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.
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.