The conflict between Pope Francis and the leaders of the conservative Catholic subculture has progressed from one stage to another. Initially, when the new Pope was elected, conservatives were supportive, but also somewhat hesitant. He was already known not to be a conservative. As his Pontificate progressed, he accumulated criticisms of his words and decisions, especially his remarks off-the-cuff to the press. This had the effect of galvanizing the conservative leaders, making into critics and opponents.
When Amoris Laetitia was released, the criticisms were so severe that a number of conservatives seemed to have decided to become opponents of the Pope. It was no longer a question of reacting to each word or deed. They stood in opposition to him continuously. In particular cases, some leaders spoke so harshly about the Pope that they must be considered to be schismatics. Calling the Roman Pontiff “lost shepherd”, calling him the worst pope in history, referring to him as a dictator, and assuming that all his decisions come from evil motivations — these are the words and deeds of schismatics.
Certainly, some conservative Catholic leaders have committed public formal schism, and are automatically excommunicated. However, they continue to claim to be in communion with Rome, at least nominally, and they continue to receive Communion. What is more problematic is that these leaders continue to lead. They continue to presume to teach the faithful, leading them away from the Roman Pontiff. They continue to have influence over a large number of Catholics, to the harm of their souls.
The current state of the Church is like a tinderbox. One spark, and the conservative Catholic leaders will cry out against the Pope, accuse him of heresy, and depart from the Church — taking a large number of followers with them. For, in the age of the internet, each popular priest, theologian, author, or speaker has a large number of persons who learn the faith from them. And if they, as a group, accuse the Pope of evil intentions or of false doctrines, many are likely to be influenced to fall into schism.
What will that spark be? There are only a few possibilities. Pope Francis could teach that the Church has the authority to ordain women to the diaconate. That would set a number of conservatives on fire with anger. He could teach that non-Christian believers and non-believers can be saved without converting. A number of right-wing Catholics have decided that question, apart from magisterial teaching, to the contrary. Or perhaps something else.
God is working through Pope Francis to test conservatives and see if they are as faithful to the Magisterium as they have long claimed. Most are not. They believe the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture, not the teaching of the Church. And over time, those two sources of truth have diverged. The subculture now teaches a number of serious errors, and its leaders do not accept correction from the Magisterium. They have become a magisterium unto themselves.
When will the schism begin? It has already started. But the actual formal departure will happen soon.
On the subject of the clergy sex abuse crisis, Pope Francis did more than Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI put together. He removed McCarrick from the College of Cardinals, and confined him to a friary in Victoria, Kansas. It is unfortunate that Pope Francis did not remove him sooner. But it is difficult even for a Pope to identify and remove those who abuse power. There are other McCarricks in the Church, not just sex offenders, but those who severely abuse power. The critics of Pope Francis are not speaking out against these other McCarricks. Hindsight is 20:20. It’s easy to say that the Pope should have done this or that, after we all find out the truth. Before the whole story came out (especially that McCarrick abused minors), all these papal critics were themselves saying little or nothing about McCarrick. So they expect more of the Pope than of themselves.
When the schism occurs, remain faithful:
A. The grace of God and the promise of Jesus never permits any Pope to teach heresy, nor any grave error, and never permits any Pope to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. If it seems otherwise, then it just seems that way. Trust that God would not permit a Pope to teach or commit heresy.
B. The faithful are permitted by God to disagree with some of the non-infallible teachings of the Pope. So if the teaching does not meet the conditions for infallibility, then you may mildly quietly disagree — without any expressions of malice, anger, or contempt for the Pope.
C. Love your neighbor, including the Vicar of Christ, whom the Lord chose to be your Shepherd and Teacher. Do not allow any other persons — Cardinals, Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, or various popular personalities — to take the place of the Roman Pontiff as Father and Teacher of all Christians.
D. Do not accuse the Pope of interior evil, nor of any mortal sins; you have no such role, to judge the heart, mind, or soul of the Pope. And the grace of God certainly prevents every Pope from committing the type of mortal sins that would harm the Church, the Faith, or the souls of the faithful.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.