Church history is rife with rifts - Catholic Courier

Church history is rife with rifts

Today’s Catholics still disagree over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which ended 45 years ago, but that ecumenical council was not the first event to spark conflict among Catholics, according to Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general. Indeed, the church’s long history has been peppered with such rifts, which often had more to do with the egos of those involved than with real theological differences, he added.

"There have always been people who hold different positions on things, but sometimes when people’s egos get in the way the debate reaches the point where the church becomes divided," said Father Hart, who also serves as moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center. "Initial disagreements move to polarization when people solidify their positions. Polarization can be (seen) as far back as early elections for the bishop of Rome."

In the papal elections that took place around 218, the two strongest potential candidates, for example, were men named Callistus and Hippolytus, who are both now saints. Callistus had a very colorful past, Father Hart noted.

"Callistus had been a slave, a very able man. His master put him in charge of a bank, and some money was lost," he said. "Callistus was arrested and put in jail, then through the good graces of some people he was let out."

After his release Callistus visited a synagogue, apparently in an attempt to recover the lost money, and there was arrested for brawling and sent to serve hard labor in Sardinia. Upon his return Callistus was put in charge of Rome’s cemeteries or catacombs, one of which now bears his name, and later become a deacon.

"And so, as a deacon he was elected the bishop of Rome. Hippolytus was a learned theologian, but when the election took place it was Callistus who was elected," Father Hart said.

This didn’t sit well with Hippolytus, who believed that a man who’d been imprisoned twice and was prone to brawling wasn’t fit to serve as pontiff. Hippolytus also thought Callistus was too lenient on sinners and lacked knowledge about church doctrine, so Hippolytus decided to take matters into his own hands.

"Hippolytus gets a whole bunch of people around him and he gets elected bishop of Rome, and so now we’ve got two bishops of Rome," said Father Hart, noting that Hippolytus’ election marked the beginning of an 18-year schism.

The Great Schism of 1054 marked another divide in the history of the Catholic Church. The split came after centuries of rising tensions between the Western church headquartered in Rome and the Eastern church centered in Constantinople, Father Hart said. Those tensions came to a head in 1054, when leaders on both sides excommunicated each other.

Another schism followed the First Vatican Council, which took place from 1869-70, when a group known as the Old Catholics left the church as a result of the council’s definition of papal infallibility, which was one of the most polarizing aspects of that council, Father Hart said. Rochester’s own newly elected leader, Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, voted against infallibility in an informal vote during the council, he added.

"He, with others, got permission to leave Rome so as not to be at the last session when the formal vote would be taken, so they did not have to vote no," Father Hart said.

Nonetheless, Bishop McQuaid believed God was leading the council’s participants, so he accepted the vote on infallibility, the priest added.

"When he arrived home he obviously assented to what the council decreed," Father Hart said.

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