The touchstone of the Petrine office is unity. Above all other things Peter’s successor is the rock upon which the Church is built. The gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church because, thanks to the Holy Spirit, the pope as the visible head shall remain faithful to her invisible head, Jesus Christ. Popes can be weak. Popes can also be immoral. But above all they cannot fail to keep the Church—as much of the Church as possible—united.
Unity is a tricky thing. How exactly is it measured? While we can point to teachings and practices that place someone outside the bounds of the Church, heterodoxy and heteropraxy don’t always lead to separation. Take the liturgical upheavals of the 60s and 70s. I heard stories of priests celebrating masses with pizza and Coke. I saw the remnants of women aspiring to be priests through monthly homilies at my campus ministry. Though extreme, these are among many anecdotes and examples that show so-called Catholics practicing and acting in ways that violate the church’s law.
Yet, curiously enough, none of the pizza-mass priests were formally expelled from the Church. Rather, it was traditionalists, the Lefebvrites, who found themselves on the outside looking in. They were branded separatists. They were the ones whose unity with the Church was ruptured. Ultimately, I’m not certain we got it right. But the observation is worth noting for effect: Today you rarely hear of pizza-celebrating priests. But the extraordinary form has found a secure home in the Church for the foreseeable future.
Could it be that schism and separation, rather than being salutary for schismatics, has the effect of simply galvanizing the exiled? That is, had the pizza-mass priests been expelled in the 70s and 80s, might we today see separatist churches devolving toward some sort of non-liturgical protestant sect? It’s too curious a phenomenon to ignore, one that suggests the best way to deal with heterodoxy and heteropraxy is simply to let it die a slow, natural death within the safe harbor of the Church.
In that light, Holy Father Francis’ flirtation with communion for the divorce and remarried might make sense under his duty to the Petrine office.
Don’t mistake, I am saying this as a casual observer, not one studied or stooped in curial and episcopal politics. But it seems we have two competing claims. On the one hand, the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the consequence that has for sacramental admittance for the divorce and remarried. On the other hand, a group of prelates (mainly German) who seem intent to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. The former is an unchanging position; the latter is heterodox.
So Francis has concluded, better to keep the dissenters within the walls of the Church than risk, half a millennium later, another schism out of Germany. The judgment is one of a statesman. It is a risky and hard decision. But the reality is that in the long-run the Church outlives the lineage of any heresy that crops up within her. The Holy Father knows that the house always wins.
This leaves the likes of Cardinal Burke on the outside looking in. He, too, like Francis wants unity for the Church, but he believes the ultimate move against heterodoxy is expulsion, if there is no amendment. If the lesson of the 60s and 70s is any guide, though, Francis is making the right move. He is marginalizing Cardinal Burke by ignoring his dubia and keeping the heterodox at arm’s length. He is guaranteeing that Cardinal Burke’s vision for an orthodox and faithful Church lives on and that the German bishops’ quest for change dies a slow, natural, but ultimately unfruitful death. The disagreement between Francis and Burke is not one of vision but one of strategy. This, of course, forces us to ask:
What if Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis are really on the same side?