Various ways a Catholic might be a Schismatic

This passage from the Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 39) is enlightening. And then we have the definitions in Canon Law (also found in the CCC).

“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.”

In the current circumstance, many Catholics are openly speaking about Pope Francis with contention, denigration, contempt, and/or ridicule. Some have accused the Roman Pontiff of teaching material heresy. Others simply oppose him at every turn, and speak as if he were not fit to teach or correct them. At what point is a Catholic guilty of the objective mortal sin of formal schism?

First of all, everyone who commits formal heresy is also guilty of formal schism, as St. Thomas explains in the Summa Theologica: “For heresy is essentially opposed to faith, while schism is essentially opposed to the unity of ecclesiastical charity. Wherefore just as faith and charity are different virtues, although whoever lacks faith lacks charity, so too schism and heresy are different vices, although whoever is a heretic is also a schismatic, but not conversely. This is what Jerome says in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians”.

Formal heresy is the knowing rejection (by “obstinate denial or obstinate doubt”) of a teaching which requires the full assent of faith (theological assent). Such teachings are said to require belief “by divine and Catholic faith” because they are infallible. By comparison, persons who reject a non-infallible teaching, are not guilty of heresy, as explained at length by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in his commentary on the Profession of Faith.

Everyone who commits formal heresy is necessarily, at least implicitly, rejecting the teaching authority of the Church. And since the Roman Pontiff is the head of that teaching authority (the Magisterium), formal heresy implies formal schism. And this is true in every case because every teaching of the Magisterium which requires theological assent is taught either under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium. But each of these types of teachings includes the Pope, teaching by his sole authority, or as the head of the Bishops who teach while gathered in a Council or while dispersed in the world.

Formal schism is a refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or a refusal of communion with the Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity who are subject to the Pontiff. Formal schism can take the form of a public statement of rejection of papal authority. But other forms of schism are certainly possible, as proven by the case of a heretic who is necessarily also a schismatic.

However, the first point that must be made is that a public declaration does not necessarily prove that a person is NOT a schismatic.

For example, if a Catholic declares that the Pope is in fact the validly elected Roman Pontiff, that person could still be a schismatic. For such a declaration does not constitute submission. The Orthodox Christians believe that each Roman Catholic Pontiff is the validly elected Bishop of Rome. They simply do not submit to his authority. They consider him to be “first among equals” by way of honor, and not first in authority.

The heretical and schismatic group SSPX considers each Pope to be the validly elected Pontiff. But they also think that every Pope since Vatican II has gone astray, and is teaching heresy, and therefore they do not submit to his teaching authority. Thus, a schismatic might still assert that the current Pope is the validly elected Roman Pontiff.

Moreover, if a Catholic asserts that he himself is not a schismatic and would never commit schism, he might still be a schismatic. He may have misunderstood what constitutes schism, or he may be deceiving himself, out of pride, concerning his own sins and errors. Even if a Catholic publicly asserts that he submits himself to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, he might still be a schismatic, as shown in parable of the two sons.

{21:28} But how does it seem to you? A certain man had two sons. And approaching the first, he said: ‘Son, go out today to work in my vineyard.’
{21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.
{21:30} And approaching the other, he spoke similarly. And answering, he said, ‘I am going, lord.’ And he did not go.
{21:31} Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “Amen I say to you, that tax collectors and prostitutes shall precede you, into the kingdom of God.

By the way, persons with secular jobs, the main purpose of which is to earn money, and persons who are guilty of objective mortal sexual sins, such as the divorced and remarried, are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of those modern-day Pharisees, who judge and condemn everyone, even the Pope.

But my main point is that the one son said the right words, but did not act accordingly. So if a Catholic asserts that he submits himself to papal authority, and asserts that he would never commit schism, he might still be guilty of formal schism, if his choices do not match his words.

There are several ways Catholics might commit schism by a refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff.

1. By speaking and acting as if the Roman Pontiff has no role to teach or correct them. Instead, they speak as if they had the role to teach, correct, and judge the words and deeds of the Supreme Pontiff. This type of behavior is directly contrary to, and thoroughly incompatible with, submission.

Schismatics of this type will say that they must side with truth, even when that means siding against the Pope. But the problem is that all faithful Catholics must submit their minds and wills to the ordinary non-infallible teachings of the Pope, and must give the full assent of faith to his infallible teachings. If instead, they decide that their own understanding is equivalent to truth, and they oppose the Pope whenever his teachings disagree with their fallible understanding of truth, they are schismatics. And they are not free from guilt before the eyes of God because they mistakenly thought that their own understanding was the same as truth itself. For they sin by pride, in assuming that their own understanding cannot err, and they sin against faith by refusing to exercise the theological virtue of faith, by religious assent or theological assent.

I consider that most of the Catholic authors, bloggers, and commentators who speak in this way about Pope Francis are already in a state of formal schism. They have decided in their hearts and minds, and they have shown this decision by repeated public assertions, that they will not be taught or corrected by Pope Francis, and that whenever his teaching differs from their own understanding, he must be in error. This definitive decision about Pope Francis or any other Pope, expressed publicly or privately or even held secretly in the heart and mind, is necessarily the sin of schism because it is an obstinate, deliberate and knowing, refusal of submission. They will “submit” to the teachings of the Pope only if and when those teachings agree with their own understanding. Thus, they cannot be taught or corrected by the Pope. They speak as if they have the role to teach and correct the Pope, and therefore they speak as if he should be submissive to them.

But I also notice that these same pride-filled Catholics have a poor understanding of Catholic doctrine. I can and have repeatedly pointed out doctrinal errors in their writings, some errors of which rise to the level of abject heresy. And yet they arrogantly think themselves fit to judge and condemn the teachings of the Pope.

2. By accusing the Pope of teaching material heresy, some Catholics have fallen into formal schism.

First, those who accuse any Pope of teaching material heresy are themselves heretics. No Pope can teach material heresy, nor commit formal heresy, since he is the Rock on which the indefectible Church is founded, and he has the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith. And anyone who accuses a Pope of heresy must hold an opposing view on a question of faith or morals, which the Magisterium has answered definitively by an infallible teaching. Otherwise, heresy would not be at issue.

Second, every heretic is also a schismatic, as St. Thomas and St. Jerome teach.

Third, anyone who believes that a Pope has taught heresy necessarily rejects submission to that teaching. And when you refuse to submit to papal teaching, to the extent of accusing a Pope of heresy, you have committed formal schism. Even Protestants and the Orthodox accept any teachings of the Pope which are in agreement with their own understanding. Only a faithful Catholic, who submits to the teaching authority of the Pope, will accept a teaching contrary to his own understanding.

3. By accusing Pope Francis of being an antipope, some Catholics have fallen into formal schism. For in asserting that the true Roman Pontiff is a pretender to the papacy, they necessarily rejection submission to his papal authority.

4. If anyone were to reject an infallible teaching of Pope Francis (or any other Pope), he would be guilty of both heresy and schism.

5. If anyone were to reject all or most non-infallible teachings of Pope Francis (or any other Pope), he would be guilty of schism. For the faithful Catholic must give the submission of mind and will to the ordinary non-infallible teachings of each Pope. The refusal — in principle or in practice — to give submission to the ordinary papal Magisterium is the sin of formal schism.

Some disagreement with particular points in the non-infallible teachings of any Pope (even Pope Saint John Paul II) is permissible as licit theological dissent [Donum Veritatis | Norms of licit theological dissent]. But such faithful dissent is never marked by the type of contempt, denigration, ridicule, and condescension, which is seen today in many articles and posts on Pope Francis. And even if a Pope did err on some point within a non-infallible teaching, such an error is never heresy — whether the error is committed by the Supreme Pontiff or the least of his subjects.

A fairly broad range of disagreement is possible when the Pope is not exercising the Magisterium, but only expressing a personal theological opinion. However, it is the sin of pride to begin by assuming that whenever the personal opinion of the Vicar of Christ differs from one’s own understanding, he must have erred. And again, if you assume that the Pope is beneath you in his understanding of the Faith, you might still be guilty of schism (see #1 above).

6. If anyone were to reject, in principle or in practice, the authority of the Pope over discipline, he would still be guilty of schism, even if no papal teaching were at issue. For each Pope has two types of authority (per Unam Sanctam), the teaching authority (Magisterium) over doctrine, and the temporal authority over discipline. Submission to each Pope must include both types of authority. Rejecting either is the sin of schism.

A fairly broad range of disagreement is possible when the Pope is deciding a matter of discipline, rather than doctrine. A faithful Catholic can disagree with the Pope’s decision. However, fighting against his authority based on that disagreement, or refusing to cooperate with any members of the Church who follow that decision on discipline, would be the sin of schism.

Similar to the first point above (#1), if a Catholic speaks or acts as if their own understanding of discipline is definitive, and as if any conflicting choice by the Pope must be wrong, they commit the sin of schism. For they are refusing to submit to his authority over discipline. And it does not matter if that refusal is in practice or in principle. The Pope holds the keys of Saint Peter. When he opens, no one can close; when he closes, no one can open. Whoever says otherwise refuses submission to his temporal authority.

The teaching authority of the Pope is not merely an authority, but also a divinely conferred ability. The Pope teaches by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and that assistance is greater than that given to individual Bishops who exercise the Magisterium. All other teachers in the Church, even Saints greatly assisted by grace, do not have the same special type of divinely conferred ability to teach. For as the First Vatican Council taught: “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”

Similarly, the temporal authority of the Pope over discipline is not merely an authority, but also an ability. The Holy Spirit guides the decisions of the Church and especially of the Pope on matters of discipline — not as if every decision on discipline were an infallible doctrine, but nevertheless with a guidance that prevents each Pope from leading any souls away from the path of salvation by such a decision on discipline. Therefore, we can never treat the decisions of any Pope on discipline as if it were chaff, to be blow away by one’s own limited fallible understanding or by popular opinion among a group of Catholics.

7. By choosing to follow a Cardinal or Bishop or priest or theologian, or any other person or set of persons, other than the Pope, and to follow them even in opposition to the Pope, a Catholic commits the sin of schism.

And this sin has already happened today in the Church. For certain Catholics are publicly proclaiming that they will follow Cardinals Burke and Sarah, in opposition to Pope Francis. They have publicly spoken against Pope Francis, making it very clear that they will not accept any teaching of his contrary to their own understanding. And they propose that the Pope is unfaithful in his teaching, and that Burke and Sarah are necessarily faithful. They speak as if the Church were not founded on the Rock of Peter and his successors, but on the sand of some lesser authority in the Church whose ideas seem right to them. For these Catholics are not choosing to follow certain few Cardinals because they are Cardinals, or because they hold some particular role in the Church, but only because the views of these Cardinals are similar to their own views.

In the great Western Schism of 1054, many Catholics committed schism by following the Patriarch of Constantinople and a large number of Bishops who joined the schism with him. And those Catholics were not innocent of the grave sin of schism merely because they had a Patriarch and many Bishops on their side. They refused to submit to the Roman Pontiff, and that is the sin of schism, regardless of the excuse or the circumstances.

Naming Names

Should I give a list of Catholic authors, bloggers, and commentators who are already in a state of schism by one or more of the above means? Perhaps I don’t need to do so. You can see for yourself who is behaving as described above. When you read articles, blogs, and discussion group posts, and you notice that the authors are speaking as if the Pope must necessarily be wrong whenever his words conflict with their own understanding, you will know that said authors are schismatics. They speak as if the Pope should submit to their understanding, and they speak as if he has no role to teach or correct them.

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

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