When Does Disobedience Constitute Schism?

Q:  I am president of a student organization associated with our local diocese, which is served by a chaplain, and occasionally Mass is celebrated.  In the past, the Mass has been celebrated on our college campus, in a general-use chapel, even though there is a magnificent church built in the gothic revival style a few blocks away.  I made the decision to inform the group that since there was no need for us to have Mass on campus, we would carpool to the church.  I cited your article, “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?”  Now, the chaplain is accusing me of schismatic disobedience because of that decision (his interpretation of canon law and schism appears to be different).

Long story short: does your article apply to this situation? – Richard

A:  There’s a lot of detail missing from this question, which is why it’s impossible to answer it without first obtaining more information.  But Richard inadvertently raises a separate issue which is not unique to his case, and merits discussion: what constitutes a schismatic act, and did Richard commit one?  Let’s take a look at what the term schism means in the Code of Canon Law, and see what (if any) conclusions can be drawn about the accusation made against Richard in this situation.

Canon 751 provides a definition of schism: it is “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”  In the official Latin text, the word being translated into English here as “refusal” is detrectatio, which would indicate an attitude more long-lasting than just a momentary denial.

If you want to examine a real-live example of a schismatic act, a well known and fairly recent incident happened in 1988, when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the papal mandate that is required by canon 1013.  A more in-depth discussion of this may be found in “Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III” and “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I.”  Lefebvre did this after repeated warnings from the Vatican, thus incurring the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae, as per canon 1382.  (The little-understood concept of a latae sententiae excommunication was discussed in detail in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”)  An official decree was issued by the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, who asserted that Lefebvre had “performed a schismatical act by the episcopal consecration of four priests, without pontifical mandate and contrary to the will of the Supreme Pontiff.”  Note that a Catholic who becomes a schismatic, even when he doesn’t illegally consecrate any bishops, already incurs excommunication latae sententiae in accord with canon 1364.1The Pope’s press secretary observed at the time that Lefebvre had consecrated the bishops “explicitly against the Pope’s will.”

An important point which is directly relevant to our discussion here is that Archbishop Lefebvre was declared to be in schism, not simply because he had violated the law (which unfortunately happens all the time!), but because by this particular action he showed deliberate disregard for the authority of the Pope, who alone can decide who will be consecrated a bishop.  In the process, the Vatican determined that Lefebvre removed himself from full communion with the Catholic Church.  We need to remember that Vatican officials (and even Pope John Paul II himself at least once) are said to have spoken directly with Archbishop Lefebvre before the illegal episcopal consecrations, in an attempt to dissuade him—and so they knew his mindset and motivations for his actions.

It should be evident, then, that disobedience, in and of itself, is not necessarily schism.  If the two were synonymous, then every Catholic who ever violated the law or disobeyed a command of his legitimate ecclesiastical superior would be a schismatic—which is most definitely not the case!  Consider a couple of the millions of situations in the Church, in which a Catholic might conceivably disobey, and see whether they could be construed as schismatic in nature:

Imagine that a convent of sisters was ordered by Mother Superior not to discuss the convent’s financial problems with outsiders … but gossipy Sister Mary Ann has a nice long chat with her brother and ends up telling him anyway.  Yes, this is certainly disobedience, but how could anyone suggest that this constitutes a schismatic act?

Or let’s say that St. Michael’s parish had a scandal in years gone by, involving a priest and a female parishioner—so now the pastor has a strict policy that no priest is ever to be alone in the rectory with a woman, under any circumstances.  But one day a lady contemplating suicide comes to the rectory door seeking help; and the only one at home is the parochial vicar, who drops everything and spends an entire afternoon alone with her in the rectory, counseling her.  Is this schism?

The fact is, a Catholic could easily violate a law or disobey an order—justifiably or not!—without denying lawful ecclesiastical authority or breaking the bond of full communion with the Church.  Look at it this way: a Catholic who is truly in schism will inevitably end up disobeying ecclesiastical authority in some way or other … but a disobedient Catholic is very rarely choosing to disobey because he “refuses submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him,” which is the definition of schism found in canon 751.  It’s entirely possible to disobey a superior, or reject what the superior says/teaches, but still acknowledge that the superior is in a position of authority.

So disobedience does not automatically equate to removing oneself from communion with the Pope and others subject to him; but the Vatican has officially gone even further than that.  In 1990, the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued an Instruction “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” in which he discussed at length the problem of dissent from Catholic teaching.  Ratzinger addressed “the case of the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him well founded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching (28).”  It’s tempting to assume that if a Catholic theologian can’t bring himself to believe in a key tenet(s) of the Catholic faith, he’s surely taken himself outside the bounds of full communion with the Catholic Church, right?  But the former Cardinal Ratzinger immediately cautioned that this is not necessarily the case.  Noting that a theologian might personally be struggling to accept the truth of some key teaching of our faith, he pointed out that such a theologian can nevertheless still remain a loyal son of the Church:

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. (31)

From this we can conclude that like disobedience, dissent is not always synonymous with schism.  As we saw in “Was Theologian Hans Küng Ever Excommunicated?” the precise canonical status of someone who dissents from church teaching depends on the individual situation.  On the one hand, it could very well be that a dissenting Catholic has firmly, definitively concluded that he will not accept some or all Catholic teaching and doesn’t believe that the Magisterium which taught it had authority to do so—constituting a schismatic act which takes him outside the bounds of full communion with the Church. But it’s also possible that a Catholic wants to embrace all that Holy Mother Church teaches … yet his conscience is having a genuinely hard time of it.  In the latter case, he is not in schism—because there are no grounds to claim that this Catholic “refuses submission to the Supreme Pontiff or communion with the members of the Church subject to him,” as per canon 751.

Bottom line: it’s dangerous to make blanket-statements suggesting that a Catholic’s perceived disobedience/dissent ipso facto puts him in a state of schism.  It depends on the circumstances in each case.

All that being said, let’s take a look at Richard’s situation and see what, if anything, we can determine about his alleged “schismatic disobedience.”  As was mentioned at the start, there is a lot of missing information which is relevant to our full understanding of what happened here and why.  But we can piece together the basics: Richard is a university student and the president of an on-campus Catholic organization, which has a Catholic priest-chaplain.  At their regular meetings they sometimes have a Mass, which the chaplain celebrates “in a general-use chapel” on the campus.

As was discussed at length in the article Richard cites, “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?canon 932.1 states that the Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place, unless a particular necessity requires otherwise, in which case it is to be held in another, suitable place.  In practice, defining what constitutes a genuine “necessity” and what’s a “suitable place” can often become surprisingly tricky.  In Richard’s case, the exact status of this “general-use chapel” is less than clear.  If there’s a consecrated altar there, if the bishop specifically approved use of the chapel for Catholic Mass, or if he even consecrated it himself … there may be absolutely no legal grounds for any Catholic to object to the celebration of Mass there.  Sure, it might be more aesthetically pleasing to attend Mass at the “magnificent church built in the gothic revival style a few blocks away,” but there would be no canonical reason why that would actually be necessary.

We don’t know who schedules the group’s meetings and determines the program—but it may very well be Richard, the president of the group.  When a Mass is scheduled, the chaplain might be responsible for arranging its location … yet we can’t be sure of that either.  So we don’t even know that Richard was being “disobedient,” do we?  Whom/what exactly did he disobey?

But for the sake of argument, let’s envision an extreme scenario, in which Richard has drastically crossed the line—and then we’ll examine the question of whether it can be construed as “schismatic disobedience.”

Let’s say that it’s the chaplain’s responsibility to organize the location of the group’s Masses, and that as president, Richard has no say in this whatsoever.  Let’s imagine that Richard was acting outside the bounds of his authority when he decided that henceforth, these Masses would be held in the parish church nearby—because he’d read “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?” and concluded for himself that it’s against church law to be saying Mass in the “general-use chapel.”  And let’s say the chaplain disagreed and they had a heated debate—after which Richard simply disregarded everything the chaplain had said, and organized a “carpool to the church.”

At the same time, let’s suppose that in actual fact the “general-use chapel” was consecrated years ago by the diocesan bishop, so in reality there is nothing improper about a Catholic priest celebrating Mass there.  In short, let’s say that Richard was totally wrong to do what he did.  The question remains, does this constitute schism?

Well, unless Richard had been doing/saying additional things (which he neglected to mention in his question) to indicate that he rejected the authority of the Pope, the diocesan bishop and others in ecclesiastical authority, or to show that he wished for some reason to take himself outside the bounds of communion with the Catholic Church, the answer is of course no.  In fact, you couldn’t even claim that Richard is dissenting from church teaching, since his main concern is that the student group must follow canon law!

In our extreme scenario, it would be pretty safe to say that Richard was disobeying the group’s chaplain, and abusing his own authority as president of the student group.  Who knows, maybe the prestige of holding that title has gone to his head, and the group ought to consider removing this megalomaniac from office!  We might reasonably conclude that Richard had been inexcusably disrespectful to the chaplain as well.

But as we’ve already seen, disobedience does not automatically constitute schism—so if the chaplain wants to make this claim, he’ll have to be able to demonstrate that Richard did a lot more than argue with him about the location of the group’s Mass, and then organize a carpool so that the group’s members could attend Mass at the nearby parish church.  To be fair, maybe the chaplain could demonstrate precisely that.  This sort of thing certainly can happen: in “Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?” we looked at a case where a parishioner wasn’t “just” disagreeing with his parish priest; in reality he was directly questioning the pastor’s authority, and thus taking himself outside the bounds of full communion with the Church.

Unfortunately, for those in authority positions in the Church who don’t like dealing pastorally with Catholics who disagree with them, hurling accusations of “schism” can be a handy strategy to silence all opposition.  As we saw in “Excommunication and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” there are some clergy out there who think that everything they say, and every decision they make, somehow constitutes a law which must be obeyed without question—and the priest-chaplain of Richard’s student group might possibly fit into this category.  Needless to say, this is not how the Catholic Church is structured.  Even the Pope himself, who holds a dizzying amount of power, is keenly aware that his own authority on earth is supreme but not absolute (see “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on this).  It can be extremely disturbing to encounter Catholic clerics in positions of authority who behave more like cult leaders than as shepherds of souls.

Most of us are probably familiar with the concept of a cult.  While the concept can be difficult to define, one of the main differences between a legitimate religion and a cult is that the leader of a cult generally demands absolute loyalty to himself as a person, forbidding members even to question, much less to criticize him/his actions.  In contrast, we Catholics are reasonably expected to respect the clergy in general, and those who have authority over us in particular; but if a member of the faithful wishes courteously to raise an objection or to seek an explanation for something which (let’s say) his parish priest or diocesan bishop has said or done, it is always possible to do that.  In turn, Catholic clerics should never forget that “Because I said so!” is not a law which the faithful are required to obey: as we saw in “How Can You Tell a Real Law From an Illegal Decree?” the Church has held for centuries that one of the fundamental characteristics of sound law is that it is grounded in reason.  Ecclesiastical authorities should always be able, if necessary, to justify the rules they set and the decisions they make.  Accusing someone of committing schism, solely because they’d like to understand the reasoning behind a decision which seems wrong to them, is not how it’s supposed to work.  As Christians, we should all be able to have intelligent discussions and maintain charity throughout.

So what can we take away from all this?  Firstly, that disobedience and dissent do not automatically involve schism—although they might, if they’re accompanied by an intention to challenge someone’s lawful authority/remove oneself from communion with the Pope and those united with him.  Secondly, in order to determine whether a disobedient Catholic is actually schismatic, it’s necessary to examine carefully his intentions and motives for doing/saying what he does.  Thirdly, Catholic ecclesiastical officials frequently have the power to make rules, laws, and decisions in general, but they must be in accord with reason and should be justifiable; they cannot make arbitrary rules, and then accuse Catholics of removing themselves from full communion with the Church simply for raising questions or objections.  In short, disagreements in the Church can get complicated!  But by the grace of God we Catholics should be able to overcome our differences, attempt to resolve our disagreements as best we humanly can, and remain united as members of the Catholic Church.

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