What schism is and isn’t…

The Sense and Scope of Schism:
A Pre-Vatican II Canonist Speaks

Recent developments regarding the Vatican’s former nuncio to the United States, ‘Abp.’ Carlo Maria Viganò, who is being tried in the Vatican for schism, have a lot of people talking opining, or even pontificating, on schism and schismatics.

The black-and-white concept of schism doesn’t fit neatly into the prevailing communio ecclesiology of the Vatican II Modernists, who acknowledge various ‘degrees’ of communion between them and truly heretical and schismatic sects such as the Orthodox, Lutherans, Waldensians, Methodists, Old Catholics, etc.

It certainly does, however, fit neatly into the traditional Roman Catholic ecclesiology taught by the true papal magisterium all the way up to, and including, Pope Pius XII (d. 1958). There is no better way to understand the real concept of schism, therefore, than by consulting the approved theological manuals from the time of the true Popes, for it was these very manuals which were used by the Church herself in the training of her priests, her bishops, her theologians, her professors, her canonists.

With regard to the canonical crime of schism in particular, it is immensely helpful to consult the monumental tome Ius Canonicum of Fr. Francis Xavier Wernz, S.J. (1842-1914), who was rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1882-1906) before becoming Superior General of the Jesuits. His successor at the Gregorian was Fr. Peter Vidal, S.J. (1867-1938), who adapted the Ius Canonicum to the 1917 Code of Canon Law of Pope Benedict XV.

It is in n. 398 of volume 7 of the Ius Canonicum (imprimatur, 1937) that Fathers Wernz and Vidal make clear the meaning and extent of the crime of schism, as follows:

398. The sense and the scope of schism. The requirement for determining at law the delict of pure schism is: I. that someone withdraw from the sphere of authority [obedientia] of the Roman Pontiff and separate himself from the ecclesiastical communion of the other faithful, either directly or expressly or indirectly or with implicit or tacit consent [factis concludentibus], even if he may not attach himself to a separated schismatic sect; — II. that the withdrawal be connected with pertinacity or rebellion; — III. that the withdrawal be done with respect to those things on which the unity of the Church is founded; — IV. notwithstanding formal disobedience and denial of being subordinate, that the schismatic acknowledge that the aforementioned Roman Pontiff is the true pastor of the universal Church and that obedience must be offered to him in accordance with the teaching of the faith: but if he says [the Pope] is not [the true pastor of the universal Church], heresy will be added as an ingredient to schism.

Wherefore the delict of schism, in the strict sense, is not committed by him who withdraws from his own bishop and from the communion of the faithful of his own diocese, but [by him who] refuses to be under the Roman Pontiff and to be in communion with the rest of the faithful of the universal Church. Nor is someone determined to be a schismatic by means of a simple transgression of pontifical law; otherwise, all violators of universal ecclesiastical laws would also prove to be schismatics — something that is plainly absurd. Finally, those cannot be regarded as schismatics who refuse to obey a Roman Pontiff because they are suspicious of his person or because of unfavorable reports [rumores] spread abroad that [he] was doubtfully elected, as happened after the election of Urban VI, or [those who] may resist him as a civil ruler and not as shepherd of the Church.

(Francis X. Wernz and Peter Vidal, Ius Canonicum, vol. VII [Rome: Gregorian University, 1937], p. 439; underlining added. Footnotes omitted. Translation by Novus Ordo Watch.)

We offer this tidbit simply for the sake of clarification so that all may have a proper understanding of what constitutes the grave evil of schism, and what does not.

Genuine schism is a mortal sin that cuts one off from the Mystical Body of Christ: “For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy” (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 23). The schismatic expels himself, as it were, from the Catholic Church by voluntarily leaving the unity of the Mystical Body, a unity that is generated by all members submitting to the Pope: “Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed” (Mystici Corporis, n. 22).

Thus, a genuine and pure (mere) schismatic is a baptized Catholic who, denying no dogma, refuses to be subject to the Roman Pontiff while at the same time acknowledging that the man he is refusing submission to is the true and lawful Roman Pontiff, and who, as such, has the right to rule the entire Church.

The Wernz-Vidal text goes on to make clear that genuine schism is not found in someone who refuses submission to the Roman Pontiff because he sincerely and innocently believes he is not in fact the Pope. Such a man might be a schismatic in the material sense, meaning that he actually refuses submission to that particular individual who happens to be Pope; but not in the formal sense, meaning that he does not have the evil will to rebel against the true and legitimate Pope but is simply mistaken about the true identity of the individual in question.

How reasonable this is, can be seen using a simple analogy: Suicide is a mortal sin, and anyone who deliberately steps on a land mine with the intent of killing himself, is guilty of the mortal sin of suicide. Nevertheless, he who through no fault of his own steps on a land mine and is killed by it, is not guilty of suicide but merely suffered an accident. It is the evil will — the intent to kill oneself in our analogy, or the intention of refusing submission to the man accepted as Pope in the case before us — that constitutes the essence of the crime, not an innocent mistake about what is factual. Thus, in the moral order, even he is guilty of suicide who, mistaking a mock-up for a real land mine, steps on it with the intention of killing himself.

If the Church is defined as the congregation of the faithful, we can easily see why heretics and schismatics are necessarily excluded from her by definition: The heretic is outside the Church because he is not faithful; whereas the schismatic is outside the Church because he refuses to congregate under the Pope and with the other members of the Church. (See Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. IB, n. 1059, p. 427.)

Pure schism is fairly rare, however. Much more common is schism mixed with heresy, for, as Pope Pius IX stated, quoting St. Jerome, “every schism fabricates a heresy for itself to justify its withdrawal from the Church” (Encyclical Quartus Supra, n. 13). Therefore, those who refuse submission to the Pope because they deny his right to rule the entire Church, are not only schismatics but also heretics, for they deny the dogmatic teaching of the First Vatican Council regarding the primacy of the Roman Pontiff as not merely a primacy of honor, love, or service, but one of true and proper jurisdiction.

Now guess who is currently working on a ‘re-inerpretation’ of Vatican I to downgrade the Papacy to little more than a primacy of honor for the sake of ecumenism….

Image source: Ius Canonicum title page (scan)
License: fair use

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