Pope Benedict XVI has announced his decision to resign the Papacy effective Feb. 28. It has been 600 years since a pope has resigned his election to the Seat of Saint Peter and thus, for the more than one billion Roman Catholics in the world today, it is a first. Various news agencies are atwitter with reactions from across the globe concerning who knew what when and what will happen next. Although not the usual course of events leading to the conclave for a new pope, most Roman Catholic authorities will try to convince their communities that nothing is suspicious or momentous. The World War II British motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” is familiar to Roman Catholics regardless of nationality or historical time.
Indeed there is truth to this idea of continuous sameness. The Roman Catholic Church is in it for the long haul and often does not reflect the contemporary values of a given society at a given temporal moment. There are consistencies that do not waiver. There are also upheavals. There are cracks in the facade of unity and conformity. I think that this is one of those times. I never want to be a Debbie Doomsday but I smell a schism coming on in the Roman Catholic Church. I am neither enthusiastic nor frightened at an impending cultural quake in Roman Catholicism, simply watching and interpreting the signs.
There have always been controversial discussions in the Roman Catholic Church that manage to withstand a desire to separate. Arianism, Donatism, free will versus grace, clerical celibacy, details of transubstantiation, Avignon — these are but a few of the ideas that have been heatedly debated in councils and synods. Schism does not automatically result from disagreement. The Roman Catholic Church is actually successful in balancing theological ideas and is able to craft nuanced teachings that allow for a continuum of thought on certain matters. Of course, on other particular issues the church presents a defined and diligently precise teaching. It’s the administration of power that is the problem. Schism begins with arguments about theology but ends up about authority.
The two familiar schisms in the Roman Catholic Church are the separation of the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Protestant Reformation. Both of these movements began as theological debates concerning spiritual metaphysics, sacramental grace or holy merits. They both ended up being politically charged battles over the location, geographical and administratively, of the teaching authority of the church. Both schisms denied the primacy of the Pope and of the Roman Curia to decide local and/or regional issues regarding belief and practice.
Lest we think Roman Catholicism became a model of unified thought after the Council of Trent, to which certain Catholic groups would want us to believe, there continued to be schisms into the modern period. As a result of disagreements with the Vatican I Council’s support of papal supremacy as a teaching authority, various European Catholic communities became independent of Rome. More recently the effects of debate regarding elements of Vatican II Council decisions are seen in Catholic communities that broke off in the 1960s and 1970s who either claimed that the Seat of Saint Peter was empty and therefore Rome had no teaching authority, or that the Pope was an Anti-Pope (or Anti-Christ) and thus, the teaching authority of Rome had been usurped by spirits contrary to the Catholic Christian faith.
All of these moments of separation have pained the Roman Catholic Church who sees herself as the unifying institution for Christianity. The church has been continuously active in efforts to reunify communities under the authority of the pope even to the point of managing theological conflict. The Roman Catholic Church is at another crossroads today as it reflects upon the choice of a new pope. The cardinals will gather, pray and talk. They will vote and a new pope will emerge onto the balcony. It is a momentous decision. The new pope will either support the efforts of a central authority with its ability to intervene and control the decision making opportunities of regional bishops.
It’s not a question of what will the church decide, but of HOW it will decide matters. Will the pope continue to hold a trump card or will he truly recognize the sacramental grace believed by Catholics to infuse their ordained bishops that permits them the discernment necessary to shepherd their local flocks?