Schism or Evolution?

Something momentous is happening in our midst. The concerted efforts to oust Pope Francis are deeply tied to the perverted crisis of abuse embedded in ecclesiastical power structures.  While some may spiritually rely on Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well”, the fact is, all is not well and will not be well unless the Church undergoes a deconstruction of power and authority and a reconstruction along new lines of inclusivity and integrated systems.

Evolution is the term used to describe the way biological life unfolds into new forms and structures over time. It is not a linear process but one of complexification whereby environmental factors, including stress and crisis, play a role in selecting out traits or behaviors that will optimize life. Intrinsic to this process are the forces of resistance, breakdown, devolution, and death. Considering the extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the more recent ideological battle between Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Pope Francis, I am led to ask, is schism now necessary for the evolution of the Church?

Bill Dinges who is professor of Religion and Culture at Catholic University, recently wrote an insightful essay on why teens are leaving the church  and the results are sobering.  The millennial generation, he claims, has moved on from institutional religion. “Religious disaffiliation cuts across almost all traditions, although not equally,” Dinges writes. “It occurs among all age cohorts, but more dramatically among younger millennial and Generation Z respondent. Catholic disaffiliation—which currently represents the greatest net loss of any American religious group—mirrors the intergenerational and intragenerational realignment of religious preference and disaffiliation characteristic of the current American religious landscape in general.” Professor Dinges states unequivocally, “studies of religious disaffiliation point unmistakably in the direction of a post-Christian American future.”  Given the present chaotic state of the Roman Catholic Church and the data on the rise of “nones” (those with no institutional affiliation), it is reasonable to suggest that the Catholic Church, at least in North America, will not survive long into the future.

The data on religious disaffiliation and the recent crises in the Catholic Church are intertwined. The battle between Archbishop Viganò and Pope Francis reflects the deep underlying tensions in the Church between what Michael Sean Winters calls the “EWTN Catholics,” those who want to restore the Church to a pristine past and post-Vatican II Catholics who support Pope Francis’s agenda of incarnating the Gospel as a fundamental transformative way of life.  This difference is one of acosmic (world-denying) idealism and historical realism.  The present crisis is not unlike the political battles in the early Church (2nd – 3rd centuries) over Arianism (Jesus was not truly God) and the corresponding disputes over the two natures of Christ, which led to the five-time exile of Saint Athanasius who was repeatedly threatened with death.  It was Athanasius (d. 373 AD) who argued that if Jesus was not truly God, then we are not truly saved; God became human so that we may become like God.

The doctrine of the Incarnation plays out in our current ecclesial battles because at the heart of the abuse crisis and the polarization between conservatives and liberals is the platonizing tendency toward spiritualism, if not outright Arianism. Conservatives want a  Christology based on original sin, suffering, and sacrifice not evolution, novelty, and future. There’s is a theology of human sinfulness, divine transcendent power and acosmic  spirituality. Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit, emphasizes the Incarnation as God becoming human. Rather than positing a sterile patriarchal Father God, Francis emphasizes that God bends low in love to embrace us where we are.  We do not have to attain spiritual perfection to be pleasing to God; rather, God has come to us in all the messiness and chaos of our world.  This is the good news:  God so loved the world that he has become enmeshed with the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  While the conservatives want a changeless Church, a Church that transcends the shifting boundaries of history, Pope Francis wants a Church deeply engaged in evolution.

The Viganò circle of Bishops and believers are included in what is informally referred to as the Church of Pope Benedict, a Church based on medieval theology, static cosmology, and entrenched dogma, even if dogma contradicts modern science.  The Benedict Church holds that orthodoxy or the true teaching of the Church resides in the unbroken apostolic tradition of the Petrine tradition, the men ordained and ontologically changed by the sacrament of Holy Orders. Their restorationist theology is based on an outdated Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophical synthesis and stands in contrast to the theology of Vatican II in which the Church recognizes that change is integral to history and to the working out of salvation in history. Pope Francis represents Vatican II theology which is less focused on orthodoxy and more concerned with orthopraxis, that is, embodying a living faith attentive to the cries of the poor and the earth, and a faith which expresses itself in mercy, compassion, and solidarity.

Where do we stand in this divided Church? 

Do we want a purified Church walled in by unbroken apostolic succession, acosmic-spirituality and patriarchal power, or do we want a Church open to the world and engaged in evolution, where the incarnating presence of God is empowering creative new life?

We cannot confess “One, Holy, Catholic and apostolic faith” and live in the tension of a divided Church.  Rather, we need a reality check.  Since the pontificate of John Paul II and the strained interpretations of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has been on a downward spiral of ideological and theological division. With the Viganò attack on Pope Francis, we begin to see the light of an inchoate schism; the seams of the church are busting open.  This schism has not reached its full-blown proportions but at the current tempo of dissolution, it will erupt sooner than later.

Welling up between the Viganò  (acosmic) and Pope Francis (historical) churches is the sexual abuse crisis. Perhaps we should like to smooth over this crisis by acknowledging a few bad apples who managed to manipulate the patriarchal power system. But the crisis is much deeper and symptomatic of deep structural dysfunction that, if left unchallenged, will catapult the Roman Catholic Church either into outright schism or historical irrelevancy. The Church is no longer One or Whole.  It is divided, fragmented, and permeated with secrecy, abuse, and unbridled power.   If the Church can be likened to the Titanic, there is a giant hole in the ship and it is starting to sink.   Be assured that all who are standing still will sink as well, if they insist on doing nothing but wait.

Only God can save this wreck from crumbling—but salvation comes by no other way than the cross.  Bonaventure’s profound insight is worth noting:  “There is no other path” he wrote, “than through the burning love of the Crucified” (Soul’s Journey into God, ch. 7). Death is integral to life. This is not meant to be spiritualized or platonized; death is the source of all new life in the cosmos which is why the Christ event recapitulates cosmic life: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a grain of wheat but if it dies, it will produce an abundant harvest” (Jn 12:24).  Similarly, “if you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matt 10:39).

The Church is grounded in a self-emptying God. Divine love pours itself out unto death for the sake of new life. We have spiritualized this core belief and now we are challenged to act on it.  The God of Jesus Christ is a God of absolute love and radical freedom who is revealed not in the power of separation and exclusion but in the power of darkness, emptiness, and death.  The power of God is shown in the powerlessness of the cross.  It is this incarnational commitment of divine love that renders Christianity a religion of evolution, as Teilhard reminded us, which makes death and letting go integral to life.

We are at a crossroads in the Church, a decisive moment for the future of an institution that is sinking in corruption. “Trust in God and trust in me,” Jesus said (Jn 14:1).

Do we trust God enough to let go of an imperialized, political church and enter into new structures of relationships?

Can we trust the Spirit of Love to energize us to create anew?  

Can we lose what we have clung to in the Church for centuries and enter into the darkness of new structures and systems of organization that are inclusive?

The time is coming when every person who loves the Church will have to face death in many forms, in what we have known, in what we have loved and in what we have cherished.  The dawning of a new Church is upon us and what form this Church will take in the future depends on the depth of our inner freedom to act in new ways.

Beatrice Bruteau wisely noted that revolution does not mean a coup d’etat where one set of rulers is replaced by another set while the structure of ruling itself remains basically the same—that is only rebellion.  A genuine revolution, she claims, must be a gestalt shift in the whole way of seeing our relations to one another so that our behavior patterns are reformed from the inside out.   Any revolution worthy of the name must be primarily a revolution in consciousness.  A significant future, according to Bruteau, will not be born until the orientation of the axis itself has been shifted.

Because the coming revolution in consciousness is truly new, a genuinely radical shift in our basic perceptions, we cannot possibly know just what form it will take.   We need a new perspective in which to view our elementary personal, social, and economic relations, and new images in which to represent them mythically to our imaginations, which in turn direct much of our life.  We are far from this Church at present but a new consciousness is being born. In her book, The Grand Option, Beatrice Bruteau brilliantly describes a new understanding of Christ for a new way of being Christian:

To enter by our transcendent freedom into Christ and to become a New Creation means to enter by faith into the future of every person and into the very heart of creativity itself, into the future of God.

To be “in Christ” is to abandon thinking of oneself only in terms of categories and abstractions by which one may be externally related to others and to coincide with oneself as a transcendent center of energy that lives in God and in one’s fellows—because that is where the Christ lives, in God and in one another.

To be “in Christ” is to experience oneself as an initiative of free energy radiating out to give life abundantly to all, for that is the function of the Christ.   To be “in Christ” is to be an indispensable member of a living body, which is the Body of Christ.

To be “in Christ” is to be identified with the Living One who is not to be sought among the dead, for the Living One is the One who is Coming to Be.

If I am asked then, “Who do you say I am?” my answer is:  “You are the new and ever renewing act of creation.  You are all of us, as we are united in You.

You are all of us as we live in one another.  You are all of us in the whole cosmos as we join in You exuberant act of creation.  You are the Living One who improvises at the frontier of the future; and it has not yet appeared what You shall be (Bruteau, The Grand Option, 172-73).

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  1. Pema on September 16, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    Is it possible to see the Second Coming of Jesus as the evolutionary goal ?

  2. Lee Gilbert on November 1, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    Father Thomas,

    See: Back to Asceticism: The Trappist Option: A Translation with Introduction and Notes of De la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique just published on October 15th.

  3. Father Thomas Hughes, OSB on July 14, 2019 at 11:36 pm

    I have to respond to just one iota. The Church is a big tent. This is no longer the case. Pope John Paul, II stated emphatically that if you do not like what we preach you can leave (my paraphrase).

    That is precisely what the Spirit has led millions upon millions to divine as the healthy approach to horrific abuse and dysfunction along with academic denial of modern scientific realities of import tot he approach of the Church to the women and men of today. The Middle Ages concluded for the Church in the 1960’s. There remain medievalists all about the Church. They cannot abide modernity and will schism and in some respects already are creating the foundations for doing so.

    Note the Trappists in Kentucky left their medieval practices just as Vatican II approached and concluded with a grand gesture to open up and outward afterward. Weekly flagellation, sleeping and working in course wool summer and winter with no heat or AC. It was a mentally ill asceticism not to be countenanced another decade. This is the desired Church of the wrong direction.

    Note too the silencing and finally Excommunication of the great theologian, Matthew Fox who espoused a creation centered teaching embracing Original Blessing.

    Note the “Mercy Laundries” of Ireland and the fact they held ascendancy through and into the ’80’s. By a Church that shelters abusers to this day and cannot address the egregious, immoral messes of “God fearing” Ordained Clergy and Bishops. The Masters of Divinity degree is a farce and so tarnished it is beyond continuation as a viable professional degree for Church ordiaied ministers.

    Liberation theology was outrageously denied to the poor all about by the two previous Popes, and is only slowly returning to an ascendancy in it’s own right.

    Your Church of the “Big Tent” has been skewered, divided, denied and denigrated by these two so-called former leaders of the Church.

    The pain in your remarks is clear. The need for prophetic voices and prophetic action is paramount. Being nice to the not so nice is no solution. One must become forthright, emboldened and absolutely clear about a new tack required for these times. .

  4. John R. (Jack) McDonald on October 10, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    Barbara — This 80 year old father (of six), grandfather (of 16) & great grandfather (of 3), all of whom came to be after 10 years of priestly service, dispensation and a later 10 years service as Chair of a Diocesan Clerical Sexual Abuse Committee, says that you have nailed the issue exactly. . . somehow my faith says, “do this and the rest will follow.” In the words of Christopher Fry,
    Dark and cold we may be, but this
    Is no winter now. The frozen misery
    Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
    The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
    The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
    Thank God our time is now when wrong
    Comes up to face us everywhere,
    Never to leave us till we take
    The longest stride of soul we ever took.
    Affairs are now soul size.
    The enterprise
    Is exploration into God.
    Where are you making for? It takes
    So many thousand years to wake,
    But will you wake for pity’s sake!

  5. Michael on September 20, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing Ilia. Here’s a tangential article written by Joan Chissister for additional consideration:

  6. Mary Ann Yeats AM on September 19, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    I live in Perth in Western Australia. We are preparing for a national Plenary Council in 2020 in Australia. Like the USA and many other countries, Australia has experienced the tragedy of endemic child sex abuse by some of its male clergy. Our most prominent cleric Cardinal George Pell is presently indicted and awaiting trial on charges that involved him in the abuse of young men while he was a young priest. Our national Royal Commission into Institutional failure to protect children from sexual abuse finished several years ago and, although the Anglican clergy also had some involvement as well as other groups like the Boy Scouts, the Catholic clergy were the greatest number of perpetrators and the Catholic Church led all other institutions in its failure to protect children.

    These articles by Sr Ilia Delio provide a positive way forward for the Catholic Church to evolve as the Church established by Jesus should evolve in our evolving world. I hope her thinking and that of Teilhard de Chardin can guide the Church in Australia at this important time. We the laity are presently being asked to answer the question “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” in preparation for Plenary Council 2020. We hope Sr Ilia Delio’s principles form part of Australia’s Plenary Council.

  7. John Langan SJ on September 17, 2018 at 11:14 am

    A short comment on a large, rich discussion. It comes from an experienced international negotiator. “No exchange works so long as one side or the other wishes that the other side would cease to exist.” This is an attitude which can be derived from different aspects of our tradition, but is found often enough among both liberals and conservatives.
    John Langan SJ
    Baltimore, Maryland

  8. Sara Harris on September 14, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    A Living School friend of mine recently commented:
    “This reminds me of a speech that I heard by a women at a catholic conference in the 70s!
    She said that Vatican Council 2, in the 60s was, for her, so full of hope for systemic/institutional change in the church that she envisioned, looking forward, that for Vatican Council 3, Bishops could bring their wives, and for Vatican Council 4 ,Bishops could bring their husbands!!!
    I wonder, looking about today and forward, what she would have to say— Yes, “Something was lost!”…

    I so appreciate , Ilia, the way you crystallize thoughts, action and inspiration. I left the institutional Church 50 years ago, yet feel closer to my true Christ-roots than ever. Let the walls come tumbling down. What is real can never die.

  9. Alice MacDonald on September 11, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you Ilia for this insightful discussion and to all who thoughtfully responded. In 2006 the faith community that I was coordinating studied Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book, Religion in Exile. Up until that time our focus had been on Church reform. But that book set us in a new direction. What he said essentially was that formal religion could not sustain itself in its present structure and that efforts to change it would not work. Let it die he said and work for structures that are arising that will sustain us in the future. So I understood our role at that time was to be a Hospice worker for something that was dying and to help it die with dignity and gratitude for the fact that it brought us this far and for the solid foundation it gave us. We were also to be mid-wives for those emancipating and inclusive structures that were struggling to be born. They are under the radar but they are there. Cynthia Bourgeault came and spoke with us and suggested that what we were experiencing was a Church that was like a plant that had become pot bound. When that happens the plant doesn’t die right away but it “withers,” unable to sustain real new growth. She suggested that institutional Catholicism, while deeply rooted, needed a larger container so that it could flower more fully in the world. For us this larger container was an evolutionary perspective that was able to bring God and the world together in a way that our roots would grow more deeply into our Source and our full flowering in the world would bring Catholicism to fulfillment of its destiny as the “Sacrament of Christ in the World.” 41 years ago we started as a Catholic Bible Study. We are now a “compassionate community for contemplative living and learning.” You can feel the difference…. Thanks to theologians like you, Teilhard, Cynthia, Richard Rohr, Diarmuid O’Murchu and others… all of whom we have studied.

  10. Mary Ann Ronan on September 10, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    I understand that the seed must die to be changed (transformed) in the flower, vegetable, tree. I truly believe that we do not understand the death of Christ. We have been taught the death of Christ is that he is a victim, Jesus is not. He was in control and as death persuad him he accepted it as the way to teach what all encompassing love is for each of us. We are all going to die. It is what we run away from most of our lives. We want power, control, a place to be recognized in life. Jesus this coming weekend in Mark’s gospel is a critical teaching of Jesus. Peter answered the question of Jesus: “Who do you say I am?” Peter says,”You are the Messiah.” He is correct, but Jesus asked him to be silent. Why? The people wanted the messiah to take over the Roman Empire, so they were mistaken in what they wanted the Missiah to do. Jesus wanted them to know another type of Messiah. No wonder Jesus would say often “Say nothing about me” let me show you a new way to lead. I often reflect on the Last Supper in John’s gospel: he took a basin and a towel and washed the disciples feet and dried them. He placed himself in a servant role. He was a human showing us to let go of power, control, and placing himself on his knees. This is what we all need to do to die to ourselves to be transformed in our lives through death to new life. The clerical problem is that we have lost the biblical life of Jesus as being one with us that we may “be in Christ.”


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