I’ve been a Roman Catholic for over half of my adult life, for twenty-six years, in fact, and one of the things that has held me steady, through the vicissitudes of my journey, has been the unity of the worldwide church. The Church today includes 24 autonomous churches worldwide, following not only the Roman, or Latin rite, but also five other ancient rites, and as the largest of world religions, it has 1.3 billion adherents worldwide. If truth could be discerned in numbers, the worldwide Catholic communion could certainly claim impressive ones, outrunning all Protestant groups at 1 billion believers and Eastern Orthodoxy with around 260 million current followers.
But for all its grand scale, the Church doesn’t claim that its authority lies in numbers. It does make powerful claims to apostolic authority and ultimately to its divine and human origins in the very person of Jesus Christ.
I’m trying to say that the Catholic faith makes claims that are ultimately both heady and mystical—but in reality, the very opposite of a numbers-based claim. That partly explains how we can believe that Christ comes to us in the truest form of sacrificial love, the Holy Eucharist, made present and real to us on the altar at each and every Mass. It is the Eucharist itself, and not the numbers of those who share the belief in it, that is “the source and summit of our faith.”
To be sure, it’s that belief that first drew me to the Catholic Church. And I’ve always held that it’s the Eucharist that has held the church together, especially in this present age, when it often seems that the people in the pews have a limited sense of community, and a thin sense of a common purpose. The truth is, it has often seemed to me that Catholics, though unified in one religion, often don’t share the same faith. More and more, my suspicions are being born out as trends point toward a growing loss of belief, even in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, although this downward trend in belief among weekly Mass-goers has likely been overemphasized.
When I first converted, in a full-on rush of new-found love for the Church and Jesus in the Eucharist, there were many Catholics around me with a more sedate appreciation for their faith. I think that they found my new-found zeal a bit, ah, amusing, shall we say. My husband and I were part of an ecumenical sort of couples group study that met once a month for dinner and a discussion of topics related to the Christian faith. Each month’s discussion was driven by a reading that was photocopied and distributed in the week prior to the upcoming dinner. In the group, we were all college-educated, and the husbands, and some of the wives, were already launched in their professional careers. In our homes, we all shared the same happy/panicked exhaustion of parents with pre-schoolers and babies; we were dying to commiserate with friends about just how to fit everything in that life was demanding of us. That was the true, deep need of our spiritual lives.
For me, I desperately needed to find Jesus in the diapers and the lack of sleep. But what I craved even more was adult discussion about what it meant to make my Christian faith a part of my everyday life. I was in between worlds, a Baptist-turned-Presbyterian now newly-minted Catholic, trying to figure out my place in my new-found church home. This dinner group was to be the answer to my deep, pressing, spiritual needs.
It all worked for a while, in a kind of random, pot-luck kind of way. I still remember the giddiness of gathering at a house for discussion night, the thrill of finding common ground in our Christian faith, and the relief of having a regular night where someone else tucked my kids into bed. Sure, the quality and usefulness of the readings varied wildly from week to week, but at first it hardly seemed to matter. Although we all professed the Christian faith, it soon became clear that the different members of our group had varied takes on what “faith working through love” looked like.
It wasn’t long before trouble struck. Our turn to choose the week’s readings came around, and for overly-sensitive me, came the quick regret of choosing a Fulton Sheen reading about Mary, entitled “The Woman I Love, ” a prosaic ode of Bishop Sheen’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary that I found both captivating and possibly just controversial enough to foster a friendly discussion. I miscalculated on that score, and years later remember the sting when one (still-dear) friend pronounced this type of reading “the reason that so many Catholics have been led away from faith in Christ.” It was a decidedly Protestant sort of response, but in retrospect, I had picked the wrong reading for an ecumenical group. Although the reading did serve to highlight some of our true differences, I was naïve to think that we could all handle that kind of discussion without rancor or hurt or even plain embarrassment. Funny thing, though, was that it was only some Catholics among us who seemed to have trouble with the reading.
In any case, it was on another night that things really got heated. One very “traditional”-minded Catholic man became very doctrinaire in his declarations, and one of the women, a more “spirit of Vatican ll” type of thinker, really gave him a large piece of her mind. She called him some particularly unkind names. Honestly, I don’t even remember what she said; I only recall the extreme pall of awkwardness that fell over the gathering after she had reamed him out, in his own family-room.
The group met for a few more gatherings after that, but it was destined to fizzle out, and did just that before the year was over. In the aftermath, our one evangelical friend commented that, “If you Eucharisters could ever agree on what you really believe, maybe you would have a powerful witness.” I never forgot that. Although his comment might have been interpreted as a compliment—he could tell that we all believed in the Eucharist!— in reality, he had identified the glaring problem in our Catholic witness: We lacked true love for one another. If the world was to know us by our love, then we Catholic Christians surely had a long, long way to go.
And today, over two decades later, this seems to be increasingly so. As it turns out, the problems that divide us in the Catholic world have turned out to be a lot bigger than the issues we tussled with in our dinner group. Among other problems, there are big divides in how we view the priesthood and the role of women, and in what it means for our Church to hold to its traditional and Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. In recent years, there has been intense controversy over who, exactly, can receive the sacrament of Communion.
But I’m inclined to think that it is “little” disagreements that ultimately fuel these “bigger” arguments, as much as the other way around. Most Catholics are far more likely to be affected by what their pastor says from the pulpit in their home church than by anything the Pope might say or do in Rome. Should it be that way? Perhaps not, but I think most of us know this to be true.
A lot of Catholics are staying home, of late, but the ones who show up for Sunday Mass and parish events are not all on the same page. There are the Catholics who want their parishes to be bold in talking about sin and redemption, and to back them up in their attempts to live authentic Catholic lives, whether that means sponsoring seminars on Natural Family Planning or offering traditional devotions. And there are Catholics who want to see women given a chance to preach, or gays given a chance to have their unions blessed. There are even problems in talking about basic doctrine, like how Christ died for our sins because the Father so loved the world. (Sin is such an uncomfortable subject!) I was once part of a parish study where a fellow leader mildly declared that she avoided talking about hell because, “it’s not a concept that I personally believe in.” Heaven, to be sure, was a safer topic of discussion.
I’ve learned through the years that the list is long, of the things that Catholics, for the most part, just don’t talk about. And maybe that is a part of the problem. In my suburban New Jersey world, we try not to discuss these things, because we know just how divisive they can be. We who share the pews understand that in some way, we really are practicing different brands of Christianity, and not one unified Catholic faith.
There are those in the Catholic world who have in recent times voiced their fear of schism, and those who have more recently retracted earlier fears to counsel cautious optimism. And of course there is Pope Francis himself, who has insisted he that he does not “fear schism,” while at times himself skirting close to the edge, as some see it.
The current pope has a curious way of broadcasting his compassion by appearing to signal change, but then holding back when the ball is in his court. The release of the encyclical Querida Amazonia in late January of this year offers one recent example of the way Pope Francis likes to play. Just prior to the Amazon Synod, the late summer and early fall of 2019 were given over to months of speculation about the likelihood of the ordination of married men. Then as soon as the Synod began in October of 2019, there was the unexpected furor of the Pachamama fertility statues. Were they merely indigenous images of a heavily pregnant Blessed Mother, easily adopted alongside revered images such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe? Or were they ancient symbols representing idols deeply entrenched in the local culture of Amazonia? A ritual in the Vatican Garden, attended by the Pope, and featuring one of the statues, only seemed to add to the confusion.
For all the fuss and anticipation that preceded and accompanied the Amazon Synod, in the end, the papal encyclical that resulted was benign in its immediate effect, although it left room for changes down the line. In the immediate aftermath, the results seemed a wash. I couldn’t help but observe that in the whole episode, from start to finish, there was something to discourage nearly everyone: for conservatives, there were months of worry about a door opening to signal a significant blow to priestly celibacy, then of “idols” given a place of honor, if not worship, at the very heart of the Church in Rome. For progressives, there was keen disappointment on the release of Querida Amazonia, representing a lost opportunity to make discernible progress toward change.
The very good news is that, given all of the fretting that preceded the Amazon Synod, a worldwide schism, feared not just in the blogosphere, but at high levels in the church, was averted. I think it is becoming clear that the real change in the Francis pontificate is going to be incremental, rather than groundbreaking or Church-shaking. I think this means that we’re going to hold steady, as a Church, for a yet another day with Pope Francis at the helm.
Although I do fervently pray that we will not reach a worldwide break within the church, I, like a lot of Catholics, know that the real problem is that we are already, in many respects, a lot less unified than some want to pretend. In some parishes, we are really at odds with one another. Some might say that we’re in the midst of schism with a small “s,” unable to talk about what we truly believe, even within our parishes, and often unwilling to hear a clear exhortation of what we’re called to believe from our pulpits.
As our Evangelical friend so tactfully pointed out to the feuding Catholics in our study group long ago, it is difficult for us to be witnesses to the faith when we can’t even decide where our common ground lies. Perhaps, even worse, we can’t be true and authentic reflections of the love of Christ, when we keep pretending that the differences among us don’t really exist.