Ever since the Schism of 1054, the Church has never been the same. Yes, the 15th century brought some of the Orthodox back into the fold under the current name "Eastern Rites", but not more than a century later, the Lutherans had split from Rome, and then the Anglicans, the Calvinists and the rest of the Protestant divisions.
The healing of these divisions among Christians has not been easy. First, there were the religious wars which in some ways were ended with the Treaty of Westfalia. Then there were the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth of England which saw the shedding of much Christian blood in the name or religion. Eventually, these divisions led some to flee their homelands and found America. After that, we kind of got sidetracked by this thing called atheism, modernism and secularism. Since we all were on the same side in these debates, we sort of weren't fighting each other.
Then, there came the idea of relativism and tolerance and some of us really forgot there were divisions between us based on firmly held beliefs. Now, the funny thing about forgetting about a wound and going on as if it doesn't exist is that that only works if it's like a scratch. If it's a division that's more like a broken limb, it's not going to be good if it sets wrong.
This was not perhaps aided by the relativistic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Because of all these factors, the last 50 years have been a time of casual interaction between Christians who were not, perhaps, united with each other in belief, a kind of interaction that tried to forget the wound that might flare up at any time. Of course, there were times when this was not the case. With great abuse comes great reaction. There were some crazy things that occurred in the 70s and the 80s. In 1988, an archbishop ordained three bishops against the express orders of the Pope. This was the beginning of the Society known as the Society of St. Pius X.
Now, in the past decade or so, Christians are beginning to see a crisis. Numbers may be growing, but so is the number of people who are no longer going to church, no longer practicing. This isn't only a Catholic trend. Many denominations are seeing the soft unoffending Christianity and saying "What's the point?" Yet, there are now many people who are turning to a more traditional model of Christianity. Because of this, the old divisions are coming into high relief. However, the similarities, which can heal the divisions, are becoming even more obvious and more important in the face of growing secularism.
And so Christians are returning to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Benedict XVI seems to have made it the point of his pontificate to hammer home the importance of the Church and its actions and beliefs in an attempt to draw other Christians back to unity. It has, it appears, worked. Those who are most influenced by secularism do not hear the call to unity, but those who still understand the importance of unity of belief and their relationship with God and His Church are flocking to the Catholic Church.
The most significant act in this direction thus far is the Pope's invitation to traditionally-minded anglicans who were dissatisfied with the state of the anglican communion. He only needed to open the door and they came in.
Something that is quite as important, perhaps, is the situation with the aforementioned SSPX, a traditionalist society unnerved by the abuses of the 70s and 80s, so much so that they blamed the Council itself. Throughout his whole pontificate, and before as well, Benedict has been extremely vocal in stressing the continuity in the Church from the before the Council to after it. Not only this, but he himself believes the so called pre-conciliar liturgy and devotions to be of value and promotes them as such. Through statements, decrees and his own action, he has steadily paved the way for dialogue with the SSPX. Now, the news is that the SSPX, like the anglicans, are ready for reunification with Rome. Yes, it hasn't been that long, but it is important to keep the divisions as brief as possible. Maybe the Lutherans and Orthodox next?
In any case, I am excited about this unity. However, some are asking, "Why was this group such a big deal if the bishops and priests and people who don't believe in the teachings of the church at all aren't? Aren't they a bigger deal? Real heresy and denial of the faith? Why is it only this "traditional" society?" I would say it was for two reasons. I want to trust our Pope because Christ put him in charge, though that's not to say that I don't think that something should be said about the dissent in the Church.
1. The original bishops were in clear defiance of papal authority. It wasn't just a case of bishops believing or promoting programs that go against the teachings of the Church. It was an act of open disobedience. Thus, it required a very direct approach.
2. The closer one is to the truth, the more harmful the lie. It is easy for traditionally-minded Catholics to believe the SSPX because in many ways they are correct. Since it was an organized affair, the resultant dissent would be much more harmful.
Of course, it is not quite true that the Pope does not go after the secularist dissenters and only goes after traditionalist dissenters. In his recent homily for Holy Thursday, he mentions how certain Austrian bishops and priests who are calling for open disobedience are betraying their priesthood and thus their mission from Christ. They are, in fact, acting in the place of Judas the betrayer. Pretty harsh words.
Furthermore, it has just been released that the Vatican is intervening in the case of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which has been infected by dissent and secular ideas. Apparently there is some talk of rejecting canonical status and becoming just a secular interest group.
So it seems that when vocal organized dissent or open disobedience is the situation, the Church in the person of the Pope specifically does not hesitate to warn and discipline. However, our Pope of Unity is constantly looking for ways to bring them back, if they so desire. If they truly just want to promote secular agendas and interest, the discipline will only bring that to light.
But if, like with the SSPX, Unity is desired to heal the wound of division among Christians that has been so damaging throughout history, the discipline will only open up a later opportunity for reunification.
And that, proverbially, is that.