Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: On the nature of schism

NOTE: As easy as it is to do, please do not read into this piece, and assign a verdict to any one group, especially a group that is traditional. Rather, look at it through the lens of the current chastisement of the Church, through God's will, either permissive or express, and what could happen soon, through the actions of the current pontificate. 

By Veronica A. Arntz

“The Church, though certainly achieving full historical actuality only with the association of Christian believers, was already in existence, fundamentally and in germ, and in that sense is a divine creation. For she is the unity of redeemed humanity, a unity made possibly by the Incarnation of the Son of God; she is the kosmos of men, mankind as a whole, the many as one” (Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism).[i]

Karl Adam gives us expressive words for understanding the heart of the truth about the Catholic Church. She is the source of unity for the redeemed, and indeed, for all mankind, who long to be united to the Savior, Jesus Christ. It is through the Church that we receive the grace of salvation, not purely in an individualistic way, as understood by the Protestants, but particularly in a communal way, with the other baptized members and through the intercession of the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

Unity in charity, which is the pinnacle of the spiritual life, is an essential characteristic of the Church, and it is vital, for the sake of salvation and for the good of the Church, that we remain in communion with her. While schism is an infrequent occurrence, it is important for us to reflect on the gravity of its nature, so that we can be encouraged to remain in the Church and to pray for unity of all individuals through her. To this end, we shall first give two definitions, one of the Church, as described by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis, and second of schism according to St. Thomas Aquinas. We will then review several texts from St. Cyprian of Carthage, Charles Cardinal Journet, St. Augustine, and Joseph Ratzinger on the scourge of schism to the communal nature of the Church.

Pope Pius XII writes that “we shall find no expression more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the phrase which calls it [the Church established by Christ] ‘the Mystical Body of Christ’” (art. 14). This description of the Church finds its roots in the Scriptures themselves, for St. Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12:4-5, RSV-CE). And again: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). Although a body has many members, these members can only be called “a body” because they are unified in the whole; a dismembered limb is no longer called a “body” or part of the body. Moreover, these members must work together for the good of the body as a whole; if one member fails, the whole body suffers.

It is the same with the Body of Christ. There are many individual members who have been baptized into Christ’s Body, but Christ’s Body only exists because these members exist together as a whole. And indeed, the whole Body of Christ suffers if one member suffers, as St. Paul also explains, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). Perhaps most important of all is the fact that Christ is the head of his Body; he is the head of the Church, as St. Paul also describes, “Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph 5:25). Therefore, he gives life to his Body, and if any member were to sever him or herself from the Head, then he or she would no longer be able to receive life from Christ.

The principle of unity in the Catholic Church is the charity of Christ. As Charles Journet describes, “Grace, charity, when coming from Christ through contact of the sacramental and jurisdictional powers, acquires a richness, a plenitude, which makes up—on the level of created realities inherent in the Church—her supreme life-giving principle, her created soul.”[2] Indeed, we read a similar principle in St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “I understood that it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.”[3] Christ gave Himself for the Church by sacrificing His life on the Cross, for the redemption of sinners; this love, which is poured out through the sacrifice of Christ, flows into the members of the Body, who further give that love to others and bring them into the fullness of the Church. As such, the Body of Christ is united because of the love of Jesus Christ, which explains how schism is a sin against charity.

When defining schism, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses two principles by which members remain in unity with Christ. The first is that the members must remain “in the mutual connection or communion of the members of the Church,” and secondly, “in the subordination of all the members of the Church to the one head, according to Colossians 2:18-19” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 39, art. 1, corpus). Schism, therefore, is the sin that separates men from the unity of the Church. The schismatic, Aquinas writes, “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” (Ibid).

Schism is a special sin against charity, because it is the willful separation from the unity of love in the Body of Christ. A member willfully separates himself from this charity if he divides himself from the other members of the Church and if he separates himself from Christ, the Head. One can imagine the kinds of scenarios in which this would happen, especially the preaching of and adherence to false doctrine that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Schism, therefore, affects not only the state of the individual (or groups of individuals involved) but also the state of the whole Church. Once again, if one member suffers or sins, then the whole corpus is affected for the worse. While God can certainly bring good out of schism, we ourselves can never hope to achieve anything good by severing ourselves from the unity of the Church.

What, then, are some of the effects of schism? St. Cyprian of Carthage, a great early Church Father from the second century, wrote numerous letters and treatises on the nature of the unity of the Church, exhorting those who had separated themselves from the Church to come back into unity with her, albeit with proper contrition and penance. In one particular letter, he writes:

How inseparable is the sacrament of unity, and how hopeless are they, and what excessive ruin they earn for themselves from the indignation of God, who make a schism, and, forsaking their bishop, appoint another false bishop for themselves without [that is, outside of the Church], Holy Scripture declares….And dares any one to say that the saving water of baptism and heavenly grace can be in common with schismatics, which whom neither earthly food nor worldly drink ought to be in common?[4]

For St. Cyprian, therefore, schism results in separation from the sacraments of the Church. Schism firstly separates the individuals from the bishop, who is the head of the local Church, as appointed by Christ through apostolic succession. This is an immediate separation from the life of the Church in the sacraments, for it is through the bishops that priests are able to give and celebrate the sacraments; as St. Ignatius of Antioch makes abundantly clear in his letters, the bishop is the guarantor of the sacraments. By appointing their own bishop, one could go so far as to say that the schismatics are acting like the Israelites who gave false worship to the golden calf or appointed for themselves a king like all the other nations (Exod 32; 1 Sam 8-9): they are directly contradicting the plan of God, and placing their own authority above His. St. Cyprian has further harsh words for the schismatics: how could it be possible for them to be saved through Baptism and grace, if they have separated themselves from the apostolic Church of Christ? In other words, because the schismatics have separated themselves from the sacramental union of the Church, they are beyond hope, because they have established themselves as the rightful authority for defining truth.

While St. Cyprian denies that schismatics are able to maintain valid sacraments, Charles Cardinal Journet argues that they are able to baptize validly, although there are still grave concerns about schismatic, or “dissident churches.” As Journet explains, “In separating themselves from the Church of Christ, they take away with them a part of her means of sanctification, what one many call the vestiges of the Church.”[5] In other words, they are able to baptize validly, such that those who are baptized “will belong to the true Church as truly as the children she baptizes in her bosom. With the character of Baptism, grace and the infused virtues are conferred on them. They are neither heretics nor schismatics nor even in error.”[6] In comparison to St. Cyprian, these are very generous words indeed. Schismatics are still capable of baptizing validly, which means that their members are full members of the Catholic Church and enjoy those graces that God wishes to give through the sacrament. One might begin to believe that there is little to no issue with being in schism, but that is an idea far from the truth about the nature of schism.

Journet asks the following important question: “What happens at the moment when, rising from the slumber of their infancy, they find themselves facing choices proposed to them by the Christian life?”[7] What happens when those who have been baptized in the true Church begin to learn about the Faith at the age of reason? For indeed, these children are members of a schismatic sect, not in communion with the Church of Christ. As Journet sorrowfully describes:

Henceforth, what will pass to successive generations, before they have even been able to commit any sin against faith or love, will be the patrimony of heresy or the patrimony of schism When, therefore, those who have been baptized in those churches reach the age of reason and deliberation, even if they preserve their soul from every evil and keep it in the light of love, [they] will remain incapable for a very long time, perhaps always, of discerning on this point truth from falsity; and they will begin their adult Christian life in accepting en masse the entire heritage of heresy of schism.[8]

While these children may not be schismatics de facto, it is nonetheless true that schism breeds schism. If one generation is brought up in separation from the communion of the Church, it will be that much harder for them to return to unity with her. Schism, therefore, perpetuates through the generations, because these individuals are increasingly removed from the truth that exists in the Church. Once schism begins, it is very difficult for it to be removed from the Church.

While describing a heresy, the following maxim still applies: “The Church awoke and found herself Arian.” If the Church does not remain in unity with all the members and with Christ, she may one day find herself in schism, in rupture from the truth of Jesus Christ. And schism, once it has begun to separate the members of the Church, is very difficult to stop; one can almost think of it as analogous to the crisis of faith that we are currently experiencing in the Church. The gravity of St. Cyprian’s words, therefore, rings true: schism can never be good for the unity of the Church, and may result in sacramental disunity. In such a way, we see how schism contradicts the first principle of unity described by Aquinas: the members of the Church must remain in union, but under the patrimony of schism, there can be no real unity among those members with the members of the true Church.

St. Augustine and Joseph Ratzinger accurately describe how schism destroys the second principle of unity given by Aquinas, namely, unity with Christ as the Head of the Church. While faith and certain elements of the Church’s teachings might be present in a schismatic group, it is not faith alone that saves an individual, as Ratzinger teaches in union with St. Augustine.[9] As Maximilian Heinrich Heim describes, citing Augustine and Ratzinger:

The Church—the Corpus Christi created by the Holy Spirit—establishes this communio and thus becomes God’s gift in this world. Anyone who leaves the communion of the Church terminates love. That is why for Ratzinger, following Augustine, ‘schism is…a pneumatological heresy’, which has come about as a departure ‘from the abiding that is of the Spirit, from the patience of caritas—a revocation of love in the revocation of abiding, and thereby, a renunciation of the Holy Spirit, who is the patience of abiding and being reconciled.[10]

Christ has given the Holy Spirit to the Church to guide and protect her: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:15-17). The Holy Spirit is the principle of unity in the Church, but the gift of the Holy Spirit always comes from Christ, through the Father, for the Persons of the Holy Trinity act in unity. As such, the one who is in schism and separates himself from the love of the Holy Spirit is likewise separating himself from the Head, which is Christ.

This is indeed grave, for our life and salvation come through Jesus Christ and thereby the Church. Indeed, as Journet strongly writes, “To want to credit the Holy Spirit with the form of a dissident church and the interior conflict that corrodes it would be to commit blasphemy.”[11] These firm words remind us that the Holy Spirit cannot be guiding certain individuals to be in schism or to fall into schism; the Holy Spirit desires us to remain in communion with the true Church of Christ. As such, while the Holy Spirit will continue to prompt schismatic individuals to return to the communion of the Church, we cannot say that the Holy Spirit is guiding these individuals to remain in their own dissident churches.

Let us close with the following words from Journet:

The dissident churches are as so many morsels of the Christian Church. Their Christianity is mutilated. It lacks, at the very least, that unique direction which descends from the kingship of Christ and which, in touching the earth, takes shape in the supreme jurisdiction—declarative and canonical—of the supreme pontiff. That which they accept freely as the rule of their belief and life is, at the most, another rule, similar to the Catholic rule on certain essential points, divergent on other essentials. It is clear that this rule marks them with an original imprint and separates them from the organic, catholic, and ecumenical unity of Christ’s Church.[12]

Schismatics and those part of dissident churches have a “mutilated” Christianity, because it is a Christianity of their own making. In separating themselves from the kingship of Christ, while still maintaining certain Christian principles, they cannot have the fullness of the Faith as desired by God, as exists in the true Church of Christ. Such separation can only lead to the establishment of a Christian religion that is similar, yet very different from the true religion found in Christ’s Church. For, as St. Paul describes, without charity, we are nothing (1 Cor 13). Without the charity of Christ, what good can we hope to accomplish?

It is necessary to reflect on the nature of schism to remind ourselves that it is far better to remain in union with the Bark of St. Peter, the one true Church established by Jesus Christ. For it is in this Church that we find the fullness of truth and the fullness of charity; we are striving for salvation and holiness alongside the other baptized members, and we are in union with the Saints in Heaven.

Separation from this Mystical Body can only lead to grave consequences for our souls. As members of the Body of Christ, we must strive to remain in union with the Church; we must strive to help the other members of the Body to remain in union with her. Let us not slip into false ideologies or beliefs that are contrary to the truths of Jesus Christ. Rather, let us remain in union with the Holy Spirit, striving to see as God, not man, sees, so that we can avoid potential treacherous sin of schism.

[1] Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, trans. Dom Justin McCann, OSB (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2012), p. 35.
[2] Charles Journet, The Theology of the Church, trans. Victor Szczurek, O. Praem. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 168.
[3] Cited in Journet, Theology of the Church, p. 169.
[4] Cited in Maximilian Heinrich Heim, Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 71.
[5] Journet, Theology of the Church, p. 307.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Heim, Joseph Ratzinger, p. 246.
[10] Ibid., p. 247.
[11] Journet, Theology of the Church, p. 309.
[12] Ibid.