The Catholic NYT columnist (well, the orthodox Catholic NYT columnist) Ross Douthat, writing about Pope Francis’s controversial ringy-dingy to the Argentine woman, points out that the pontiff is playing a dangerous game with his phone calls. Excerpt:

And whatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.

One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions — like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks — and not actually trying to teach a living faith.

The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.

Douthat identifies a third peril, one that he says “my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule out.” You should read his column to get the whole picture, but the gist of it is — and he uses this word — “schism.” That is, if Pope Francis pushes hard to change Catholic teaching on divorce, marriage, and communion in a major way, the tensions between the Church’s historic teaching and its revision would stand to break the bonds of communion among some Catholics. Writes Douthat, “Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.”

The word “probably” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that sentence. That a Catholic writer as careful and non-excitable as Ross Douthat can’t say with confidence that the Pope is not considering a radical move that could force a schism — well, that tells us a lot about this papacy. As I said, Douthat is an orthodox Catholic, one who believes that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from teaching error on faith and morals. What happens if it appears to many Catholics that this Pope and the bishops united to him change Church teaching in such a way that they have taught error? This is the question that some of my traditionalist Catholic friends are facing right now. This is the first time I’ve seen it raised by a Catholic who is not a traditionalist. This column ought to be read as a warning. All these often charming media gestures Francis undertakes could be leading somewhere very, very dangerous for the Catholic Church.

This is all a lot more serious than almost anybody in the media, and many Catholics outside of traditionalist circles and a small but apparently growing number of conservative Catholics, seem to get.

UPDATE: David J. White writes in the comboxes:

One thing I think that conservative Catholics never really saw coming was the possibility that a major schism in the US Church would come from the right, rather than from the left. That is, for many years it was assumed that if a major schism were to happen it would be when lots of people or whole parishes or even dioceses revolted over the Church’s teachings on the pelvic issues and essentially established an autocephalous “American Catholic Church,” while those who supported traditional Church teaching would remain loyal to Rome. No one ever seriously thought that it would be the Vatican that might start to look wishy-washy on these issues.

In any event, speaking as a devout Catholic, and as one who prefers the traditional Latin Mass, I would at least not be sorry to see the end of the pernicious cult of personality that has grown up around the papacy over the last century or so.

I think that’s exactly what has orthodox Catholics so concerned. As long as Rome was solid, they could endure whatever craziness happened at the parish level. But if Rome goes wobbly, what then?