A friend of mine belongs to a ecclesiastical movement going through a rough patch at the moment. Like many laity affiliated with this movement, he is troubled by the information that has come to light about the founder’s secret life, how it may have affected the movement’s methodology and practices, and the response of the movement’s superiors thus far. Mostly, though, he is horrified for the victims of the founder. (Okay, I’m sure most of you can guess which movement he belongs to.)
While expressing his disappointment in what has happened, coupled with hope the movement will accept reform from the Holy See, he said: “At least we don’t have to worry about schism. That’s the one thing this movement has always prided itself on: obedience to the Holy Father. They would lose all credibility with rank-and-file if they went into schism.”
I’m not so sure. I pray schism doesn’t become an option, that the movement accepts and cooperates with the Holy See’s apostolic visitation, but the Church has seen stranger throughout its 2000-year history. Many of these smaller schisms began as movements that prided themselves on fidelity and obedience to the Rome. And many opted for schism when Rome eventually stepped in to suppress the movement, or fundamentally reform it.
Here, in a nutshell, is how the process often plays out. Please note that a movement may skip a step or two on its way to schism, or a couple steps may vary:
1 – A charismatic churchman begins a new movement that pledges complete obedience to the Holy Father.
2 – In pursuing its so-called complete obedience to the Holy Father, the leader and/or the movement downplays the role of the diocesan bishop.
3 – The movement begins to quietly work around the authority of the local bishop.
4 – Bishops who raise concerns or criticism of the movement are portrayed by the movement’s leadership, either openly or quietly, as not supportive of the Holy Father and Catholic orthodoxy.
5 – Criticism from bishops and Church experts is dismissed by the movement’s leadership, which to the movement’s follows will trump up photo ops with the Pope or a papal blessing as proof the movement enjoys the Holy Father’s support.
6 – After numerous complaints from bishops, Church experts and other Catholic faithful, the Roman Curia gets involved.
7 – The movement is initially supportive of curial intervention and investigation, sure that the curia will vindicate the movement and/or founder.
8 – The curial dicastery or apostolic visitator, more or less, finds that the complaints of bishops, experts and concerned laity have merit.
9 – In pursuing its so-called complete obedience to the Holy Father, the leader and/or movement begins to downplay the role of the curia or churchmen appointed by the Holy See to look into the issue.
10 – The movement begins to quietly work around the authority of the Roman curia or curial delegates.
11 – Concerns expressed by curial officials or apostolic visitators or apostolic delegates are portrayed by the movement’s leadership, either openly or quietly, as not supportive of the Holy Father and Catholic orthodoxy.
12 – The standard papal blessings and photo ops come out for a second round as the movement says to its followers: “We have the support of the Pope. But he’s under a lot of pressure from enemies in the Curia. Please pray for him.”
13 – The Holy Father intervenes, either directly or indirectly, to disband the movement, pronounce it schismatic, etc.
14 – The movement refuses to abide by the action, claiming the Pope has been misled or fed false information or otherwise had his hand forced by the movement’s enemies in the Church, many who live in Rome and work at the highest levels of the Church.
15 – Talk about how many saints have been persecuted by high-ranking Churchmen throughout the Church’s history, how this is only a temporary misunderstanding, distinctions between the papal office and the person holding it, and how a future Pope will vindicate the movement.
What you will notice is that nowhere throughout the pattern is the movement prepared to admit its substantial faults, as identified by those outside of the movement. Additionally, when serious criticism pops up against the movement, they will often quibble the minor points while missing the deeper the issue (i.e. “Fr. Founder didn’t fly to Venice every year and vacation for six weeks on the community dime. Rather he made an annual trip to NAPLES, for FIVE WEEKS AND FOURC DAYS, to rest his delicate health so that he could carry out apostolate the rest of the year, which is the only reason he stayed in four-star hotels and ate at expensive restaurants. Get your facts straight!)
I pray this won’t happen in my friend’s case. However, I shared with him this pattern, so that he will at least be aware of some of the signs of potential schism.