Cracks in the Edifice
By Awake! correspondent in France
THAT day the massive towers of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris seemed to symbolize the solidity of the traditional Roman Catholic Church. In the large square in front of the 12th-century edifice, an official church procession commemorated the Assumption of Mary.
Strange to relate, however, on that same August 15, 1986, just a few hundred yards away across the Seine River, a rival procession formed in front of the Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet Catholic church. As the procession wound its way through the streets of the Latin Quarter, it was followed by several thousand Catholics, reportedly many more than were at the official ceremony held at Notre Dame. Yet, both processions were organized by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, and both were in honor of Mary. Why two rival processions to celebrate the same Catholic feast?
This incident well illustrates the cleavages that now divide the Catholic Church. They are spreading in all directions, running through the edifice and splitting it from left to right and from top to bottom.
Progressive Versus Traditional Catholics
To the left are the progressive, or liberal, Catholics. Many of these are tempted by so-called liberation theology, which originated in Latin America. For these, ecumenism, socialism, and even communism are not scare words. But even in Latin America, not all Catholics are in agreement with liberation theology. In Brazil, for example, the Catholic clergy itself is divided between the progressives and the traditionalists.
Traditionalist Catholics are mostly right-wing conservatives who feel that the Second Vatican Council opened the door to reforms that betray traditional Catholicism. They insist that Mass be said in Latin and refuse to fraternize with Protestants or political leftists.
In between are the mainstream Catholics, doubtless the most numerous but not necessarily the most fervent. Both the progressives and the traditionalists feel that middle-of-the-road Catholicism is losing its soul as a result of either too few or too many reforms. Many progressives feel that the reforms do not go far enough and that the church’s political involvement in favor of the poor is too timid. The traditionalists are convinced that post-Vatican II Catholicism is reforming itself out of existence.
Running through these main tendencies are further cleavages, at all levels. Catholics are divided on matters of faith and morals. On questions of faith, or beliefs, such official Catholic dogmas as hellfire, purgatory, original sin, and even the Trinity no longer go unchallenged within the Catholic Church. A recent poll in France, said to be “the oldest daughter of the church,” showed that 71 percent of French Catholics interviewed expressed doubts about life after death, 58 percent denied the existence of hell, 54 percent expressed disbelief in purgatory, and 34 percent did not accept the Trinity.
Admittedly, there are many members of the Catholic Church throughout the world who still fervently believe in these doctrines. But that only serves to prove that Catholics are divided on matters of faith.
“The Central Issue . . . Is Obedience to Rome”
As to morals, Catholics are deeply divided over such matters as sex before marriage, adultery, and homosexuality. Many sincere Catholics are deeply shocked by the permissive attitude of members of their church, including some of the clergy and even certain theologians. Catholics with good morals may be comforted by the fact that the pope has come out strongly against sexual immorality. But does this not simply underscore the disquieting truth that more and more Catholics are challenging the pope’s authority in such matters?
The London Observer recently wrote: “Tensions between the Pope and many of his flock have been expressed in well-publicised disagreements about abortion, artificial birth control, the admission of women to the priesthood and the participation in communion of divorced Catholics. The central issue underlying them is obedience to Rome.”
Bishop James Malone, former president of the National (American) Council of Catholic Bishops, warned of “a growing and dangerous disaffection of elements of the church in the United States from the Holy See.” He spoke of “dissent,” “division,” and “developing estrangement.”
On the other hand, traditionalist Catholics are in open rebellion against the pope because they feel that he is not strict enough. The leading figure in this revolt is a French Catholic archbishop. He has created a movement that has further divided the Roman Catholic Church, as the following article will explain.