everyone.
    2. of course I have the right to make any statement within the rules of RNS comment board.
    3. Belief in God is not authorization for anything.

    For Peace, Honesty and The Separation of Church and State

  • @Carm,

    The ‘Beatitudes” won’t save the Church.
    They are either terrible or incoherent recommendations.

    “Blessed are the meek” – this is a cold blooded lie meant for a time when the population was subject to the whims of kings – it has no use for democratic people. It fact it is completely irresponsible to be meek in the face of evil or social injustice. Standing up and taking action is what is needed – not being meek! Good grief.

  • No. What happened in 1517 was that one man had finally gotten such a bellyful of the decadence in discipline, doctrine and practice that he finally spoke up. But the rot had been going on for centuries before Luther spoke up.

  • Louis Catholic priest has been indicted on charges of child
    pornography. Does the fact that a Catholic priest was indicted on child pornography charges
    shock you. If you have struggles with porn there are many psychologist and psychiatrist that can help you overcome your difficulties in Phoenix.

  • The Society of St Pius X already has bishops, From-Nothing. Has had them from its establishment by Cardinal Lefebvre. How is adding one more to its roster going to change anything?

  • I am sure a poem like this must have been written about Odin by a pious believer of that era longing for a renewal of his authority.
    How is nostalgia for times past evidence for anything?

  • You know, Max, if you didn’t have an immediate and explosive rejection of each and every idea/story/view expressed in Christian writing, you might be listened to more attentively. Just a thought. It’s your pen. Carry on.

  • @Rick Scott,

    Perhaps. But I am not making claims – I am responding to them.

    The Beatitudes are a case in point. There are so many terrible claims in the Beatitudes, many are destructive to human intellect and dignity.

    It is immoral not to point it out.

  • I thought in Catholic dogma, the Pope is infallible when it comes to Church teachings. How can the Pope cause schism? It sounds more like the Bishops are creating schism.

  • May be the best way to defeat the evil and all those things or people you hate is to be like them. Is that what you are suggesting? Good grief!

  • Max, may be the best way to defeat the evil and all those things and people you hate so much is to be like them. Is that what you are suggesting? Good grief!

  • What after a ‘red’ pope? A ‘black’ one? Similia similibus, it’s not ‘my’ church.

  • No, he is only Infallible when he speaks Infallibly. From the chair “ex cathedra”…Yours is a common misconception, even among Catholics.

  • I agree. The church has been unofficially but markedly split since the 1970s. Pope Francis may activate an official war and split of the church by consistently siding with the liberal Catholics, socialism and liberal Catholic teaching. If he stays around long enough and allows same sex marriages and female priests, then the gloves are off in the Church.

  • Pope Francis reminds me a bit of Mister Magoo. He seems very confused and just shoots off at the mouth without considering the consequences. People become befuddled and then believe it is brilliance. His papacy so far has really produced nothing but confusion. Paul VI stated the “the smoke of Satan is in the Church”. That smoke has been blowing for over 40 years.