Throughout her history, the Church has always faced schisms, large and small. The two largest schisms were the Great Schism in 1054 between the east and west and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Great Schism preserved the Sacramental system of the separated Eastern Churches including their Sacrament of Holy Orders and thus the Order of Bishops. The Protestant Reformation left the sacramental system of the various Protestant denominations in shambles to this very day in particular the Sacrament of Holy Orders and thus the Order of Bishops.
What possible schisms do Catholics have to avoid today? There are several and these come to us from the left and right, literally, politically and theologically.
As it concerns “far right wing Catholics” we have those groups that have gone into schism based upon their rejection of Vatican II’s theology especially as it concerns the Mass, the manner in which the other sacraments are celebrated and ecumenism. There are groups that have been excommunicated from the Church, the most noteworthy group that was once headed by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. This group rejects Vatican II altogether although their exclusive embrace of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass symbolizes their schism.
As it concerns “far left-wing Catholics” we have those groups born of radical feminism who have actually “simulated” the celebration of the rite of ordination for various women. These individuals and groups who have done so have faced public excommunication. Their mock ordinations are completely invalid. Currently there is a Maryknoll priest, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who is facing public excommunication for his participation in one of these simulated ordination ceremonies. These acts and the groups and individuals who participate in them are clearly schismatic.
In between, we all are buffeted by issues surrounding human sexuality based upon a secular and non Christian agenda. Many mainline Protestant denominations have already embraced parts of this secular agenda giving these movements supporters in the Christian world. The official teachings of the Catholic Church and the teachings of many Evangelical Protestants are at odds with the trends and fades of the day thus placing us on the fringe of current secular, sociological, political and psychological thought.
The most controversial issues of sexuality that potentially could lead some Catholics into schism or to join current Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, are issues surrounding artificial contraception, abortion, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.
Most of us have family members, friends and acquaintances who profess to be Catholic but nonetheless use artificial birth control, are pro-choice, live together outside of marriage, are divorced, are actively homosexual, advocate for women’s ordination and the redefining of marriage. Some of these Catholics believe that they can effect change in the Catholic Church on these issues through a democratic process. Others have joined schismatic groups practicing such change.
Someone was once asked where she stood on all these controversial issues. She responded, “I stand with the Pope, whoever the pope might be at any given time. Doing so keeps the Catholic Church together.”
Just study what happened to the Protestant Reformation. Initially it was a noble movement to reform some aberrant practices that had developed. But once these reformers rejected the leadership of the Pope and his God-given authority, it splintered and continues to splinter to this very day. A modern day example of this is the Episcopal Church which in so many ways resembles the Catholic Church, yet its liberalizing agenda for the last 35 years has caused it to splinter into further groups all because there is no one person, such as the pope, that can declare what is in the boundary of this denomination and what is out of bounds.
The Pope and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church have the authority to declare what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. This authority has been handed onto to them by our Founder, Jesus Christ Himself. When we stay with the pope, even though we might have our own differing opinions on orthodox Catholic teaching, we will always avoid schism. This means that we must humbly put aside our own opinions and inclinations and humbly accept the Pope and the Magisterium in the areas of faith and morals.
Although it is a part of the “Deposit of Faith” that the Church cannot ordain women to the priesthood and thus an infallibly held belief, we could hypothesize that if the pope or the pope together with an ecumenical council decided that women could be ordained priests, to remain in union with the Church, those Catholics who personally oppose women’s ordination in humble faith would have to accept the Church’s authority in this area.
The above hypothesis will not happen but the converse has. Women’s ordination in the Catholic Church was ruled out definitively on May 22, 1994 (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) by Pope John Paul II and he defined it in such a way that future popes or ecumenical councils could not reverse. Thus those who advocate for women priests and bishops in the Catholic Church must in humble faith put aside their personal desires or opinions.
What is the basis of schism? It is the basis of Adam and Eve’s original sin and all the actual sins that have been committed ever since. It is the sin of pride. This pride leads us to think that our way is better than what God has revealed to us through His Word in the Church’s Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. Humble obedience to the Word of God in the areas of faith and morals is the antidote to the sin of pride. Let us humbly accept what our Church teaches in the areas of faith, morals and discipline even though accepting it will entail struggle and persevering prayer.