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The undiscriminating, reform-minded people’s pontiff faces growing resistance from conservative factions within the Church. The prospect of a split is not to be ignored

Pope Francis looks at a figurine of himself held by a woman at one of his weekly general audiences.TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia and senior fellow at Massey College. He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis.

What keeps popes up at night if not the prospect of schism? No pontiff wants such a thing on his watch. After all, the Bishop of Rome is enjoined – by divine authority no less – to keep the Body of Christ unified. So it would be a big black mark on a papal CV if it were allowed to happen.

Of course, there have been schisms – from the Greek word for “tear” or “rent” – throughout Christian history. Big ones like the 11th-century Great Schism that tore asunder the Christian Church of the East from the Church of the West, pitting Rome against Constantinople; the Great Western or Avignon Schism of the 14th century, also known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and then the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century with its major rupture of all things Roman – doctrine, jurisdiction, polity, ritual, devotional life.

There have been smaller ones as well, breakaway churches such as the Old Catholic Church centred in Utrecht. But whether big or small, the tears of the ecclesial garment hurt.

Historically, schismatics get to roil in agony in Dante’s netherworld and are at the receiving end of papal anathemas – basically a denunciation. But, with the exception of church historians, they remain largely out of view – after all, this is the age of ecumenism with its appreciation for the gifts of all churches – until such time as they scramble back onto centre stage.

And such a time is now.


Priests wait under a statue of St. Peter at the Vatican on April 10, Palm Sunday, when Catholics commemorate Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem before his crucifixion.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Those who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem are said to have scattered palm fronds in front of him, hence their use on this holiday. Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images
The Pope receives a procession of cardinals. This is the final Sunday of Lent, a period of fasting leading up to Easter. Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press

In the period following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there were various disaffected groups that made life difficult for popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Specifically the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the incendiary Swiss archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke with Rome. Because Mr. Lefebvre was a validly ordained bishop who began to ordain priests and bishops on his own authority (though these ordinations would be considered illicit by Rome), he posed a real threat to the church’s unity. John Paul and Benedict struggled, unsuccessfully in the end, to bring them back into the fold and they remain, technically, in schism. Their number is small but their influence has grown as Catholic anxiety over the Francis papacy has mushroomed.

Although empirical evidence attests to the high popularity Francis enjoys globally, resistance to his papacy has achieved a new intensity in recent years from within Catholic circles – lay, clerical and episcopal. This resistance is multifaceted.

There is resistance to his folksy style. Francis eschews all the perks and privileges of his high office. He drives a modest car; lives simply in the Santa Marta (apartment lodgings for visiting clerics and curial officials) rather than in the sumptuous Apostolic Palace; eats with his fellow workers rather than alone or in the company of select aides; is disposed to spontaneous outings to hospital clinics, prisons, record shops and the Russian embassy; and carries himself – galumphing across a stage, his white soutane rumpled – sans the dignity of bearing that one is accustomed to seeing in the Sovereign Pontiff.

In solemn pontifical ceremonies he looks disengaged, if not bored, coming to life only when distant from his majordomos and masters of ceremony, comfortable preaching on ideas that unsettle those comfortable or certain in their faith, rising above the rubrics to touch the hearts of his listeners.

Friar Dionysius Mintoff passes a tent at the migrant welcome centre in Hal Far, Malta, on March 26, ahead of a papal visit.MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP via Getty Images

There is resistance to his pastoral priorities. From the beginning of his papacy, the image of the church that best encapsulates his understanding of the church is the field hospital – the place where triage takes precedence over conventional routine, where moral urgency and not ecclesial niceties are paramount, and where all the wounded are welcome without restriction. The Church is one large medical tent.

For those Catholics of unwavering orthodox convictions inclined to see the church as a purist’s preserve – the place where the saved may securely graze without fear of worldly contamination – Francis’s non-discriminating embrace of all, irrespective of their degree of doctrinal correctness, is deeply disturbing. He is Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the faithful can depend, and now, in the minds of his critics, he is sending a message of inclusion to all, paying scant attention to dogma and law, opting for a papal version of celebrity leadership.

But this is an obscurantist caricature. Francis is as orthodox as his papal predecessors, has not overturned traditional teaching, much to the disappointment of many progressive Catholics, and respects the importance of continuity in leadership. However, as Irish novelist and essayist Colm Toibin has argued, one of the most important things to know about Francis is that he is not a product of the Vatican and that his “power comes from the fact that he doesn’t belong to this world.” The world of the Vatican prior to his election was a foreign world to Francis: He had not worked in the Curia or administrative centre of the Vatican, hadn’t studied in Rome, and had little access to the key power brokers, unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

And it is true that Francis doesn’t belong to this world, but he does understand this world and it is a mistake to think otherwise. His detractors, critics and intractable in-house opponents do very much understand that he grasps who they are, what their vision of the church is, and why they have so much invested in perpetuating an older model of the church that secures their identity and their power. For many years now he has used his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia – the Vatican bureaucracy – to largely berate them for failing to live by the demanding standards of the Gospel, for delighting in their rank and prestige to the neglect of identifying with the marginalized, Jesus’s preferred constituency. Predictably, his sullen listeners have built up resentment and in some circles it has overflowed into subterranean opposition.

Indeed, for some of his more fringe critics – pockets of both lay and clerical power that are well moneyed, politically conservative and media-influential – Francis is the Antichrist. But for the majority of his critics he is the Disruptor, sundering the church from within, dissing dogma, more pap and mush than rigorous orthodoxy, playing to his fans, weakening the authority of the Bishop of Rome, allowing the gates of hell to prevail against the church.

This is strong schism-making stuff.


The Pope arrives at the Ta’ Pinu national sanctuary in Gharb, on the Maltese island of Gozo, during a visit to draw attention to Europe's migrant policies. In recent years, many dangerous sea voyages have brough migrants to Malta, halfway between North Africa and Italy.Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press

The Pope gives a present to a child at the John XXIII Peace Lab, a migrant centre in Hal Far, Malta. Rene Rossignaud/The Associated Press
Friar Mintoff, 91, greets the Pope at the peace lab that he founded in Hal Far in 1971. Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press

If there is resistance to his style and to his pastoral priorities, these are but preliminary to the more substantive resistance to his ecclesiology or understanding of what the church is. If the field hospital is his working image of the church in the world, then it is the inverted pyramid that constitutes his image of the church qua church.

For centuries the Catholic Church has operated as a hierarchical structure, arguably the most sophisticated and durable on the planet. This fixed structure – more porous and complicated than what appears – flourished, coped and, with varying degrees of success, weathered the vagaries of change over time.

The Second Vatican Council dramatically moved away from that hierarchical understanding, to the broader notion of the church as the Pilgrim People of God. But it has taken a long time for that notion to take hold. Not surprisingly, those in power accustomed to being the voice of unquestioned authority could and did accept the notion theologically, but operationally matters have been largely the status quo ante. Until the arrival on the Tiber of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Although the only pope since the Council not to have been actually at the Council as a bishop – unlike Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II – or as a theological advisor or peritus – Benedict XVI – Francis is the one most committed to its “revolutionary” thinking. It is this commitment to the Council that defines his papacy and generates the increasingly toxic opposition to him personally.

Several years ago I was sitting beside a recently appointed papal nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, to the United States and he confessed to me his shock on discovering the level of distrust of Francis among many American bishops. It has only grown since then.

Bishops, of course, have their preferences in leaders – all management operatives do – but disdain for Francis has become increasingly accepted in the public arena. Catholic lay pundits, conservative clerics and angry bishops have all found media outlets, networking streams and like-minded alliances to further their criticism of Francis, a criticism that is more vitriolic than measured.

The Pope receives Ukraine war-themed drawings at a weekly general audience.Yara Nardi/Reuters

Francis is aware of this opposition and has on occasion struck back, but mostly he has maintained a spiritual and political equanimity as he moves forward implementing the teachings of the Council. At the heart of the maelstrom, he remains focused.

Convinced that the inverted pyramid more faithfully adheres to the message of Jesus, that the dispersal and not the concentration of power is key to effective ministry, that the pope is not at the apex but at the base, truly the “servant of the servants of God,” and that all the ordained are called to genuine service and not overlordship, Francis is the Disruptor par excellence.

This is fully in keeping with his efforts as Pope to celebrate what he calls the “peripheries” – those geographical and cultural areas of the world that have been ignored by a deeply Eurocentric church, such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Morocco etc. – by creating some of their leaders as cardinals, thereby establishing a special relationship with him and strengthening his papal agenda of reform.

Vatican correspondent and author Christopher Lamb describes Francis’s approach, drawing on the energy of the laity and empowering them to drive the church into a new era, with an arresting image: “Catholic communities might be likened to a fire that has almost burnt out. But the fire is unlikely to start burning again if all the energy goes into lighting it from near the top. Francis’s reforms are the equivalent of trying to re-ignite the flames from the bottom by striking a match at ground level and blowing into the embers.” This re-ignition, for Francis’s opposition, could quickly become a conflagration.


Clergy members watch the Pope conduct Holy Chrism mass on April 14 at St. Peter's Basilica. Today is Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, which honours the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

The Pope blows into an amphora of oil to consecrate it. Remo Casilli/Reuters
As the mass concludes, a clergy member shoots a video. Remo Casilli/Reuters

The Pope’s resolve to reanimate an increasingly moribund church by redistributing power, enhancing the role of women, and getting senior churchmen to leave their comfortable redoubts and engage in the messy business of Christian witness in the world, is a spiritual imperative. To that end, he created his Council of Cardinals with wide continental representation to advise him, and he began with their help to not just rejuggle the Curia with unthreatening tinkerings, as his predecessors had done, but to actually reconceive the Vatican bureaucracy by widening the pool of candidates outside the traditional channels, including more of the laity in leadership positions. He also devolved various pastoral responsibilities to local episcopal conferences rather than reserving them to head office, including matters around annulments, remarriage, communion for divorced Catholics, liturgical translations and practices etc. The perception that he was diluting strong, centuries-old Catholic strictures to curry favour among those who felt excluded from church life because their marital status was at best illicit or irregular missed the point of his reforms: The pastoral, not the juridical, approach must always be the church’s primary portal of entry with those suffering, alienated or marginalized.

On more than one occasion, Francis would exclaim: “Who am I to judge?” But for many Catholics, and indeed for most non-Catholics, that is precisely what they think popes are charged to do: judge. The world is discovering that Francis is uninterested in judging.

A striking example of this approach can be seen in his willingness to meet gay Catholics in their reality, treating them not as somehow “disordered” or as a minority to be selectively indulged, but as fellow Catholics yearning for acceptance. In addition, his handling of the fractious “altar wars” is a telling example of how patient and prudential this disruptor can actually be. A sizable but still very small number of Catholics worldwide have never felt comfortable with the reformed liturgy in the vernacular. They prefer the old Mass celebrated in Latin, the pre-Vatican Council Pope John Missal, rather than the Pope Paul Missal, which was post-Council. Many fights ensued over the decades since the promulgation of the Council decree on the Liturgy in 1962, and they have been ugly.

When he issued his document Traditionis custodes, circumscribing the use of Latin in the older liturgy, he did so precisely to contain the schism-like proclivities of the traditionalists, fully aware that the use of Latin in worship was merely a small part of a bigger package. The Latin-loving Catholics were – not all, but most – opposed to many of the other post-conciliar developments that brought Catholicism into modernity, including the recognition of other churches and religions as vehicles of holiness. Whereas John Paul II spent a disproportionate amount of energy mollifying the right wing of the church, and Benedict XVI made significant concessions to bring the dissenters back into the Roman flock, Francis called their bluff. And he did so in great measure at the request of the global episcopate unhappy with the divisiveness generated by the Latin traditionalists in their dioceses.

Cardinals arrive at St. Peter's Basilica.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

In addition, Francis has been alarmed at the worrying rise of ultraconservative candidates for the diocesan priesthood, those who demonstrate an inordinate fondness for the cassock, the biretta, the clerical cape and other accoutrements or ecclesiastical garments retrieved from central casting. Such gear speaks to a different era of the church, exalts the “essential” difference between the clergy and the laity, promotes a view of the priesthood that is weirdly romantic, exotic, “utterly other.” And all this at a time when the Pope is determined to address the root causes of clericalism – now recognized by most prelates as a curse that has fed all kinds of abuse, sexual and otherwise. The revival of the older and dated model is a sad eruption of the restorationist spirit Francis is fighting against. Rooting the clerical out of the priest is high priority, and the resurgence of an outdated conception of what the priesthood is bodes ill. Attachment to the old rite is a sine qua non of the younger clergy and their fellow travellers in the seminary, and it isn’t only Francis who is worried.

The final and greatest resistance, however, more potent than the resistance to his leadership style and pastoral strategy, is the ecclesiology-based case for the inverted pyramid, and this has garnered heightened momentum because of synodality. This is the term of choice in Catholic circles these days as theologians struggle to give it flesh. It is Francis’s buzzword and the Catholic world is currently trying to incarnate the spirit of synodality, all the while unsure quite what it entails.

Essentially, it is a posture of openness, distinguished by parrhesia, or freedom to speak without fear; it is a tone of deep mutual respect for alternative views; it is a climate of transformative listening that allows for the Spirit to operate in the lives of individuals and structures. Catholics worldwide are involved in talking and listening sessions by way of preparation for the 2023 Synod that will digest, synthesize and probe the Catholic mind and address ways of moving forward with the Pope’s vision of a revitalized church.

This is an undertaking fraught with danger: inviting disorder into the church’s discipline and rules, creating expectations that cannot be met, perpetuating confusion if not chaos around official Catholic teaching, introducing the prospect of democratizing church governance. But if many church leaders are nervous if not dismissive of the process, Francis and his closest allies are not numbered among them.

The Pope looks on during the Holy Chrism mass.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Still, if there is a schism on the horizon, it will be because of synodality. The Czech priest and sociologist of religion Rev. Tomas Halik says of Francis’s commitment to implementing synodality in the life of the church that his intention is to “transform the Church from an institution, where we all march in lockstep into a network of mutual communication, a path of searching together for responses to the signs of our epochal times; neither escapism into the past nor cheap modernization – but a demanding journey from superficiality to profundity.”

Father Halik’s use of a language of process and discovery – he is also a psychotherapist – nicely aligns with Francis’s use of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, the text that encapsulates Jesuit spirituality, the foundation stone of their ministry. Francis understands why his critics balk at his efforts because he knows that it is difficult to let go of certitude, to free ourselves from the false securities that undermine faith, to realize that faith calls for the courage of risk-taking. Popes are seen as fixed and reliable entities, whereas Francis is disposed to define himself as a sinner on a pilgrimage. He is not much for pious rhetoric.

The resistance to synodality is the ultimate resistance. It cuts to the heart of the Bergoglio papacy. Elected in part by his fellow cardinals to reform the Curia, Francis has opted for a greater reform – that of the whole church – and not a few of those who marked their ballot for the Argentine may rue their choice. But Francis is patient, discerning and, in his own way, serene. And he is not to be turned by the possibility of schism.

As David Gibson, director of the Center of Religion and Culture at the Jesuit Fordham University, observes of Francis’s attitude: “In 2019, in response to a question about the Catholic right in America, Francis said that he is ‘not afraid of schisms’ but that he prays that it does not come to that … [and] in a general audience in January of this year that even if some Catholics may break communion with the church, the church will never give up on them. It’s an expansive vision of the church but, paradoxically, so generous that for some Catholics it’s a reason to split the church.”

What an irony it would be if a Jesuit pope presided over a major schism. Jesuits have been, since their inception in the 16th century, especially loyal to the pope, many of them taking a fourth vow of fealty to the pontiff. But Francis also knows that the Jesuit spirit is a pioneering spirit.

He is poised for the wager.

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

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