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Let There Be No Schisms Among Us

By Andrew Bartel

There are three exits in Christ’s Church: heresy, apostasy, and schism. Most Christians have an adequate understanding of the first two as the partial or complete rejection of the Catholic and apostolic faith, but few today seem to fully comprehend the true nature of schism, including members of the hierarchy. For the laity, this is usually the result of a lack of catechesis; for the clergy, this knowledge has become obscured by false definitions and attitudes. Regarded by many as canonical formality, the intimate relationship of schism to Christian morality and the life of virtue seems to have been largely forgotten or ignored. This connection was very clear in the early Church, as can be seen from the letters of St. Paul and writings of the Fathers. Our understanding of schism as a serious personal transgression of the theological virtues, especially charity, must be firmly reestablished if we are to heal the many divisions in the Church.

The Code of Canon Law defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” [1] Since this is the most common description of schism, also used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is understandable why its relation to faith and charity can be lost. The role of the Roman Pontiff as taught by the First Vatican Council needs to be clearly known for this essential connection to be made. The foundation of the papacy rests on Peter’s confessions of faith and love in Jesus (Mat 16:16-19; Jn 21:15-17) and Christ’s command to confirm his brethren in the same (Lk 22:32). As the fathers of Vatican I declared:

The Eternal Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, in order to continue for all time the saving work of redemption, determined to build his holy Church so that in her, as in the house of the living God, all who believe might be united together in faith and love. […] In order that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in unity of faith and communion by means of a closely united priesthood, he placed St. Peter at the head of the other apostles and established in him a perpetual principle and visible foundation of this twofold unity, in order that on his strength an everlasting temple might be erected and on the firmness of his faith a Church might arise whose pinnacle was to reach into heaven. [2]

The importance of Christian communion can be seen from Jesus’ prayer for the Church before his Passion, in which he equates this unity with the union between himself and the Father (Jn 17:11). Because the Church must be one as the Son and the Father are one, a schism inflicts a deep wound on Christ’s Body, and the moral gravity of such an assault on God is made evident by this connection. The papacy is not an end in itself, but rather the means established by the Son of God to safeguard fidelity to the faith and the communion of love, and to bring all together under one head.

Two contemporary examples of ecclesial divisions are the so-called traditionalist and progressive factions, both of which adhere to flawed conceptions of schism. The first is Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, who consecrated four bishops in 1988 against the express command of Pope St. John Paul II. He argued that this was not a schismatic act, but rather his necessary disobedience for the good of the Church. For Lefebvre, submission to the Roman Pontiff is conditional on the occupant’s perceived fidelity, as he states: “We are attached to the pope for as long as he echoes the apostolic traditions and the teachings of all his predecessors. It is because we judge that our faith is endangered by the post-conciliar reforms and tendencies, that we have the duty to disobey and keep the Tradition.” [3] Everything Lefebvre and his followers rejected, such as the Second Vatican Council, the New Rite of Mass, and parts of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, were viewed by them as simply isolated acts of dutiful disobedience, or “loyal dissent,” as their progressive counterparts prefer to express it.

The second example can be seen in the writing of the Jesuit priest David Toolan, a former editor of America magazine, who downplays the seriousness of schism as nonessential, even ridiculous: “Church order—or, if you like, disorder—isn't everything. In fact, as Protestant and Orthodox friends like to remind me, we Catholics, whether pro or con, tend to exaggerate the importance of institutional order. Obsessing over the hierarchy—as if it substituted for God—is our idiomatic form of idolatry.” [4] He also lauds the efforts by “progressives” to gradually dismantle what he considers the papacy’s antiquated role:

When theologian Rosemary Ruether voices the discontent of thousands of American religious women with the Vatican's monarchical model of a spotless church over against a bleared and smeared world, she assumes moral appeals and dialogue will be futile, sure to fall on deaf ears; but rather than resort to schism, as a Protestant sensibility naturally would, she recommends "systematic subversion of hierarchical power" by asserting local autonomy and withdrawing financial support. This is a novel Catholic response, strong new wine. [5]

Fr. Toolan seems to be presenting schism as though it were different from the “subversion of hierarchical power”—but is not subversion the antithesis of submission? In his association of the term with Protestantism, he appears to believe that schism is not possible unless there is actual disassociation with the Church.

Both Lefebre and Toolan make the mistake of relegating schism to an issue of juridical obedience or separation and neglecting its genesis as a personal sin. Schism begins in the hearts of individuals, before there is any kind of collective breakaway. This is why St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians to admonish the divisive behaviors of individuals, which were naturally beginning to form into groups: “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:12-13 RSVCE). Following the great theologian Cajetan, Yves Congar provides us with a correction to the two erroneous views above, describing a schismatic as “someone who wants to think, pray, act—in a word, live—not in harmony with the whole Church, as a part in conformity with the whole and with the authority which presides over the whole, but according to his own rule and like an autonomous being.” [6]

To recover this proper understanding of schism as proposed by Congar, we need to delve into the sources of our faith on which it is based: the teachings of the early Church Fathers. For example, St. Irenaeus writes that “a true spiritual disciple shall judge those who make schism and are destitute of the love of God, who look to their own advantage rather than to the unity of the Church.” [7] This admonition coincides almost perfectly with Congar’s description given above. St. Cyprian of Carthage also speaks about schismatics, saying that “they vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priests of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split or divided.” [8] St. Augustine further reveals the nature of schismatics by contrasting them to heretics: “Heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God; and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor.” [9] In each of these excerpts, there is a clear emphasis on fraternal charity and the union that flows from this virtue.

The later Doctors of the Church further support and elaborate on the doctrine of the Fathers. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales eloquently expresses how unity necessarily flows from love, and how hatred leads to separation. It is interesting to note that the traditionalist and progressive factions are primarily motivated by intense aversion (hatred) toward certain people and things in the Church, whether these are conciliar reforms or the refusal to implement more radical ones. A spirit of genuine ecclesial communion, on the other hand, encourages trust, cooperation and understanding. St. Francis writes that the “unities of heart, of soul, and of spirit signify the perfection of love which joins many souls into one.” [10] Virtue forms wholeness in men and societies, while sin causes disintegration.

St. Thomas Aquinas also categorizes schism as a sin against the virtue of charity in the Summa Theologiae. He reiterates the common teaching on the subject, stating that “the sin of schism is, properly speaking, a special sin, for the reason that the schismatic intends to sever himself from that unity which is the effect of charity: because charity unites not only one person to another with the bond of spiritual love, but also the whole Church in unity of spirit.” [11] St. Thomas emphasizes this point immediately before offering a definition of schism identical to the one in the current Code of Canon Law, given at the beginning of this blog post. This strongly suggests the necessity of this preliminary understanding of schism as sin and its effect on the moral life of the Christian, in order to fully appreciate its true nature.

While each of these Fathers and Doctors have treated schism in its relationship to charity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church initially appears to depart from this tradition by presenting it as a sin against the first commandment in the section on the virtue of faith. However, it clarifies that this commandment “embraces faith, hope, and charity.” [12] The Catechism thus adds a new layer of richness to our understanding of schism, in that it not only a transgresses charity, but faith and hope as well. Aquinas also recognized that loss of charity is the road to losing faith, ergo schism leads to heresy. [13] All virtues are inseparably bound to charity, as the Catechism teaches: “the practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’; it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice.” [14] Because schism has a profoundly destructive impact on charity, it follows that will also devastate a Christian’s faith and hope.

Faith cannot survive without charity, as the apostle James declares emphatically: “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). The gift of faith is sustained by hope and love, and apart from them a person cannot be united to Christ and his Body, the Church. [15] A person inevitably ceases to believe in what they do not cherish and act upon. Love is what breathes life into everything we know, prompting us to shape our lives according to God’s truth. The communion of the Church is where fraternal charity is exercised by the Christian, through submission to the same authority and worshiping around the same altar. In the Mass, we pray that God would “be pleased to confirm in faith and charity your pilgrim Church on earth, with your servant N. our Pope and N. our Bishop, the Order of Bishops, all the clergy, and the entire people you have gained for your own.” [16] This prayer succinctly communicates the direct connection between the theological virtues and Christian unity, and in it we ask for God’s grace to preserve us in both, and to heal our divisions.

Hope is also ruined by schism. All sin manifests a loss of trust in God, and in this one a Christian loses his trust in the promises of Christ, and in the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church instructs us that in the original sin, man allowed trust to die in his heart, and that “all subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.” [17] The schismatic disobeys God in his continuous disobedience toward the pope or his bishop (Lk 10:16), and he gradually begins to view the Church as though it were a merely human institution. As Cardinal Raymond Burke remarked to the author of this blog post: “Schism is a very understandable and natural response to problems in the Church, and therein lies the error. It is a decision made without the assistance of the supernatural virtues and divine grace.” People who fall into schism have become distrustful of anyone but themselves and people who think as they do, and this distrust extends to the magisterium. Schismatics are those who lose all confidence that Christ is still acting in and through the authority and institutions of his Church.

From all we have examined thus far, the intimate relationship between the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and ecclesial communion has been remarkably evident. How is it that this is so often overlooked? One possible explanation could be that many understand this sin according to what moral theologian Fr. Servais Pinckaers identifies as a “morality of obligation.” [18] This perspective on Christian morality was a result of the manualist tradition, which began in the 17th century with the publication of conveniently condensed manuals of moral theology for seminarians, priests and confessors. Unfortunately, an artificial division was unintentionally set up between conscience, laws, and obligations on the one hand, and happiness, the Beatitudes, and virtues on the other, because of the latter being mostly absent from the manuals for the sake of brevity. This led to the development of an ethical approach with lacked the more balanced synthesis of moral theology with the rest of Christian belief and practice. Because this approach has influenced generations of modern Catholics, it is perhaps plausible that this has contributed to the perception of schism as a somewhat arbitrary legal formality, rather than as a serious offence against the theological virtues and the Beatitudes.

There are likely many other reasons for the confusion and obscurity of this subject; equally important is how to improve and pass on the integrity of this doctrine. The preeminent place for this is the ministry of catechesis, in our families, churches, and seminaries. A priority for parents, teachers and catechists should be to demonstrate the organic unity of the Catholic religion, and how each area of our Faith influences and is influenced by the others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the exemplary tool for this holy craft, both for its content and for its brilliant organization and cross-referencing. As Pierre de Cointet, Petroc Willey, and Barbara Morgan point out in their book The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis, “the Catechism draws to our attention the relation and connection of each doctrine to the whole Faith.” [19] By healing the “schisms” in the realm of ideas and doctrines, such as the false separation between schism and the Christian life of faith, hope, and love, we will have a greater hope of healing the schisms in the Church today and in the future.

In his letter to the Ephesians, writing from a prison cell, St. Paul encourages Christians to live together in unity and fraternal charity, as is fitting for the disciples of Jesus:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

Every Christian is called to build up the Body of Christ, because we are the “living stones” on which this holy temple is built up (1 Pet 2:5). Through our words and actions, we can aid or hinder this work of God; we have been given the power to be constructive, or destructive. How we use or abuse our freedom in this regard will determine how many souls are lost through the three exits in Christ’s Church, or how many more stones are added to the glory of the Lord’s Temple. May the wounds in Christ’s Body be healed, and let there be no more schisms among us (1 Cor 1:10). Lord, hear our prayer.

[1] Code of Canon Law, c. 751, in Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1999), 285.

[2] First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ Pastor aeternus (18 July 1870), §1.

[3] Marcel Lefebvre, Open Letter to Confused Catholics (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1986), 129, 131.

[4] David Toolan, “The Catholic Taboo Against Schism: Strained but Holding,” Religion and Intellectual Life, 7, no. 1 (1989), 48.

[5] Toolan, “Catholic Taboo,” 48.

[6] Yves Congar, Challenge to the Church: The Case of Archbishop Lefebvre (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1977), 35.

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4, in The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1, ed. & trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 97.

[8] Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to Florentius Pupianus, 8, in The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1, ed. & trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 234.

[9] Augustine, Faith and the Creed, 10, in The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 3, ed. & trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 44.

[10] Francis De Sales, Treatise on the Love of God (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2012), 39.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q. 39, a. 1 in Summa theologiae: Complete Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas Vol. 17, trans. Lawrence Shapcote (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute, 2012), 379.

[12] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2086.

[13] ST, II-II, q. 39, a. 1, trans. Lawrence Shapcote, 379.

[14] CCC, 1827.

[15] CCC, 1815.

[16] Eucharistic Prayer III, The Order of Mass, The Roman Missal, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), p. 505.

[17] CCC, 397.

[18] Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2001), 32.

[19] Pierre de Cointet, Barbara Morgan, and Petroc Willey, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), 31.

Andrew Bartel is a lay Dominican of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. He lives with his wife and their three children in Montana, where he works as a glazier. Andrew was a lifelong adherent of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X until 2013. He attended Foyer Saint Thomas d'Aquin in Avrillé, France, a boy's academy run by the Dominican community established by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

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Excellent article Andrew!

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