What is the Definition of Schism?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2089) defines apostasy, heresy, and schism by quoting Canon Law:

“Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

If any baptized Christian refuses to submit to the authority of the Pope, his teaching authority and/or his temporal authority, the sin committed is called “schism”. Refusal to remain in communion with the members of the Church subject to the Pope, especially the body of Bishops, is also the sin of schism. The term “schism” refers to the division that occurs when this type of sin is committed. The schismatic is choosing, by a knowing and deliberate act, to separate himself from the Church by rejecting Her head or Her body.

The sin of schism is objectively grave, and the penalty is automatic excommunication.

“Can. 1364 n1. … an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication”

The penalty applies even if the person has a sincere but mistaken conscience. You cannot claim to be free from the sins of heresy or schism because your own heart and mind tell you that you are right and the Church is wrong.

Vatican II and the SSPX

Suppose that a Catholic claims that all six Popes from Pope Saint John XXIII to Pope Saint John Paul II to Pope Francis are not valid Popes because they fell into the sin of heresy personally, or because they taught heresy. Suppose that the same Catholic claims that the Second Vatican Council is not a valid Council because the Popes and Bishops of the Council taught heresy. The individual thereby refuses to submit to the authority of six Popes and an Ecumenical Council. This example is a severe case of schism, and it also includes the sin of heresy, since the individual is rejecting the definitive teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium since the time of Pope Saint John XXIII.

Everyone who fits the above description is guilty of schism and heresy to a severe extent. And the penalty is automatic excommunication (latae sententiae), incurred by the very commission of the sin. It does not need to be imposed by a declaration from Church authority.

The SSPX, including all its bishops, priests, deacons, and lay participants and supporters, are guilty of formal schism for their deliberate and knowing rejection of the Second Vatican Council and all the Popes since that time. All members of the SSPX, including lay persons formally joined with them, are automatically excommunicated.

The current head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has publicly stated that they are excommunicated:

“In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Archbishop Gerhard Müller said that although Pope Benedict XVI lifted the canonical excommunication of SSPX prelates, they remain suspended from the sacraments because ‘by their schism they have broken away from communion with the Church.’ “

The same guilt and the same penalty of automatic excommunication also falls upon ANYONE who rejects the authority of the Second Vatican Council, or who rejects any individual Pope or set of Popes from the Apostle Peter to Pope Francis.

Recently, some Catholics have publicly opined that the SSPX are not in a state of schism. Karl Keating makes this claim as does Fr. Z. I’m not going to go into the details of each of their arguments. Basically, they are using a selective and biased parsing of the rules of the Church to justify the objective mortal sins of the SSPX, sins which do grave harm to many souls. They are ignoring the eternal moral law, and misinterpreting the rules of Canon Law.

Why do so many conservative Catholics try to claim that the SSPX is not in a state of schism and heresy? It is because they have a severe bias in favor of all that is called conservative. They prefer the Latin Mass and a conservative version of Catholicism, to such an extreme degree, that they show unjust favoritism to any priests or bishops or groups who have the same preference.

If Fr. Z. were to join the SSPX, reject Vatican II, reject all the Popes since Vatican II, and break communion with Pope Francis and all the Bishops in communion with him, would he not be guilty of formal schism? And if Keating were to make the same decision, would he not also be guilty of formal schism? Neither man has yet committed that sin. But it is very disturbing to find that they have publicly claimed that such a severe set of sinful acts is somehow not the sin of schism.

The current Prefect of the CDF has publicly stated the obvious truth, that the SSPX is in a state of formal schism. But a conservative bias prevents a number of prominent Catholic leaders from admitting this truth. Fr. Z. and Karl Keating are not automatically excommunicated, since they have not joined the SSPX, nor rejected Pope Francis (yet). But they commit the grave sin of scandal by telling the faithful that the SSPX is not schismatic or heretical.

The Synod and the Schism

I believe that Pope Francis will issue controversial liberal decisions on doctrine and discipline at the October 2015 Synod. In the months following the Synod, he will continue to teach and act in contradiction to the conservative point of view. The problem is NOT that the Pope errs by being a liberal Pope, but that conservatives have decided that conservatism is inerrant. Instead of being conservative CATHOLICS, they have become CONSERVATIVE catholics. Soon they will just be conservatives.

A grave danger looms over those souls who listen to Fr. Z. and Karl Keating on schism and the SSPX. The danger is that they will conclude that rejecting Pope Francis and the Synod is not the sin of schism. For if you can reject the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II AND all six Popes from that time, supposedly without committing schism or heresy, then rejecting only a Synod and only one Pope would seem to be free from those sins also.

But I say this: Heed the teaching of the Magisterium in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church: “schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” And the penalty in Canon Law (and the eternal moral law) for the sin of schism is automatic excommunication. Do not be deceived by anyone. Whoever rejects any Ecumenical Council, rejects Christ. Whoever rejects any Pope, rejects Christ.

Schism leads to Heresy

When a person or a group rejects an Ecumenical Council or a Pope or the body of Bishops, the sin is schism. But rejecting the highest teaching authority in the Church often leads to the sin of heresy. For without the guidance of the Magisterium, the fallen sinner easily misunderstands the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and falls into grave doctrinal errors. See how far from the true faith the Protestants have strayed, because they lack the Magisterium. The Anglicans have women priests and women Bishops. Some Protestant denominations approve of gay marriage, and they see nothing wrong with contraception, including abortifacient contraception. Once the branch breaks away from the vine, it withers.

Already some conservative and traditionalist Catholics, who are not members of the SSPX, have nevertheless fallen into heresy and schism. They do not accept the teachings of Vatican II at all. They do not accept any liberal teachings by Pope Saint John Paul II (e.g. his liberal salvation theology). They do not regard Pope Francis as having the authority to teach and correct them. In my view, they have already fallen into the sin of schism. Rejection of any Ecumenical Council is the sin of schism. I don’t care how clever your explanation is. Rejection of any Pope’s authority over doctrine or discipline is the sin of schism. It doesn’t matter how liberal he is, and how conservative you are. Conservatism does not equal orthodoxy, and liberalism does not equal heterodoxy.

A Synod does not have the full authority of an Ecumenical Council. But since the Pope leads the Synod, and he teaches with the Synod, these teachings are of the Magisterium and cannot include any grave errors. God protects the Magisterium from grave errors on faith, morals, and salvation, even when the teachings are non-infallible.

Rejection of Pope Francis is the sin of schism. For the Pope holds the two keys of Saint Peter, the authority of the Church over doctrine and discipline. Whoever rejects Pope Francis, rejects Peter, and whoever rejects Peter, rejects Christ. I don’t care how thoroughly conservative you are, your conservatism does not protect you from schism and heresy.

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to Peter: “I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail.” (Lk 22:32). This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors for the salvation of all.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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