Looking for Schism in All the Wrong Places

Michael Warren Davis

Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis magazine and host of The Crisis Point podcast.

Pope Francis boldly declared last week that he’s unafraid of “pseudo-schismatics”: a clique of (mostly American) rigorist prelates and journalists whom Francis regards as a kind of loyal opposition to his papacy. But why should he have been afraid to begin with? A pseudo-schismatic is, by definition, not a schismatic. Pontiffs need no more fear pseudo-schismatics than exorcists need fear little boys who dress up as Harry Potter for Halloween—or, as the Holy Father might call them, pseudo-sorcerers.

Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted him. Francis could have meant to call them wannabe schismatics. Maybe he doesn’t think his opponents can muster enough support for a proper schism—something that would really tear the Body of Christ apart. After all, this isn’t Michael I Cerularius we’re dealing with, or even Henry VIII. These Americans might do him the “honor” of attacking him, as he calls it, but they don’t have the guts to take their bat and go home.

Anyway, it’s good that our Holy Father isn’t worried about an American schism, since there won’t be any. Hopefully, though, he’s keeping a close eye on the Germans.

Reinhard Cardinal Marx, head of the German bishops’ conference, is planning to convene a two-year-long “binding synod,” in which certain influential laymen will be invited to participate. Its stated topics are a laundry list of progressive euphemisms: the “authority and separation of powers” (Gallicanism), “sexual morality” (legitimizing adultery and homosexuality), “the priestly mode of life” (abolishing clerical celibacy), and “women at the service of ecclesiastical offices” (female deacons, priests and bishops).

In June, Pope Francis sent a letter rebuking his ally Marx and all the participating bishops, ordering them not to go ahead with the sham synod. Marx ignored the pontiff. Then, last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops sent a letter to Marx informing him that the synod was “not ecclesiologically valid,” and that he was not to proceed in defiance of the Pope.

In his reply to the Congregation’s head, Cardinal Marx absolutely refused to comply with the Holy See’s orders, saying: We hope that the results of forming an opinion [on these matters] in our country will also be helpful for the guidance of the Universal Church and for other episcopal conferences on a case-by-case basis. In any case, I cannot see why questions about which the Magisterium has made determinations should be withdrawn from any debate, as your writings suggest… Countless believers in Germany consider [these issues] to be in need of discussion.

Let’s be very clear on what Marx is saying here. The Vatican is protesting against the synod ostensibly because it claims authority (this “bindingness”) normally reserved for the Holy See and Ecumenical Councils. But Cardinal Marx’s reply makes the Germans’ intention perfectly clear: they refuse to “withdraw from debate” certain “questions about which the Magisterium has made determinations.”

What do we call a synod that convenes, in direct defiance of the Holy See, for the purpose of debating magisterial teaching? A schismatic sect, if not a heretical one.

Now, the “H”-word is thrown around too lightly these days. Formal heresy has a very specific definition, which is openly and obstinately denying Church dogma. The Germans haven’t done that—at least, not yet. But they don’t want to exclude heretical views from their “binding synod either. They’re not embracing heresy, nor are they willing to rule it out.

Two years from now, the bishops of Germany will most likely have embraced the polity somewhere between that of the Church of Rome and the Church of England. Then we’d have our Henry VIII.

All orthodox Catholics ought to be grateful to the Holy Father for choosing the Magisterium over his old friend Marx. Those who accuse him of heresy ought to take note.

Having said that, Francis’s papacy has been full of encouragement for liberal firebrands like Cardinal Marx. Authority and separation of powers? Anyone who prefers a decentralized Church structure would welcome the concordat with China’s brutal communist regime. Sexual morality? Francis’s steadfast refusal to clarify certain passages in Amoris Laetitia has led to widespread uncertainty as to the Holy See’s line on welcoming the divorced-and-“remarried” to receive Holy Communion. Priestly mode of life? The upcoming Amazon Synod will ask whether clerical celibacy should be suspended in countries with low recruitment to the priesthood; only one man entered the seminary in Cardinal Marx’s diocese in 2016. Women at the service of ecclesiastical offices? Francis has said there’s “no certainty” whether or not women can receive sacramental ordination to the diaconate.

The German bishops are even calling their experiment a “synodal journey,” borrowing a favorite item from Francis’s lexicon: synodality. Of course, they’re twisting the Holy Father’s words. When Francis uses the term, he’s referring to Paul VI’s habit of soliciting advice from synods composed of his brother-bishops. Their input was taken seriously, but it wasn’t by any means binding, nor could it be.

That concept itself is fraught, but it doesn’t mean redistributing magisterial authority to local bishops conferences—which is why the Holy Father is, quite rightly, concerned that the Germans are attempting to democratize the Church. In his rebuke to Cardinal Marx, Francis warned that the Germans’ model of the synod draws power “from the bottom up” without the “top to bottom” aspect that “allows, in a specific and singular way, for the collegial dimension of the episcopal ministry.”

In other words, without the Supreme Pontiff, there’s no “collegiality” to speak of. Without the magisterial authority vested solely in Christ’s own Vicar on earth, the German bishops are just playing Vatican III.

The fate of the German Church is now in its bishops’ hands. We can only hope Francis finds a way to rein them in. As one of our contributing editors helpfully suggested, the Vatican might simply propose that German Catholics stop paying the church tax. Let’s see how far they get on their “synodal journey” with nothing to support them but the laity’s goodwill.

And who knows? The German crisis might be leading the Holy Father to a change of heart. He may dedicate the rest of his life to shoring up the bounds of orthodoxy rather than testing them. He might begin working to strengthen the papacy, rather than shedding its prestige in the name of humility and diminishing its power for the sake of collegiality.

Two years ago, the Pope issued a Vatican stamp bearing the image of Martin Luther to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Two years from now, at the conclusion of the German synod, he may be compelled to launch the second Counter-Reformation.

In other news, Francis met last week with members of the Discalced Augustinians, an order with roots in the first Counter-Reformation. The OAD enacted true reforms in keeping with the Rule of St. Augustine, purging laxity and corruption from their ranks, so their brother-friars weren’t tempted to join the Lutheran heresy. Of course, Luther was himself an Augustinian priest.

“To be modern, some believe that it’s necessary to break away from the roots. This is their ruin, because the roots, the tradition, are the guarantee of the future,” Francis warned. “Never break away from your roots to be modern. That’s suicide.” This was on September 12th—the same day Cardinal Marx told the Vatican he would go forward with his synod.

Maybe the Holy Father is beginning to understand.