If a Kingdom be divided against itself, that Kingdom cannot stand". The statement, attributed to Our Lord himself in St Mark's Gospel (3: 24), was essentially a truism. Nothing is more guaranteed to fracture any institution, any organisation, than internal division. It is a truth which emerges as clearly from the present condition of the Catholic Church as it does from that of any other institution. Unity is strength. Division is death.
The dissentient theologians have paid little regard to the necessity for unity. The more gifted and far-sighted of them are playing for high stakes - effective control of the Church - even if the price of their ultimate victory would be to complete the process of emptying the churches.
The most recent example is the statement made at the beginning of June by the Catholic Theological Society of America. This statement was nominally in relation to women's ordination. The real issue was whether final authority, binding consciences, rested with the Papacy - or the theologians.
The Society speaks in the name of all but a very few of the leading Catholic theologians in the United States. These, among others, have the responsibility for teaching seminarians in training for the diocesan and religious priesthood; for the conduct of theology faculties in Catholic universities; and for the control of theological reviews and journals.
De facto control
If the doctrinal or moral propositions which officially emanate from such a body are carried by an overwhelming majority - as they were on this occasion - they will gravitate downwards to become part of the 'furniture' of the minds and consciences of the Catholic people. Their de facto control of most seminaries, universities, schools and the associated bureaucracies effectively ensures that result. The most orthodox bishop may publicly repudiate their conclusions; but, so long as they remain in their jobs, they have the effective power silently to subvert his authority.
It is not too much to say that what may be broadly described as the modernist synthesis has become the religious "world view" of something close to a majority of Catholic theologians. It will directly influence only a minority of Catholics. But these will be composed of those who have been through allegedly Catholic universities, and other teaching institutions, most of whom will be appointed to official positions within the Church.
A much greater number, without themselves espousing the modernist synthesis in toto, will regard themselves as sufficiently justified - on grounds of uncertainty - in diluting the orthodoxy in which they had once believed into the familiar brand described as liberal Catholicism. This minimises, where it does not explicitly deny, the binding force of Papal authority, whenever it is exercised; abandons the concept that there are fixed and unchangeable moral norms which demand consent, in the multitude of human situations, of which a person's life is made up, substituting a 'pick-and-choose' morality in its place.
The American Catholic Theological Society has challenged the Pope's explicit decision on the matter of women's ordination. Since the issue has now resulted in a fundamental cleavage within the Church, which has become the 'fault-line' around which almost all other controverted issues centre, it cannot do so without challenging the authority of the Pope himself in all matters of doctrine and morals.
The present Pope has made it clear that the hitherto unchallenged tradition of the Church in maintaining an exclusively male priesthood is so fundamental a part of essential Catholic belief that even a Pope has no authority to change it. In November 1995 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith declared that the Pope's most recent ruling on the subject was both explicit and "infallible".
This apparently meant nothing to the majority of members of the US Catholic Theological Society, who reportedly gave a full year's study to the subject. As one correspondent described their most recent statement:
"They expressed 'serious doubts' about the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith's] reasoning and its use of scripture, tradition and the teaching of bishops to invoke infallibility. For their part, the American theologians cited biblical scholarship to say that Christ chose only men as Apostles because they had a 'symbolic role as patriarchs' in Israel at the time, not because he intended them to be prototypes for a single-sex priesthood.
"The theological challenge to the Vatican acknowledges that women have not traditionally been ordained, but claims that this was because the Church used to regard women as inferior to men. Since it no longer holds that view, the Curia should not block discussion of female ordination."
Nor were the theologians concerned labouring under any misunderstanding as to the weight of the authority which they were attacking. Dr Jon Nielson of Loyola University (Chicago) told the New York Times:
"There's not a theologian here who would deny that these Roman documents are authoritative and have to be taken with a good deal of seriousness."
That what was intended in fact constituted a fundamental attack on Papal authority, is beyond doubt. It poses the question whether final authority on matters relating to the constitution of the Church – as much as on those specifically concerning doctrine and morals - rests with the Pope or with theologians.
Despite the critical nature of the challenge, the truth is that nothing - or, at least, nothing effective - will be done about it. The Vatican will almost certainly choose to hold its hand, since it does not desire a major confrontation which might ultimately precipitate the very schism which is latent within the American Church, in which there would be bishops on both sides.
Hence, the enforcement of authority on this fundamental matter, rests - at least initially - with the American Bishops. With one single exception, the US bishops have remained silent. What this silence will do is to confirm the view, now probably a majority view even among those US Catholics who still practise their religion, that people can call themselves Catholic and believe anything they like, since there is no longer any effective sanction for subversion. As with the debate on contraception throughout the 60s and 70s, the dissentients are confident that they can stare authority down, and survive.
Ordinary Catholics in the pews can do nothing to resolve these great issues. But it is, at least, important that they should understand what is at stake and place the unity of their prayers behind John Paul II.