The Roman Catholic Church has a long and colorful history of malfeasance at its highest levels. Premodern popes have been credibly accused of murder, rape, theft, bribery, adultery, fathering illegitimate children, and buying and selling the office of the papacy itself, not to mention starting and waging imperialistic wars.

Things have, thankfully, improved quite a lot in recent centuries. Though even a beloved (and now sainted) figure like Pope John Paul II — who allowed the pedophile priest scandal to grow into a full-blown cover-up during his pontificate, and who stymied investigations of the monstrous Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the sexual predator who founded the Legionaries of Christ — was not without serious faults.

And yet Ross Douthat, the New York Times' most consistently thoughtful and level-headed opinion columnist, believes that it is Pope Francis who is engaging in behavior that could bring about the first schism in the church in nearly 600 years. (The last one ended in 1417.)

What has Francis done to potentially provoke such a profound crisis? He may have told an Argentine woman in a private telephone call that she has permission to receive the sacrament of Communion even though she is married to a divorced man.

No, I'm not joking.

Speculating about the pope's motives, Douthat lists three options. The first is that Francis means to sow doubt about whether he personally accepts official Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce. In this corrosive scenario, individual Catholics would know that the pope himself had winkingly given them permission to disobey church doctrine.

The second possibility is that the pope plans to institute a relatively minor reform of church rules surrounding marriage and divorce — those governing annulments, for example. While that wouldn't directly spark a crisis, it could dash the hopes of reformers who long for greater change, thereby inspiring the same kind of disaffection that spread among lay Catholics after the church failed to reform its teachings on contraception in the late 1960s.

In the third and most destabilizing scenario, which Douthat says he considers unlikely, Francis is laying the groundwork for a "a truly major shift on remarriage and Communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted." That is something that "would threaten outright schism" by conservative Catholics.

It isn't crazy for Douthat to predict that some conservatives might bolt from the church in response to such a move by the pope — though it would be crazy for them to do it, and it's unfortunate that Douthat has lent credence to the conservative case for schism.

Here is that case, in three steps:

Step 1: The church's teaching on marriage and divorce — that marriage is an indissoluble union, that it can only be undone through annulment, that civil divorce does not undo a marriage, that sex with a divorced person is an act of adultery — is rooted not merely in tradition and natural law but in the explicit words of Jesus Christ himself. (See, for example, Matthew 19:7-9; Mark 10:9-12; Luke 16:18.)

Step 2: Adultery is a grave sin, and canon law (Can. 915) states that those who are "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion."

Step 3: Were the pope to admit to Communion people who (in Douthat's words) "the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships," it would be "a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction." Which would be more than enough to justify denying the legitimacy of the change and breaking from Rome.

In other words: Schism.

The church's teachings on marriage and divorce (Step 1) do indeed follow directly from the Gospels. For that reason, it's fairly inconceivable that a pope would try to change these doctrines — and if he did, Catholics would be fully justified in breaking from the church in protest (Step 3).

But no one seriously believes that Pope Francis would attempt to do anything of the sort. They fear, instead, that he favors loosening the strict identification of divorce and remarriage with "manifest grave sin" in the canon law (Step 2). That identification, which is what leads Communion to be denied to divorced Catholics, was strengthened and formalized under John Paul II and Benedict XVI as part of their much broader effort to tamp down on dissent and enforce order and discipline in the wake of Vatican II.

Does Douthat really believe that schism would be justified if Francis, as a matter of papal prudence, merely backed off his predecessors' efforts (on multiple fronts) to treat the Eucharist as a reward for good behavior?

To be fair, Douthat may not have meant to imply that he would support such a schismatic movement. He may have simply been predicting one. But by writing about the possibility uncritically, he gives the impression of offering any such movement his tacit endorsement.

And that's a shame. If Catholicism hopes to be more than a rump church dominated by rule-obsessed inquisitors, it would be well advised to follow Francis' pastorally inflected lead in this area as in others. Conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat may not be able to offer their support for all of his efforts. But surely the wise and judicious ones will refrain from giving aid, comfort, and encouragement to his enemies.