The Multiple Religions Coexisting Within the Catholic Church

The divisions within today's Church represent not merely conflicting views on how best to practice Catholicism, but conflicting views on what makes Catholicism's rule of faith.

St. Paul wrote that the Church is “one body and one Spirit…[with] one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5); however, someone could be forgiven for believing that we currently have multiple “faiths”—i.e., multiple religions—existing within the one Catholic Church. Consider our present situation.

The German “Synodal Way” is on a straight path to schism, while American traditionalists are accused of having a “schismatic mentality.” A growing number of Catholics are questioning whether Pope Francis is really the pope, while others are cheerleading his every confusing move. Meanwhile, millions of Catholics are just trying to survive this confusing mess with their faith—and sanity—intact.

Some might say that these types of divisions have always existed in the Church, and they’d be right (see 1 Corinthians). Yet today’s divisions are different. They represent not conflicting views on how best to practice Catholicism, but conflicting views on what makes our “rule of faith,” the kernel of core beliefs and the means by which we receive those beliefs. This, then, makes the various camps within Catholicism in practice different religions, even though they all outwardly belong to the same visible Church.

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What are some of these various religious camps uneasily coexisting within the Church today? Let’s look at the four most prominent in an attempt to understand today’s confusing Catholic Church.

First, there are the hyperpapalists, whose rule of faith in essence has become the pronouncements of The Current Pope, even if those pronouncements clearly contradict previous popes’ pronouncements or even official teachings of the Church. We know what to believe by simply looking to see what The Current Pope says we should believe. 

The hyperpapalists—with or without saying so—have made Lumen Gentium 25 their overriding principle of faith. That Vatican II text states we must give our “religious submission of mind and will” to the pope, and the hyperpapalists have (mis)interpreted this to mean that, in practice, we must agree with all The Current Pope’s statements and decisions, even if they are not directly related to faith and morals and even if they are not in any way official magisterial declarations. The pope has become like a modern political party leader, who cannot be questioned. To do so could jeopardize his “Catholicism Party.” 

So if this pope says civilly divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion, even though the perennial teaching of the Church—and the explicit teaching of a recent pope—says otherwise, we need to shift gears and follow The Current Pope. Only by doing so can we keep to the (ever-changing) rule of faith.

The cousins of the hyperpapalists form another camp, the sedevacantists. Like the hyperpapalists, they also believe we must slavishly follow the pope’s teachings and opinions on all matters. However, since it’s clear that our current pope’s opinions diverge from those of previous pontiffs, they conclude that this pope cannot actually be a pope and therefore the see of Peter is vacant. 

For sedevacantists, then, the rule of faith is The Last Legitimate Pope. Everything in the Church after The Last Legitimate Pope is to be condemned and rejected. Typically the sedevacantists look to a certain moment in time—perhaps, the 1950’s—as the pinnacle of Catholicism that must be regained.

Next are the liberals, who simply want to remake the Church into the image of mainstream Protestantism and make their rule of faith an acceptance of The Current Thing (contraception, abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, etc.). They want the Church to conform to the world, rather than the other way around. They may at times be confused with hyperpapalists, since Pope Francis often appears to agree with them, but if we get a more conservative pope in the future they will quickly transform into critics of The Current Pope (and maybe even become sedevacantists!). 

A final religious camp are the restorationists. The rule of faith for restorationists is that integrated core of teachings and practices that have been handed on from generation to generation in the Church. They accept Francis as the legitimate pope but believe that he often strays in his teachings and opinions from that rule of faith that’s been passed on to us, and they are willing to criticize him when that happens.

Unlike the sedevacantists, restorationists do not reject the legitimate application of the development of doctrine. They understand that the liturgy and our understanding of the faith can develop over time, slowly and organically. This development isn’t equivalent to the latest papal pronouncements; it reflects the developing sensus fidelium—the “sense of the faithful” (which never rejects the sensus fidelium of previous generations).

In summary: the hyperpapalists want a Catholicism that is only the current pope; the sedevacantists want a Catholicism that only has a perfect pope; the liberals want a Catholicism where the zeitgeist is the pope; and the restorationists want a Catholicism that includes all the popes, past and present.

How can these four camps be reconciled? To be blunt, they can’t. They are, in practice, four different religions, currently contained within one visible Church. When the very rule of faith is different, then so is the religion. This is a situation that cannot hold; eventually, the veneer of unity will wear thin and disappear. And, if we are being honest, none of the above camps can exist for the long-term.

Hyperpapalism cannot last because that religion is founded on men—the popes. While all Catholics should acknowledge that the pope is the visible head of the Church, we should place our faith in the office of the papacy, not on individual popes, even The Current Pope. History has made clear that individual popes can make mistakes, have terrible opinions, and even lead people astray by their public teachings. If you just blindly accept the latest opinions of The Current Pope, you must set aside your reason, rejecting the principle of non-contradiction. It’s fideism, not Catholicism. The Catholic religion has always seen faith as building on reason, not rejecting it.

Nor can Sedevacantism last. What happens after 100 years, or 150 years, or 200 years, with no acceptable pope? Who decides who is an acceptable pope? Such a situation devolves into a permanent pope-less Church, which is Protestantism dressed up as Catholicism. It’s not sustainable in the long run.

Further, the liberals who want to remake the Church into the image of mainline Protestantism are on a road to nowhere. If they get their wish, they have destroyed the Church: it will no longer be a rock on which we can place our trust, but just another ever-changing human institution chasing the latest Current Thing. We already know how that story ends: just look at today’s dying Anglican Church.

And while I’d personally argue that restorationism is the most appropriate response in today’s Church, it too as a movement also cannot survive long-term. A movement that resists the current direction of the highest officials in the Church must by its very nature be a temporary movement, else it too becomes dressed-up Protestantism. 

We know from history that the Church hierarchy can lead the Church down a mistaken path for decades (see: the Arian crisis and the Great Western Schism), but eventually the course is corrected. If restorationists in the 22nd century are still battling with the hierarchy over the same issues as today, then it would be hard not to conclude that the restorationists are wrong, or the Holy Spirit really has stopped guiding the Church.

Of course, millions of confused and struggling Catholics don’t always fit neatly into one of the above camps (nor do they want to); they are just trying to make sense of it all. Depending on the issue at hand, they may sympathize with one group over another.

Conservative-leaning Catholics might be receptive to restorationism sometimes and hyperpapalism at other times. Traditionalist Catholics might be restorationists or sedevacantists (which sometimes changes based on how scandalized they are by Pope Francis that day). Liberal Catholics are, well, liberals all the time, but as already noted, they will put on a hyperpapalist mask under a friendly pope like Pope Francis. 

Most Catholics, however, likely want to say they are “just Catholics”—no camps for me, thank you very much. Ultimately, however, they have to deal with today’s situation like everyone else. Because of the confusion coming out of Rome, we must pick a camp, temporarily, even while acknowledging that all these camps must one day fade away so that everyone in the Church can again be truly united as “one faith.”

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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