Posted on February 12, 2013
It was in 1415 that the last Pope resigned his job before he died.
Pope Gregory XII stepped down to end the great Western Schism.
To those who haven’t boned up on their Papal history, the Western Schism was caused when the French and the Italians basically couldn’t agree who really ran the Church.
A series of French Popes in the 14th century had moved the seat of power for the Roman Catholic Church to Avignon, and when Gregory decided to move back to Rome, the French decided to elect their own Pope, who ironically, was named Benedict.
The Catholic Church has had its fair share of schisms.
The East-West Schism of 1054 divided the Catholic Church into a Latin branch, based in Rome, and a Greek branch, based in Constantinople about 50 years after the first millennium. The Orthodox Churches (Greek, Armenian, Russian, Serbian, etc) are markedly different today from the Roman Catholic Church, although there are a lot more Roman Catholics than Orthodox Catholics in America (and in the world, for that matter).
The East-West Schism seems to me to have been culturally inevitable. The two sides could never quite agree on many critical doctrines, and the people of the Eastern Europe are just different than the Western Europeans. This schism still has not been overcome, and the two Churches have never fully reconciled.
The Great Western Schism was more political in nature, and as a political disagreement more than a cultural disagreement (since they shared a common Latin heritage), it was worked out politically.
The Reformation could also be described as a Schism, and it too had cultural and political ramifications. It started with Martin Luther in 1517, who basically said that the Church hierarchy was fundamentally corrupt and that people could become saved through a close reading of the Bible. His 95 Theses sparked a wild fire of revolt against the Church in Germany, Scotland, and in some parts of France, and religious wars cleaved Western Europe for centuries.
Eventually, the King of England, Henry VIII, who initially proclaimed himself a defender of the faith, changed sides when he wanted to divorce a wife who didn’t produce a male heir for him, and he started his own Protestant religion.
Schisms are fought over doctrinal issues, but culture, economic power, geography and ethnic heritage plays a far bigger role than just doctrine.
We have a couple of potential schisms going on right now in the United States.
The Catholic Church is under great stress between more orthodox believers and those who want the religion to modernize. I was reading in the Washington Post today a story about the future of the Church. One woman was quoted as saying that she believed that the Catholic faith had to become much smaller, because too many people simply didn’t agree with church teachings on abortion, same sex marriage, pre-martial sex.
Catholic means universal, of course, so a church that goes out of its way to purge members who don’t agree on everything seems somewhat problematic to me. On the other hand, the Catholic Church can’t afford to be all things to all people, or it risks the same fate as the Episcopal Church, which is shrinking into nothingness because it doesn’t stand for anything.
The Republican Party has its own schism challenges. Elements of the Tea Party seek to purge Republicans who aren’t sufficiently conservative, although what amounts to sufficiently conservative is a matter of some debate. Is a neo-conservative insufficiently conservative or is it the Rand Paul isolationist who is not toeing the conservative line on national security? Is the Republican who believes that there is some role for the government in regulating markets an apostate or is it the Tea Party organization that cooperates with Democrats to knock of a Republican incumbent the true traitor? Are the rebels who voted against John Boehner for Speaker heroes who should be supported or insurgents who should be booted out of the party?
The Republican Party doesn’t have a Pope, so it is really unclear who sets the doctrine and who makes the call about ideological purity. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a schism going on, because there is.
We are in a period of great technological, spiritual, societal and political change. We don’t know what the final impact of the Internet Transformation, of the Great Financial Crisis, of the 9/11 terrorists attacks and of the subsequent war on terror, is yet. But we do know that things are much different now on so many different levels than they were in the mid-1990’s. And we also know that in periods of great change, schisms happen.
When Pope Benedict announced that he was retiring, he was also telling us (subliminally, perhaps) to check our history books and learn from the past about past schisms and what they mean in today’s crazy world.