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March 26, 2012

Schism in the Church is a most serious matter. It ruptures the Body of Christ and defies Christ's stated desire that all be one in him.

In its relations with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, the Vatican has bent over backwards to prevent a schism. The Vatican has been willing to do that because it knows how serious a schism is and how difficult it would be to heal a breach.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the society, followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, will never accept many central tenets of the Second Vatican Council. (See story on Page 2.) For the Lefebvrists, Vatican II was a rupture with the Church's long tradition. From their perspective, it is the Catholic Church that has broken with apostolic teaching.

Contrary to the Lefebvrists' view, Vatican II did not create a new Church. Catholic teaching on several matters, including liturgy, religious freedom, ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and the Church itself, surely did evolve at the council. Moreover, the fulfillment of one of Pope John XXIII's goals for Vatican II - that it present Catholic teaching in ways more suited to modern times - is still not obviously bearing fruit in terms of more people in the Western world being drawn to the Church.

But the Catholic Church has been faithful to the long tradition, creatively faithful. It has overcome the suffocation which held that Catholicism was a static entity, never changing, not only in doctrine, but even in practices.

The sad irony is that those who claim literally to be more Catholic than the pope have failed to be faithful precisely due to their refusal to accept the development of doctrine. Development of doctrine, it must be emphasized, is quite different than refusing to change with the times. The Church's teaching is not determined by accommodation to changing societal trends.

Doctrine, however, does develop as the Church faces new issues. Pope John's insistence, for example, on a pastoral priority for ecumenism and improved relations with Judaism led the council to a deeper examination of the nature of the Church, religious freedom and the nature of salvation.

The religious freedom issue was also pushed forward by the rise of totalitarian communism which granted a limited freedom of worship, but no room for Church institutions or public witness. Sadly, the Lefebvrists, who were strongly anti-communist, opposed the emergence of a doctrine of religious freedom.

Relations with the Lefebvrists now appear to be moving to a culmination. Unless the Lefebvrists backtrack on their rejection of Vatican II, talks with Rome may end and the schism be firmly established. It would be an unfortunate way to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, a council which has contributed much to the quest for Church unity.