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Opinion | The Slow Road to Catholic Schism

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This ambiguous style, which also encompasses a selective mix of transparency and stonewalling around sexual abuse, has maddened part of the Catholic right. When I began writing my own book about Pope Francis I represented the critical fringe, but I have been o’erleaped by other polemicists who make my analysis seem temperate. (How’s that for a self-blurb?)

But it has also ensured that the sharpest conservative opposition is online rather than institutionalized, or among retired cardinals rather than governing archbishops. The American church as a whole is not opposed to Francis; websites and Twitter feeds cannot make a schism. And if — let us say — the Amazonian synod allows for married priests in special circumstances and produces a document with faintly-heretical formulations, then as with Francis’s ambiguous shift on remarriage and communion, the change will matter, but not enough to break the church.

In Germany, on the other hand, the schismatic spirit isn’t just a matter of the maximally online; the German church’s current leaders are well-advanced in a coherent ideological project that could require a break with Rome.

But the German churchmen are also convinced that Francis and his appointees are ultimately on their side, that Catholic history is bending in their direction, that the next conclave will bring a still-more-liberal pope. So their incentives are to push and then pull back, to advance but then accept correction, rather than pressing their differences with the Vatican to a breaking point.

Which suggests that while the Francis legacy includes certain preconditions for a schism, any true break awaits some new development — another ecumenical council, or at least a different pope.

And this, to return to an argument I have made before, should create incentives for a more open and charitable style of debate between Catholic factions, rather than just endless suspicion and invective. Because if everybody is talking about schism, for the time being nobody is in it — and that “for the time being” could last, like many situations in a fallen world, for an unexpectedly long time.

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