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Will The Pope's Reforms Trigger A Historic Schism In The Catholic Church?

Pope Francis has convoked a momentous synod gathering in Rome to debate changes to Catholic doctrines and practices. It is a frontal reformist push that reflects the current pope's ideals — and it has conservatives seething.

photo of the pope holding his chin

Pope Francis opens the Synod in Rome on Wednesday

Vatican Media Press Office Handout/ANSA via ZUMA
Cristina de la Torre


The Catholic Church has begun a synod of reforms in Rome that may be as traumatic as the Reformation or its break with the Eastern Church, 1,000 years ago.

But even if it doesn't turn out to be as serious a schism as those landmarks of Western history, the Church's present divisions have political roots reflected in a profound rift between conservatives and liberals.

The two camps have respectively shown a particular devotion either for the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, or for the present one, Francis. One reputed arch-conservative, Cardinal Raymond Burke, has warned that Francis will split the Church community with his ideas and policies.

Meanwhile, Francis has rebuked the "terrible forces of resistance" he says are impeding a remolding of the Church to serve the poor. That, for many, is the Church's true Christian vocation, in line with the ideals of another reforming pontiff of the 20th century, John XXIII.

Eye on Opus Dei influence

The synod that began on Oct. 4 aims to revise processes, structures and institutions to recreate a Church of missionaries. It will reconsider doctrinal issues and power systems, even if conservatives insist there is no need for an overhaul and the pope is imposing his 'socialist' views.

The process began earlier when Francis entrusted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known in the past as the Inquisition, to Argentine bishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, who has a background in social work and academia and is a longstanding acquaintance of Francis from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Francis has also broken the mould in moral terms.

He has also curbed the influence of Opus Dei, the doctrinaire movement that contrasts with the Jesuits, the historic religious order in which Francis entered the clergy. Opus Dei, which enjoyed immense influence among Catholics in the 20th century, is to be downgraded to the humble status of a clerical public association, losing autonomy and having to report its activities.

Institutions aside, Francis has also broken the mold in moral terms. He has ruffled feathers, reminding believers that gay people are also children of God, and has contemplated marriage for some priests, as well as women in priestly positions, if not as priests.

He wants to bring some nuance to the Church's stance on abortion, and has ended the omertà on abusive priests. He showed he wouldn't play ball when it came to protecting the ill-deserved reputation of dignitaries like Marcial Maciel, the head of the Legionaries of Christ, who may have abused dozens of boys including his own children, while protected by the late John Paul II.

Benedict XVI also failed to publicly declare war on abuses, seeking legal action to prevent the revelations, even if he did apologize in public in the end. Francis, in contrast, said he felt pain, shame and consternation over the case of a Bolivian priest who abused boys under the Church's auspices. People know it, and the message is out: Francis won't stand for this.

photo of a room filled with cardinals and bishops

Cardinals and bishops gather to hear Pope Francis inside the Vatican on Wednesday

Vatican Media Press Office Hando/ANSA via ZUMA

A reformist pontiff

Still, it took him time to get to this point. Benedict XVI had to falter and resign for Francis to begin his battle to change the Church. He began his papacy by canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II, two popes with radically opposing views on morality and politics. It was a way of seeking a middle ground between the urgency of reforms, and the need to live with rock-solid traditionalism.

The Church's uneven quest for the proper doctrine and its true identity resurfaces at every assembly: from John XXIII's resolve to recover the Gospel in 1960 and the Medellín bishops' conference of 1968, which reaffirmed the vocation around the poor, to the counter-reformist conference of 2009, held in Puebla under the patronage of John Paul II, and now the present synod.

Year after year, a push for change wrestles with the powers of conservatism, reaction and even money, while avoiding a dreaded split in this ancient religion that still counts 1.4 billion faithful. Francis is aware of the stakes, having declared in the past that he prays there will be no schism, but doesn't fear it.

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Violence Against Women, The Patriarchy And Responsibility Of The Good Men Too

The femicide of Giulia Cecchettin has shaken Italy, and beyond. Argentine journalist Ignacio Pereyra looks at what lies behind femicides and why all men must take more responsibility.

photo of a young man holding a sign: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

A protester's sign referring to the alleged killer reads: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press
Ignacio Pereyra

Updated Dec. 3, 2023 at 10:40 p.m.


ATHENS — Are you going to write about what happened in Italy?, Irene, my partner, asks me. I have no idea what she's talking about. She tells me: a case of femicide has shaken the country and has been causing a stir for two weeks.

As if the fact in itself were not enough, I ask what is different about this murder compared to the other 105 women murdered this year in Italy (or those that happen every day around the world).

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

We are talking about a country where the expression "fai l'uomo" (be a man) abounds, with a society so prone to drama and tragedy and so fond of crime stories as few others, where the expression "crime of passion" is still mistakenly overused.

In this context, the sister of the victim reacted in an unexpected way for a country where femicide is not a crime recognized in the penal code, contrary to what happens, for example, in almost all of Latin America.

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