A recent Religion News Service article, “Catholic Schism: Diarmaid MacCulloch, Influencial Church Historian, Predicts Major Division in ‘Silence in Christian History,'” briefly reviews MacCulloch’s forthcoming book, Silence in Christian History in terms of one claim he makes about the likelihood of the “Western Latin Church,” also known as the “Roman Catholic Church,” experiencing schism in the not-so-distant future. His concerns are in a sense very legitimate in that the factors he identifies as informing his prediction are seriously contentious. These issues include an all-celibate clergy, the view of historical revisionism on the part of contemporary pontiffs, and the particular social issues that Church leaders have elected to confront in recent decades. Additionally, MacCulloch notes that Church leaders are seemingly disinterested in “listening to European Catholics,” perhaps the same argument can be made about North Americans.
MacCulloch does not claim that conflict is inherently problematic within a religious tradition, actually it is quite the contrary.
“Conflict in religion is inevitable and usually healthy — a religion without conflict is a religion that will die, and I see no sign of this with Christianity,” MacCulloch said. “But the stance of the popes has produced an angry reaction among those who want to see the council continue. No other church in history has ever made all its clergy celibate. It’s a peculiarity of the Western Latin church, and it looks increasingly unrealistic.”
The Vatican’s refusal to allow Roman Catholics to talk about married or female clergy was “not the reaction of a rational body,” MacCulloch said.
Some may disagree with MacCulloch’s interpretation of the Church leaders’ stance on such issues as all-male clergy and universal mandatory clerical celibacy, but the issues raised do in fact divide a number of people, adherents and theologians alike, along ideological lines.
As a scholar of religion and ecclesiastical history, MacCulloch’s views are likely shaded by the central role that academic freedom, open dialogue, and critical engagement of multiple views plays in the advancement of well-grounded positions and leadership decisions. Naturally, from that vantage point, the more autocratic stance of many Church leaders reflects what he would deem as “irrational.”
I see many of the same concerns that MacCulloch is said to discuss in his forthcoming book playing out in divisive and contentious ways in the global Church, particularly here in the United States. However, it is my most sincere hope that further schism or any breaking of relationship might be avoided. We are in constant need of reform, lest we forget our humanity and mistake the Church for an idol. Yet, especially as a Franciscan, reform does not have to be violent, divisive or contentious. We can instead seek peace and reconciliation, forgiveness and dialogue, and advance the ministry with which we have been entrusted. All sides must embrace the humility the evangelical life demands of all Christians.