On Friday, January 3, leaders of the second largest Protestant affiliation in the United States, the United Methodist Church, announced that, due to irreconcilable differences in moral theology, the competing orthodox and progressive camps within the group were going to formally split. This was not a surprise. The divide had been foretold by a General Conference meeting (think of a group-wide ecumenical council) that took place in February of last year. During the conference, Methodist leaders from around the world sought to define their collective position on calling same-sex couples “married” and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. In a highly contentious vote, the orthodox won out with 53% of the vote, and it was predicted at the time that schism between the two camps was now inevitable.
Given recent events and statements throughout the Catholic world and a number of parallels between the circumstances of the UMC’s split and the current realities of the Catholic Church, this event may be worthy of examination as a cautionary tale.
We don’t yet know what the final outcomes of the Amazon synod will be, but if some of the more consequential recommendations regarding priestly celibacy and women’s ordination are adopted, what we will see is an exception made for a specific region to the Catholic Church’s traditional teachings and disciplines. This regional synod approach is not unlike the half-measure initially proposed by the Methodist leadership to avoid schism. In May of 2018, the judicial council of the UMC suggested that the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and performing same-sex so-called weddings be left to regional leadership, or (in an echo of the guidance regarding the reception of Holy Communion by the civilly divorced and remarried seen in Amoris Laetitia) individual pastors. It was this suggestion that led to the subject’s inclusion in the UMC general conference.
The vote at the UMC’s general conference to affirm the orthodox view of sexual morality was close and regionally fractious. The majority of U.S. and Western leaders wished to adopt a more progressive direction, as most of the rest of mainline Protestantism has done. It was the conservatives in the United States, aided by the leadership from nations in Africa, who allowed those of orthodox belief to be in the majority.
This is not unlike the situation the Catholic Church currently finds itself in. The Catholic Church in Africa continues to trend more orthodox and conservative than much of the West in matters of moral theology, and African prelates tend to view the progressive inclinations of their European counterparts with some suspicion (Cardinal Sarah being an important case in point). The locus of criticism against progressive shifts within the Church likewise comes from Catholics in the United States, though by no means is such criticism unique to American Catholicism.
The overall American Church seems not unlike the American UMC in moral belief. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, support for redefining marriage is around 49% for members of the UMC and 57% for Catholics. Acceptance of homosexuality was at 70% for Catholics and 60% for the UMC. When it comes to heterodox beliefs on this topic within our ranks, we actually surpass the UMC. I’m not sure if it is comforting that we can reach such levels without schism, or simply disturbing that so many who identify themselves with the Church are willing to reject its teachings.
Unlike the UMC, we do not settle things in the Catholic Church by the vote of a conference. Even a synod’s documents must be ultimately approved by the pope. There is a final review authority. Naturally, this does not remove the potential for these questions to be contentious and controversial even if settled by papal pronouncement. Perhaps this is why we haven’t had a schism, though it seems the whisperings about the possibility have grown recently. In September, Pope Francis stated that he’s “not afraid of schism” within the Catholic Church. As Father Thomas Weinandy wrote in October, “[o]ne cannot help but think that Francis is referring to members of the Church in the United States. Francis receives, from America, his most theologically challenging and pastorally concerned criticism, which centers on a questionable remaking of the faith and of the Church.” Father Weinandy goes on to express his belief that what Francis does not realize is that the orthodox Catholics of the United States are quite unlikely to initiate a schism.
If the conservatives in the Catholic Church are unlikely to turn schismatic, what of the progressives? An “unofficial” German synod began on the first Sunday of Advent last year and is questioning key positions of the Church, including those on the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, and sexual morality. Cardinal Reinhard Marx has stated that the German bishops don’t feel bound to wait for Rome’s approval; “just because it’s not technically a synod does not mean that the results of the process are not authoritative and binding.” Fr. Weinandy’s piece argues against this resulting in schism as well, stating that the more heterodox elements within the Church are unlikely to be willing to lose the authoritative voice that comes with Catholic identity.
Here we have the final point I will bring up regarding the UMC’s split. It is the progressives who are retaining the name and mantle of the “United Methodist Church.” The orthodox adherents of Methodist beliefs are to be spun off as a “traditional Methodist” organization. This gives the split more of a feeling of the progressives expelling the stumbling blocks impeding their agenda of change than it does a mutual parting of the ways. It’s interesting that this is occurring in this manner despite the orthodox holding a majority, however slight, at the previous general conference.
Does this mean that a schism is likely to occur within the Catholic Church as well? While I do not believe so, I do find some of the similarities troubling. The comparisons are imperfect, but there are enough there that the examination of these events is warranted. That being said, there is much more preventing such an occurrence in the Catholic Church than there is among any Protestant sect. After all, the entire existence of the myriad of Protestant sects being due to such irreconcilable disagreements with each other. We must continue to pray for unity in our Church.