Conservative and liberal Catholics don't agree on much at the moment, but they do agree on one thing: The Catholic Church is headed toward a schism.
The conflict they're predicting has its roots in the bishops' "synod on the family" that wound up in Vatican City last month. The gathering quickly turned into an ecclesiastical free-for-all on an issue only peripherally related to families but on the minds of many Roman Catholics these days: whether the church should adopt a more welcoming attitude toward people in living arrangements that contravene traditional church teaching.
A group of liberal bishops — some say with the behind-the-scenes blessing of the synod's convener, Pope Francis — had pushed for an acknowledgment by the group of the "positive" aspects of same-sex relationships, cohabitation by unmarried heterosexual couples, and second marriages of church members who never obtained formal annulments from the church. The most pressing issue for many of the liberals was whether the church should show "mercy" toward the divorced and remarried by allowing them to receive holy communion at Mass, which the church currently forbids because it regards the bond of marriage as indissoluble and remarriage after divorce a grave sin.
The 180 assembled bishops failed to reach a two-thirds vote necessary to approve any of these liberalizing measures, even in watered-down form, but bare majorities voted to support the proposition that the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics should remain open for debate. And that debate will be held at a second synod on the family in October 2015.
For liberal Catholics that means a chance for a second vote — and that all the issues will be re-aired. "It is my sincere hope that church leaders will actively seek out the lived experiences of divorced and remarried and gay and lesbian Catholics before making any decisions about pastoral practice," wrote an optimistic Sister Christine Schenk, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.
The mood among conservative Catholics has ranged from glum to angry. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who was not at the synod, said he was "very disturbed" at its outcome, adding that its final message was one of "confusion," which is "of the devil." Other conservative Catholics have blamed Pope Francis for tacitly encouraging the dialogue. After all, they point out, Jesus himself said, "Whosoever puts away his wife, and marries another, commits adultery." For the church and its pope to turn a blind eye toward a serious sin in the name of making sinners feel better would be an unthinkable betrayal of conservative Catholics.
The looming second synod ensures that both sides will continue their bickering. But it seems to me that the chances of a schism in the church occasioned by either this past synod or the next one are fairly remote. Why? Because liberal bishops have already overplayed their hand.
One of their unusual moves, probably aimed at garnering media support, was to issue a draft version of a document known as a "relatio" outlining proposed changes in church positions that were almost guaranteed to inflame the majority of bishops who were to their right. The document said the church should provide same-sex couples "a welcoming home" and nurture the "constructive elements" in out-of-wedlock heterosexual cohabitation (no more use of the phrase "living in sin").
According to Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, three-fourths of the synod's bishops expressed objections to the draft relatio when it came up for discussion on the floor. Dissenting committees of bishops began circulating their own proposed drafts of the document, and Pope Francis hastily appointed six additional bishops with more moderate views to the drafting committee. This resulted in substantial revisions to the objectionable passages, but even then the relatio failed to gather enough support to pass.
Then there was 81-year-old Cardinal Walter Kasper, bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in Germany and a leader of the liberal bishops. In an interview with three journalists, Kasper blamed the synod's failure to support wholeheartedly his proposal for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion on African bishops, who are, as a group, far more conservative socially than those from the secularized West. The Africans "should not tell us too much what we have to do," he said. He also faulted Africans and Asians for not sharing the West's tolerant attitude toward gays. A German tabloid picked up the story and headlined it "Racism Blooper?" Kasper first denied having made the statements; then, when one of the journalists released a transcript of the taped interview, he apologized.
So, my advice is: Calm down, euphoric Catholic liberals and frustrated Catholic conservatives. No one is going to be breaking the church apart after next year's synod. If Pope Francis were a Machiavellian, you might conclude that he has already given the progressives in his ranks enough rope to hang themselves. I'm willing to bet a statue of St. Jude that the church won't be altering its practices with respect to gays, lesbians, and the divorced and remarried, except to exhort Catholics to treat them more charitably — the way Jesus would.