THE SIN OF SCHISM ACCORDING TO THE TEACHING OF OUR LORD
Rome, March 17, 2015: On the Feast of the great Roman Saint, it will be very useful to consider more profoundly the teaching of Our Lord, which St. Patrick exemplified in his life, and this in specific regard to the sin of Schism.
Every sin, being a moral failure, is not something essentially positive, but rather negative. That is, a sin is not the presence so much of evil, but the absence of a moral good habit or act which should have been, but was not.
For example, the sin of lying consists in saying what is not in conformity to the truth, while asserting that it is. The moral lack in the sin of lying is the assertion that the falsehood is true. Thus, if one were to say, “1+1=3 is true”, he lies; but if one were to say, “1+1=3 is false”, he tells the truth.
The same applies to the sin of Schism. Schism is the sin of separation between members of the Church. It consists in the willful deliberate refusal of communion with another member of Christ’s One True Mystical Body.
We speak of the Church after the metaphor of a human body, following the teaching of St. Paul the Apostle, who was first to use this metaphor explicitly, though the teaching itself comes from Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who when He appeared in glory to the Apostle on the road to Damascus, said, “Saul, Saul, why doest thou persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4)
In saying these words, Our Lord identified the Christians persecuted by Saul, the Jew, with Himself in the most intimate manner possible. Let’s be clear, however: Our Lord was using a Hebraic metaphor, a “poetic exaggeration”, we might say in modern English, because there is a real and ontological distinction between God and Christians, and between Christ and His followers. St. Paul, being a Jew and trained in the traditions of scriptural exposition which were common among the Pharisees of that age, understood this and thus spoke of the Church as “Christ’s Body”, comparing Our Lord to its head and believers to its members. He does this in the 12th chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members of member”.
St. Paul and St. Thomas on the sin of Schism
It was St. Paul, ever faithful to Our Lord and every mindful of His words and teaching, who first spoke of the sin of schism explicitly, in reference to the Church, conceived as a body. His words are significant:
That there might be no schism in the body; but the members might be mutually careful one for another. (1 Cor. 12:25)
That is, the Apostle notes that the sin of division in the Church is caused by a lack of care of one member for another. St. Thomas Aquinas will explicate this teaching of St. Paul and point out that the sin of schism is formally a sin against the supernatural charity which 1 Christian should have for another. In his Summa Theologica, IIa IIa, q. 39, the Angelic Doctor, responding to the Question, “Whether the Sin of Schism is a special sin?”, responds (bold facing our own):
I answer that, As Isidore says (Etym. viii, 3), schism takes its name “from being a scission of minds,” and scission is opposed to unity. Wherefore the sin of schism is one that is directly and essentially opposed to unity. For in the moral, as in the physical order, the species is not constituted by that which is accidental. Now, in the moral order, the essential is that which is intended, and that which results beside the intention, is, as it were, accidental. Hence 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.
Our Lord’s teaching on the sin of Schism
Our Lord’s teaching, however, is much more comprehensive and profound than the explications given by St. Paul or St. Thomas Aquinas. In Our Lord’s mind, His believers are to Him as the sheep of a flock are to its shepherd. He speaks of this explicitly when He says,
31Then Jesus said to them: All you shall be scandalized in me this night. For it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be dispersed. 32But after I shall be risen again, I will go before you into Galilee. 33And Peter answering, said to him: Although all shall be scandalized in thee, I will never be scandalized. 34Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, that in this night before the cock crow, thou wilt deny me thrice. 35Peter saith to him: Yea, though I should die with thee, I will not deny thee. And in like manner said all the disciples. (Mt. 26:31-35)
That these words of Our Lord speak of many things, no one can deny, since Our Lord in speaking spoke to teach us all that we needed for our salvation unto the end of time, He speaks in such a manner that many truths are contained in a few words. The simple sense of Our Lord’s words here regard the necessary unity and dependence of His believers on His leadership in all matters, but specifically in religious ones.
But since Our Lord Himself is, as He says, the Principle of Unity in the Church, then it follows that whenever there is a violation of that unity, the sin involves in some manner an attack on that Principle, and thus an attack on Himself. Thus every sin of schism is a sin which consists in or results from an attack on His Authority as King, Messiah, or High Priest.
Our Lord’s teaching is more comprehensive
For this reason, Our Lord’s teaching, as we should expect, is must richer than that of St. Paul or St. Thomas Aquinas, even though the latter two Saints give us an authentic understanding of what Our Lord is teaching us about the gravity of the sin of schism. With St. Paul as our guide, we understand that the Church is identified as a body with Our Lord as her Head. Thus the sin of schism, which in visible matters involves different members of the Church, can be understood as a whole in a single sin against the Person of Our Lord. St. Thomas shows that this sin consists chiefly in a failure to love as Our Lord wants and as is required by the unity of the Church. And indeed, love for self, is what keeps every member of a human body working for the life of each member and the unity of the whole body.
The species of this sin
Thus the causes of schism are far more than just the immediate reasons for the division which arises. The sin of schism is also something which comprises much more than a separation of the faithful from the Pope. A great number of authors, especially in Canon Law, have focused on this latter species of the sin of schism, to the near exclusion of the others. For this reason, it will be useful to enumerate all the species of this sin.
Now, just as a human body can be separated by placing a division between any two members, so the sin of schism in the Church can occur by any separation between any two or more members in the Church. Thus, St. Paul speaks of the many sins of division in the Church at Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians).
Therefore, the sin of schism can occur when
- a Christian separates Himself from the legitimate authority which Christ gave to His Apostles, Sts. Peter and the Eleven, — which they handed down, respectively, to the Pope and to the Bishops — to rule in His stead until He returns in glory.
- a Christian separates Himself from another christian, who believes all which Christ taught.
- a Christian, who has received authority to govern some portion of the flock (Bishop) or the whole (the Pope), separates himself from a Christian who is faithful to Christ.
I have added, “who is faithful to Christ” and “who believes all which Christ taught” and “legitimate” to indicate that there are some just bounds which define when a division is sinful or not. Obviously, as St. John the Apostle teaches, a Christian who does not believe rightly, after the 2nd or 3rd admonition to repent — and who does not repent — is to be avoided. This is the source of the Catholic teaching on excommunicatio vitandorum, that is excommunication of shunning. Such is not a sin but a work of charity, aimed at calling the one not rightly believing to repentance. And such is not a sin of schism, because it is commanded by the Apostle St. John to preserve true charity.
Some Historical examples of the Sin of Schism
Not all schisms in the Church are the same, therefore. Some never enter into the historical record: these involve individuals, who either had a private disagreement (like a priest and bishop who refused meeting one another over a personal disagreement which had nothing to do with the faith, or some matter which did not touch upon doctrine, such as the choice of flowers for a specific feast day). Others are noted in history books.
Of these the more famous ones are the great Schism which arose in 1048 between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, to which many other Bishops in the East, over time, adhered. This is called the Schism between East & West, or the Greek Schism.
Another was the division which arose in the Church following the election of Pope Urban VI in 1378, when on account of the dislike in which some Cardinals held him, they separated from him and elected Count Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. This schism did not involve the sin of separation for all who sided with Pope Clement VII, since many did not know or have the ability to know of the facts of the disputed election, many adhered to one side or another on the basis of whom they had already given their personal trust to. Thus many Catholic nations were in schism with many others, but not in their own hearts against the authority of the Pope, per se.
There have been many other historically important schisms, as can be read of in history books: the Acacian Schism, the Luciferian Schism in Sardinia & Iberia, the Donatist schism in North Africa etc..
Causes of Schism
The causes of Schism are thus many. A Schism can arise by refusal of the legitimate authority of the Roman Pontiff, totally, or in regard to some specific binding or non binding decision. It can arise by some unjust persecution or refusal of communion by the Pope regarding some individual or groups of individuals, e. g., those who celebrate in the Slavonic rather than in the Latin rite (this happened to Sts. Cyril and Methodius). It can arise because the Pope refuses to uphold the faith, dignity or unity of the Church, as when St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Bishops of Burgundy threatened the Pope with excommunication for not punishing the usurpation of the right of investiture for Bishops.
Not every Schism, therefore, is a sin for both sides involved. Nor is the sin always a sin of subjects toward superiors.
“Strike the Shepherd and the flock will scatter”: Thus, when a superior by his action or inaction attacks or denies or obstructs the teaching or will of Our Lord for his Church, subjects who have the right to uphold these and demand these from their superior can legitimately threaten or withdraw subjection from their superior, to protect themselves from his sin or heresy.
A superior can refuse communion with a subject, for similar sins, such as heresy or disobedience.
Individuals can refuse communion with other individuals for the same reason.
In all such cases, the one who deviates from the faith of the Church, the teachings of Christ or the disciplines which He has established directly or through the Apostles or the Church throughout the ages, are the ones guilty of the sin of Schism.
In our own days, when there are many cases of Bishops persecuting priests for their fidelity to the Magisterium, to right morals, or to the Liturgy, we have cases of the sin of schism which are committed by Bishops. Pope Paul VI’s insistence that no one celebrate the Ancient Roman Rite gave rise to the many injustices which he imposed upon the Society of St. Pius X and their founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.* Bishop Fellay’s disagreement with and treatment of Bishop Richard Williamson gave rise to the division in the that same Society, which is the preambulary cause to the ordination of a new bishop this Thursday in Brazil, by Bishop Williamson (so that the faithful who attend their chapels might receive the sacraments and have priests to serve their needs).
In other cases, where presumptuous men usurp the authority of local bishops, because they love power and are proud, the sin of schism is their own.
Each case has to be examined. But all Catholics, especially those not involved in the dispute, should remain faithful to Christ and united to Him and urge the erring side(s) to reconciliation.
* I say “injustices”, because if one were only to review the many heresies and aberrations in the Neo-Catecumenical Movement, one’s head would spin at the consideration of why they have such high approval from Popes John Paul II and Francis, while the Archbishop was punished for believing, doing and praying as Catholic bishops did for 2000 years (as is his duty) and providing for the faithful who desire to continue to do this, until the end of time (as is their right by Baptism).