by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

One Catholic journalist has called it “a functional schism” in the American Catholic Church. He is referring of course to the very public statement criticizing President Biden made by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, President of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the challenging reactions by equally prominent church leaders like Cardinals Blaise Cupich, Joseph Tobin and Bishop Robert McElroy.

The issue centers on this second Catholic president and his policies which Archbishop Gomez criticized as “advancing moral evils and threatening human life and dignity most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.” Cupich used the term “ill-considered” to describe Gomez’s statement. A senior Vatican official called it “most unfortunate” and said it could create even greater divisions within the church in the United States. Pope Francis made no mention of the criticism in his congratulatory message to President Biden.

So we do have a full-blown and very public breakdown (schism) brewing here. While it is very unfortunate, surely unsettling for many American Catholics and fodder for sensationalist and often incorrect media commentaries, it is not all that surprising. We’ve been here before.

For our own peace of mind and a means of responding to this latest ecclesial impasse it’s well to remember that our Church has had these sorts of divisions since the very beginning:

  • Jesus himself said of one apostle he had chosen: “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?” (John 6:70)  
  • Paul had a serious – and public – difference with Peter over contacts with Jewish vs Christian Christians. Paul wrote about the matter to the Community at Galatia: “I opposed him to his face.” (Galatians 2:11)

Through our 2000 year history we have numerous examples of such intra-family battles:

  • St. Francis of Assisi opposed vehemently the Fifth Crusade against the Muslims, a Crusade sponsored by two popes, Innocent III and Honorius III. The Poverello traveled personally to the war zone in Egypt trying to halt the conflict.
  • St. John Newman was so upset at the end of the long and strange papacy of Pius IX that he wrote: “We have come to a climax of tyranny.” He went on to say, “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without meaning it.” (Less than ten years later the successor of Pius made Newman a Cardinal and in 2009 Pope Benedict declared him a saint.)
  • The fights between traditionalists and progressives at the beginning of Vatican Council II are well-known.

We have always been a fractious crowd and yet our Church nurtured ten of those first Apostles so that in the end they gave their lives for Christ. The Church has produced Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Oscar Romero, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The list of our heroes and heroines is long.

In my own life, providentially, I witnessed the Institutional Church of Latin America turn itself around after Vatican II and present us with the spirit-filled Medellin Documents. Among those gifts to the larger Church and indeed to the wider world were:

  1. A call to itself, laity, religious, clergy and hierarchy, to make a preferential option for the poor in all pastoral decisions.
  2. The analysis of global and national injustices as examples of “institutional sin
  3. Liberation Theology, interpreting God’s Word through the eyes of the oppressed.

Finally, to the point of Archbishop Gomez’s criticism of President Biden. I believe he has forgotten or never knew about Pope St. John Paul II’s statement regarding acts that are intrinsically evil – it goes way beyond “abortion, contraception, marriage and gender”. Making his own a statement from the Conciliar Document, “The Church in the Modern World”, the Pope declares that other evils fall into the category of “intrinsic”; for example “homicide, genocide, deportation, slavery and subhuman living conditions” (JP II, Veritatis Splendor #80).

What did George Santayana say: “Those who cannot remember their past are doomed to repeat it.”


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

5 thoughts on “Schism in the Catholic Church? We’ve been here before.

  1. Thank you for this very clear and important reflection. Beautifully written. I, too, worry about our Church and pray that all will see the message of Jesus as one of love, peace and kindness toward everyone especially the poor and oppressed.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Joseph. Your thoughts are always thought provoking, reassuring, and enlightening. I would expect a statement from the USCCB to congratulate Pres. Biden and perhaps mention areas of concern regarding in trying to care for creation and those most in need. Included in these might be concern related to abortion as well as the poor, marginalized, ill, nuclear disarmament, racism, the death penalty, immigration, various types of trafficking, etc. Having read his statement, Archbishop Gomez created a lopsided presentation-focusing his comments on the one issue too often pigeonholing American Catholics. In reality, I feel that American Catholics are and should be characterized by concern about the other issues as well. This should by made more of the public knowledge(medial included). Again, I thank you!

  3. While Bishops should be teachers of the faith, they must also remember that the government in the United States is a democracy, unlike the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The president is not a monarch who can enact legislation with an encyclical or infallible declaration. The Bishops would do better to teach the faith to the citizens and appeal to their consciences than to make demands of politicians. That is the way to change laws – from the bottom up.

  4. I wonder if at some future date the refusal and failure to recognized women as capable of becoming priests might be considered an intrinsic evil inasmuch as “there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

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