How Much Disobedience Constitutes Schism?

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.

Editor’s Note: We’re grateful to Father Brian Harrison for submitting the following article on the question of schism. Readers will recall that Father Harrison makes no claim to be a “radical traditionalist” such as we at The Remnant—with no apologies to anyone, by the way—consider ourselves to be. Father is, however, a fellow traveler in many ways, and is a highly respected priest. Given that he does not claim to be a traditionalist per se, his unsolicited defense of certain traditionalists (the present writer included) against the reckless charge of schism is significant. Of course, we ourselves never for a moment questioned our position inside the Catholic Church; but given the sad fact that our friends over at The Wanderer have for years refused to print our defense against their charges, we are hopeful that at least some of the scandalized Wanderer readers might be inclined to read and consider a defense written by a Catholic priest who is not a traditionalist but who knows an injustice and an erroneous accusation when he sees one. While there are several points over which we certainly disagree with Father Harrison, we nevertheless appreciate his charitable efforts over the years to continue his public “dialogue” with traditionalists on these and other matters. Father is presently an Associate Professor of Theology in the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. MJM

In recent years, English-speaking Catholicism has witnessed some fierce internal polemics between traditionalists who denounce and resist many authorized changes in the Church since Vatican Council II, and others who zealously defend nearly all these official changes, although rejecting the outright liberal disobedience and dissent which have often accompanied them.

Not long ago, The Wanderer, a newspaper which takes the latter position, ran some strongly-worded attacks on Atila Sinke Guimarães and Marian T. Horvat (both of “Tradition in Action”), John Vennari (editor of Catholic Family News) and Remnant editor Michael J. Matt. These writers were accused of (among other things) falling into schism— at least materially, and perhaps formally as well — by publishing a jointly signed manifesto (We Resist You To The Face [Los Angeles: Tradition In Action, 2000]) which takes the literary form of a lengthy open letter to Pope John Paul II. (Its title is an allusion to Galatians 2: 11, where St. Paul speaks of how he “resisted” St. Peter, the first Vicar of Christ, “to the face” at Antioch, because of Peter’s faulty handling of relations between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity.)

Now, I want to make it clear from the outset that I am by no means in overall agreement with the aforesaid quartet. While I think their manifesto (which, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to from here on simply as Resist) does raise some legitimate and important questions about certain policies, orientations and emphases which the Church has been pursuing in recent decades, I think it goes too far in opposing these changes, and would have to agree with some of the criticisms that have been leveled at it. (Although I must also admit I can think of other genuine grievances against the post-conciliar regime that the authors might have included in Resist, but didn’t!) Particularly unfortunate — and I think unnecessary — is the authors’ professed dissent from certain conciliar and postconciliar statements of the Church’s Magisterium, or teaching authority, which I think can and should be understood in a way that does not conflict with traditional Catholic doctrine.

However, to go as far as accusing the Resist authors of schism is another matter altogether. It is a grave accusation, for this offence, when formal and culpable, incurs the Church’s extreme penalty, automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication, in accordance with c. 1364, §1 of the Code of Canon Law. Excommunication has the effect of excluding the offender from being entitled to receive or administer any sacrament, and from being able to hold any office in the Church.

So what exactly is schism? According to the Church’s law, it is “the withdrawal of submission [Latin subiectionis detrectatio] to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (c. 751). But this definition of schism (which in substance is the same as that found in the earlier Code of 1917) in turn requires further explanation. For it does not spell out exactly what kinds of specific behavior constitute this “withdrawal of submission”. In this article I hope to clarify this question, in the context of arguing that the aforesaid authors of Resist, whatever else might be said about their manifesto, are not in schism even materially, much less formally. Of course, my arguments will have more extensive application than to these four authors alone, and will also serve to defend many or most other Catholic critics of the post-Vatican-II changes from the charge of ‘schism’.

A. What do the four “resisters” actually mean?

Those who have charged Resist with constituting schism think they are justified in laying this charge against its four authors because of certain words in the manifesto which they think objectively express a schismatic position, regardless of what may be the inner intentions and culpability (or lack thereof) of the authors. But in fact the relevant words do not objectively express any position which is schismatic even materially — much less formally. The most that could be said is that Resist contains an ambiguous expression, which, if interpreted in the worst possible light, and out of context, would imply a schismatic position.

On p. 55, the authors first declare their “state of resistance” relative to those recent papal and conciliar “teachings and actions that are objectively opposed to the prior ordinary and extraordinary papal magisterium.” But “resistance” to, or dissent from, papal teaching does not in itself qualify as schism, whether formal or material. Even in the worst-case scenario wherein the “teaching” being “resisted” was of the most solemn category possible — namely, that proposed by the Church as divinely revealed (and thus to be believed with divine and Catholic faith) — such “resistance” would still not constitute schism. It would, of course, constitute heresy; but heresy is an offence against the faith of the Church, and is clearly something distinct from schism, which is an offence against charity.

Another bitter anti-traditionalist writer, Mr. Omar F.A. Gutierrez, is quite mistaken in asserting confidently: “Certainly, all heretics are schismatics.”[1] True, the two offences very often go together; but it would be quite possible (though perhaps not very logically consistent) for a professing Catholic to dissent stubbornly from just one or two defined dogmas while still accepting the current Pope’s authority in general and submitting to everything else the Holy Father and his local bishop told him to do. Such a person would be a heretic without being a schismatic. In any case, since nobody is even accusing the four Resist authors of heresy, it is unnecessary to defend them from that charge.

What about the authors’ “resistance” to papal actions (as distinct from papal teachings)? In the light of the concrete examples given by the authors earlier in their manifesto, they should be understood to mean nothing more than a retrospective disapproval of such actions. Schism, however, would have to involve “resistance” in the practical order, not the merely speculative (intellectual) order which evaluates the truth of doctrines or the appropriateness of past actions. That is, schism involves (among other things) persistently refusing to do things commanded by the Pope, or persistence in doing things forbidden by him. As St. Thomas Aquinas makes clear, heresy is an offence against the virtue of faith, while schism is opposed to charity (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIæ, 39, 1, ad 3).

So far, then, there is nothing in Resist that could be taken as schismatic. However, the authors continue, on the same page, explaining the implications of this initial declaration which we have just analyzed. They state that, among other things, their “resistance” includes “suspension of obedience to the aforementioned progressivist teachings, and the authorities who desire to impose them on us” (my emphasis). Here we see the critical ambiguity which I referred to above. The expression “suspension of obedience” will indeed ring alarm bells to a loyal Catholic on the look-out for indications of schism. But, at least in regard to the “progressivist” teachings in question, it is obvious that what the authors really mean by “suspension of obedience” is suspension of assent. In other words, dissent. And, as I have already pointed out, no amount of dissent from papal and/or conciliar teachings can ever, in itself, constitute schism. Nevertheless, the second part of the expression quoted above contains a more serious ambiguity: for “suspension of obedience” to “the authorities who desire to impose [the “progressivist” teachings] on us” could be schismatic, depending on what, exactly, the authors have in mind. They could mean one of two things:

(a) a general or ‘blanket’ suspension of all obedience to the ecclesial “authorities” in question, i.e., a repudiation (at least temporary) of their very jurisdiction over the authors of Resist. In other words, this would be a declaration by the latter that they no longer felt themselves bound to obey commands of any sort issued to them by the former. In that case, the final relative clause (“who desire . . . on us”) would have the purpose of identifying the “authorities” in question and trying to justify this rebellious decision against them. In other words, they would be anticipating the question, “Which ‘authorities’ are you referring to?”, and answering it by saying, in effect, “Those who desire to impose progressivist teachings on us; and it is because of this evil desire on their part that we reject their right to command us.”

On the other hand, the expression under discussion could mean:

(b) a suspension of obedience to the “authorities” in question only insofar as they “desire to impose” the “progressivist teachings” under discussion. In this case the final clause (“. . . and the authorities who desire to impose them on us”) would have the purpose of indicating the limits of their intended disobedience. That is, the authors would simply be expressing — albeit with rather imprecise English syntax — an intention to disobey these “authorities” on any particular occasions when they might happen to command the faithful in general, or themselves in particular, either to profess openly their acceptance of the “progressivist teachings” in question, or to act in such a way as to imply conformity with those teachings.

Now, if the four authors of Resist meant (a), then they would clearly be declaring themselves to be in a situation which could fairly be described as “materially schismatic,” for the “authorities” in question certainly include popes, right up to the present Supreme Pontiff. They would be in the same sort of situation, at least externally and objectively, as the Eastern Orthodox, or other communities who might still have all seven valid sacraments and perhaps in some cases even believe all the articles of Catholic faith, but who do not feel bound to obey any command whatsoever of John Paul II.

However, such an interpretation would be difficult to reconcile with the rest of Resist, which is presented in Chapter I (pp. 13-15) and in the authors’ “Final Words,” as a supplication to the Pope as their “Holy Father” — a supplication which makes clear their acceptance of his authority over them and their “communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (to quote the Code of Canon Law again). They say to the Pope, among other things, “We humbly beg the incarnate Wisdom to illuminate your intelligence and guide your will to do what should be done for the glory of God, the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, and the salvation of souls” (pp. 65-66). The authors also appeal, on pp. 56-58, to the authority of St. Paul and recognized doctors and theologians (Bellarmine, Suarez, etc.) who have upheld the legitimacy of “resisting” Peter or his successors, under certain circumstances and on particular issues, while still recognizing his legitimate position of authority over the whole Church on earth. No one, I am sure, will accuse these celebrated classical authors of schism (or even of “birthing” or “midwifing” schism). Gutierrez, (see footnote 1) denies that an appeal to the power of the Pope, such as that expressed in Resist, is sufficient to “relieve one from the charge of schism”. He argues that someone might hypocritically pay mere lip-service to papal authority in this way, while still being schismatic by virtue of “public and constant disobedience through action or inaction.” Maybe so, but this disobedience would still have to global and radical, not just partial or piecemeal, in order to reach the point of schism (as I will explain more fully below).

Thus, the fact that the Resist authors appeal so respectfully to the Pope’s authority is at least prima facie evidence of their sincerity, that is, of their genuine intention not to withdraw totally from submission to him. A fair reading of their manifesto would therefore require one to presume that they mean their “suspension of obedience” in the milder sense (b) above, until the contrary were demonstrated. For the record, I met with and spoke personally to all four of them at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, on September 30, 2000, and they unanimously verified that this much more limited and less radical disobedience is indeed what they meant to express in their open letter to the Pope.

B. Are the four ‘resisters’ in schism?

I am claiming that the kind of limited disobedience we have just identified, as professed by the four authors, does not qualify as schism. Not even “material schism.” But on this point, certain critics of Resist think otherwise, arguing that since c. 751 does not say that schism requires total or complete “withdrawal of submission” to the Roman Pontiff, we are entitled to conclude that the kind or degree of “suspension of obedience” professed by the four ‘resisters’ is sufficient to qualify them as schismatics.

When I read this opinion, it struck me as representing a parallel with so-called ‘biblical fundamentalism’. Perhaps it could be called ‘canonical fundamentalism.’ If biblical fundamentalists (usually Protestants) err by interpreting certain passages of Scripture in a superficially literal way, without taking into account the literary and historical context, the treasury of Sacred Tradition which illuminates obscurities in Sacred Scripture, and other passages of Scripture itself, then canonical fundamentalists err in a similar way in their superficial approach to the Code of Canon Law. Here are a few pertinent observations.

1. In the first place, those who cry “schism!” against the four authors should take cognizance of the fact that by far the greater part of their “suspension of obedience” has to do with dissent from conciliar or post-conciliar doctrinal positions. And as is explained above, not even heresy, the worst kind of doctrinal dissent, can ever of itself constitute schism — formal or material. But once the strictly doctrinal concerns of the authors of Resist are subtracted from their ‘resistance,’ all that remains of it is their professed disposition to disobey certain possible or hypothetical commands of a practical nature, obedience to which would be seen by the ‘resisters’ as implying their assent to those “progressivist teachings” which they find unacceptable.

Suppose, for instance, that the Holy Father were to judge that too many Catholics are dragging their feet in regard to ecumenism, and so decided to prod them along by issuing a Motu Proprio ordering all of the faithful to assist, wherever feasible, at an inter-denominational prayer service for the reunion of Christians, to be organized each year during the ‘Octave of Christian Unity’ by the bishops and the clergy in each parish, in collaboration with local non-Catholic ministers. This would become a sort of ecumenical Holy Day of Obligation. Now, I think it reasonable to assume that the authors of Resist would disobey such an order, even though it came straight from the Pope. However, I used the words “possible” and “hypothetical” above, because, as far as I can see from their manifesto, the four authors have not given even a single example of any actually existing practical (as distinct from doctrinal) instruction of the Supreme Pontiff which they propose to disobey, or have already been disobeying. The text of Resist itself does not reveal any such actual or imminent disobedience. And the critics of the manifesto, to the best of my knowledge, have never even been able to accuse them of any such behavior. But a statement of merely potential disobedience to as yet non-existent papal commands looks like a very meager basis on which to build a case for schism!

2. Secondly, it is arbitrary and illogical to argue that since c. 751 doesn’t say that “withdrawal of submission” to the Roman Pontiff has to be total in order to qualify as schism, partial withdrawal therefore suffices for that offence to be committed. With equal or greater plausibility one could argue that since the canon doesn’t say that partial withdrawal of submission is enough to qualify as schism, we should presume that the withdrawal has to be total or radical in order for that offence to be committed. I say, “with equal or greater plausibility,” because this more lenient interpretation of c. 751 would be much more in harmony with a venerable canonical principle which reflects the charity of Holy Mother Church, in her desire to extend to her at times wayward children the benefit of the doubt, whenever a relevant doubt exists. This principle (which the critics of Resist seem to ignore) is expressed in c. 18 of the Code: “Laws which impose a penalty . . . are to be interpreted strictly.”[2] The word “strictly” here does not mean “severely,” as an uninitiated reader might suppose. On the contrary, a “strict” definition of any term will necessarily cover a smaller number, or a narrower range, of specific instances than a more “broad” or “general” definition of the same term. Accordingly, c. 18 means that whenever a penal law should require interpretation — as does c. 1364, §1 in prescribing excommunication for “schism” — the correct interpretation will be that which employs a strict, rather than a broad or general, definition of the offence specified in that law. The practical effect is that only those sorts of actions which clearly and indisputably qualify as instances of the offence are understood to violate the law in question.

A well-known application of this principle occurred a decade ago, when a group of traditionalist Catholics in Hawaii arranged for a bishop of the Society of St. Pius X to come and administer Confirmation to their children. Since the Holy See had declared this man excommunicated, and since the Pope had warned that others who associated themselves to the said Society would also partake in the “schism”, the Bishop of Honolulu and his canonical advisers judged that the said traditionalists, by their action, had lapsed latae sententiae into schism. So the Bishop issued a decree declaring the excommunication of these people. However, the traditionalists appealed this decision to the Holy See — and won! The Bishop’s decision was overturned by Rome — evidently in the light of c. 18, among other possible considerations.

3. Thirdly, the preceding canon (c. 17) should also have been given more careful attention by those who claim that Resist is a schismatic declaration. This canon states that when there remains some obscurity in the meaning of a law, “there must be recourse [on the part of the interpreter] to parallel places, if there be any, to the purposes and circumstances of the law, and to the mind of the legislator.” Now, as regards “parallel places,” there are no canons other than 751 that set out to explain what schism is. However, there are plenty of canons — twenty-nine of them, according to my reckoning, between c. 1365 and c. 1397 — which clearly, although implicitly, explain what schism is not. So for present purposes these can certainly serve as “parallel places” in the Code. I refer to all those canons which prescribe lesser penalties than excommunication for multiple forms of disobedience to laws promulgated by the Supreme Pontiff. Since schism does incur excommunication, it follows logically that there are multiple forms of disobedience to the Supreme Pontiff which do not reach the very grave level of schism.

So if those who think Resist schismatic want to persevere with the claim that even partial “withdrawal of submission” (i.e., disobedience) to the Pope can be enough to qualify materially as schism, then the burden of proof will plainly be on them to find some canons in the Code which make it clear, explicitly or implicitly, as to just where the line is to be drawn between those graver forms of “partial withdrawal” which qualify as schism, and those lesser forms which don’t. But I submit that they will find it impossible to do this, if for no other reason than that schism is not even mentioned in any canons other than the two which we have already examined.

A concrete example will be helpful here. Many readers will remember that for twelve years, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre defied the Holy See’s declaration that he was suspended from the exercise of his priestly and episcopal functions, and yet was never accused by Rome of schism, or excommunicated. He offered Mass daily and ordained groups of priests for the SSPX every year from 1976 (when he was suspended) until 1988, but was never accused of, or penalized for, the offence of schism until the latter year, when he illicitly consecrated four bishops. Gutierrez’ reference to Lefebvre seems to imply that the latter was schismatic even before 1988; but the fact is that before that year, the Holy See’s own expert canonists were unable to find any offence committed by the Archbishop which, according to their reading of canon law, would either qualify as schism, or merit excommunication for some other reason.

4. Finally, canon 17 also stipulates, as we noted above, that in interpreting a given canon, one should have recourse “to the mind of the legislator.” Now, in the case of c. 751 it is manifest that the mind of the legislator is to follow closely the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas; for the definition of schism in that canon follows very closely that of the Angelic Doctor in the Summa Theologiæ, IIa IIæ, Q. 39, a.1: “schismatics are those who refuse to be subject to the Roman Pontiff and who refuse communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”[3] So the fuller context of this definition in the Summa itself is obviously highly pertinent for an exact interpretation of c. 751.

St. Thomas in fact makes it very clear that schism is not just any kind of disobedience. In this article he is showing that schism is really a distinct sin from other sins, and one of the objections to this position is that since schismatics are those “who do not obey the Church” (qui Ecclesiæ non obediunt), and since all kinds of sins involve some disobedience to the Church, there is not really any specific difference between schism and other offences. Aquinas replies (Q. 39, a.1, ad 2) that the essence of schism is in “rebelliously disobeying [the Church’s] commandments. I say ‘rebelliously’ because the schismatic shows obstinate scorn for the Church’s commandments and refuses to submit to her judgment. Not every sinner does that; and so not every sin is schism.” The concrete examples given by Aquinas make it clear that he means ‘rebelliously’ here in the strict sense of the term, as when subjects reject completely the authority of the lawful leader over them. He refers (Q. 39, a 2.1) to the incident recorded in the Book of Numbers, when Korah, Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth in punishment for their total rejection of Moses’ leadership, in a spirit of ‘democracy’ (“Power to the people!”). We read in Nm 16: 3 that these men “held an assembly against Moses and Aaron, to whom they said, ‘Enough from you! The whole community, all of them, are holy; the Lord is in their midst. Why then should you set yourself over the Lord’s congregation?’” (my emphasis). It was clearly Moses’ whole leadership as such that was being challenged by the rebels. St. Thomas, in the same place, also mentions the example of the ten northern tribes of Israel, who completely separated themselves from the south at the death of Solomon, with Jeroboam and his followers rejecting totally the authority of Rehoboam, king of Judah (I Kings 12: 26-33).

All the approved theologians after St. Thomas follow the same criterion. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, which I do not think anyone will accuse of being too liberal or ‘soft on schism’, affirms that: “not every disobedience is schism; in order to possess this character it must include besides the transgression of the commands of superiors, denial of their Divine right to command” (vol. 13, p. 529a, s.v. “Schism”, my emphasis). Likewise, the magisterial Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (DTC), possibly the greatest compendium of orthodox Catholic theology ever assembled, explains as follows the difference between heresy and schism. (This is my own translation from the French and the quoted Latin original of Cajetan, with my emphasis)

Schism and disobedience: The two things are so evidently similar, so closely related, that many confuse the two, or find difficulty in distinguishing them. . . . Cajetan [in commenting on the passage from St. Thomas we have considered above] makes some very neat and satisfying precisions. He distinguishes three points of application, or three possible motives for disobedience. First, disobedience might concern simply the matter of the thing commanded, without calling in question the authority or even the personal calibre of the superior: thus, if I eat meat on Friday because I don’t like fish, that is not schism, but simple disobedience. Secondly, the disobedience might focus on the person who holds authority, denying for one reason or another his competence in some particular case, or judging him to be mistaken, . . . while still respecting his office. This still is not schism. . . . Schism does occur when someone . . . ‘rejects a command or judgment of the Pope by reason of his very office, not recognising him as a superior, even while believing that he is’ (cum quis papæ præceptum vel judicium ex parte officii sui recusat, non recognoscens eum ut superiorem, quamvis hoc credat).

It is worth noting, in passing, that Omar Gutierrez’ superficial understanding of canon law, and of St. Thomas, leads him into the error, warned against here by Cajetan and the DTC, of supposing that the second of the three types of disobedience mentioned above is grave enough to constitute schism. Gutierrez asserts that “a schismatic can claim that the Pope may have the right to command but has commanded poorly. Fr. Feeney did this very thing.” (Mr. Gutierrez errs yet again — historically this time — in supposing that schism was the reason given by the Vatican for the excommunication of the late Fr. Leonard Feeney. He was excommunicated rather for “grave disobedience”, after persistently refusing to go to Rome, at the command of the Holy See in the name of the Pope, in order to be examined in regard to his doctrinal views.)

The last clause in the above citation form DTC — “even while believing that he is [a lawful superior]”— might at first seem to make Cajetan’s definition of schism self-contradictory. But in fact, his evident intention in this clause is to make it clear that he is here talking about formal schism. In other words, material schism is committed by all those — and only those — who completely reject the authority as such of a lawful superior. But the offence becomes formal only in the case of those who do so with malice, i.e., knowing in their own heart that the superior in question is in fact lawful, but nonetheless refusing absolutely to submit to his authority in any way. Thus, someone born and brought up as, say, a Russian Orthodox Christian, who has never heard a positive word — perhaps nothing at all — about the Roman Pontiff and his role in the Church, would be a clear example of a merely material schismatic: malice could certainly not be presumed in such a person.


In the light of the foregoing discussion, I would conclude by simply summing up the consensus of all authoritative Catholic theologians and canonists. That is, the only kind of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff which constitutes even material schism is one which the authors of Resist (and other traditionalists who share their position) have certainly not fallen into, namely, that total repudiation of the Pope’s authority wherein one denies — at least by one’s actions, and probably in most cases by explicit affirmations as well — one’s own duty to obey anything at all which he might command. Then, in order for the schism to be formal as well as material (and therefore culpable before God), it would be necessary for the offender to be acting not in good conscience, that is, out of invincible ignorance of the Pope’s divine right to command, but rather, out of pride or passion which leads him to suppress and deny the Pope’s jurisdiction over himself, while knowing deep down that he is committing a sin in doing so.

Finally, I would like to suggest that it would be more accurate to translate the key expression in c. 751, subiectionis detrectatio a little more literally than “withdrawal of submission” (found in the 1983 Collins edition). The 1999 Canon Law Society of America edition has “refusal of submission”, but in the light of our observations which have shown that the “mind of the legislator” is to follow the Thomistic tradition in defining schism, I think it would be better to replace “submission” (for subiectionis) by the stronger word “subjection.” In English we speak of someone being ‘a subject of’ a certain civil ruler or ecclesiastical superior, with the understanding that he might disobey such a superior — perhaps in a gravely sinful manner — while still recognizing himself to be ‘subject to’ — i.e., ‘a subject of’— the authority in question. An English translation of c. 751 which defined schism as “refusal of subjection”, or “refusal to be subject”, to the Supreme Pontiff, would therefore be an accurate rendition of the Latin.


[1] This citation, and all others mentioned below in this article, are from Gutierrez’ article “Deceit, Sleight of Hand, and Ferrawood’s ‘Logic’”, The Wanderer, May 15, 2003, p. 9.

[2] This legal norm does not apply technically to c. 751, because the latter canon does not itself “impose a penalty”. However it is the basis for c. 1364 §1, which imposes the extreme penalty of excommunication, and so c. 751 should, at the very least, be understood in the spirit of c. 18.

[3] “Et ideo schismatici dicuntur qui subesse renuunt Summo Pontifici, et qui membris Ecclesiæ ei subiectis communicare recusant.” The 1917 Code (c. 1325) followed this definition even more exactly, reproducing it word for word, except that St. Thomas’ “and” was replaced by “or.”