Sense and Nonsense: Quiet Division

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Currently, suggestions multiply that, in the United States, two Catholic churches now exist, something we, especially the bishops, are reluctant to acknowledge. This observation is so frequent that I want to spell the question out, if only for my own clarification. The two churches can exist in every diocese and religious order; but clearly one Church or the other dominates in a given area or religious institution. Those outside the Church see this division clearly and wonder if one Church still exists. For analytic purposes, one church can be called the Roman Church and the other the American Church, though one hesitates to use that terminology since the “Roman” Church has in traditional terms been more patriotic than the “American” Church. Some want to call it a “high/low” church separation, but the division seems fundamental.

The American Church, in general, considers the present Holy Father to be a failure. Still wedded to the “spirit” of Vatican II, it is oblivious to the doctrinal and structural orientation of this pontificate. Little that Rome proposes, admonishes, or teaches is normative or even helpful; everything Roman is restrictive, against “autonomy,” freedom, or conscience. The American scene, we are told, is so different that few traditional norms hold any longer. One hesitates to say that doctrine is totally insignificant to this church, because in fact it has its own rigid doctrines: Priests should marry; divorce is the norm, not the exception; homosexuality is at worst a lifestyle; Mass is primarily a community experience, not a sacrifice.

Service for the poor, the main doctrinal position of the American church, is public and governmental in solution. Confession hardly exists, or, if so, as some sort of communal rite. Hell and ecclesiastical sanctions are things from the Dark Ages. Even the immortality of the soul and eternal life are conceived largely in this-worldly terms. Little is preached that would disturb anyone; a political correctness mirrors current liberal politics. “Rights” are prime over duties. Sincerity and compassion trump the notion of virtue and objective order. All ecclesiastical decisions should be decided “democratically.”

The Roman church remains amazed that we have one of the greatest—if not the greatest—popes in our history. No one has taught as this pope has taught. He has restated and developed practically every classical Christian position, including those of Vatican II, in its coherence and philosophical depth. The Roman Church sees the Mass primarily as an act of worship, not an inward-looking community service or fraternal exchange. Sins still exist. They need personal confession. The much-maligned sexual morality still holds, even on questions of birth control and abortion. In fact, the attack on life is the major moral concern, not the “right” to die.


Family and voluntary solutions are preferred to governmental programs. Prayer, penance, and the sacraments are the core of spiritual life. Things like rosaries, crosses, statues, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and Benediction are still essential to a sane life of piety. Virtue and discipline remain the first task of each person. Charity is not just some program but a personal act. No social reform is possible without personal reform.

Most of our nominally Catholic universities belong by their choice to the American Church. Homeschooling, the pro-life movement, and charismatics belong to the Roman Church. One hesitates to assign bishops to either Church, but clearly this division exists in the episcopate too, or it wouldn’t exist at all. I would not deny that there can be bishops who are 80 percent American and 20 Roman, or vice versa.

We like to think that this contrast is merely one of emphasis and thus not particularly worrisome. The “Roman” Roman Church (if I might use such a term) has always prided itself on a broad-based acceptance of differing spiritualities and emphases that produced different religious orders, rites, and psychologies of spirit. But it has likewise understood that a basic agreement existed about the essentials of doctrine and practice.

In reality, American Catholics search far and wide for a local church or diocese that adopts their view of the Church. Because they see no obviously agreed-upon unity of essentials, people flee and shift. Some take their norms from the classical Roman traditions; others conform themselves to the ongoing values of liberal society that guide the doctrines and practices that are acceptable or emphasized.

Some do not want even to hint that this division is a serious problem, lest it has to be dealt with, perhaps made worse. Others think it is necessary to face the truth of radical divisions. Two churches? This is one issue on which I would like to be wrong.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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