In recent years, Pope Francis’s governance of the Roman Catholic Church appears designed to further alienate the conservative and liberal wings of the church. So the lingering question hanging over his pontificate: How will he keep it all together?
By opening debate on a wide range of controversial issues without making explicit changes, he encouraged church progressives to push the envelope as far as possible, even toward outright doctrinal rebellion, in hopes of dragging him along. At the same time, by favoring progressives in his personnel decisions and waging institutional warfare against the legacy of John Paul II and Benedict, he pushed conservatives toward crisis, paranoia, and revolt.
In either case, it is unclear whether the weakened authority of the papacy can bring back any group of rebels. But in recent weeks, we have seen a clear attempt to use that authority, a true test of the pope’s ability to hold the church together.
On the one hand, Pope Francis took action against two of his most vocal critics on the right: first, he removed Bishop Joseph Strickland from his diocese in Tyler, Texas; now he has taken away Cardinal Raymond Burke’s Vatican privileges, including an income and an apartment.
At the same time, the Vatican attempted to draw a clear line against the experiments of the German bishops, the main progressive faction, by issuing a letter declaring that any reforms the Germans contemplate cannot change the church’s teaching on the all-male priesthood and the immorality of women. homosexual relationships.
In each case, we have an act of discipline seemingly adapted to the way the rebellions are manifesting. Among conservatives and traditionalists, specific criticisms of prominent bishops and cardinals of the pope himself have now met with specific personal punishments. Among liberals and progressives, a broad attempt to liberalize the church’s moral teachings has now met with widespread doctrinal rebuke.
But in each case, one must be skeptical that the discipline will work. Both sides will note, for example, that criticizing the pope results in dismissal, but apparent doctrinal disobedience merits only a firmly worded letter.
Unless the latest move is eventually backed up by something like Strickland’s firing, progressives are likely to persist in the same line the German church is already following, where church practices are simply changed — through blessings for gay couples. , for example—without Rome granting formal permission. The assumption is that if liberalization becomes a concrete fact, eventually the laws of the church will have to follow — and the more this assumption is ingrained, the more difficult it will be for Rome to avoid some eventual rupture.
Meanwhile, Catholics who admire Strickland and Burke are likely to be more deeply confirmed in a culture of conservative resistance, in which removing a bishop from his role in the real world only increases his potential influence on the magisterium of internet Catholicism.
The idea that a bishop or cardinal could be somehow more orthodox than the Vatican would have seemed impossible to church conservatives just a few years ago. But the world’s general crisis of authority, mediated by scandals and technological disruptions, now extends to conservative Catholicism as well — a long, jagged crack that Francis’ shaky leadership has opened in what was previously the papacy’s most secure base of support.
However, it is a mistake to attribute all the blame to this pope alone. It worsened church divisions and increased the likelihood of schism, but it also exposed fissiparous tendencies that had been present from the beginning.
Consider just one important difference between American and German Catholicism, the two richest national churches and the main conservative and progressive camps in the church civil war. In the United States, a report from the Catholic University of America recently revealed that the theologically progressive priest is essentially disappearing.
Priests ordained in the 1960s were much more likely to consider themselves progressive than theologically conservative or orthodox. But among priests ordained in the last 20 years, including the Francis era, most consider themselves conservative or very conservative, and most others consider themselves moderate — leaving the progressive wave of the 21st century American priesthood looking more like a ripple.
This is the generational replacement that conservative Catholics have long predicted would marginalize liberal Catholicism. But then consider Germany, where Catholicism does not have a large number of conservative or progressive priests emerging; instead, there are almost no younger priests. There were just 48 new seminarians in Germany in 2022, for a church that still serves 21 million self-declared Catholics. Meanwhile, the US, with its 73 million Catholics, has nearly 3,000 seminarians in training — a declining number that indicates growing shortages but not the existential crisis facing the German church.
And this existential crisis helps explain the intensity of the pressure for liberalization and “Protestantization,” because for many German Catholic leaders this appears to be the only way for their church to survive — with the traditional model, the priestly model, having failed in the face of your eyes.
Thus, a conservative Catholic in the United States can feel reasonably secure about the future of the sacramental church — a future that the dismissal of a conservative bishop by a more liberal pope cannot plausibly interrupt. In Germany, on the other hand, the seemingly unstoppable future is one of sharp decline and increased domination by liberally inclined laymen: a new pope could be elected tomorrow and attempt to impose greater orthodoxy within the German church, but without priests. younger people who embody these beliefs, the exercise could only further expose Rome’s weakness.
Presumably, there is in God’s providence a form of papal administration that can prevent a schism or separation between the Catholic tendencies embodied in Germany and the US — and soon a new pope may have the chance to try. But what he will inherit are not just specific problems caused by his predecessor, but an underlying reality of division that any policy made in Rome will need divine assistance to resolve.
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