Controversy hasn’t been unknown to the Catholic Church.
Almost from the very beginning tensions and rifts divided factions at the Council of Jerusalem as described in Acts of the Apostles where Paul met with Peter and others to make the case for allowing gentiles to join the newly forming Christian movement without the need for conforming to purely Jewish religious practices such as circumcision.
Over the centuries other fault lines appeared including theological battles with Donatists and Gnostics, the formation of the Bible, and the great schism between East and West.
Corrupted during the era of the Borgia Popes, the Church was roiled in dissatisfaction on the part of many of its members, eventually leading to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
All that is to be understood. After all, the Church itself may be the mystical Body of Christ, but its individual parts, represented in its members, are human and thus open to disagreement, vulnerable not only to sin but all the ego-based weaknesses of mankind making for power struggles, be they earthly or spiritual.
But since the years of missionary expansion when Europe was colonizing the world, controversies and jealousies arose between various religious orders, few issues before the modern era have risen to the level of true controversy and a period of intellectual calm settled over the Church.
Thus, a remarkable collegiality pervaded from the defeat of Napoleonism through most of the twentieth century. In later decades, some controversy about letting priests marry and allowing women into the priesthood attracted media attention but never amounted to much among the faithful themselves. Instead, the greatest potential for destabilization in the later years of the twentieth century was the spread of liberation theology in Latin America. But when the movement was suppressed the Church under John Paul II once again entered a period of tranquility.
Since the ascension of Pope Francis, however, new controversies have bubbled to the surface. More “insider baseball” than anything that would concern those outside the faith, they include a recent decision by Francis not to meet with the Dalai Lama upon that worthy’s visit to Rome. Some have guessed the snub was due to ongoing negotiations with China aimed at normalizing relations between that country and the Church.
Another possible fissure is talk of a division between European bishops and those of Africa over the Church’s position on a range of social issues including those of divorce and remarriage. The more easygoing bishops from a post-Christian Europe could be headed for a clash with the more traditional-minded African bishops who have fewer empty pews. Here, Francis seems to be siding with the outsiders having just named a passel of new cardinals, most of whom come from the same backgrounds as their African brethren.
Efforts by past Popes such as Benedict XVI to reunite with schismatic wings of the Church who went their own way following the changes wrought by Vatican II have appeared to falter under Francis, who has seemed indifferent to matters of concern to them including allowance of the old form Latin Mass dear to traditionalists’ hearts.
That said, the Church has not been without challenges on the macro level as well.
Late in the nineteenth century, a new secularism borne of science and expanding human knowledge gained strength at the expense of traditional Christian teachings. At first, challenges of fact such as evolution and the origin of the universe seemed threatening but soon proved compatible with the Church’s teachings. Far more formidable would be new philosophical and social movements such as Communism and then fascism which proved attractive to Europe’s desperate underclasses. They were eventually defeated but from their ashes arose an even more sinister force: that of political correctness, a conglomeration of radical positions covering everything from feminism to conservationism all made to appear benign under a cloak of humanitarianism stripped of religious context.
This sugar coating of seeming humanitarianism has fooled many about the altruistic nature of the movement, much of which comes under the umbrella of “social justice.” In a remarkably short time, once infected with the PC germ, even the most venerable of institutions with hundreds of years of historical experience will jettison it all in favor of the new radicalism. As of this writing, only the Catholic Church has held out against the PC movement, positioning itself to repeat its service of preserving Western civilization through a new dark age. But now, with Pope Francis, the comforting knowledge that sanity might prevail in some part of the world has been, for some, cast in doubt.
Displaying evidence that he has at least been partially captured by the PC movement, Francis is invoking controversy either where none existed before or that had been thought settled. His comment early in his pontificate about “who am I to judge” when asked about homosexuality alarmed many as well as given hope to a “homophile” movement that promotes chastity and opposes same-sex marriage but embraces homosexuality as a gift from God — a position that was hinted at when notes from a recent synod were released prematurely.
Francis has also shown solidarity with political correctness by showing an intemperate willingness to cross the line from spiritual affairs to those of politics by supporting the Church’s stand on illegal immigration, global warming, and income inequality– all aspects of the Church’s social teaching to be sure but also of the social justice movement that invokes the ghost of the old liberation theology of the 1970s.
Whether any of these internal controversies manage to break out into discussion in the wider world depends on Pope Francis. But aided and abetted by a press corps eager to nudge the Church (as the last institution holding out against the PC steamroller) in the right direction, the pontiff could very well succumb to the promise of praise and adulation from that quarter. Human nature being what it is, the Church could very well be entering a new era of internal tumult and debate.