Schism, Expulsion, and Ecclesiology

There’s been a lot of news coverage in the Catholic press & blogosphere about the language of schism coming from conservative Catholics after the synod. Like everyone else, I’m a bit surprised to hear such extreme disagreement with the Pope from the folks who have for years identified obedience to the Pope as part of the definition of Catholic.

But at another level, I’m not surprised at all: because the logic of schism is just the logic of expulsion from a different angle. Conservative Catholics have “invited” me, directly or indirectly, with more or less rancor, to expel myself from the Catholic church so many times over the years, I couldn’t begin to count them.

And it hurts, every time.

And it puzzles me, every time, because I can’t imagine, I cannot understand how a person can call herself Catholic and yet say to another Catholic, “You should leave the church.” I can’t understand because I was taught — actually, no, this is something I imbibed from such an early age that when it was taught to me, I recognized it as true — that Catholics have a charism for unity. A charism: a gift that comes with a calling. A charism for unity: while Protestant churches divided into ever finer splinters, the Catholic church stuck together. While Protestants went church-shopping, picking out the flavor of Christianity that they liked best, Catholics stuck with the church through thick and thin, accepting the struggles with what we didn’t like as well as the joys of what we did — rather like a marriage, in fact.[1] Catholics have a gift for unity: we manage for the most part to stay together, to be church together, despite our disagreements. Catholics have a calling to unity: this is part of what it means to be Catholic. Unity is a Catholic distinctive: the successor of Peter serves, embodies, and sacramentalizes the unity of the church.

(I’m not saying we don’t suck at it sometimes. But you can suck at your vocation. We’re all called to be saints, and most of us suck at that.)

Finally in grad school, when I read about the institutional model in Dulles’ Models of the Church, and the 19th century Perfect Society ecclesiology that preceded it, I had a cognitive framework for how it was that other Catholics could tell me, with more or less vitriol, that I should leave the church, or wasn’t really a Catholic. According to those ecclesiologies,
the church is an institution very much like a nation-state, and its relationship to its members is fundamentally juridical. Being Catholic means abiding by the laws of the church. If you don’t abide by the laws of the church, how can you even call yourself a Catholic? I could intellectually see that sometimes it wasn’t vitriol, but rather sputtering epistemological frustration: That’s what Catholic means!!

But even then, it was an identity claim. The repeated “invitations” to leave were an attempt to defend and strengthen the identity Catholic by defining it over against people like me, people who believed what I believed. Excommunication, whether rhetorical or canonical, is an attempt to purify the church by expelling the Other.

And it works.
For a while.

Follow me while I shift into mimetic ecclesiology, here. Mimetic theory explicates the universal human pattern to temporarily resolve mimetic rivalry and quell mimetic conflict by accusing and expelling a scapegoat. Are there simmering conflicts in the village? It must be her fault, that strange old woman who lives alone, or his fault, that fellow with a wandering eye: they put a curse on the town, and if we just drive them out (or burn them, or stone them), that will solve the problems!

And it does. For a while. Because the unifying effect of righteously accusing and expelling the one person, or the one group, who (we can all decide) is to blame, is powerful. All the other differences, all the other conflicts and rivalries, fade into insignificance compared to the bonding effect of expelling a scapegoat. For a while. Until next time.

As in the village, so in the church. Are there simmering conflicts in the church? Are there rivalries over authority, power, money, truth, tradition, liturgy, gender, history? Is there confusion and anxiety over Catholic identity, over the spirit of Vatican II versus the reform of the reform? It must be his fault.

It’s not confusion that is of the devil, it’s expulsion: so says mimetic theology. (Catholics have a charism for unity.) Satan’s last, greatest trick, as Rene Girard put it: to apparently expel himself, as the scapegoat is identified as the source of evil and driven out, but the spirit of divisiveness, the Accuser, the Satan, remains and has in fact taken over the crowd, the church. (Catholics have a charism for unity.) Mimetic ecclesiology insists, with Paul’s letters, with John’s Jesus, that the church is to be one, “as the Father and I are one.” (Catholics have a charism for unity.)

And schism, the kind of schism where a whole group takes themselves off in a huff, is just expulsion writ large and upside-down. Instead of the main body of the church expelling (excommunicating) some number of individuals, a schism occurs when a (usually small) group within the church rhetorically expels the main body. It looks as if the small group has broken away from the large one, but pay attention: the small group, in fact, lays claim to the identity of the true church, thus expelling the larger body.

Schisms or excommunications, whether based on offenses against right belief or right action, are always associated with an ecclesiology in which the church (institution or community) is ordered towards some thing: a set of behaviors, or beliefs, or the eucharist; and, more or less explicitly, salvation itself. Mimetic theory has repeatedly shown that human communities which are ordered towards a thing are doomed to rivalry and violence. Mimetic ecclesiology insists that the church is ordered towards desire for God. This is not an innovation, for this strand of church tradition has been woven into the tapestry of the church from the start. The difference is that mimetic ecclesiology, informed by mimetic theory, insists that this characteristic must be lifted up and allowed to shape ecclesiological belief and practice. Only in this way can the church truly be a life-giving structure of blessing, the good news of the gospel.

There is more (much more) I could say about mimetic ecclesiology, expulsion, and schism: it turned out to be the culminating chapter of my master’s thesis, from which I adapted the above paragraph. But let me just hit the high points, because the thing about mimetic theology generally and mimetic ecclesiology specifically is that it offers practical guidance as well as theological illumination.

– The first thing to know about schism and expulsive discourse is that it’s never just about the apparent issue at hand. Especially if the discourse is occurring in the context of mimetic rivalry and crisis, the issue at hand, even when legitimately substantive, is just a proxy: the conflict is really about rivalry and identity.

– Humans are easily scandalized: hooked into a self-perpetuating state of moral outrage and righteous indignation that overrides both rational and charitable response-ability. Don’t focus on what you see as evil: look away from what gets you pumped up on self-righteousness. Reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin.

– Practice empathy. (Especially empathy for the people on the “other side,” whichever side that is for you.) Empathy damps scandal and resists scapegoating, because empathy attends deeply to the humanity and personhood of the other, which is exactly what scandal and scapegoating obscure and deny. Empathy is a spiritual work of mercy.

One article I read about reactions to the synod described consternation on the right, and “glee” on the left. The language evoked an image of Vatican II liberals indulging in an orgy of vindictiveness, returning with interest every little bit of nastiness they had ever received from the conservatives. I must say, I don’t know anybody who has been “gleeful.”

I admit to a bit of giddiness, but it arises from a feeling of relief after having been long besieged, and now finally, finally, hearing from Rome language that matches the church in which I was raised. Of course I’m tempted to Schadenfreude, to pointedly wonder how it feels now that the shoe’s on the other foot, but I resist it. I don’t feel any inclination to “invite” my conservative sistren and brethren to go ahead and leave the church already, because I still don’t really get how Catholics can do that to each other (Catholics have a charism for unity!), but I can understand the impulse. But both types of behavior simply reinforce the mirroring of mimetic rivalry and the expulsive dynamics of scapegoating: they are bad for me, bad for the church, and directly contravene Jesus’ teaching to return good for evil, and to pray for those who have persecuted us.

I do not want my conservative Catholic sisters and brothers to leave the church, either in schism or in individual migrations to other denominations. I do not want a smaller, purer, church. Even if the resulting church would more closely match my ecclesiology, align with my values, and support my spiritual life: it might be all those things, but it would no longer be catholic.

When Pope Francis jointly canonized John XXIII and John Paul II, it was clear to me that this was a creative gesture of reconciliation, an attempt to unify the liberal and conservative, Vatican 2 Catholics and JP2 Catholics. Their feastdays are October 11 (John XXIII, the date of the opening of the Council) and October 22 (John Paul II, the day he began his papal ministry).

I propose that these twelve days be observed as days of prayer for Catholic unity, in the same way that the days between the feasts of St. Peter and St. Paul are observed as days of prayer for Christian unity. (Given all the talk about schism, I regret even more deeply that I did not make this proposal as soon as it occurred to me. This year, perhaps we can observe the days of 11-22 November, instead.) I am convinced that both saints are praying for the unity of the church they served: so let’s join them.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1] I normally try to avoid rhetoric that defines Catholics over against Protestants. In this case, I’m describing what I imbibed from a very young age, so I ask the indulgence of my Protestant sisters and brothers this time.

Further/related reading:
A Clash of Ecclesiologies by Greg Hillis, which also has a good roundup of relevant material (and to whom I gratefully tip my hat for bringing ecclesiology into the conversation on Twitter)
– On the logic of schism by Andrew Brown
Francis, Discipleship, Fandom, and Factionalism, a post from last year on some related concepts that made it into my thesis in slightly different form

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10 Responses to Schism, Expulsion, and Ecclesiology

  1. Andrew says:

    ” [1] I normally try to avoid rhetoric that defines Catholics over against Protestants. In this case, I’m describing what I imbibed from a very young age, so I ask the indulgence of my Protestant sisters and brothers this time.”

    No problem. How do the Orthodox churches fair on issues of unity, by the way? I’ve been listening to a lot of lectures on medieval history (both western and eastern) lately, and wonder how the notion of universal churches (Catholic and Orthodox) in universal empires (Roman, Holy Roman and Byzantine) affects the tendency towards unity versus splintering.

    • Andrew says:

      P.S. Meant to add this link about the effect of the automobile on church-shopping and parish-shopping

      • Thanks. Yeah, automobile mobility affects other things, too: I was shocked to hear language from the “smaller, purer church” contingent a few years ago along the lines of “so what if there are fewer parishes, people drive an hour and a half to go to the mall, why not to church as well?” This shocked me for several reasons:
        – WHO drives an hour and a half to go to the mall?? Not me, that’s for sure!
        – Err, not everyone HAS cars. And mass transit is notoriously more limited on weekends. It just seemed like a very privileged statement.
        – It’s a lot harder to be a real community, that can check in on folks in trouble or give people rides to church or so forth, if you’re not geographically localized.

    • This is not my area of expertise; but, as best I understand it, the Orthodox churches are autocephalous, on a national basis. The Greek, Russian, Armenian, Ukrainian & so on Orthodox Churches each have their own patriarch, and are juridically self-governing. The Patriarch of Constantinople has primacy in the Orthodox Church, but it’s not juridical power. I think the Orthodox have an ecclesiology of communion, similar in some ways to the Anglican communion.

      I have the vague impression that there have been some schisms among the Orthodox, but that they have generally been more explicitly about power than about doctrine.

  2. waywardson23 says:

    I understand “Catholics have a charism for unity”, yet eventually there is a point where differences are such that unity has real no meaning. That’s why anathemas and excommunications are sometimes necessary. They are a way of saying “holding X belief means you are NOT united with us”, For example, someone who denies either the divinity or humanity of Christ would not be united with the Catholic Church, no matter how much they wanted to be, because this belief is incompatible with the Faith.

    At what point should one “draw the line” so to speak? When does diversity become disunity?

    • Of course, there do exist church-dividing issues. (Which is language normally used in the context of ecumenism and schism, but per my point above, excommunication is the same dynamic writ small.) But this should be a very high bar, and a last resort rather than a first, a final question rather than an initial question.

      Most importantly, the declaration that “we are not members of the same Body” (which is not necessarily identical to “we do not believe the same things,” which is itself not identical to “we do not express our beliefs in the same terms”) should be discerned prayerfully, mutually, in a Spirit of fraternal and sororal charity, hope, and longing for unity.

      • I think that, historically, the Church has a high bar. I heard a joke that said that 90% of Haitians are Catholic, and 100% of them practice voodoo. And yet, for centuries, the Church has made room for practitioners of voodoo. If they excommunicated people for practicing Voodoo, there would be no one left in the Haitian churches.

  3. There’s an excellent piece by Russell Pollitt explaining that under Pope Francis, the question “Holy Father, what do you want us to do?” fails to grasp how discernment works.

  4. Pingback: The Purpose of the Papacy, Francis, and the Synod | Gaudete Theology

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