American Catholicism: A Schism Set in Amber Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 17 November 2013

Historically schisms in the Church lead to two ecclesial groups with two different sets of teachings. Splits usually result from strong personalities and historical and political currents, but doctrine is where they either start or end up. And they’re far from rare. One scholar lists at least twenty-three schisms or groups of schisms, and that just up to the First Vatican Council.

After a schism, the resulting groups are not interchangeable. We can say that: “The Church is One because its members; Are all united under one government; All profess the same faith; All join in a common worship.” (G. Joyce, Catholic Encyclopedia) So once the two groups form, they are either not united under one government or they do not profess the same faith or they do not join in common worship. Or perhaps some combination of the three.

Surveys show that the American “Church” actually consists of two groups, each with a different content of faith, different worship, and different operation of government. Running briefly through these categories:

One group tries to hold to all of the Catholic Church’s teachings. The other group holds to meanings of life from various social trends and uses words from scripture and tradition, but alter their content because they do not fit the trends.

Regarding worship: the first group worships using words grounded in the teaching of the Church. The other group uses the words from the rites but often with very different meanings. To take one example, they use the word “Christ.” But this is not Christ as the Incarnate Word and the meaning of the world because this commits one to his teaching and the teaching of the Church. Rather it is Christ as a nice man who said some homely truths, but nothing of value comparable to the meanings in current social trends.

Regarding government: the one group attends to Church teachers and teaching. The other one follows the leaders in the culture and completely ignores the bishops. This split in the American “Church” even cuts through vowed religious communities, through parishes and dioceses, through ecclesiastical administrations and the bishop’s conference.

Why is the partially realized schism, trapped in amber as it were, worthy of mention? For one thing the unity of the Church founds its effective witness to mankind. (John 17:21) But when the “Church” consists of two groups – of approximately the same size, but believing contrary things – then the effectiveness of the “Church” is almost perfectly nullified.

This is quite compatible with what America has absorbed from Enlightenment thought because the meaning of the Church is supposed to be irrelevant. The elite are the new source of meaning. Culturally, the existence of the second group makes complete sense. The illusion of U.S. cultural hegemony and the delusion that all religion is subordinate to the culture is pervasive.


The American Church: a Janus-like creature

American-born bishops and religious superiors naturally tend to encourage blending in. There are exceptions, but judging by the proportions of the split, not many.

Another reason to be aware of the split is that schisms usually result in two self-identified public groups being formed: the Latin Church and the Greek Church, the Catholics and the Protestants, the Catholics and the Old Catholics, to name a few.

In the United States, the schism went part way, but did not result into two separate, freestanding, publicly defined groups with their own bishops.  

Third, it has to be said – ceaselessly – that Catholicism has an intrinsic intellectual component. Theologically: “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. . . .it is necessary to keep in mind the unity of truth, even if its formulations are shaped by history and produced by human reason wounded and weakened by sin.” (John Paul II)

Of course, American Enlightenment thinking would disagree – why would a pope have standing with us? This stance explains the string of Catholic failures in the United States: on divorce, on contraception; on abortion; “Catholic” universities that are not Catholic; bishops and college presidents who do not comprehend Ex Corde Ecclesiae; why even highly intelligent bishops do not act; homosexual “marriage”; why the schism exists. The Enlightenment view is that the intellectual part of Catholicism is unimportant or irrelevant.

Then why should Americans look to and respect the Catholic Church when they are confronted with this Janus-like creature? Why should Catholic reasoning even seem plausible when the contrary is so well presented? Why should anything Church representatives say have any weight when the counter example is substantially presented by “Catholics” or by their silence?

In many ways, this is a great country, maybe even one of the greatest in recent history.  That does not mean, however, that Catholicism has nothing to say or that Catholicism has to become Unitarianism.

Christ is just too true to be manifested partially. Seeing the truth and its contradiction manifested alongside each other is grotesque, and, if one knows the meaning of schism, a sign of genuine evil.


Fr. Bevil Bramwell
is retired, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. He has published
Laity: Beautiful, Good and True and The World of the Sacraments. 

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