Rome Will Have to Choose

There are two polarities in the Catholic Church today, and while these two polarities have existed together under the popes for a generation, that tension will not last much longer. This is nothing new. Situations like this have existed in the past, and the result is always the same — schism. Honestly, I don’t know how it could end any other way, and it seems strange to me that people go about their daily lives acting like things could be different this time around. It’s never been any different in the past. So why would it be any different today? When you have two opposing polarities in the Church, and neither will back down, the result is always schism — 100% of the time.

So who are the opposing polarities? Well, you’ll find them scattered throughout the Catholic Church worldwide, but it seems two groups stand out as the driving forces on both sides.

On the theological Left is the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (German Bishops Conference), which has been the driving force behind liberal Catholicism for a generation. Now they’re taking things to the next level. Initiating their own Synod, against Rome’s wishes, the German bishops will begin this year discussing the place of the following issues in Catholicism: cohabitation, artificial contraception, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” gender theory, as well as female ordination to the diaconate and priesthood. While the Catholic Church has always interpreted these things in a negative way, the German “synodal process” will re-evaluate them as things that could fit into the Catholic Faith. In other words, it looks like the German bishops are about to take the biggest step ever into removing certain sins from the Catechism, and recreating a whole new Catholic Church in Germany that will look more Protestant in a lot of ways — liberal Protestant that is. The German bishops are not unaware of the significance of their actions. They’re making a focused effort to reach out to Catholics outside their language, primarily English-speakers.

On the theological Right is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) which is anything but “conservative,” and is in fact very liberal about a great many things. However, the conference is still dominated by theologically-conservative bishops who won’t tolerate a hard leftward shift no matter how much liberal bishops in the conference would like to see that happen. Even Leftist news sources, like the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), express frustration with the USCCB which, while fairly liberal to begin with, as a body it won’t go off the Leftist cliff, in the same way certain individual American bishops have. NCR praises Leftist extremists like Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Bishop McElroy of San Diego, but sees the USCCB as still dominated by theological conservatives. That’s certainly not to say that ++Cupich and +McElroy aren’t the only theological liberals in the USCCB. There are plenty more, but these two currently stand out as the most vocal. Nevertheless, the bishops of the US Conference prefer to maintain the center-right compromise carved out under the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. While not all that “conservative” in itself, it may seem so compared to the hard-Left trajectory of the German bishops conference.

So here we have the case of the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. Nothing is going to stop the German bishops from attempting to take the Catholic Church down the biggest Leftist lurch in Christian history. At the same time, nothing is going to move the US bishops from the comfortable center-right position they’ve worked so hard to maintain since the papacy of St. John Paul II. Any attempt to force the American bishops hard-Left will result in the dissolution of the conference itself, and that’s something the US bishops don’t even want to consider. So they’ll maintain their center-Right position as a body, even if the hard-Left bishops complain.

There are two things Rome can count on. One, the German Catholic bishops are going to push themselves, and as many others as possible, as far to the theological Left as they can possibly go. Two, the US Catholic bishops will do everything possible to prevent change and maintain the center-Right status quo carved out under popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and the pope will find himself at the center of the collision, having to choose between them.

The pope will eventually have to choose which side he will align with, because while Francis’ strategy has (thus far) been to kick the can down the road as far as possible, what Germany is proposing cannot coexist peacefully with the US. As Germany pushes its synodal process forward, the global alignments will start to take shape. Most African, Asian and Latin American bishops will align with the center-Right position of the US Conference. While most European bishops, along with a small contingency of bishops from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will align with the German Conference. This is the alignment of schism that will slowly take shape, and make no mistake about it, the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (German Bishops Conference) will be the one driving it with its synodal process.

The Real Story

Obviously, Pope Francis doesn’t want to be the pope to have to make this decision. His leftward trajectory, combined with his occasional conservative rhetoric, is a futile attempt to maintain unity in the Church for as long as possible. He’s hoping he’ll either die or retire before a decision has to be made. He may not get his wish. The German bishops understand that their best chance of getting a pope to side with them is (thus far) Francis, and the next pope is a gamble. At least with Francis, they know what they’re dealing with, and they believe he will back down to their demands. He has so far, so why not? Germany holds all the cards, because the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (German Bishops Conference) holds all the money. It’s the richest conference in the world because of the German government’s kirchensteuer (church tax). The German bishops can easily bail out the Vatican from all its financial woes, with no calls for sexual accountability, like those pesky Americans demand. From a purely human standpoint, Pope Francis’ easiest choice is to side with Germany, and tell the USCCB to accept the changes or face excommunication. But that’s the human standpoint. The pope has a spiritual side, both to his office and his personality. This opens up the possibility that he could go the other way, siding with the USCCB and telling Germany to stop the madness or face excommunication. What will he do? Only time will tell. Pray for him.

Unity is no longer possible. When two theologies are so divergent, and neither side is willing to let go, a parting of ways is inevitable. It’s always been this way through history. It’s ridiculous to think it could end any other way. Pope Francis may be the one who has to choose. If he manages to dodge the bullet, the painful choice will most certainly go to his immediate successor. Either way, the pope is going to choose soon, and the formal schism will happen at that time.


  1. 1) The concept of “conference”, however convenient in mapping, is fictitious. It has no canonical standing. Bottom line, separating the “parties” will occur at the diocesan level. When the separation begins in earnest the concept of ‘conference’ will quickly weaken. The American Conference will become dysfunctional. I predict the Chicagoan spirit within will become dominant (that is, germanized).

    Reid your mapping.

    2) A not insignificant question is “Who will control the teal estate in Vatican City”. Possession of that will seal the (eventual) supremacy of the dominant party. That control secures dormancy even if the number of dioceses choosing that party is less.

    I say, the German/Francis party will. Safely predicted by sizing up the zig-sagging moves Francis has made these past sic/seven years. The man knows what he is doing. The German contingent will be the dominant one – with, itself, divided into hard and soft factions. The Germans will not bolt into schism without possessing Vatican City.

    Which means what? That being in control of Vatican City they are *not* in schism?

    Do not assume that the “conservative” is guaranteed those boxed in acres in Rome. It is the prize, the glint, in German eyes. And Chicgo will do its darnest to make it so.


  2. ‘The concept of “conference”, however convenient in mapping, is fictitious. It has no canonical standing.’
    Um, no. The rights and duties of Episcopal conferences are clearly spelled out in canon law. See if you don’t believe me.
    Maybe what you’re thinking is, that Episcopal conferences were not established by Our Lord, like the papacy and the episcopacy were. In that you are correct. The fact that the conferences were created by man doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad. For example, Archdioceses are a human invention, but that doesn’t imply that they “have no canonical standing.”


  3. I am a cynic.

    I believe PF is willing to split the Church if necessary to effectuate his theological revolution. I believe he DETESTS not just “traditionalist” Catholicism but also many aspects of the moderate / centrist Catholicism of St. JPII and BXVI. He knows that the only way to finally defeat these groups is to drive them into schism – in effect, to get rid of them. I think he is willing to play a longer game than the Germans, and wishes they would slow down, but he could shut them down and he hasn’t.

    Another factor to consider is that most “committed” Catholics are scandalized by this pontificate, yet they are the most “loyal” Catholics in the sense that it is almost inconceivable to them the break with Peter. On the other hand, the VAST majority of the world’s Catholics are a) low-information Catholics who are essentially clueless to what is going on except b) they would welcome most of the “changes” that are coming down the pike – meaning, essentially, the Church caving in to the sexual revolution – especially on contraception and sex outside marriage (whether it be hetero or homo).


  4. A couple of minor points. Leftist groups typically reach a point when they turn on their own. Started with the French revolution and continues to today’s democrat party candidates for president. Any group that makes policy by deceit, coercion, bribery etc., generally falls prey to its own tactics, sometimes violently. The Falange opposition to the Popular Front in 1936 Spain is an example. Restoration of order in some fashion is usually not pleasant but eventually balance is restored. Pope Francis may think he has allies in the Germans and their like and despite their heterodox views, can be controlled and worked with. He is, of course wrong, and continuing this path will bring not just schism, but a complete heretical breakaway as in Germany 1519-21 and England 1537. Of course the whole process probably will take some time and that is not a given to the present occupant of the chair of St. Peter.


  5. As a non-Catholic, I am confused by the article and the comments. The Pope cannot defect, right? So I don’t understand the uncertainty over the Pope choosing – is the Pope capable of choosing heresy and teaching it to the faithful? Or is the assumption that the Pope can choose heresy but can be ignored? I don’t understand the comments that the German heretics will win – that can’t happen, right?

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    1. Bruce, Catholic teaching states (as per the First Vatican Council or “Vatican I”) that the only time the pope speaks infallibly on matters of doctrine and morals is when he does so ex cathedra (from the chair) meaning he specifically states that his teaching is infallible, invoking his office as the successor of St. Peter.

      No pope has done this since 1950.

      Therefore, it is is within the realm of possibility that a pope can err when he’s not speaking ex cathedra, and therefore can fall into heresy. It’s happened before and it can happen again.


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