Some Catholics have yet to forgive Martin Luther for splintering the church universal. In his 1973 novel Catholics, Brian Moore memorably portrayed a heroic abbot, faithful to the Latin Mass in the face of a trendy church that was abandoning core Christian tenets, who wonders “when certainty had begun” in the church. Perhaps with Vatican II, he reflects, “and long ago, that righteous prig at Wittenberg nailing his defiance to the church door.” Yet surprisingly, Catholic traditionalists like the fictional Abbot are increasingly finding Martin Luther to be a figure worth emulating rather than deriding.

Even before the Pope’s visit to America last week, many conservative Catholics were filled with angst about the more progressive direction Francis was taking the church, with a renewed emphasis on social problems like inequality as well as the urgency of tackling climate change, combined with a move to soft-pedal divisive social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. This anxiety has only heightened after Francis’s addresses to Congress and the United Nations, where sexual issues received far less attention than climate change, economic inequality, and the death penalty.

Some conservative Catholics, like Pat Buchanan and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, have been sounding more and more like “that righteous prig at Wittenberg,” making Luther-like threatening noises about defying the Pope and even airing the idea of schism (with breakaway churches having their own popes, as memorably happened in the Middle Ages during the Avignon Captivity). The increasing frequency with which conservative Catholics talk about schism as a real possibility highlights how central issues of sexual morality are to this faction within the church. It also suggests that these conservative Catholics already have more in common with evangelical Protestants than with progressive Catholics.

Schismatics have traditionally been regarded with horror by faithful Catholics. Unity is a core Catholic value, as can be seen by the very word “catholic” itself, not to mention the sacramental rite of communion. In Dante’s Inferno, schismatics are near the very bottom of Hell, in the eighth circle, where they are repeatedly torn asunder by demons as punishment for sowing discord. Schism is no small matter, yet we hear writers like Buchanan and Douthat talking about the church in terms that suggest at a minimum virulent disputes with the church hierarchy, and at worst the nursing of schism as an option. 

Writing in The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty, one of the most thoughtful writers on the Catholic right, argued in May of last year: “Sometimes, the duty of a faithful Catholic is not just to rebuke and correct those in authority in the church…but to throw rotting cabbage at them, or make them miserable…” In the British conservative magazine The Spectator, Damian Thompson suggested that if the church moves to accept same-sex marriage, some traditional Catholics will just create “the modern equivalent of Avignon and we’ll have two popes.” 

In his syndicated column last week, Pat Buchanan joined the chorus, complaining, “What has come out of the Vatican in the past two years is moral confusion. Yet as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput reminds us, ‘confusion is of the devil.’ It is also trifling with schism.” Buchanan’s last sentence is a marvel of ambiguity via abstract pronoun usage. Who exactly, is trifling with schism? In the real world, it is traditionalist Catholics unhappy with the changes in the church—but Buchanan makes it sound as if Francis is somehow the one playing footsy with dividing the church. The ambiguity of Buchanan’s wording is no accident: Like other conservative Catholics, he wants to raise the specter of schism without saying outright that he’s prepared to leave the church.

Douthat published the most far-reaching apologia for schismatic sentiment among Catholic conservatives in a long survey of Francis’s contentious papacy that The Atlantic published in May. Douthat placed the current unhappiness with Francis in the widest possible context: “Catholic Christianity has never been monolithic, and similar divisions have opened up across the past 2,000 years. But those examples are not particularly encouraging, given that many major theological disputes have led, as you would expect, to major schisms, from the early splits with the Copts and Monophysites and Nestorians, to the separation from the Eastern Church, to the late-medieval Great Schism, and of course to the Protestant Reformation.” 


To those outside the worldview of conservative Catholicism, this talk about a new Reformation or a possible schism over the church’s supposed abandonment of traditional morality might seem bafflingly over the top. After all, Francis has constantly reaffirmed the church’s adamant opposition to birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. The Pope remains committed to a church where only men can become priests, and he confirmed in his United Nations speech the belief that “the natural difference between man and woman” is part of “a moral law written into human nature itself.” These are hardly the words of a sexual radical. 

The only true innovation the Vatican is booting around on sexual matters involves a very narrow question: Should Catholics who have divorced and re-married (and hence are viewed by the church as adulterers) be allowed to receive the communion? Currently, they cannot, but the German Cardinal Walter Kasper wants to change this policy. Kasper seems to have the ear of Francis on the matter. For Douthat, this modest liberalization of the rules of communion threatens the very foundations of Catholic sexual morality. 

“If ongoing adultery is forgivable, then why not other forms of loving, long-standing sexual commitment?” Douthat asks. “Not only same-sex couples but cohabiting straight couples and even polygamous families … could make a plausible case that they deserve the same pastoral exception, rendering the very idea of objective sexual sin anachronistic in one swift march.”

The disjunction between the relatively specialized nature of the changes proposed and the apocalyptic conclusion that Douthat draws from them makes it hard to know how seriously his arguments about schism should be taken. It’s one thing to split the church asunder over the corruption of indulgences, as Martin Luther did. It’s another thing to draw a line in the sand over the inclusiveness of communion, which involves the church not committing a misdeed but making a greater outreach to those within its ambit. Is this really the hill that Douthat wants to die on? 

One way to understand this outbreak of schism talk is to see it as a negotiating tactic, like one party in a relationship holding out the threat of divorce in order to maintain control. “If you keep pushing for more tolerance of the divorced, I’ll give you a divorce,” is the logic at work. But there might be an even more sinister implied threat. In effect, Douthat and company may simply be borrowing from well-worn mafia techniques, telling progressive conservatives: “This is a beautiful ancient religion you have. It would be a shame if someone were to smash it to bits.” 

But even if the threat of schism is cynically deployed, it reveals a greater truth: that conservative Catholics already have a very Protestant view of their faith, one that is narrowly, even myopically, focused on individual sexual morality. Catholic ethics has always been about both the community and the individual, about the broader questions of how we live together as social beings and not just personal choices we make about who to have sex with. That’s why the church has developed a complex body of teachings on issues of economics, war and peace, the environment, and many other communal concerns. Broadly speaking, Protestantism is more individualistic and Catholicism more social. In that sense, even if conservative Catholics stay in the church, they are Protestant in all but name. 

The Catholic right tends to disregard the church teaching on social matters and focus singlemindedly on sexual morality. Douthat argues that “from the beginning, sexual ethics have been closer to the heart of Christianity and Christian life than many theological progressives now assume.” Confronted with a pope who sees sexual morality as not the heart of Christianity but as one brick in a larger edifice, Douthat and like-minded conservative Catholics are doubling down on the primacy of sexual issues. Talk of Martin Luther’s Reformation, or a new schism, grows out of not just angst over Francis’s policies but, more subtly, out of an awareness by conservative Catholics that they are already Protestants.