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How Schism May Come

by James Hitchcock
February 1994, Homiletic & Pastoral Review

For at least a decade many American Catholics have speculated about the possibility of a schism, the formal sundering of ties between "the American Church" and the Holy See. Most speculations postulate certain dramatic events, such as a decision by a few bishops to ordain women to the priesthood. It is more likely, however, that if schism comes it will come, as T.S. Eliot said about the end of the world, not with a bang but with a whimper or, to use another of Eliot's metaphors, that it will be measured out with coffee spoons.

In 1975, fearing that the Episcopal Church would refuse to ordain women, several retired bishops illegally ordained eleven women in a public ceremony which defied established authority. If they calculated thereby to force the church's hand, they succeeded, because the following year the Episcopal Church did indeed vote to ordain women. Rather than punitive action being taken against those who acted illegally, the church then proceeded to recognize the illicit ordinations, and both the bishops and the illicitly ordained women became heroes of a sort.

Such an event within American Catholicism would no doubt precipitate open schism, since the Holy See would certainly nullify such "ordinations" and, if those involved persisted, issue formal excommunications. There is another possible scenario, however, which would have far less decisive results.

The shortage of priests in many dioceses has already led to a practice whereby certain parishes, usually in rural areas or small towns, are served by a "pastoral minister," and an unsystematic survey suggests that perhaps a majority of those are women, frequently nuns. It seems likely that some bishops welcome the opportunity to give women official pastoral responsibility, as a way of compensating for not being able to ordain them priests. (Even when permanent deacons are available some bishops prefer to rely on female pastors.)

At present the status of such pastoral ministers is understood by almost everyone. They are not priests, hence cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or perform other sacramental duties. Most minimally instructed Catholics understand that ordination is not a mere formality but actually confers an indispensible power on priests. Hence unordained pastoral ministers lead prayer services, and sometimes distribute communion when the eucharistic elements have already been consecrated by a priest. Many ministers apparently preach on a regular basis, although their canonical basis for doing so is unclear.

But the doctrinal understanding of the laity has been eroding for some time, due mainly to the fact that they are no longer carefully taught but due also to their awareness that most doctrines are subject to theological debate. Hence it cannot be assumed that the majority of the laity will for much longer understand the distinction between a priest and an unordained pastoral minister.

Nor do many lay people consider the distinction particularly important. Concomitant with an ignorance of doctrine is the feeling (often little more than that) that doctrine is simply not important. Popes, bishops, and theologians may discuss abstract and ethereal ideas, but these seem to have little empirical verification as far as many lay people are concerned. They are seen as official positions which must be formally reaffirmed from time to time but which have little governing force in the actual life of the Church.

Even though theologians seem to take doctrine seriously in that they passionately debate it, even though doctrine is ostensibly the theologians' very reason for existence, theologians are also among those conveying to the laity a sense of doctrine's unimportance. An almost exclusively "pastoral" theology of the Church has been developed according to which there is no need to define or measure Catholic life according to doctrinal criteria. Instead the Church is merely what it appears to be -- a community of caring people held together by some vague sense of belief in Jesus Christ, a belief which happens to have come down through a particular organized denomination called the Catholic Church.

In this view, which rests on certain theological positions but also melds imperceptibly with certain features of American culture, an authentic parish ("faith community") is determined not by such things as orthodoxy of belief, striving to obey the moral law, and fidelity to the sacraments but by warmth, community spirit, and a sense of belonging. This being the case, the fact of ordination is largely irrelevant, since there is no guarantee that ordained persons are any more effective than the non-ordained in creating such a communal spirit.

Whether by design or by inadvertance, the visible distinction between priest and lay minister is now often blurred. Last fall a national television program about women in the Church focused lovingly on a pastoral minister in a small Oregon community who, vested in what appeared to be alb and chasuble, held aloft the (presumably) consecrated host for the adoration of the faithful.  It was a tableau in which only the theologically informed could explain why the woman was not a priest, and many viewers must have been confused by the information that she was not. Recently in the diocese of Rochester a parish bulletin exulted that a nun on the parish staff was to be formally presented with her alb, a sign of her status of full equality with others on the "team."

The Oregon parishioners interviewed on television were almost unanimous in wondering why their pastoral minister could not be a priest, insisting that she filled that role very well. (One lone elderly man admitted that he "stands with the Pope" on the question but indicated no awareness of the larger theological issues.)

Absent careful and sustained instruction, fewer and fewer Catholics in the next generation will even understand the difference between a priest and the vested woman in the small Oregon town, and fewer still will think it important. Not only have they not been instructed in specific doctrines, they have also not been instructed as to why the Church considers doctrine crucial. Hence to them a priest is defined as someone who acts like a priest -- wears vestments, preaches, distributes communion, and counsels people in situations which seem little different from the process of "face to face" confession. 

For at least a decade certain communities of nuns have admitted that they no longer celebrate the Eucharist with an ordained priest, so offended are they by their own "exclusion" from the priesthood. Instead they hold services presided over by their own sisters, services which may or may not resemble the official Mass.

If they have not already occurred, similar things will probably soon begin to happen in obscure, mostly rural parishes throughout the country, a process which will occur in almost mathematically predictable stages.

1) The priest who visits the parish once a month is delayed. Rather than delay the distribution of communion, once the stock of consecrated hosts has been exhausted, the pastoral minister herself prays over a ciborium of unconsecrated hosts and; distributes them to the worshippers.

2) Before long it begins to seem unnecessary to almost everyone -- the circuit-riding priest, the pastoral minister, and the parishioners themselves -- to observe the inconvenient formality of having a priest visit the parish occasionally. Instead the pastoral minister's distribution of unconsecrated hosts becomes normal.

3) Other parishes hear of this and wonder why they too may not follow the same practice. Unofficially they are told by diocesan officials that they may, although there is no formal announcement to that effect.

4) The practice soon becomes normal in all the priestless parishes of the diocese. Those who insist on having a priest visit in order to consecrate the eucharistic elements are dismissed as rigid legalists.

5) The practice begins to spread even to parishes with resident priests, in the same way that "extraordinary ministers" of the Eucharist function even when priests are sitting in the sanctuary. Pastoral ministers preside at services even in large city parishes, functioning in the same way as their rural counterparts.

As this practice becomes known, there will of course be vigorous protests from conservative Catholics, as well as genuinely puzzled inquiries from many others. At this point diocesan officials will give studiously ambiguous, even confusing, answers: "The Church's teaching about the priesthood and the Mass is undergoing development, and certain matters are not clear. No unordained person can celebrate Mass as traditionally understood. But the kind of communion services now in use are perfectly legitimate given our present understanding."

Whereas most communities of feminist nuns have devised liturgies which are deliberately removed from the structure of the Mass, pastoral ministers in parishes will tend to do exactly the opposite -- celebrate with an almost rigid adherence to the official liturgy, for the obvious purpose of conveying the impression that what they are doing is indeed celebrating Mass.

When the pastoral minister recites the familiar words of consecration over the elements, puzzled lay people will ask if this indeed means that transubstantiation has taken place. They will be met with evasions, indicating that some kind of "special blessing" has been imparted, that the elements "can no longer be regarded as merely bread and wine but have been set aside for sacred purposes," that "Jesus is with his people in a special way as they celebrate this great action."

Pushed hard on the matter, bishops will admit that what is happening is in fact not the Mass as traditionally understood. But they will also imply that the question itself is unimportant, one more legalistic snag with which conservative Catholics like to encumber themselves.

The practice will be justified purely empirically -- does it not help to mold and inspire precisely the kind of warm, eucharist-centered community which the parish is supposed to be? Is not the pastoral minister a deeply caring person much beloved and respected by the parishioners? Does the system whereby a priest from the outside visits once a month, leaving a stock of consecrated hosts, not seem very artificial and cold? Is abstract doctrine to get in the way of a vital faith community?

Such practices will of course be justified on the grounds that the Catholic people must not be deprived of the Eucharist, a concern already used as a powerful pragmatic argument for married priests and women priests. Repeatedly liberals now remind bishops of the central importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.

But it is instructive to recall that not many years ago progressive liturgists were arguing that the Church overemphasized and over-used the Eucharist, and at one time were arguing for a practice similar to that of most Protestant churches --  the Eucharist perhaps once a month, with prayer and preaching services the normal form of worship. Such proposals were quietly dropped once it became apparent that the shortage of priests could be used as a powerful argument for admitting "excluded" categories of people from ordination.

Pastoral ministers are already commissioned in special ceremonies, and it will not be difficult to adapt those ceremonies so that they resemble priestly ordination in all but a few essentials unnoticable except to the liturgically informed. Then if people wish to construe this ceremony as ordination to the priesthood, the bishop will not trouble their consciences by insisting otherwise.

Meanwhile there already exists a fully developed theology which justifies such practices. According to this theology priests are called by the bishop in a formal sense but are really "called by the faith' community." This means not only that a parish should have the right to choose its own pastor but that the parish itself in some important way confers priestly identity on that person, an act which the bishop merely ratifies.

There is also a theology of the Eucharist which minimizes the priestly role almost to the vanishing point. Once again it is the community which makes Christ present in the Eucharist, through its own faith, and it is the community which in effect "consecrates" the bread and wine. The traditional notion of the "real presence" is considered primitive and outmoded, the important presence of Jesus being in and through his people. Hence ordination, once again, is a formality.

By the time this pattern of unordained "priests" becomes well known it will be so widespread as to pose a serious disciplinary problem. Liberal bishops will in effect tell people to choose their own theology: "You can either believe that the pastoral minister really is a priest and really does celebrate Mass, or that she is not and merely presides over a ceremony which happens to resemble the Mass." But even to be concerned with such questions will itself be taken as evidence of a retarded theological viewpoint.

When the existence of this practice finally becomes known, the Holy See will be confronted with a situation of actual schism, of whole dioceses which in effect have cut themselves off from the sacramental life of the Church. At that point the Holy See will also be confronted with a stark dilemma -- a situation which cries out for action but at the same time holds grave potential for bitter and divisive conflict.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock


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