Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stop Using This Word So Recklessly

[August 10, 2023] Imagine the spectacle of members of the laity proclaiming, based on their own convictions and by their own authority, that Pope Francis has lost the papacy or is not the validly elected pope. How ridiculous! How arrogant! How absurd! 

Now imagine, if you will, the spectacle of members of the laity proclaiming, based on their own convictions and by their own authority, that certain fellow Catholics (who have never been censured or labeled as such by the Church) are in the canonical state of schism and under anathema. How equally ridiculous! How equally arrogant! How equally absurd! 

And yet, more often we are seeing such authoritative pronouncements on social media from lay people declaring that various traditionalists have become schismatics—and generally on ridiculous terms. So-and-so is a schismatic because he is speaking at a conference where a Sedevacantist is also speaking. Such-and-such is anathematized because he has expressed sympathy towards the SSPX. That person is schismatic because he allows Sede comments on his YouTube channel, this one because he shared a video questioning the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo.

Would I personally speak at a conference with a Sedevacantist? No. Would I promote content calling into question the validity of the Novus Ordo? Absolutely not. Do I offer public sympathy to the SSPX? No. Do I allow Sede comments? No. But do any of these actions place one in the canonical state of schism? Certainly not. Do they give lay people the right to condemn other Catholics publicly as schimastics? Even less.

The Sin of Schism and the Canonical Status of Schism

Schism is both a sin and a canonical status. As a canonical status, only a bishop or the pope could declare a specific person or group in the canonical state of schism—it certainly cannot be declared authoritatively by lay people, just like lay people cannot simply decide that a pope has lost his office, just like a layman cannot decide that his marriage is invalid apart from the decision of the Tribunal. These things all require some kind of judgment in the external forum from competent authority. 

Now, we may be personally convinced that someone has committed the sin of schism, which Aquinas says is a sin against charity and ecclesial charity (STh, II-II, Q. 39, Art. 1). But recognizing the sin of schism and assessing the canonical status of schism are two different things. This is similar to how, while we may recognize objective heresies in the writings of a certain author, assigning the label "heretic" is something that properly belongs to the external forum of the Church's authorities. I can say that there are heresies in the writings of Fr. James Martin or Hans Urs von Balthasar, but unless Martin or Balthasar has been censured for heresy by the Church authorities, I cannot technically label them heretics in the canonical sense. 

People are tossing around the word schism far too recklessly; Catholics in good canonical standing are written off as schimastic based on comments in Youtube videos and who they are "associated" with. In acting such, these people are demonstrating far more severity than the Church herself. 

An Example of How Schism is Assessed

The canonical state of schism is assessed according to a juridical process. An example is furnished by the 2016 case of the Universal Christian Church of the New Jerusalem (UCCNJ). The UCCNJ began in 1947 in Italy, centered on the apparitions made to a certain Giuseppina Norcia. As often happens in such cases, the content of the apparitions was bizarre, but the strange millenarian doctines of the UCCNJ do not concern us here, save one: their denial of papal authority based on their view that the UCCNJ constitutes the "real Church" and the Catholic Church is not recognized by God (source).

After decades of back and forth, on July 5, 2016, the Ordinary of the Diocese of Sora, Gerardo Antonazzo, declared the group in schism. In a formal communication from the diocese, which was read from every pulpit, Bishop Antonazzo wrote "in order to safeguard the integrity of faith, ecclesial communion, and the pastoral action of the Church for the people of God", the initiatives of the "pseudo-religious organization" of the "self-styled new Jerusalem" are declared "completely against Catholic doctrine, and have nothing to do with the grace of faith and salvation that Christ entrusted to the Church founded on the rock of the apostle Peter." The statement also invoked Canon 1364, stating that "all the faithful who this 'self-styled Church' are punished with latae sententiae excommunication for the canonical crime of schism." (source). This is what the assessment of the canonical state of schism looks like. It follows juridical procedure emanating from ecclesiastical authority. 

But do we need such a solemn judgment before assessing that someone is in schism? Not necessarily. Someone, for example, someone who adheres to a Sedevacantist sect which as an institution denies the authority of the pope can be presumed to be in this state, given the nature of the sect. But YouTube comments? Guilt by association over who is speaking at a conference? Being chummy with the SSPX? We ought to be much more restrained here. Not even Pope Francis, with his well-known disdain for traditional Catholics and penchant for name-calling, has called anyone schismatic. We ought not jump to do so, either. 
Not all Disobedience is Schimastic

While schism arises from disobedience, not all disobedience is schismatic. It has become too common to accuse Catholics of schism when the most they can be charged with is disobedience. Let us review the canonical idea of schism; as I am no canonist, I will defer to authorities in the field and attempt to stick as closely to their opinions as possible.

Canon 751 defines schism as "the refusal of submission to the Roman pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." The Latin word for refusal is detrectactio, "detraction," as in the removal or taking away from. Canonist Cathi Caridi notes that this phrase suggests something beyond a momentary or situational disobedience; rather, it pertains to an ongoing attitude, or removal of obedience, such that the action itself constitutes a blatant denial of the pope's authority. Disobedience alone does not constitute schism; if it did, every Catholic who had ever disobeyed a command from their legitimate superior would be ipso facto schismatic. It is fully possible to break a law or disobey a command without denying ecclesiastical jurisdiction or removing oneself from communion with the Church. 

"Refusal of submission to the Roman pontiff" is more akin to a general withholding of the submission rightfully due to the pope; this is analogous to when a noble would withhold his submission from a king he intended to rebel against. It was not merely an singular act of disobedience, but a denial that royal jurisdiction applied to him at all. Similarly, schism is not necessarily a momentary refusal to obey a particular order (althought it can be if that refusal to obey a particular order itself was predicated upon a denial of the pope's authority to command). It is entirely possible to reject the command of an authority while still acknowledging the legitimacy of that authority. Fr. John Beal's New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law observes that, in cases pertaining to heresy, apostasy, and schism, "what is envisioned is the offender's persistent, deliberate refusal to comply with an authoritative warning" (pg. 1581). 

Obviously when disobedience crosses the line into "persistent" and "deliberate refusal" is somewhat subjective. This is why these matters are so circumstantial. Singular acts of disobedience can be schismatic, but they are not necessarily so. Am I excusing disobedience here? Certainly not. But I am drawing an important distinction—even if we see Catholics apparently engaged in an act of disobedience, that alone does not make them canonically schismatic.

And this doesn't even address the question of circumstances when disobedience may be justified!

As an aside, it is interesting that Cardinal Ratzinger taught that not even dissent necessarily put one outside the Church. In the 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis on the vocation of the theologian, Ratzinger addressed the problem of "the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him wellfounded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching" (DV, 28). So we have a theologian who believes he has "wellfounded" reasons for rejecting magisterial teaching. Is he anathematized and excommunicated as a heretic and schismatic? Far from it. Ratzinger said:
It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium's teaching without hesitation, the theologian's difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.
For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail. (DV, 31)

Ratzinger actually shows a surprising amount of compassion for the dissenter. One may retort that this only applies to those who deal with their trouble "in silence and prayer," not those who boldly proclaim their dissent on social media. That may be true, but it proves the point that it is not the dissent alone which incurs penalty, but the obstinacy and vociferousness with which it is proclaimed. Similarly, it is not disobedience alone which makes one schismatic, but the obstinacy and flagrancy which equate to a practical denial of the pope's authority. 

Because this is all so circumstantial, the state of schism is considerably more difficult to identify without an official declaration than, say, whether a proposition is heretical. Given this, we should absolutely not be tossing out blanket-statements that a Catholic's perceived act of disobedience has put him into the canonical state of schism. It depends on the circumstance, and for that reason, we really require a judgment of the Church's external forum before we can label anyone schismatic.

Is it Schismatic for "Canceled" Priests to Continue Ministry?

In July, Lifesite news reported that a new organization called Protect Our Priests had been formed for the purpose of "connecting stable groups of Catholics across the United States with priests willing to provide for their spiritual needs." The priests in question are being drawn from the ranks of the Coalition for Canceled Priests. The very existence of the organization was immediately decried as schismatic by the usual suspects. While enabling priests with no canonical faculties to celebrate Mass is problematic (and for the record, I reject the arguments used by the SSPX to justify disregarding canonical suspension), the fact is, not every priest who has been "canceled" has been deprived of faculties. 

First, being "canceled" is not a canonical term; it refers broadly to priests who are "persecuted or insufficiently defended" by the Church (such is the definition offered by the Coalition for Canceled Priests). We must not, therefore, assume that a priest who has been "canceled" has been deprived of his faculties and is forbidden from exercising any ministry. Each priest's situation requires a case by case assessment. For example, Fr. Michael Suhy, a member of the CCP who was canonically removed as pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Archdiocese of Detroit, retains full faculties. The archdiocesan statement on his status specifically states that "there are no restrictions on his priestly ministry."  Fr. James Altman, on the other hand, has had his priestly faculties removed and is forbidden to say Mass for anyone save himself and his parents. Meanwhile, the last update on the status of Fr. James Parker of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, does not state that he has lost faculties, but merely says that he will not receive another parochial assignment until some concerns are cleared up with the bishop. There are thus varying degrees of "cancellation."

Each "canceled" priest is in a unique situation, and the mere fact that they have been removed from parish work does not mean they are under canonical censure. Many have simply been left in limbo without an assignment, like Archbishop Georg Gänswein. Unless a priest has been formally deprived of faculties and refused a celebret (like Fr. James Altman), he is still permitted to exercise priestly functions outside of a parochial assignment and it is in no way schismatic to try to connect such men with communities of the faithful in need of pastoral care. I understand that some members of the CCP are suspended and cannot exercise legitimate ministry, and I am not arguing otherwise. What I am arguing is that the ministerial status of a "canceled" priest needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis; consequently, Protect Our Priests cannot be labeled schimastic based on an assessment of its overall mission alone.

The Bugbear of Canon 1373

It is common to see Canon 1373 invoked against Traditional Catholics who criticize the actions of the Church. This canon says:
A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities of hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.
Again, I am not a canonist so I must refrain from indulging too much here, but I will draw on John Beal's New Commentary to make a few observations, sticking as closely as I can to Beal's text.

First, "animosity," "hatred," or "incitement" are all extraordinarily vague and fluid concepts; assessing when someone's indulgence in such actually crosses the line into meriting punishment is even more so. On this canon, John Beal's New Commentary says the following:
One can appreciate the legitimate concern to protect the unimpeded exercise of church authority, which is essential to the common good. However, this canon's concern to repress destructive hostility to church institutions must be interpreted judiciously. Otherwise a responsible expression of opinion regarding their effectiveness might be arbitrarily curtailed (pg. 1583)
In other words, we need to be very careful in applying this canon, lest the legitimate right of Catholics to express their opinions on the Church "be arbitrarily curtailed," such as by reactively leveling this canon against anyone who critiques the Church for any reason. Beal here also cites eminent canonist James Provost's opinion that "ongoing critique of the law is integral to Church reform" (ibid). The take away is that this canon should be construed narrowly, so as not to stifle the rights of Catholics to critique the Church. We ought err on the side of caution before invoking this canon.

Second, criticism of the Holy Father or the bishops does not itself constitute animosity or hatred. I do not doubt there are some who hate the Holy Father and merely wish his injury; most Trads, however, criticize not because they hate the Church or the papacy but because they love them. If, God forbid, our position is motivated by hatred of Pope Francis, then we certainly err. But in most cases this is far from the truth; one need not hate a man to critique him, nor to recognize him as an ideological opponent, at least in certain respects. I think what happens is that Catholics have varying degrees of comfort criticizing the Church; those who go further than we ourselves would go are accused of stirring up hatred, because we see them push the envelope beyond our own comfort level.

Which brings us to the third point—because of the inherent fuzziness of when the line is crossed into open hatred and animosity, the Church's "just penalties" merited by such actions are ferendae sententiae. Beal notes that Canon 1373 is part of a collection of canons dealing with matters of obedience and which all require direct, prescriptive penalties on the part of the Church (ferendae sententiae) to take effect (ibid). This is contrasted with a latae sententiae penalty, which a person assumes ipso facto. In contrast, no penalty for violating Canon 1373 exists unless it is positively decreed by ecclesiastical authority. Because the context of applying Canon 1373 is so circumstantial, it requires a clear, positive act of the Church before penalties are incurred. 

This means no one is actually penalized under Canon 1373 unless ecclesiastical authority says they are. Ergo, one cannot simply trot out Canon 1373 and slap Trads upside the head with it just because they say things you believe go too far.

Finally, what constitutes "incitement"? Anyone following the legal fiasco surrounding the events of January 6 knows what a subjective assessment this can be. Beal says that "public incitement" implies that the animosity results in actual, demonstrable disobedience. Addressing the double cases of "animosity" and "disobedience" mentioned in the canon, Beal says:

In both instances the canon requires a certain success of the conspiratorial efforts. Thus hostility to church authority must be generated in the first case, and actual disobedience must occur in the second instance. (ibid).

In other words, it is not enough that the perpetrator be expressing animosity or hatred; it must be demonstrated that his expressions are actively causing others to do the same. In the case of disobedience, it is not sufficient for the perpetrator to talk about disobedience; he must commit actual disobedience. This is prudent; if you are going to charge someone with treason, one ought to show they have actually committed the treason of which they are accused. In a Catholic context, this means there is a big difference between saying, "We should fight back if the bishop tries to close our TLM parish," and actually resisting the bishop's attempt to close the parish when he tries.

This is important, as Trads who discuss strategies for resisting presumed future total bans on the TLM are commonly attacked for being schismatic. But merely discussing hypothetical responses to future scenarios falls far short of the situation envisioned by Canon 1373. "Public incitment" implies that there has been "a certain success of the conspiratorial efforts." It penalizes action, not talk. 

In short, if there is any canon that should not be haphazardly invoked by lay people in diatribes about the propriety of certain online discourse, it is Canon 1373.


There's much more that could be said here, but the bottom line is that the word schism is being thrown around much too loosely. Besides being uncharitable, it lessens the import of the word "schism," turning it into just another -ism that is bandied about so recklessly that it ultimately becomes meaningless. It ignores important distinctions (does the situation involve laymen or clerics, is it an act directly against the church's governing structure or a critique of a particular abuse of power, etc.). Like progressives' use of the word "racism," it ends up meaning whatever its user wants it to.

And at the end of the day, lay people don't have the authority to simply decide that another Catholic is in the canonical state of schism any more than a lay person has the authority to decide that the pope has lost his office. You may be personally convinced that someone is guilty of the sin of schism, but that is not the same as the canonical state, and such persons cannot be called "schismatic"—and even so, the principle of "first remove the beam from your own eye" comes into play when discussing the hypothetical sins of others.

If you are one of these people bandying about the word schism everytime a Trad says something you think goes too far, please exercise some restraint, charity, and common sense. 


Anonymous said...

I left a long comment and it disappeared .

To summarize, things might develop to where Catholics will flock to Sede chapels as the last remnants of true faith.

Anonymous said...

When Pope in Traditiones Custodes states “schism of Marcel Lefebvre”, does it mean that we can call it schism?


Boniface said...


Yes, multiple ecclesiastical documents refer to the SSPX as a schismatic movement, so I'd say that's an appropriate canonical use of the term.