by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The question increasingly presents itself: is there a functional schism in the Roman Catholic Church today? For a start it needs to be said that the question is one for experts in ecclesiology, church history, Vaticanology. However, it is also a matter of enormous pastoral concern for everyone. Hence, some thoughts from that direction.

Pope Francis has recently spoken clearly about the serious criticism of his approach to life and Catholic faith. Referring to his surgery this past July, the Pope said: “Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die … They were preparing for the conclave [election of a new pope].” Referring to a question about people who look on him with suspicion, Francis was forthright: “There is a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.”

(Pope Francis accepts wholeheartedly criticism directed at him personally: “I deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner; but the Church does not deserve them.”)

These anecdotes point to a deeper reality in the Catholic communion. He constantly speaks about preachers who are recognized by their “rigidity” which contrasts with “preaching the Gospel which makes us free, makes us joyful.” He is deeply concerned about what he perceives as a divisive clericalism in the Church that is manifest in such rigidity. He wants the Church to “go forward” and not be held back by those who cling to rules and regulations which no longer serve the people of God.

We know some of this functional schism that Francis encounters among misguided bishops. They receive more than should be their share of publicity (the best example being Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who has been outspoken in his criticisms of Pope Francis).

From a pastoral point of view, this fissure in the Catholic Church affects the people of God on every side. For example among progressive Catholics, the “politically correct” attitude toward the bishops of the United States is often one of dismissal. For sure our hierarchy today leaves so much to be desired in terms of pastoral ministry. However, as one theologian critic of the bishops put it, “They are not bad men; they deserve reproach, not rejection.”

It would be healthy to examine our own consciences here. For example, how does Pax Christi see itself viz a viz the institutional church? Have we perhaps disassociated ourselves practically with that institution? The temptation is real and understandable but the question remains: how does such a position affect the Body of Christ?

Religious congregations of men and women also could ask: Are we more of a parallel church than united with the people of God? Isn’t the role of vowed women and men that of being loyal critics, prophets, within the institution?

The wonderful movement of Intentional Eucharistic Communities has contributed greatly to our post-Vatican II church life. They exemplify much that is needed there: lay leadership, independence from the rigidity of which Pope Francis speaks; freedom to experiment liturgically. However, is there not the real danger that IECs can, despite their stated Catholic identity, begin to see themselves as “the real Church” – and drift toward a sectarianism which has hurt the Christian Church since its beginning?

By way of conclusion, two examples of outstanding churchmen who shine a light toward a path for us toward to the kind of unity Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper.

The first is Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff of Brazil. When told by his ecclesiastical superiors to stop writing about his criticisms of the institutional church, he acceded and said: “I would rather walk together with the Church than alone with my theology.” The other is Jesuit Karl Rahner. In his days under a Vatican cloud as a groundbreaking theologian, he advised “humility, patience and courage” as the way to overcome what Pope Francis calls “division that comes from the devil”.


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.

One thought on “What does it mean to be “loyal critics” of the Church?

  1. Thanks Father… I find your questions “right on”. As I struggle to be “alive” and “woke”… I so much do not want to be, as I was at an earlier stage in my life…. I could easily slide over the line and become an “unloving critic” , so anxious was I to not be an “uncritical lover”.
    I find a good practice for myself is to have a prayer board with the names of those who have been “called out” for certain attitudes, behaviors and teachings. I don’t have to think about them a whole lot or tell God how to set them straight. I just need to commend them and myself to God’s compassionate love.
    The other side of the sandwich board has the people and organizations I already love to love. Sometimes I write them a little note of recognition and gratitude. Peace to you and all who practice non-violent communication.

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