No Pope can commit the sin of Schism

On his blog, canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters claims that, even as a pure hypothetical, no Pope can be in schism because it would be nonsensical for a Pope to not be submissive to his own authority, or to not be in communion with Churches which are in communion with himself. So, clearly, Peters is NOT accusing Pope Francis of the sin of schism, and of course neither am I. The question is whether it is even hypothetically possible for a Pope to commit the sin of schism. Contrary to Peters, I think it is conceivable, but I also am certain, based on the teaching of Sacred Scripture and the First Vatican Council (and other Ecumenical Councils), that no Pope can ever teach material heresy, hold material heresy, or commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism.

Peters’ error is, as usual on his blog, to consider the question narrowly, from the point of view of Canon Law and various experts on Canon Law. He cites the canon that describes schism: “the refusal [detractatio] of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” But we can also describe the sin of schism more broadly, based on the teaching of the Magisterium about the nature of the Church and Church authority.

Heresy is based on a refusal to submit the mind and heart to the teachings of the Magisterium. Schism is based on the refusal to submit the mind and heart to the authority of the Church — Her authority over doctrine or discipline or both.

But the authority of the Church does not reside solely in the Pope. The body of Bishops also teaches and rules, in communion with the Pope. A person who decides that only the Pope has any type of true authority over doctrine and discipline, and not also the other Bishops, is in a state of schism. Jesus chose 12 Apostles, not only Peter. Jesus chose to found the Church with Peter as the head of the whole Church, but also with him as the head of the body of Bishops.

As a pure hypothetical which can never happen due to the prevenient grace of God, a Pope could commit apostasy, by abandoning the Christian faith altogether. Or he could commit schism, by separating himself from the body of Bishops, and declaring himself alone to have authority over doctrine and discipline, as if the structure of the Church were not many Apostles led by the chief Apostle, the successor of Peter, but one Apostle only. He could also, again as a mere counter-factual hypothetical, commit schism by separating himself from the body of believers, including ordained persons other than himself, who cannot err when they are all in agreement.

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” [Lumen Gentium 12]

I would say that this freedom from error in matters of belief is an expression of the living Tradition. It is not an exercise of the Magisterium, which only Bishops can exercise.

So a Pope could, only as a mere concept that cannot actually happen, commit schism in either of those two ways. And I suppose even also in a third way, by rejecting the authority of past Pope and Councils. But no Pope has ever, as far as I know, even been falsely accused of the sin of schism. From a mere human point of view, it is highly unlikely, and from the point of view of faith, it is not at all possible.

Jesus prayed for Peter, and therefore also for each of his successors, that his faith would not fail. Therefore, the First Vatican Council was able to declare that each Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith. Each of the sins against faith — apostasy, heresy, and schism — would represent a very substantial failure of faith. Therefore, no Pope can commit any of those three sins.

The First Vatican Council quotes past Ecumenical Councils, and Scripture, and Tradition to support its teaching that the faithful of each successor of Peter cannot fail. So this teaching is firmly established as infallible, at least under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. if not also under Conciliar Infallibility.

Contrary to popular claims, Doctor of the Church, Saint Robert Bellarmine did in fact hold that a Pope “cannot in any way be heretical, or publicly teach heresy” as the most probable correct position, and he rejected the idea that a Pope may be a heretic and may teach heresy, as long as he is NOT defining a doctrine with an Ecumenical Council, calling that idea “proximate to heresy”.

Next question. Can a Pope cause the sin of schism in others?

Well, Jesus scandalized the Pharisees, by teaching truths beyond what is in the Old Testament, which challenged them to exercise the virtue of theological faith and believe in him. Jesus never sinned, of course, but He did, in a sense, occasion sin in others. For if He had never come to us and taught us, those who reject Him or His teaching would have sinned less.

Similarly, Jesus occasioned schism in some of His followers, by His teaching on holy Communion:

{6:56} For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
{6:57} Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”
{6:62} But Jesus, knowing within himself that his disciples were murmuring about this, said to them: “Does this offend you?
{6:63} Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?
{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.
{6:66} And so he said, “For this reason, I said to you that no one is able to come to me, unless it has been given to him by my Father.”
{6:67} After this, many of his disciples went back, and they no longer walked with him.

So it is that Pope Francis issues decisions on doctrine and discipline, by the guidance of the grace of God, which is scandalizing the pride-filled modern-day Pharisees and is causing a schism. A great conservative schism is currently unfolding. Many conservative Catholic leaders are guilty of encouraging that schism by their remarks about the Roman Pontiff and their own weakness of faith. Some have already fallen into schism.

As for Dr. Peters, he sees himself as a critic of Amoris Laetitia, but he has not accused Pope Francis of heresy, nor does he seem to reject the authority of this Pope over doctrine and discipline. But his error of thinking, in direct contradiction to the teaching of the First Vatican Council (a teaching based on Tradition, Scripture, and past Conciliar teachings), that a Pope can possibly teach or commit heresy, puts him in danger of falling into schism.

See my previous post: Dr. Ed Peters vs. First Vatican Council.

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

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