Someone asked me recently, "Father do you think the American Church will break away from Rome, that we're headed for a schism?"
Her question was motivated by her disappointment with the hierarchy's handling of the pedophile crisis and by her perception that the reforms and spirit of Vatican II are being stifled.
I tried to calm her anxiety, recalling the old bromide Ecclesia reformans et reformanda, the Church is now reforming and always will be in need of reform.
My response was lame so I punted, "The Holy Spirit is with the Church, and despite our human failings, the Spirit will guide us to all truth."
Later, as I thought about her question, about whether a new schism was possible, I drew the uneasy conclusion that in a sense a schism is already taking place, a schism of indifference.
And to be precise, the break is not so much with the Church as with Church leadership. A segment of the Catholic population is simply ignoring the hierarchy.
It is not a schism born of rejection of the core beliefs of the Church.
These "schismatics" believe in God, in the Trinity, in the Bible, in the sacraments, even in the essential role of the hierarchy.
What identifies them is their conviction that many "rules" are unnecessarily restrictive, stifling the movement of the Spirit, impeding the spread of the Gospel, limiting forgiveness, and confining God's grace.
They meet to pray, to read Scripture, to discuss --to breathe. They participate in parish liturgy, they lead parochial programs, they strive sincerely to be Christian, they believe they are truly Catholic. They may be under the radar but they are there.
They are frustrated --upset about what they perceive to be a repudiation of Vatican II reforms, an unhealthy focus on power and control, the imposition of unnecessary rules and restrictions, and a paralyzing fear throughout the Church.
It's probably too dramatic to label this phenomenon a schism, even a schism of indifference. In his Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Father Richard McBrien defines schism as "a formal breach in Church unity brought about when a particular group willfully separates itself from the larger community." Strictly speaking then, this phenomenon does not qualify as a schism since there is no formal breach, no separation from the communion.
Nevertheless there are these pockets of disillusioned Catholics, begging for renewal and reform in a Church that seems deaf to their pleas, and yet they have no thought of ever leaving this "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."
It would be a mistake to deny or ignore their existence, and a greater error to condemn them. The guiding principles are clear: Christ-like love, dedication to the Gospel, openness to the Holy Spirit, compassion for all who are in pain, and dialog, dialog, dialog. In many instances they have, I think, a valid point.
Family members don't always agree with one another, but their disagreements do not cancel the familial bond. Rejection is not an option. Respect is essential. Reconciliation is the goal.
Schism is probably an inaccurate description, but the growing indifference is very real. This is a sign of our times that needs attention.