Some suggest that the Catholic Church in America has separated from the greater Catholic Church. They use the phrase "de facto schism," meaning that there has been a break "in fact," even though it has not been formally declared. If true, this has serious implications for Catholics in America. If false, then we have to wonder what, exactly, is prompting these assertions. The purpose of this brief paper is to explore this, its possibility and meaning, and related topics.
The starting point is to understand precisely what schism is. According to the Catholic Church, schism is "the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (CIC 751). Religious communities and churches that were once part of the Catholic Church but separated at some point in time are often called schismatic or separated communities.
The most notorious schism in recent history is the break of the Church in England away from Rome when Henry VIII was proclaimed the head of the Church in England and required that bishops and priests submit to him as such (please forgive the oversimplification). While political leaders and clergy certainly understood what was going on -- and it is interesting that almost all went along with it without any objection -- there is some debate as to whether the average churchgoer was immediately aware of the schism, its implications for him, and what options he had, if any. For the most part the individual churches maintained their outward traditions and continued to celebrate Mass much as they had for decades. Some people argue that this is the case in America -- that there has been a kind of schism, and that most of us are simply unaware of it.
Some might point to Protestantism in general as a schism, but it is probably more accurate to call it a series of smaller fractures than a single, identifiable break. Either way, the individual communities are clearly separated from, or not in "full communion" with the Catholic Church.
It would be a stretch and certainly unhelpful to call most adherents of either of the above movements schismatics, as none of those alive today are responsible for the original schisms. They probably wouldn't understand what you were saying, and if they did, they wouldn't agree with or would be offended by it. Very few have in-depth knowledge of their own church's history, or have a distorted understanding of communion between individual churches and Christianity as a whole. For example, most people, if they think about it at all, think of Christianity somewhat like a giant pie, and each "denomination" or the like as a slice of that pie, but that all are united, at least to a degree, by common fundamental beliefs, or just "united in Christ," as some will say. And each slice, though distinct in many ways, is as "christian" as the next one. Two different churches or denominations might differ in their belief of what baptism does and how it should be performed (or if it is even necessary). Yet each considers the other equally Christian with rare exception. They believe that they simply differ in style.
The Catholic Church understands this quite differently. To run with this pie metaphore, it thinks of the pie as representing the fullness of the Christian faith as intended by God and manifest/available on earth; that is, all of the teachings and disciplines -- sometimes called the "deposit of faith" -- of authentic Christianity, traditionally called the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Insofar as he rejects these, believes things contradictory to them, or engages in sin, he is outside of Christianity -- he isn't a part of the pie, so-to-speak, and separated from full communion with authentic Christianity (the truth is that, Catholic or not, we are all imperfect in regard to our union with Christ, and are therefore imperfect in our unity with His Church to some degree). The Catholic Church also reserves to itself, and not to the individual, the authority and responsibility of preserving and articulating what the "deposit of faith" consists of, and what it means to be in full communion with the Church. Continuing the above baptism example, the Catholic Church clearly explains the meaning of baptism and provides for many different baptismal practices; sprinkling, immersion, pouring, etc. It accepts almost all methods of baptism (as long as they follow some very basic guidelines), but if someone or a community were to differ in their understanding of the meaning of baptism beyond the defined parameters, the Catholic Church would not take it as a difference in style, but an error.
In addition to Anglican, Protestant (or Evangelical, as some prefer to be called today) schisms and their descendants, there is another kind of schismatic community; that which formally and sometimes accurately proclaims an historical, traditional form of Christianity, but like other schismatics, denies the Pope's office, and has broken ties with their local Catholic diocese or the Church in Rome. Otherwise, their beliefs may be identical to authentic Christianity, and their sacraments may even be valid (sacramental validity is discussed below).
Finally, there are also a few who have no authentic connection with historical Christianity, and never did; they picked up a Bible somewhere along the way, pulled out (or twisted) passages that agree with their philosophies, fabricated other texts, events and histories, and started new churches usually claiming to be the only real Christians; these in particular are easily identified by their nearly-complete ignorance or distortion of verifiable Christian history and figures, their misuse of the Bible and lack of understanding regarding its development and proper context. These aren't really schismatics, as they had no connection to begin with. When charitably confronted with these inconvenient realities, they revert to talking about others' failings, the importance of walking in (blind) faith, and how they will not be confused by "words of men." Their minds are made up, and they won't be confused by the facts. Though these two latter groups may be sincere (and wrong), they are so small and few that they hardly affect the average person or society as a whole.
What would large-scale schism mean for the average person?
First, it would probably be difficult for the average person to objectively discern whether a schism had occured, and who could rightly be said to be in schism versus who is maintaining communion. It would be evident that there is a problem, but the issues are complicated and require some theological sophistication and historical context -- two things sorely lacking today. Sometimes a schism is really only discerned in hindsight. Even today the communities that are in schism usually claim that they are the ones who are maintaining unity with historical Christianity, and that others have fallen away. Consequently, if there were a large-scale schism, any individual parishes or communities that were in the right would probably be portrayed as being the evil schismatics, while the majority would be (self-)portrayed as being in communion. Only decades later would someone be able to look back and, with any clarity, discern which was which.
Second, those people who claimed that the there was a general schism would be marginalized as fringe lunatics, extremists or neanderthals. Historically, such people have sometimes been tortured or executed (yes, really), so being marginalized might not seem so bad, all things considered. This behavior isn't unique to or a result of religion. It is common to human beings. Several parallels exist in contemporary culture; evolutionary darwinism and global warming are just two. Both are widely held beliefs and anyone who speaks out against their politicized manifestations, even if he has every piece of evidence in his favor, is ridiculed and marginalized because "everyone knows" he is wrong. Any rational person working in a scientific, educational or political institution has probably observed or experienced this first-hand.
Even with these complications there is one clue that indicates an actual schism: A refusal of obedience to the Pope or separation from those in communion with him. Schismatic groups deny his present existence, his authority, set up their own pseudo-pope, redefine communion so as to mean something very ambiguous, or the Pope, himself, does not recognize them as being in communion. Such a condition is virtually impossible to hide in today's "information society," and it isn't the general state in America.
But let as assume, for the sake of argument, that the majority of the dioceses and diocesan parishes were in some kind of schism. What should a faithful Catholic do? First, we need to participate in Mass and receive the sacraments to continue in our lives as Catholics; these are our primary sources of grace and strength to live a faithful life. A Catholic who purposefully doesn't go to Mass or receive the sacraments is probably a Catholic in name only, or soon to be. A community may be in schism, yet still have valid sacraments. While the Church does not recommend attending Mass celebrated at a schismatic community, if a valid Mass is not available at one that is in full communion with the Church, such attendance is hesitantly allowed and can be a channel of grace, as long as one does not become, in a sense, infected by and a willing participant in the schism.
However, most dioceses demonstrate at least a passing respect for the person and office of the Pope, if not for some of the particular teachings which he represents. The Pope appears to reflect this belief that we are in communion with him and with each other, so it is a stretch to use the word schism to describe the present state of affairs for the larger Catholic Church.
So what is really going on?
Faithfulness ("fidelity") is the word that describes the nature of our relationship to others, especially for meaningful relationships such as that between spouses. A "faithful" person or spouse is someone who is reliable, accountable, trustworthy and tends to engage in words and actions that strengthen his relationship. An unfaithful person does just the opposite, tending to engage in actions that damage or weaken his relationships.
Our fundamental relationships -- our "state in life" -- proscribes for each of us what is our duty, what actions are faithful, and which are unfaithful. As Christians, we need to hold beliefs and engage in actions that are in keeping with the teachings and disciplines of Christianity. Married people need to hold beliefs and engage in actions that are compatible with marriage. Priests need to hold beliefs and engage in actions that are in keeping with the teachings and disciplines of the Church. And so on.
Fidelity to anything other than one's immediate personal appetites is an increasingly-alien concept today. The absence of genuine fidelity is at the root of most societal ills, including the scandals within the Church. Any time that we are unfaithful, we harm ourselves, we harm our relationship with God, and we harm others, sometimes a great many others. But fidelity does not spring from nowhere; it is rooted in particular beliefs.
Fidelity is an abstract concept that describes relational behavior, underlying beliefs, and the thoughts, words and actions that spring from them. Faithfulness is more than having specific, correct beliefs -- it cannot be properly reduced to a recipe of doctrines -- but true fidelity is impossible when the fundamental beliefs are erroneous or absent. It is more than these, but cannot be less. Indeed, beliefs alone or "faith alone" is a dead, irrelevant faith. You can think of these beliefs like the skeletal structure of a healthy body. You can have a proper skeleton, yet still have a dead body. If the skeleton is broken, weak or deformed, it weakens the entire body.
Consider a married person who, like most people, is not perfect and harbors some weaknesses that potentially endanger his fidelity to his marital relationship. These probably exist at the level of interior, perhaps even unconscious, belief. These beliefs will prompt or allow him to be more susceptible to thoughts and temptations. If allowed to proceed, if "entertained," those could manifest themselves in words or actions that harm or destroy his marriage. Repetition of the thoughts, words and actions, affect and reinforce the enterior beliefs, pushing him farther along his trajectory away from faithfulness to his spouse and his authentic relationships. Interestingly, the underlying, defective thoughts and beliefs are usually rationalized in some distorted way. For example, he might justify his long days and weeks away from his family by believing that he is doing it to provide for them, when the practice, itself, is actually harming his family. A priest might justify his lack of prayer by saying he is too busy serving the needs of the parishioners. And so on.
Our faithfulness to others cannot be fully separated from our faithfulness to Christ. We cannot claim that we are following Christ's commands while we ignore the people in our lives, and we cannot claim to be genuinely serving others if we are not maintaining our own spiritual vitality. I am faltering as a husband and father if I fail to spend time in prayer just as much as if I fail to spend time with my wife and children. Like our unfaithfulness to others, our unfaithfulness to Christ ("infidelity") generally arises from underlying beliefs, manifests itself in individual actions, and falls into one of two kinds; willful disobedience or failure due to weakness. Both are common. Both have unfortunate consequences. Thankfully, both can be forgiven (as long as we seek forgiveness). But there is a difference between them, and it is non-trivial. It is the difference between saying "I don't believe this is true, don't follow it, and don't see any reason that you should either," and saying, "I believe this is true, but I personally struggle to follow it, fail often, and must seek Christ's forgiveness and mercy." The latter is humble honesty, but the Church has a special word for the former: Heresy, or "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith."
That is a loaded sentence, and the sincere heretics in our midst wiggle out of their guilt by claiming that, whatever area they have chosen as their point of dissent is not an essential part of the faith, or that it is okay because others disagree too. But that begs the question, which parts are essential, and who is to decide?
The Church states, only a few sentences before the above definition of heresy in the Code of Canon Law, that "All that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church and also proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, must be believed with divine catholic faith...." This includes, at the very least, the teachings from various councils and the teachings in the Universal Catechism.
It is much easier to list the common areas of dissent and quickly identify if they are part of the essentials than it is to list the essentials, so let us start there. The areas in which some laity and clerics willfully dissent usually involve contraception, abortion, female ordination, sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, and specifics of liturgical and sacramental celebrations. There are more, of course, but these are the common ones today. These are not inconsequential matters, all of which fall within the "written word of God or in tradition," and all of which are described in the Catechism or related documents.
The teachings of the Church as they come to use through councils, encyclicals, catechisms and the like is an attempt to articulate how our relationship with Christ and the world should be practiced given the circumstances of a particular time and place in history. Though the fundamental principles and the relationship are transcendant, our understanding of them is partial and developing. There are many interesting examples of this. One simple example is the common crucifix. The crucifix is presently identified almost universally with Catholicism, but that was not always the case. It appears that the cross was rarely used as a visible icon in the first couple centuries of Christianity. Its symbolic importance and recognition grew over time, but mostly as an "empty" cross. It isn't until after the 10th or 11th century that the actual crucifix -- a cross with the body of Christ still on it -- is increasingly-accepted as a Christian icon, an image that is later rejected by Protestant schismatics (who tended to reject symbols/icons of any kind).
On the level of doctrine, instead of iconography, one can examine almost any basic tenet of the Christian faith, find it present in a simple form, or at least implied, in the Bible and other early Christian writings. If one then compares the Catholic Church's present teachings to these early ones, or gradually steps back through time, one finds that today's articulation is not a contradicting alteration, but the culmination of gradual development and elaboration on the first principles -- the kind that arises naturally over time, reflection and insight.
Heretics recognize these developments, but say that they should allow not merely for elaboration, but fundamental changes in beliefs that would contradict basic principles and prior teachings. They argue that their positions are actually the correct ones, and that they are simply ahead of the curve -- the Church will mature and catch up with them eventually.
Does this mean that a good Catholic will have studied and know all of the Church's teachings and experiences through history? No. We are not all called to be theologians, and most of us don't have the capacity (as is evidenced by the absurd conclusions of so many who try). What it does mean, though, is that we shouldn't knowingly disregard, twist or reject what the Church teaches... which is exactly what happens with shocking regularity.
Those who argue that there has been a schism correctly point out that rejection of the Church's doctrines is indirectly a rejection of the Pope who proclaims them and a separation from communion with those who believe them. In other words, one can't really be a heretic without also being a schismatic, at least in spirit. This is both hard to refute and widespread. According to some statistics, the average Catholic's beliefs and lifestyle are no different than those of the typical American. Perhaps 90% of lay Catholics don't know, don't understand, or simply reject the Church's -- and the Pope's -- explicit teachings, but we still show up for Mass... at least now and then. Such a reality cannot be rationally reconciled with the statement that we are in submission to the Pope or in communion with those who are. In that sense, and recognizing that it is only "in a sense," there is a schism present.
But note the use of the terms and phrases "de facto," "indirect," and "in a sense." Our fulfillment is found in being in communion with Christ, and therefore with His Church. When the Church uses words like heresy, schism, apostacy, incredulity, etc., it is not stating that these are entirely separate concepts, but distinguishing the primary way by which someone is breaking away from communion. You rarely find one of these in full bloom without the others lurking somewhere in the background scenery. The obvious presence of one implies the presence of one or more others. There may be a kind of passive schism in effect, but it is not the primary dynamic.
Many of us have difficulties with, ignorance about or misunderstandings of various elements of the faith. In fact, for most of us there is no requirement to understand it with the depth or breadth expected of a priest, bishop or theologian. But not understanding something is different from doubting or rejecting it (or the institution that articulates it). With the exception of a few publications and public scandals, the doubts, dissents and otherwise heretical beliefs of the ordained and their assistants would go blissfully unnoticed by the laity... were it not for the Mass. The Mass is the ubiquitous cornerstone of Catholic experience, and its abuse is the primary evidence submitted by those who argue that the Church in America is in schism.
The Church declares in various councils and documents that the laity don't have merely a privilege, but a need and a fundamental right to be able to attend a Mass that is celebrated in keeping with the Church's directives ("rubrics"). This is routinely denied to the laity by various priests and lay leadership via personal, arbitrary manipulation of the Mass.
When someone harbors beliefs that are at odds with the faith, those eventually manifest themselves as thoughts, words and actions. The two common liturgical manifestations of this are the homily and modifications to the words and actions proscribed in the Sacramentary (the Sacramentary is the large red book that lays out the prayers and actions for the Mass). Leaders tamper with and, in their minds, improve upon or make the Mass more relevant to the laity... or maybe just more interesting to themselves. As mentioned above, they believe themselves ahead of the curve, and believe that the Church will eventually come around to their way of seeing and doing things. But the Mass is not the property of an individual bishop, priest or liturgist, to be manipulated at will. According to the Church, no priest, not even a bishop, has the authority to alter the Mass, insert new or different prayers, reorder elements, or change the required prayers and gestures on his own whim. Anytime he purposefully does so beyond the parameters allowed by the Church, he is engaging in an illicit ("illegal") act and is revealing beliefs and intentions that represent a certain level of infidelity and may have the ability to even invalidate the Eucharist.
What is an illicit or invalid sacrament?
Understanding the answer to this question requires understanding and integrating three separate topics, one of which is somewhat complex. We'll start with the complex one.
A sacrament is a sign instituted by Christ that transfers grace; in a sacrament it is actually Christ acting through the minister to bring God's grace to the recipient. The Catholic Church presently articulates seven distinct sacraments; Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Healing, Matrimony and Holy Orders. Validity means that it really happened, that it was genuinely present, as opposed to "going through the motions." For a sacrament to be valid -- to have actually occured -- several things are necessary. These include a proper minister, matter, form, intention and in some cases, recipient.
Most people are familiar with the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Matrimony, so we'll use one of these as examples. In baptism, the proper minister is a bishop, priest or deacon (though in an emergency anyone can baptize, even a non-Christian). The matter of baptism is water of nearly any kind. The form is simply the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," and the administration of the water. The intention, in this case, resides in both the minister and the recipient (insofar as each is capable of understanding and having an intention) to perform and participate in a baptism and all that that means as understood by the Church; neither the minister nor the recipient have to completely understand the sacrament, but at least, in a general sense, intend to participate in it as it is taught by the Church. And there must obviously be a recipient -- someone capable of being baptized. If any of these elements are missing or seriously perverted, then someone may have gotten a little wet, but the sacrament of baptism simply doesn't happen. It is "invalid."
Now, before anyone freaks out, recognize that God's grace is not limited to the sacraments (nor commanded by ministers). Sacraments are the normative channels of specific graces. One is not precluded from receiving God's grace simply because he didn't know about it, it was never offered, or even if it was offered invalidly (through no fault of his own). Likewise, the presence of a valid a sacrament does not gaurantee that the person actually receives God's grace, as God generally does not force Himself upon us if we are unwilling to receive or cooperate with Him. For example, someone might go forward to receive the Eucharist at a perfectly valid celebration, consume the Eucharist, yet receive no grace due to obstacles in his own life.
But let us imagine a strange case for a moment; imagine a priest who has studied the Church's teachings regarding baptism and has privately rejected them without anyone's knowledge. He has decided that he has a better, improved understanding and that the Church's teachings are deficient. Otherwise, he believes and practices the faith. When he conducts a baptism, he purposefully, knowingly intends something different than what the Church teaches about baptism. Such a priest probably would make subtle changes to the wording and actions of the celebration (but he also might not). In either case, the Church believes that unwitting participants are still able to receive the grace of baptism, but that the sacrament, itself did not actually happen. It was invalid.
Let us go one more step into this imaginary mess and suggest that, instead of the normal form, the priest makes obvious changes and says something like "I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier." It sounds harmless enough, but the Church has formally pronounced that any sacrament celebrated as such -- using anything other than the traditional Trinitarian form -- is invalid. Don't think it would happen? The directors of Christian Education at our own St. James parish in McMinnville, Oregon have taught people to think of and pray to God in this way, rather than as "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." These kinds of things -- sacrament invalidating practices and intentions -- are much more common than most would like to think.
Consider another possibility: A priest is present, but instead of performing the baptism, he has one or more lay people step up and, on behalf of the congregation, perform the baptism, consecrate the Eucharist, hear a confession, etc. Again, it would invalidate the sacrament.
In these latter and related permutations, it would become increasingly-apparent to informed parishioners that something is amiss. But it isn't always so clear.
Recognize, too, that in none of these cases is it the minister's intention to invalidate the sacrament. I don't know of any invalid sacrament in which it was the minister's purpose to do something invalid. No, it was his intention to improve it and do it his way! The issue is not the minister's sincerity or honesty -- the issue is not did he intend validity or invalidity -- but did he follow the form proscribed by the Church and do so with an understanding and intention to do what the Church would have him do.
Baptisms are relatively simple (and most sacraments are simple in essence). The sacrament of the Eucharist is also fairly simple. By itself, it might take only a few minutes, but it normally takes place within the context of a larger liturgical celebration, the Liturgy of the Mass, which lasts approximately an hour. There is a lot to a Mass; processions, vestments, symbols, candles, postures, incense, sprinkling, songs, prayers, reading, standing, sitting, kneeling, responses, etc. These are supposed to happen according to certain rules (called "rubrics"). Though these are all clearly written out and explained, almost every parish has their own little twist on them. When the rubrics are ignored -- or as some believe, improved upon -- it makes the celebration illicit, but doesn't necessarily invalidate the sacrament. A lot can go wrong in a liturgy and still have a valid sacrament. On the other hand, the liturgy can be almost impeccable and the sacrament invalid due to a defect that goes entirely unnoticed.
In April of 2008 I returned from an unusual Mass in Newberg, Oregon; St. Peter parish. We had a visiting priest because our pastor was recently killed in a boating accident. Throughout the entire second half of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he changed and improvised nearly every prayer. From the epiclesis (where the priest calls down the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine) to the consecration, he made it clear by his words and postures that it was not his intention or action to consecrate the bread and wine, but the congregation. He also made changes -- in this case minor ones -- to the critical prayer of consecration. This clearly demonstrated actions, understanding and intention at odds with teachings of the Church regarding the Eucharist. While I am certain that God's grace was present and available to the congregation, I am also sadly confident that the sacrament was invalid. I grant, as well, that my determination is not what is important or even authoritative here.
Most people misunderstand these issues. When I brought this issue to the attention of the parish staff, the response is best described as stunned silence and disbelief. They attended the same Mass, but said "I saw nothing wrong," which will often be the case since so few laity have detailed knowledge of the Church's doctrines and disciplines, or the rubrics of the Mass.
Unfortunately, this kind of liturgical silliness is not uncommon. We stopped attending our home parish in McMinnville because of similar nonsense (and worse). The pastor, Rev. Terry O'Connell, has made it clear that the liturgy is about celebrating "us" and our community, not Christ. He and his staff have communicated beliefs that constitute heresy in serious areas that could invalidate sacraments, and carry such deep-rooted misunderstandings about the basics of the faith that one wonders how they acquired their positions in the first place. In the liturgy and in religious education they allow and encourage leadership and teaching by people who are non-Catholic or otherwise openly leading lives contrary to Catholicism (e.g., homosexual). I recognize that it is possible that these Masses are still valid, and whether they are or not, I do not deny that the people who attend St. James can and do receive grace from God. However, the abuses are just too much for me to stomach, and Rev. O'Connell has made it clear that he couldn't care less if his abuses drive me and others not only from the parish, but from the faith entirely. Consequently, we have been driving to nearby Newberg for several years; it was the nearest valid Mass that was suitable for a family with small children.
As bad as this is, neither of these parishes or priests could be rightly called schismatics or apostates. The worst that they could accurately be named is irresponsible, unfaithful, unorthodox or heretical. They acknowledge both the local bishops and the Pope, and they clearly attempt to profess at least some parts of the Catholic faith. However, they have beliefs, practices and intentions so at odds with the instructions of the faith as to routinely render sacraments seriously illicit if not completely invalid.
Obviously, experiences at two parishes can't be representative of the entire country. But I have been to dozens of parishes in Oregon, some in Washington and many in other states and witnessed much of the same (and sometimes worse).
When priests and liturgists engage in these kinds of acts, informed laity are rightly disturbed. They are being refused the spiritual food they need to live in the world, and are instead force-fed empty pablum. Hungry and desperate, they start to search elsewhere for food, or lash out at those who are withholding it. It is entirely understandable, and entirely preventable.
This reminds me of an embarrassing period in my early adulthood. I used to sing with groups on street corners, and volunteer at missions and soup kitchens in downtown Seattle. The usual order is to let the people in, then preach and sing at them for awhile, then let them have what they really needed and came for... some food. Sometimes the transients became a little surly. I realize now that we did this more for our own edificiation, to confirm our own beliefs and feel good about what we were doing, rather than making others' needs our first priority. It is a common error, especially among the zealous and immature. What takes place in many Masses is not much different; instead of offering the Church's Mass, parish leaders offer what they think is best, what confirms their own beliefs, rather than seeking what is ultimately best for the congregation. But I digress.
Liturgical abuse, heresy and schism are all different things. There is an incredible amount of liturgical abuse parading in the open in our Catholic parishes. This has a variety of sources, including severe misunderstandings and erroneous beliefs about liturgy, the Mass and the Church in general. In some cases, this constitutes heresy. But I've seen nothing in the American dioceses of the Catholic Church that could be accurately described as widespread schism.
Why does God allow this?
Another parable he [Jesus] put before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' The servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
This is a timeless question that could be applied to any evil. We don't know the answer with certainty, but in Matthew 13 there are two farming parables that may offer insight. In the latter one, the workers complain that many weeds are growing among the wheat -- which usually represents the Church or the "Kingdom of God" -- and they ask if they may pull up the weeds. The farmer says no, for in doing so they might harm the fragile wheat. He says to wait until the final harvest, at which time all will be pulled up and they will be separated (and the weeds burned). We don't know, of course, if wheat and weeds referred to individual people, nations, the Church, faith, or even true and erroneous belief. In any event, God seems to allow these things to pass so that, on the whole, there is a better outcome for those who genuinely seek Him.... Just try not to be a weed.
Granted, this may not be very comforting when you feel surrounded and choked by weeds, but that is life. Even if we don't understand it at the moment or feel good about it, we must ultimately accept, work with and make the best of life as it comes to us, not fantasize about what we wish it was, or constantly whine about how the two differ.
What if the local Mass is seriously illicit, but not apparently invalid?
The ideal solution is to simply find a Mass that is reverently, licitly celebrated, even if that means driving some additional distance or going through some other inconvenience to do so. But the point of the question is a good one, and that is, what if such a Mass is not offered nearby? Should I go to the illicit one and grit my teeth?
The short answer is "I don't know." But you might write to your local bishop, or even to Rome, describe the situation and ask what you should do. As mentioned elsewhere, even if there are no outside, obvious signs of invalidity, it is possible for a sacrament to be invalid. We should, of course, assume that it is valid unless there is serious evidence to the contrary. And in reality, there usually are signs one way or the other, sometimes many. It is my personal opinion that, if there are multiple, serious illicit actions within the liturgy, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, these often indicate an intention on the part of the celebrant not in keeping with the Church's intentions for the Eucharist. They may also constitute a lack of required form, especially if implemented between the epiclesis and prayer of consecration. It is hard to arrive at any other conclusion. Such signs, combined with the substance of the homily, are (to me) evidence sufficient to make a guess regarding validity. For example, several months ago my family attended a Mass at which the visiting priest said during the homily that Jesus was merely one of many enlightened prophets, like Mohommed and others. (This isn't surprising. I've heard other priests and theologians question Christ's bodily resurrection.) Once I heard that, I knew there was simply no reason to stay. Christ's deity is not a peripheral element of the Catholic faith. No priest with such a belief about Christ is capable of having the proper intention to bring about the valid Sacrament. We didn't wait around to see what slaughter he would make of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
But this begs a question: Can a priest or a bishop in a schismatic church celebrate a valid sacrament? Yes. As mentioned elsewhere, if there is not a Mass available at a "regular" parish, the Church allows for attendance at some schismatic communities, but with warnings and reservations. Such a Mass is usually illicit -- because the priests are celebrating the sacraments without permission -- but not invalid. If there are no other realistic options, attending an illicit Mass is preferable to attending an invalid one, and is usually better than attending no Mass at all. In other words, being a heretic or a schismatic doesn't necessarily mean that the Eucharist is invalid. For example, harboring erroneous beliefs about sexuality and contraception is serious and might constitute heresy. It might eventually grow into doubts and disbeliefs in other areas or lead others into sin. But in and of itself, it would not have any direct effect on the validity of the Eucharist. A priest might dissent in these area, even mislead others in private or via homily, yet the Eucharist still be valid.
We have not only an obligation, but a need to receive the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But we are all human and imperfect. There are going to be mistakes, sour notes, poor song choices, and other little weirdnesses in anything that has a human ingredient, including the Liturgy. In the end, you have to make your own reasoned decision. Mine is that, if there is a preponderance of obvious, purposeful, illicit actions that indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ, the Church, the Liturgy or the Eucharist, then there is little point in attending that service, as these are almost certain evidence of invalidity by intention if not by form. In such cases we try to find another Mass if it is available. If not, we stay home and try to have some prayer time together.
In most places, however, there are other Masses available, celebrated by different (and hopefully more orthodox) priests within a 30-40 mile radius.
Some argue that, as long as the priest says the words/prayer of consecration correctly -- "This is my body.... This is my blood...." -- that the sacrament is valid. I'm open to correction, but I don't believe that is true. The Church has never, to my knowledge, pronounced such, nor has it claimed that that prayer and that prayer alone is what is necessary for a valid sacrament. In fact, the Church does not pronounce a specific time or moment at which transubstantiation occurs, except to say that it is sometime between the epiclesis and the prayer of consecration, and as evidenced by the genuflection, transubstantiation is considered complete by the end of the prayer of consecration. In fact, in more traditional services, you'll notice that they ring the bells at both the epiclesis and the prayer of consecration.
My priest or bishop is a heretic. What should I do?
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
First, never simply assume that someone else is a heretic, and realize that it won't necessarily be helpful to use that word in his or her presence. That being said, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that many, many people are. Most laity don't know any better, and are just trying to get by in the world, and are perhaps a little lazy when it comes to spiritual matters. We're not really heretics -- we're just busy, distracted and disinterested. But there have been times in history where it was estimated that 80% or more of bishops and priests in various regions were knowing proponents of various heresies, some so serious that no one who believed them would be allowed in the Church today. Of course, they thought they were right and the Church was wrong. No one engages in heresy believing they are wrong; they believe the Church will come around to their way of thinking eventually. There are some amusing stories in the history books about encounters between faithful people and heretics -- and no, they don't involve any bonfires.
One of my favorite exchanges involving the word heretic is in the play "A Man for All Seasons," in which Thomas More describes Martin Luther as a heretic and excommunicant. Will Roper, an admirer of Luther's blurts out, "now that's a word I don't like!" More replied flatly, "it's not a likeable word because it's not a likeable thing."
But seriously, put 100 priests or bishops in a room, and you will always make money betting that at least some of them, maybe even half or more, quietly, purposefully entertain various heresies. That is life. That is humanity. That is who and what we are. Suffice it to say that, if someone is genuinely a heretic and is in a place where he doesn't feel inhibited (or better yet, thinks himself to be in the majority or beyond accountability), he will prove it to you beyond any reasonable doubt. Trust me. I've seen it happen many times. He won't be able to restrain himself. You won't have to guess, and you shouldn't try, anyway. You and I are not called to be Inquisitors.
But we do have specific responsibilities. The first thing we must always do is preserve our own souls and those of people in our care. You need to continue to pray, to attend Mass (if somewhere else), go to Confession, receive the sacraments and try to learn and live the faith. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours or the rosary (or have some other life of prayer), read the Bible, the Catechism and other Church documents when fitting with your time. Practice and grow in the faith in your daily life. Do not give up. Do not give into the very real temptation and pressure to let someone else's lack of faithfulness destroy your relationship with Jesus Christ.
I used to believe that we should try to meet and reason with heretics, and often did so myself, but experience has taught me otherwise. Someone who is simply mistaken is usually open to discussion and persuasion; they ask genuine questions. Heretics, on the other hand, don't care about the truth; they know what it is but have chosen to deny it; they don't ask genuine questions as much as they make assertions and arguments. Unless you already have a personal, longstanding, friendly relationship with the person, I now recommend against any confrontation. You and I cannot change anyone else; it is quite difficult enough to change ourselves. Anything you say or do, no matter how charitably it was offered, will be rejected and maybe even used against you.
Pray for him, and pray that God's mercy can penetrate and convert him. If the heresy is serious enough -- for example, if he is teaching others to engage in heresy, or is invalidating sacraments -- you should calmly contact his superior (either the local bishop or, if the problem is the bishop, write to the Pope) and briefly cite clear examples of what is going on. Don't be surprised if you do not receive a response. Find other people who are willing to also write; your single letter will probably be ignored, but letters from ten different families over a few weeks may get the bishop's attention. People's souls are at stake. The laity in the Catholic Church do not have the authority to appoint or remove priests or bishops -- a point worth revisiting, especially as we are increasingly made financially liable for their actions -- but we do have a responsibility to alert those who can when something serious is going on.
Most bishops are genuine, sincere people who want to help and will do the right thing if given the chance (as are most priests). Some people believe that you should never speak ill of or against a priest. It is true that we should never speak falsely of someone. That is defamation, and can be a serious sin. We also don't want to engage in gossip. However, it is my opinion that people who cover their mouths, eyes and ears in the presence of evil are almost as guilty as those who engage in the evil in the first place. For example, in the sexual abuse scandals of the past few decades -- scandals that were very real and serious, but also blown out of proportion -- many people criticized bishops for moving abusive priests from parish to parish. In our own diocese we now have a bishop who wasn't even here when the abuses took place, but has had to manage the fallout. He couldn't have known anything about it. I think that any bishop who knew of abuse and did nothing or merely transfered the abuser to another parish should probably be held to account, but in many cases it isn't clear that the bishops actually knew anything. How are the bishops to know of what is going on if no one tells them? And when a bishop simply moved a known abuser to another parish, where was the outcry? This mess is first and foremost the responsibility of those who engaged in the abuse, but it would never have become such a big issue if the laity who were aware of it forcefully spoke up about what was going on. Instead, they stayed silent, allowing the problem to continue. If a priest is harming the faithful, sexually or in any other way, speak up and name names.
Find a parish where you are comfortable with the leadership, and be sure to encourage them (many of the most holy and orthodox people I've known suffered from a persistent sense of loneliness and desolation). There is no point in attending a parish where the leadership's beliefs are so unorthodox that they make the Mass a miserable experience or even invalidate the sacraments. This may sound extreme, but I've known multiple parishes where this is the case. In addition, if you have a spouse or children, you have a responsibility to see that their spiritual needs are met and that they have a healthy formation; that probably won't take place under the leadership of a heretic.
No matter how bad things get, do not attend a different, non-Catholic church. I know people who, fed up by heresy at their parish or for other reasons, go to Protestant churches instead. Rightly disgusted by heresy, illicit and invalid sacraments, they seek (and often find) comfort and acceptance in a schismatic church! This is understandable, and there is no obligation to attend invalid sacraments. But it is better to not attend any church than it is to support or participate in a schismatic one. It is usually a one-way trip... and a very tempting one at times.
Give your charitable donations only to faithful organizations led by faithful people. We have an obligation to support the Church and those in need according to our abilities, but that does not mean that your donation must go to any particular parish or diocese (in most cases). Personally, I think that, failing all other attempts at correction, parishioners at a parish with unorthodox leadership should simply stop giving to that parish. I don't like the thought of using money as leverage to bring about change, but short of a public scandal, it is sadly about the only thing that gets the attention of some upper diocesan leadership these days. If you pull this lever, though, be prepared to be told (by the priest) about what bad Christians you are for not supporting the parish. Abusive and heretical leadership is usually very skilled at twisting the situation to make it appear that the innocents are actually the guilty ones.
Try to find supportive friends. It can feel very lonely to truly believe the Catholic faith when you can't find a nearby parish where it is actually practiced faithfully.
I've known outstanding, orthodox, reverent priests who were surprised to learn that, after decades of celebrating Masses, they hadn't actually been following the rubrics. But they happily changed. Other times, they knew what was right, but felt they shouldn't throw too many changes at the congregation at one time, and so were trying to gradually implement the changes. If your priest is otherwise a good person and you have a good relationship with him, it might work to approach him privately or with others and simply say that the changes he is making to the Mass really disturb and distract you, making it difficult to pray and participate in the Mass, and that it would really help you draw nearer to Christ if he would offer the Mass more in keeping with the Church's directions. No priest of any merit whatsoever would deny such a request. He might want to talk about the specific things that bother you, and might try to persuade you that what he is doing is correct. Maybe he is right, and if so, he'll be able to show you the instruction from the Sacramentary or related document. In such cases we should give him the benefit of the doubt. However, if he responds angrily (without provocation), dismissively or shows no concern whatsoever for your spiritual welfare (which is his primary responsibility), then you know what you are dealing with, and that it is time to find a different parish.
Finally, do not assume that just because something is different in the liturgy that it was necessarily illicit or invalid. Most people are ignorant of the actual rubrics and are just following along with whatever the majority is doing. There are many different optional prayers, blessings and variations. With what little I know of Latin, there is also no doubt that the English translations we have of the Church's prayers are often inaccurate, sloppy and could benefit from improvement. However, no individual priest or bishop has the authority to independently change the wording of the prayers of the Mass. The celebrant cannot arbitrarily change the order of the Mass or substitute his own prayers for the Church's but he has some legitimate discretion as to which prayers and blessings are included or omitted, and can often choose from dozens of prayers for specific points. But this is a complex issue, and it isn't worth getting worked up over unless you have gone through the work to educate yourself on the details and are certain that something was seriously illicit or invalid.
So, has the Catholic Church in America fallen away, into a de facto schism from Rome? Not precisely. But that doesn't mean that everything is okay and we can all rest easy. There are widespread liturgical abuses, illicit practices, and even invalid sacramental celebrations. These stem from a widespread infidelity and heresy not limited to priesthood, but spread throughout our society. These issues are serious and damaging. They imply a schism, are often confused with and can lead to it, but they are not necessarily directly schismatic, themselves. Also, when confronted by these problems, we have a responsibility to address them, care for and preserve our own souls, and should try to find a parish where we and those in our care can best grow in holiness.