Late last week, I had an interesting conversation on Twitter with some Catholic and raised-Catholic millennials. We were discussing our perceptions about God being either a warm fatherly figure or a strict disciplinarian.
Rather quickly, our topic turned toward what we’ll call “traditional” Catholicism. I talk to lots of Catholics online, and I champion Roman Catholic values and teachings. I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic institutions through graduate school — all post Vatican II. Yet I never really realized, until a local organization of the Society of St. Pious the X (SSPX) “reopened” a closed Catholic church building in my city, just how divided “Catholicism” really is.
There are lots of quotation marks in this post, mostly because I don’t know what to call some of the organizations and groups I’m going to talk about. In my upbringing, those who do not follow the Church in Rome are not “Catholic,” let alone “Roman Catholic.” But, last week, I was shocked when a religious person told me David Zubik, Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh and a very holy man, was not a “true Catholic.”
I had read an article about the SSPX reopening the old St. James church building on Pittsburgh’s West End for regular “traditional” Catholic Mass, or the Latin, pre-Vatican II, Mass. Lots of people have been heralding the beauty of the Latin Mass lately, even actor Michael Keaton, so I thought this was some “Catholic” group I didn’t have knowledge of. But I knew the Diocese of Pittsburgh offered Latin Masses regularly around the city, so it seemed a bit odd they would dedicate one building to Latin Mass.
Later in the story, Bishop Zubik was quoted reminding Roman Catholics that the SSPX was not a sanctioned part of the Roman Catholic Church, and that His flock should be sure to avoid Mass at St. James. When a blogger I follow on Twitter posted pictures of the church reopening, I dropped him a tweet to let him know about this, and posted the news story. That’s when I heard from SSPX connected “Catholics” that neither I nor my Bishop were “true Catholics.”
So I read a little more about SSPX. They were once part of the Roman Church. A French archbishop started a group with papal encouragement to preserve the Latin Mass after Vatican II. The archbishop wasn’t specifically against Vatican II changes – he voted to move forward with many of them, including the new Mass. But as time wore on, however, his followers developed more and more ideas outside of Roman Catholic teaching. The archbishop eventually became estranged from Rome and was excommunicated by Saint John Paul II for ordaining SSPX bishops to succeed him without papal governance and approval.
Yet some of my Twitter friends seem to think SSPX members are the “real Catholics.” They do have churches and schools across the country, and as a lifelong Catholic, I was surprised by the size of this….”schismatic group” I hadn’t known existed. I’m sure many of my Roman Catholic friends have never even heard of them, either. And even after research, other than the fact that they attend Latin Mass and don’t follow Rome, I’m not finding a lot of differences – or rather the reasons why they’ve separated themselves from the pope. They just seem to be really conservative “Catholics.”
Yesterday, I was reading about a so-called Catholic parish that ordained a group of female priests. As a lifelong Catholic, I know this is not Rome’s teaching, and is likely to get someone, or someones, excommunicated. These woman are obviously not Roman Catholics or priests, even if they identify themselves as such. I couldn’t help but wonder what SSPX would think of a move like this. This is probably the kind of “church liberalism” that generated their schism in the first place.
But really, in the end, I don’t get either of these groups. Christians, especially Catholics, are under fire across the globe. If we’re honest with ourselves, each Catholic likely has some disagreement with what comes from Rome. Some rule we don’t like or think needs fixing, theologians we all no doubt are. But we’re not all running off to start our own religions because there are both liberal and conservative schools of thought within the church. We hold fast to the tradition and community we love.
For Catholicism to weather the storm it has found itself in, we Catholics should be searching for unity, not dividing ourselves over who agrees or disagrees with what part of the “doctrine.” We believe in the same loving God the Father. We all believe in spreading the good news of his son Jesus Christ. We need to be tolerant of one another, remember we are all sinners and respect the different ways Catholics choose to worship within the rules. Creating the rules is not our place.
Catholics need to redevelop trust in the papacy and the Vatican. But we also need to realize that those leading our Church are still human beings. They make mistakes. They sin. But they are also faced with managing an ancient religion across the cultural, economic, and social divides of the world. If they aren’t moving fast enough, or are moving too fast on whatever our issue might be, we need to be patient in the process, and trust God will inspire.
In the end, we all have our personal relationship with God. We know in our minds that no religion, can meet the ideals of every individual among the millions of its members. But we also know it’s not up to God to agree with what we want Him to be. It’s up to us to change our lives to be what He needs us to be.
At this point in history, what we need, what Catholicism needs, and what a God needs is for us to focus on what we have in common, and work together to solidify our Catholic faith and preserve the many facets of its history for centuries to come.