Can Church Divisions Be Healed?

We worry – with good reason – about the deep divisions in public life today, because they more and more resemble a kind of Cold Civil War. When people who have to live alongside one another find that they cannot – and begin publicly “canceling” one another – the prospects aren’t good for the minimal peace and order necessary to human society.

And now we find that, besides public disorder – and intimately related to it – divisions are growing within the Church, a much more serious problem because the Church’s reason for being is to preach the Good News to the whole world, a fundamental and eternal unity beyond all differences under God.

When the body entrusted with that divine mission is itself riven by division, it’s bad enough. But the situation is doubly worrying because many steps that Church authorities have been taking – or not taking – to deal with it seem to be making matters worse.

Worries have risen, for instance, about the “decentralization” that Pope Francis has – as is his habit – loosely spoken about. We’re even hearing of giving individual bishops “true doctrinal authority.”

People rightly fear that Francis’ proper concern that Rome not operate as a kind of authoritarian regime will lead, absent careful thinking about what decentralization might mean, not to a healthy subsidiarity within the Church, but to the near-schism we are now witnessing in Germany and to lesser, inter-diocesan conflicts.

After the publication of Amoris Laetitia in 2016, for example, German prelates were generally happy to give Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. Polish bishops declared it tantamount to sacrilege. So what was viewed as great “mercy” on one side of a common geographical border became, on the other side, an affront to the “Sacrament of Unity.”

And since then: acceptance of homosexual activity and “marriage” – which is to say rejection of the very first pages of Scripture and, of course, many things that follow from them – has become the essence for some Catholics, and not only in Germany, of what a “decentralized” Church would mean.


At the other end of the unity-diversity spectrum, Pope Francis has not hesitated to interfere in several religious orders, Vatican offices and institutes, pontifical universities – even the Sovereign Order of Malta – when they differ with his personal vision for the Church. And the misguided ukase against the Traditional Latin Mass reflects less the role of pontifex – the bridge builder – and very much the establishment of a wall of separation towards TLM devotees, the vast majority of whom are not schismatics.

Questions of how to reconcile unity and diversity cannot be answered with mere pious declarations about “decentralization” or “walking together.” But they can be answered. When the framers of the American Constitution got together in Philadelphia, one of their central concerns was how to affirm both necessary unity in the enumerated powers – specific authority – accorded to the federal government, and protections of liberty for both individuals and States.

They recognized that you could stamp out differing factions by suppressing liberty, but that would be self-defeating in a nation that had just fought a war for freedom. So you needed an institutional framework – relying on wise or good or even holy people being in office was not enough – that would contain the fire of faction within large common principles. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Under the current pope, these sorts of reflections and their necessary embodiment in canon law and institutional practice have, to say the least, been mostly neglected. Instead of seeing how good law and careful practice contribute to proper freedom and Godly order, the structures that keep our all-too-human inclinations from becoming sheer conflict and chaos are regarded as somehow impeding the Spirit.

Rome has been working for years now on a replacement for St. John Paul II’s Pastor Bonus, the 1988 Apostolic Constitution that reformed various offices of the Curia. A draft, entitled Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”) was leaked almost three years ago, but seems stalled for some reason.

Indeed, the Vatican recently announced the reorganization of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith despite the delay of the new document. The CDF (contrary to expectations) will retain its authority and may even have expanded powers with an archbishop now at the head of each “section,” doctrinal and disciplinary.

The draft recommended that:

• Heads of Vatican departments are not to consider themselves “superior authorities” but at the service of the pope and the people.

• Lay men and women should staff various offices.

• There should be widespread consultation and listening to various voices.

And other rather predictable changes in attitude, without much by way of actual structural reform.

Some good might come of these proposals, of course, but they also promise more, not less bureaucracy – more self-involved “dialogue,” less direct evangelization.

We urgently need a careful thinking through of principle and practice within the Church – particularly clear restatements of faith and morals – and the institutional structures that will protect them because, contrary to what we often hear from Rome these days, we live in an age and Church of laxness, not legalism.

And what’s at stake is far more serious than what America’s Founding Fathers considered in Philadelphia.

What’s at stake is not just our national life, which now seems itself in crisis because of its abandonment of its founding principles. It’s about eternal life, which – contrary to what many now assume – calls for our utmost thought and effort.


*Image: The Lamentation by Scipione Pulzone (Il Gaetano), 1593 [The MET, New York]

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Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s Political “Unity” vs. Christian Unity

Stephen P. White’s Language Barriers

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.