Conflict and Communion: It’s later than you think

There’s a story about the Council of Ephesus that I doubt is true. What they say is that the assembled bishops were preparing to call the Mother of God “Christotokos,” and an angry mob of Ephesian laity heard about it and stormed the assembly, and the frightened bishops declared the Blessed Virgin to be Theotokos instead.

Another story has to do with the 2nd Council of Lyons, to which St. Thomas Aquinas was traveling, carrying his treatise On the Errors of the Greeks , when he died. The Greek bishops were required to sing the Creed with a triple filioque, thus restoring unity between East and West–a unity that did not last.

The days of schism, if we are not very careful, are upon us. The question at hand is the perennial one: to whom does this Church belong? If we are not to be clericalist, or Gallican, or neo-Protestants, I think we have to be careful how we answer that question.

There was a time, in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, when to differentiate themselves from more lukewarm institutions with Catholic heritages, young fervent institutions would announce that they were “faithful to the magisterium.” This was a statement of two things: continuity with the Holy Spirit’s revelation through the Church’s life and teaching, and trust in the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church. Renegade theologians and pagan religious were wreaking a great deal of havoc, but the teaching of the Church remained true to itself and to Jesus, as the Holy Spirit reminded us of all He had told us.

Where, one sometimes wonders, is that magisterium now? Who among the ordinary magisterium is determined to teach the faith in apostolic continuity?

That is one side of the problem, and one of two reasons why some bishops, such as Cardinal Dolan at the moment, are probably feeling like the laity will not give them the benefit of the doubt. The first reason, which continues to go unaddressed, seven months now after the McCarrick scandal became public, is the astonishing unaccountability of bishops for even the most condemnable of crimes. The injustice is absolutely wrenching. The second reason has to do with truth. Where exactly is the magisterium? Are there pastors for whom the care of souls is uppermost in mind? Is perseverance in the perennial teaching a priority for most?

In the absence of apostolic teaching, people will run to those who at least hold the truth. And that is the other side of this very dangerous time: the growing electronic industry that relies on intimidation, “outing,” and scandal for its fame and fortune.

I’m afraid these two parties are at an impasse. Bishops cannot condone scandalmongering. They should not. Faithful, educated Catholics cannot abide predatory shepherds or erroneous teaching. They should not. And so here we are.

It seems to me that the ball is in the bishops’ court. Not about Archbishop McCarrick; the Holy See has reserved that judgment to itself.  But about the rest, there is plenty to do. At this historical moment, bishops can become holy and bold, sheep-concerned, and forgetful of ambition. Many are; for those who are not, this is the hour for true greatness and heroism.

For the Catholic tabloids and those who skirt along the edges of that industry, it is worthwhile to examine one’s conscience frequently. Am I helping or hurting? Will I be happy when the crisis is over?

There is not a “side” in schism that is without fault. The Catholic Church will always hold and teach the truth. But historically, time and time again, things might not have gone so badly if we had acted with better judgment.