Are We All Schismatics Now?

Today, the word "schismatic" is often thrown as an epithet to describe one’s ecclesial enemies, but the term has a historical meaning that should not be forgotten.

The recent news of the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium approving a “blessing” and ritual service for same-sex couples is hardly surprising, given the current state of the Catholic Church in the Low Countries. Across the border, in Germany, the infamous “Synodal Way” marches apace into the realm of liberal Protestantism, with over sixty percent of the bishops supporting changing Church teaching on chastity, marriage, contraception, sexuality, and Holy Orders. While the motion failed to gain the two-thirds necessary for ratification, this should not be seen as a victory. After all, following the progressives’ initial defeat, the leadership of the assembly forbade anonymous ballots, which then resulted in a fewer number of bishops defending Catholic teaching. 

The biological infertility of the Low Countries and Rhineland complements their spiritual aridity. It is evident to anyone with a semblance of supernatural faith that these bishops—not to mention certain groups of laity and priests—do not profess the same faith as the Catholic Church. There have been concerns about a looming German schism, but these concerns are late—for the schism is not on the horizon; it is already present today.

It is interesting to ask the question, “When does one become schismatic?” precisely because the answers vary. Today, the word is often thrown as an epithet to describe one’s ecclesial enemies. So, for example, the four cardinals who submitted the dubia regarding Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia are still, to this day, labeled “schismatic” by those who think asking questions for clarification is akin to ecclesial violence

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Canon law defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (Can. 751). But it does not elaborate much on what such submission entails. Certainly, we can define Orthodox Christians (at least historically) as being schismatic insofar as they do not recognize the Holy Father as the visible leader of all Christians and the supreme pastor of the Church. In this way, the aforementioned “submission to the Supreme Pontiff” means acknowledging Catholic teaching on the papacy, particularly Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility and supremacy, reaffirmed by Vatican II. 

However, what happens when Catholics assent to the Church’s teaching on the papacy while simultaneously rejecting Church teaching on other matters of faith and morals? As it stands, none of the Flemish or German bishops seem to reject the Church’s teaching on the papacy—as do Orthodox and Old Catholics—but many of them are promoting strange doctrines that the Church has already definitively rejected. Are they heretics, yet not schismatic? 

Some might say that the German bishops would only incur the crime of schism if they directly disobey Pope Francis’ directives against the path their Synod is taking. But what if Pope Francis allowed them to approve of contraception, women’s ordination, and homosexual blessings? Does the charism of indefectibility prevent a pope from doing this? And moreover, is there any substance to the sin of schism aside from not obeying the pope? As already mentioned, it is increasingly common to find opposing factions of the Church accuse their opponents of schism. For example, progressives tend to accuse traditional Catholics of schism for not agreeing with Pope Francis on migration, the environment, or economics. 

In one of its more surprising statements since 2013, the Holy See warned the German bishops of the dangers posed by their heterodox “Synodal Way.” It is clear that schism involves the rupture of communion between Church members and is an attack on the unity of the Church. We can explain the concept of schism in juridical terms—the Church is a corporate entity as the Mystical Body of Christ, and schism is the breaking off of a dead member from that collective unity. 

But who defines what constitutes a living member from a dead member? It would be difficult to imagine that the German bishops can continue their deconstruction of Catholicism and still be considered members in good standing belonging to the true Faith. If these bishops profess fealty to the Holy Father and yet proclaim a different gospel, what virtue is there in their apparent loyalty to Rome?

The word “schism” comes from the Greek schisma, meaning tear, division, or separation. The word is used in John’s Gospel to describe the division among the Jews who saw the results of Jesus’ healings and who heard Jesus say He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:19). For St. Paul, the word schisma is used when describing the community at Corinth who were divided over leadership. In response to the apparent divisions, St. Paul implores the Corinthians to be “united again in your belief and practice” (1 Corinthians 1:10). 

Belief and practice—orthodoxy and orthopraxis—are what constitutes ecclesial unity. There is a specific standard, and a normative set of beliefs, by which the Christian is to live. If one does not embrace these beliefs or practices, then one deviates from the essence of the Church’s communion. 

Although they are carefully distinguished in contemporary times, the terms “heresy” and “schism” were far more related in the early and medieval Church. Those who did not keep the purity of Faith were seen as outside the Church and therefore separated from the true Church insofar as they were separated from the true Faith. For the Church in the patristic era, it would have been absurd to think that one could profess entirely different beliefs about the mystery of Christ and the sacraments while still remaining in communion with the Church. 

In our contemporary age, since schism is reduced to merely submission to ecclesiastical authority, we witness prelates who profess heretical beliefs while insisting they are part of the Church because they curtsy to the pope during their ad limina visits.

St. Thomas Aquinas locates the sin of schism within those sins against charity (ST, II-IIae, 39). He distinguishes between heresy and schism. Heresy is the holding of another faith than that of the Church, whereas schism is the intentional, willful decision to separate from ecclesial unity. As Aquinas points out, ecclesial unity consists in both fellowship animated by supernatural charity and the subordination to the pope, the visible head of the Church. And so, the schismatic is the one who attacks the unity of the Church not simply by disobeying the Supreme Pontiff, but also by scissoring oneself from that bond of charity which unites Catholics together—namely, the Holy Spirit. 

Schism cannot simply be reduced to being a refusal to submit to the pope, because in those times when there is no pope (such as during the “papal interregnum”) it is still possible to commit the sin of schism by acting against ecclesiastical charity. This is not to say that schism is not related to the refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff but, rather, that schism cannot be said to only consist in that. 

After all, despite what some modern-day canon lawyers suggest, it is not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which the pope commits schism against the Church, such as if he decided to excommunicate the entire Church aside from himself, or if he suppressed all of the sacraments and rites of the Church. After all, theologians from Cardinal Cajetan, John Torquemada, Charles Journet, and even Karl Rahner understood that it is theoretically possible for the pope himself to commit schism by acting against the essential unity of the Church through an abuse of his power. To dismiss these hypotheticals because they are unlikely does not actually address the substance of what these hypotheticals try to work out, which is the proper relationship between the pope and the ecclesiastical common good.

In the coming months, we will continue to hear about an impending German schism. However, until these German bishops directly reject Pope Francis’ authority, it is all but certain that they will continue to put on the appearance of remaining in communion. The Church needs to address its woefully inadequate definition of schism by revisiting traditional Catholic sources on what also contributes to schism, such as the breaking away from the Church’s common faith and morals. 

But faithful Catholics should not need to wait until a formal declaration is made in order to see the rotten fruits of this schismatic sect. For even if the pope keeps quiet, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40). The Flemish and German schism is not approaching; it is already here—if we have the proper eyes to see it.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • John A. Monaco

    John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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