Will There Be Civil War in the Church?

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Is civil war coming to the Catholic Church over the possible creation of a penitential path back to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics? On its face, this claim seems preposterous, a half-baked fantasy cooked up by a small group of Catholic traditionalists and reactionaries whose enmity toward Pope Francis has reached new heights. I asked Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, perhaps the most influential cardinal in Francis’ papacy, if he thought this was a realistic possibility. He responded, “This is a lack of faith.”

This may seem harsh. But it is important to remember that faith is about trust, not just belief. Those raising the specter of civil war quite clearly do not trust the Holy Father and the Church (and implicitly the Holy Spirit, as well). They have more faith in their own judgement.

At the same time, let’s not forget that Francis has called for a revolution. Ideally that would only lead to conflict between Christian principles and the false idols of the world that tear down human dignity and obstruct the flourishing of persons. But realistically, it was always bound to incite intra-Church conflict. Legalism was present in Jesus’ time, and it remains so today. This mentality will always conflict with the radicalism of Christ’s teaching, even for those aiming to uphold Christ’s teachings. And given the depth and richness of Church teaching, along with our imperfect human nature, virtually all Catholics are capable of slipping into a legalistic mindset. So legalistic opposition to Francis’ revolution of mercy was always likely. And given the importance of tradition for the Church, many were likely to favor the status quo rather than wanting the Church to become a field hospital of people who go forth to the peripheries.

But Cardinal Rodriguez also talked about seeing the visible presence of the Holy Spirit at the Synod. There was disagreement, but it most often led to dialogue, not threats of war or schism. Even those Church leaders who believe that altering the Church’s approach to those who are divorced and remarried would do more harm than good by undermining the clarity of Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage certainly understand why this is up for discussion. They understand what the Church is asking if it requires an abandoned spouse to be celibate for 60 years while raising kids on her own in order to receive communion and how difficult that road is. Since they are orthodox Catholics, they understand the need to comprehend the context of Christ’s words (both as a response to a question about divorce for any reason and within the larger context of the Gospel), rather than endorsing a narrow, literalist reading of just one or two passages. These Church leaders know that our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are not just a bunch of liberal heretics with no regard for the words of Christ and no commitment to one flesh marriage. Cardinal Rodriguez may be right: the biggest difference may be that these leaders have faith that the Spirit will guide the Church to the right response on this difficult matter.

Pope Francis is bringing a revolution. We need one. We are too distant from the radical commitment to love demanded by Christ. And there will be opposition, even threats of civil war. But it seems most likely that it will be limited to a small group of Americans who are caught up in their own social media world of like-minded hysteria than among the broader Church and its hierarchy. Hopefully some of these will break away from their bubble, clear their minds from the cacophony of bitterness and hyperbole, and choose to trust the Church rather than plot a civil war that seems unlikely to ever materialize.