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The Politics of Schism in the Catholic Church

Frank L. Cocozzelli is a regular contributor to, and president of the Institute for Progressive Christianity.

I heard recently from one of my regular readers (I’ll call her “Kathy”) who shared her concerns about the future of our shared faith.  Like me, she is a Roman Catholic with liberal religious and political inclinations.  And, like me, she was distressed by several recent major events in the Church:  the Ryan Report documenting generations of sexual abuse by the clergy in Ireland, the hostility expressed by several American bishops towards Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address, and the recent conversion of Florida’s Father Alberto Cutié to the Episcopal Church.

Cutié, the former Roman Catholic priest and media star (known to many as “Father Oprah” for his advice to those struggling with both personal and religious issues), was exposed in the press as having a girlfriend.  Forced to choose between the celibacy of the Roman Catholic priesthood and the life he wished to live, he left not only the priesthood but the Church.

Kathy believes, as many of us do, that priestly celibacy should be optional and that the priesthood should be open to women.  We object to efforts by Church leaders to force their subjective teachings on non-Catholics and its attacks on religious pluralism and separation of church and state – often in league with the Religious Right.  And we especially object to the belligerence directed at independent-thinking Catholics by a reactionary hierarchy.  These conflicts are making it unbearable for many of us to stay in the Church.  And some us think Church leaders are intentionally squeezing us out.

Kathy isn’t so sure about that.  She observes that many liberal-leaning Catholics like Father Cutié don’t fight back but “just walk away.” She thinks that the reactionary forces within the Catholic hierarchy “are fighting a lost cause,” and that in “their moral posturing over President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, they run the risk of alienating a lot more Catholics than they realize.”

The Catholic Right wants those of us who embrace religious pluralism and liberalization within the church to leave a global religion solely in their hands.

But I think that the Catholic Right and the reactionaries in the hierarchy do indeed know what they are doing.  They want those of us who embrace religious pluralism and liberalization within the church to leave a global religion –with its well-organized hierarchy and diplomatic nation-state status – solely in their hands.  The movers and shakers of the Catholic Right are indeed attempting to provoke a modern day schism within Catholicism and they are willing to lose untold numbers of members in order to achieve a leaner, arguably meaner, but in any case more traditionally orthodox and authoritarian Church.  The Pope himself has called for a "a leaner, smaller, purer church." [1]

Frank L. Cocozzelli
Fall 2009 Vol. 24, No. 3
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