Is Pope Francis Leading the Church to a Schism? Disagreements over same-sex relationships and the role of women are heightening tensions among Catholics worldwide.

German Catholics have been meeting since last year to consider major changes to church life, including the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of women—moves that many see as essential reforms after the clerical sex-abuse crisis. But the effort has drawn fierce criticism. Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, leader of the conservative minority of German bishops, has warned that the process could lead to a schism and even “a German national church.” His warnings have been echoed by cardinals and bishops in other countries. “Please join me in praying for the universal Church and the bishops in Germany, that they step back from this radical rupture,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said in May.

The threat of schism is alarming for any religious community but especially for the Catholic Church, whose very name is derived from the ancient Greek word for “universal” and whose core identity is inextricably tied to its global unity under the pope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, an official handbook of church teaching, defines schism specifically in terms of papal authority, as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Critics of the process under way in Germany, which is officially called the Synodal Path, say that proponents of change there are flouting the pope’s authority by challenging teachings of which he is the chief custodian. But German progressives deny any intention to break with Rome and insist they are taking their cues from the pope himself, who has encouraged free discussion of sensitive topics that were taboo under his conservative predecessors. The synod originated as a response to a 2018 report commissioned by Germany’s bishops on the clerical sex-abuse crisis, which called for a more positive attitude to homosexuality and for rethinking priestly celibacy and the church’s power structure. Organizers expanded the agenda to address the role of women.

People on both sides agree that the pope is now trying to restrain the progressive movement in Germany, disappointing many who cheered him earlier in his reign. “ Pope Francis has recognized that the unity of the church is very fragile, so he has to maintain unity and he has to say on some questions ‘stop’ to the church in Germany,” said Helmut Hoping, a professor of theology at the University of Freiburg. “The genie is out of the bottle, and he has to hold it back, maybe not to put it back in the bottle but to hold it, to avoid exaggeration or riot or revolution,” said Joachim Frank, a journalist who is taking part in the German synod.

“For the Synodal Path, unity with the Pope and the universal Church is essential. The Catholic Church in Germany knows that it is bound to its 2,000-year tradition and is strongly integrated in the universal Church,” said Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German Bishops’ Conference.

Schism has been a recognized danger since the first days of the church. The Apostle Paul urged early Christians “that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions (schismata) among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Yet lasting breaks have occurred before. In the 11th century, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches split largely over Rome’s claim, rejected by Constantinople, of universal jurisdiction over all Christian churches. In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s protest against the Pope for granting indulgences—the remission of punishment for sin—in exchange for financial contributions to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica sparked the Protestant Reformation, which came to include challenges to Catholic teaching on such fundamental issues as the authority of the Bible and the value of the sacraments.

The questions most sharply dividing Christians today are the cultural and moral issues—from contraception and abortion to euthanasia and the rights of gay and transgender people—that have loomed large in Western society over the last half-century. In 2009, former members of the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada who objected to their churches’ liberal teaching on homosexuality broke off to form the Anglican Church in North America. In 2022, the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., is expected to formalize a planned split over the questions of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy.

As in the days of Martin Luther, who disseminated his ideas with unprecedented speed through the recent invention of printing, modern communications technology has facilitated controversy, this time on a global scale. The leadership of the Global Anglican Future Conference, a network of conservative Anglican churches, is dominated by bishops from the global south, especially Africa, who generally oppose the more liberal trend in the wealthier parts of the Anglican Communion. Methodist leaders in Africa and the Philippines have formed a majority with American conservatives to oppose liberal policies on homosexuality.

A similar geographic breakdown has emerged in the Catholic Church. At a Vatican synod on the family in 2014, African bishops emerged as a conservative bloc opposed to liberalizing moves on divorce and homosexuality backed by the Germans. There was open friction when a German cardinal told a reporter that “Africa is totally different from the West…especially about gays” and that African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” drawing a rebuke from one of his African counterparts on Twitter.

Cardinal Philippe Ouédraogo of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, urged African Christians in an Easter sermon this year to “rebel against the imperialism of certain lobbies and associations which advocate and want to impose same-sex marriage, socio-sexual debauchery [and] divorce.”

Pope Francis has dealt differently with such topics than his immediate predecessors St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who reasserted traditional teaching. The current pope has played down questions of sexual and medical ethics in comparison with social and economic justice. When he has talked about the former, he has often used conciliatory language and emphasized compassion and tolerance without contradicting traditional doctrine.

Pope Francis has also sparked discussion of controversial matters by promoting the concept of “synodality,” which he has expanded to mean consultation not only with bishops but with all of the faithful. He has called synods in Rome that have broached controversial topics and has encouraged Catholics around the world to hold national assemblies of their own.

In Germany, where liberals blamed the Vatican for blocking progressive developments in the decades following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope Francis’s call for synodality was especially welcome.

“There was this sense of movement, of change, another spirit...another type of church after these boring and very painful years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI,” said Mr. Frank, who holds a leadership role in the Central Committee of German Catholics, which is running the synod with the German Bishops’ Conference. “This certainly changed the atmosphere and the kind of behavior of theologians in Germany and of priests and of bishops. I wouldn’t have imagined that in 2020 bishops would say we have to discuss the ordination of women...It wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.”

Yet even before the Germans started their synod last year, Pope Francis was calling on them to show restraint. “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” the pope wrote in an open letter to German Catholics in 2019.

The pope and Vatican officials have taken a number of actions pre-empting some of the most controversial points of the German synod’s agenda. Francis surprised many last year by not allowing the ordination of married men as priests or of women as deacons in Latin America’s Amazon region, after showing openness to both measures as possible ways to relieve a shortage of clergy there.

Since then, Vatican offices have issued documents ruling out giving Communion to Protestants or allowing laypeople to administer parishes on an equal basis with priests, both practices with strong support among German bishops and lay leaders. The pope approved publication in March of a Vatican document prohibiting the blessing of same-sex relationships on the grounds that God “cannot bless sin.” Last month, the Vatican released a new penal code that specified automatic excommunication for any attempt to ordain a woman.

The pope may yet employ other means to restrain the German synod’s progressive tilt. The Vatican recently announced that a global synod would start this October and unfold over the next two years on the diocesan and continental levels before culminating in a meeting at the Vatican in 2023. Some members of the German synod believe that these gatherings may supersede their own process.

The pope is trying “to influence and to domesticate the German Synodal Path, because in a universal synod most of its radical items will not find resonance,” said Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, a philosopher and member of the German synod’s section on women in the church.

But Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, says that “the Synodal Way in Germany will be continued, and its results will be incorporated into the global process. I don’t see a ‘domestication’ but a confirmation of our process.”

The Rev. Bernd Hagenkord, a member of the pope’s Jesuit order who is serving as an adviser to the German synod, told a German Catholic radio station earlier this year that “the pope is clearly concerned that the Catholic Church could break up over some issues of conflict,” such as homosexuality and women’s ordination, “because some parties are making some issues too strong.”

Yet some say that the pope is reaping what he sowed through ambiguity on church teaching and encouragement of debate. “The pope may presently not be happy, but in a sense it’s his own doing,” said the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, a former theological adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Francis has created the monster that we now find in Germany.”

Father Weinandy was asked to resign his position with the bishops in 2017 after publishing a controversial open letter to the pope warning that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate.” He denies that there is anything schismatic in his criticism of the pope for what he says is a failure to defend the church’s unity.

The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment.

Leaders of the German synod acknowledge wide divergences with the global church. “The rupture between the different cultures in which we are living our Catholic belief may be growing bigger, greater and deeper,” said Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, co-leader of the synod’s section on “Power and Separation of Powers in the Church,” adding that it is a major challenge for the church to adapt to cultures as different as those in Western Europe and Africa.

An important factor in managing those cultural differences is the relative size of those communities. There were 236 million Catholics in Africa last year, almost as many as in Europe, according to the World Christian Database. By 2050, there are expected to be more than twice as many Catholics in Africa as in Europe.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Germany is shrinking. There were 22.2 million Catholics in Germany in 2020, down from 22.6 million the year before, according to official church statistics. In 2019, before the pandemic restricted participation in church services, 9.1% of Catholics in Germany regularly attended Sunday Mass, down from 9.3% the previous year.

“If you’re in the Vatican and you look at something like this and you think, huh, there’s a few million really rich but very, very nominal Catholics in Europe and there’s all these really passionate die-for-the-faith people in Africa, and we have to choose, then really, the answer is obvious,” said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University.

“Shrinking [of the church] in Western states happens for reasons of modern life influences. The progressive movement can be seen as a power that avoids further shrinking,” said Britta Baas, spokeswoman for the Central Committee of German Catholics.

Catholic Church law doesn’t provide for the sort of action taken by the Anglican bishops of Uganda in 2003 when they declared that they were breaking fellowship with the Episcopal Church of the U.S. for consecrating a gay bishop. In the Catholic Church, it is exclusively up to the Holy See to declare that a schism exists.

Popes have shown themselves ready to go to great lengths to avoid that turn. To prevent continuing schisms, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of traditionalist bishops who had been ordained without permission from Rome, and Pope Francis has done the same for Chinese bishops appointed by the government in Beijing. Pope Benedict also lifted restrictions on the celebration of the Latin Mass to heal the schism with traditionalists—a move Pope Francis reversed on Friday, arguing that the old liturgy has become a source of division.

The prospect of a formal schism may still be remote in the case of Germany, but the longer-term question remains of what to do about an undeniable drifting apart on matters that touch on core questions of biblical interpretation and traditional moral teaching.

“This could be the crux of [Francis’s] pontificate. He could do nothing, or he could have his Paul VI moment, his Humanae Vitae moment, where he decisively settles the issues precisely by reaffirming the church’s clear teaching,” said Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, referring to the 1968 papal encyclical that upheld the traditional ban on contraception. “A course of inaction does not prevent schism, but merely reinforces it.”

Leaders of the German synod say that even the most divisive issues should be manageable within a global church. “Not to say that everyone has to be like Germany and not to say that everyone has to be like Africa, but to be the same church with different speeds,” said Birgit Mock, vice president of the Catholic German Women’s Federation, who is co-directing the section of the synod on sexuality. “The church has space for variety.”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at