For most of the Pope Francis era, the pope himself was the most turbulent figure in Roman Catholicism: dropping rhetorical bombshells, making unexpected gestures and appointments and using his power and influence to reopen debates his predecessors closed.
Over the past two years, however, the sources of Catholic turbulence have shifted. The pope has repeatedly decided against making dramatic moves, most notably in early 2020, when following a synod on the challenges facing the Amazon region, he declined to issue an expected blessing for experiments with married priests. But meanwhile the centrifugal forces he has set in motion, the sense of grievance and paranoia among traditionalists and sweeping ambition among liberals, are now pulling at the church from both extremes.
The latest and starkest example is happening this week across Germany, where Catholic priests are offering mass blessings to same-sex couples, in a calculated act of defiance of the Vatican. For a while now, Rome has been trying to prevent the German church from taking decisive steps on a range of issues — same-sex relationships, married and female priests, intercommunion with Protestants — that would threaten the S-word, “schism.” The priests issuing the blessings, on the other hand, seem eager to pull their bishops toward a confrontation in which they hope that Rome will blink.
In a sense, the debates driving this confrontation are exactly the kind of arguments that Francis, in his calls for a freer and more honest debate within the church’s hierarchy, seemed intent on opening up. For a time, the German bishops, representing one of Catholicism’s richest and most liberal national churches, seemed to be working in a tacit partnership with the pope. Their push for maximalist change created space for him to go partway with the liberalizers, changing church teaching gradually and with a certain deniability.
That’s more or less what happened with the debate over communion for the divorced and remarried: The Germans sought a formal path for remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, and Francis delivered an ambiguous text that effectively allowed different Catholic countries and dioceses to choose their own approach.
The expectation from liberal Catholics, and the fear of conservatives, was that this model would begin a kind of decentralization of doctrine, in which the church’s rules varied dramatically across national borders and diocesan lines.
But Francis declined to make that kind of move with married priests. And as with many revolutions, raising liberal expectations and then dashing them created pressure for the German bishops to go further on their own. So for more than a year, with Covid interrupting, the German church has been engaged in a synodal path, basically a series of conferences on church reform, in which most of the major post-sexual-revolution issues are on the table — even as Rome keeps issuing warnings that the Germans are on dangerous ground.
It was the latest of these warnings, a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome ruling out Catholic blessings for same-sex unions, that prompted this week’s clerical version of civil disobedience. And the fact that the mass blessings are happening against the wishes of the German hierarchy is an indicator of the unpredictability of the process now unfolding. Germany’s bishops seem to have every institutional reason to avoid pushing Rome too far, to avoid risking a break that deprives them of their position and influence in a global church. But to the extent that there is strong pressure from below to simply enact a more liberal Catholicism as a fait accompli, it’s possible to imagine the whole process slipping out of the bishops’ control — something that rather famously happened in German Christianity once before, with five centuries’ worth of consequences.
Still, there are reasons schism may not come. The last time I wrote about the forces unleashed by the Francis era, I was focused on the dilemmas of conservatives and traditionalists, whose high view of papal authority means that they don’t have a clear place to stand if they seem to be on the wrong side of the pope. When they confront a papal decision that seems incompatible with orthodoxy, you’re more likely to get a retreat to end-times anxiety and paranoia — the place where, say, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the sex-abuse whistle-blower turned Trumpist oracle, has ended up — than any kind of large-scale defection or explicit schism.
More liberal Catholics, in Germany and elsewhere, take a lower view of the pope’s authority and power, so in theory you might expect them to be more willing to make a decisive break with Rome. But liberal Catholicism without the Catholicism part would instantly lose much of its interest, energy and flavor. The confidence that conservative Catholics place in the church’s consistent teaching is matched among more progressive Catholics by a confidence that the Holy Spirit will eventually lead the Vatican to see the world their way and that they are the key players in this epochal religious drama. To leave outright, to cede the universal church to conservatives, would cut the heart out of this vision.
Those are still crucial forces holding Francis-era Catholicism together, against the ones pulling it apart. And their mutually reinforcing power, plus the understandable desire not to preside over a schism, creates the incentives that seem to be controlling the latter part of the Francis era, in which the process of debate is extended endlessly into the future (And now, the 14th commission on whether women can be ordained deacons will deliver its second provisional report …) and anything can be tolerated in local churches as long as nobody tries to make it too official. Here it’s telling that the next major Vatican gathering, scheduled for 2022, is a synod on synodality, a faintly self-parodic exercise in gathering bishops to argue about how much power a gathering of bishops should have.
Still, the church doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The current trends on the Catholic left and right — the former’s eager ambitions and the latter’s defensive paranoia — are intimately connected to the triumph of secular progressivism in Western culture and the emergence of right-wing populism as the major source of resistance to its rule.
If you’re a conservative Catholic trying to keep a critical but levelheaded view of Francis (my aspiration, if not my achievement), the gravitational pull of populism, its encouragement of ever-angrier and more-baroque critiques of all things liberal, can be felt as a powerful external force encouraging an un-Catholic repudiation of this undeniably liberal-leaning pope.
At the same time, if you’re a liberal Catholic, especially one whose peers are members of the secular clerisy in Europe and the United States, your position has become much more difficult as progressivism has become more comprehensive in its demands. A small but telling example was offered in a recent essay for The Hedgehog Review, in which a Catholic campus minister wrote about her experience as an impeccably liberal and feminist Catholic working on a contemporary liberal-arts campus. She was accustomed to the old liberal idea that one could be engaged with “a religious tradition without endorsing every one of its views,” and she was startled to find that the new progressivism regarded even liberal Catholics as tainted by their association with something as white or patriarchal or Western as the official Catholic Church:
A “spiritual but not religious” student who sometimes came to Catholic community events wearing her “I support Planned Parenthood” pin told me, “It’s taboo to explore Western spirituality, especially in liberal circles. I’m careful who I tell about it.” She was not alone. Other students asked me not to take photos of Mass and post them on social media. They didn’t want to be “outed” as Catholic. One Catholic student who lost her faith and then found it again told me, “When I stopped being a Catholic I made so many friends.”
It’s this kind of pressure from the secular world, in the end, more than any internal Catholic current, that you could imagine driving liberal Catholics to decide that they’d rather be liberal outside the official church than continue as dissidents within it.
I don’t expect that to happen in Germany in 2021. I think current Catholic differences, like so many other stalemates in the Western world, await some further turn of history’s wheel before there is a decisive break or crisis.
But if you keep saying, “It won’t happen this year,” eventually the year will come when you’ll be wrong.
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