In the first installment in this series, I presented the idea that self-identifying and even practicing Catholics may well espouse radically different understandings of what Catholicism is.  I suggested that we can pray side-by-side with someone at Mass, externally saying all the same words and performing all the same outward gestures, professing the same written Creed, but that we could do all this without a shared understanding of what these words and gestures mean.  Externally and on paper, we would both be “Catholic,” but internally, we would not be able to recognize one another’s beliefs as corresponding to same religion.

More than hypothetical

I’m convinced that this scenario is more than hypothetical.  It describes the current state of affairs in most Catholic parishes throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the Western World.  Recent surveys on religion show, in fact, that the overwhelming majority of practicing Catholics—Catholics who attend Mass according to the Church’s precepts—are objectively heretical on some point historically recognized as central to Catholic teaching on faith or morals.

According to Pew’s findings, only 39% of self-identifying Catholics attend Mass at least weekly.  We’ll take that finding to indicate that these 39% attend according to the Church’s precepts, on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.  That means that 61%—a supermajority—don’t do so.  So, ignoring the exceptional cases of homebound Catholics, we can say that only 39% of those who identify as Catholic could even possibly qualify as “orthodox,” since the Sunday obligation actually reflects what the Church believes and teaches about the Eucharist and the Church.

But focusing on this minority, only 16% of this group are prepared to condemn as unacceptable the scenario of an unmarried but cohabitating couple raising children together.  That means that 84% of those who attend Mass with religious regularity believe that cohabitation prior to marriage is not morally problematic.  This issue cuts to the heart of the Church’s constant teaching and tradition regarding human sexuality and the family, and it calls into question the very idea of absolute, universal moral norms, central to Catholic moral teaching.  To dissent on these matters is to derogate from the faith—it’s a matter of heresy.  So, on these two measures alone—admittedly rough measures but nonetheless, real indicators—we’re left with a maximum of 6.25% of self-identifying Catholics who could reasonably be classified as “orthodox.”

I have little doubt that this number would shrink if we dug deeper.

A catastrophic failure

Self-identifying Catholics certainly fall into more than two camps, and some of them are probably made up of people who would happily assent to Church teaching if they knew what it was.  Surveys have revealed, in fact, that significant percentages of self-identifying, Mass-attending Catholics believe in transubstantiation—the Church’s teaching that the consecrated Eucharistic elements are no longer bread and wine but the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ—though they think that their own belief isn’t in line with the teaching of the Church.  Instead, they think that the Church teaches that the consecrated elements are only symbols of Christ’s true presence.

This fact alone is a catastrophic indictment both of contemporary catechesis and of the clarity, focus, and fidelity of preaching in the Church today.  Tragic as this failure is, however, it points to a bigger picture.

The invisible schism within the Catholic Church can only be understood if we can identify the broad forces at work.  There are different constituencies of broadly-orthodox Catholics as well as of heterodox Catholics.  And within the constituencies of heterodox Catholics, a wide range of deviant directions can be identified, forming a kind of coalition, that may last for as long as it’s useful to the parties involved.

The “experts” and the ignorant

There are two main categories into which the heterodox—whatever their particular flavor—may be classed. 

The first category is those who know full well that what they believe isn’t what the Church teaches and wish to alter the Church’s teaching to conform to their belief.  This group is composed largely of members of the “expert class.”  They include certain bishops, priests, and religious, as well as lay theologians and other intellectuals, professional catechists, and diocesan liturgists.  Obviously, there are numerous orthodox members of the “expert class.”  My point here is only that certain members of this class are heterodox and that they constitute a distinct force in the growing invisible schism in the Church.

The second class, by contrast is composed mainly of laypeople under the influence of these experts: those who think that what they believe is in fact what the Church teaches, even though it isn’t.  We’ll call them the “ignorant.”

The plan, as far as I can tell, is that, from among this second group, some will rise up to join the expert class, fully believing that what they’ve been taught is the true teaching of the Church, and de facto, it would assert itself as such.  They will become professional catechists and liturgists, enter religious life, receive holy orders, or earn advanced degrees, all under the guidance of these heterodox members of the expert class.  They’ll be taught that they’ve been freed from the narrow-minded thinking, the judgmental moralism, and the pious rigidity of the unenlightened, to embrace in full what was really essential in the teaching of Christ.

I see plenty of evidence to suggest that this process is well underway.

That said, we can discern numerous threads in today’s heterodox Catholic world, and as I said, the various parties have enough in common to cooperate with each other for the time being, but eventually, tensions will emerge between them as now we see it between that loose coalition and the broadly-orthodox.  The result of all this is a jumbled mess of ambiguity and confusion that makes possible the catechetical failure I mentioned earlier.

A “junk-drawer” of the faith

As of now, remember, the schism of which I speak is still “invisible.”  The theological reality is there, but it hasn’t manifested itself on the level of widespread juridical separation.  We don’t see dioceses breaking off on their own, establishing communion with like-minded bishops and breaking communion with other bishops.  I believe that day is near, if things continue in the direction they’ve been going, but it hasn’t yet arrived, so what we get is something like a junk-drawer of theologies and ideologies.

Some of what’s in there is actually important and worth keeping, but a lot of it is stuff that looked useful once but should really be thrown out.  It’s all tangled up—one handful of miscellanea with another.  There’s a bunch of used paperclips and rubber bands, a few cuts of string, a handful of ball-point pens, and some old receipts for things you no longer own but for which you’d had warranties you’d forgotten about when you finally needed them.  These are all different things, mixed up with each other, and mixed up with the things you really need to keep—like your checkbook or the spare key to the padlock you’ve got mounted on the storage shed out back—or like the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

That’s what it’s like in the Church right now.  In the next installment, we’ll try to sort out the different categories of “junk” in this drawer.