Schism, Excommunication and the Catholic Church

The cases of Archbishop Carlo Viganò and a community of Poor Clares from Spain have shined the spotlight on canonical penalties in canon law.

Schism has been in the news lately: Recent headlines include the former nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò having been summoned to Rome to answer formal charges of schism; and a community of Poor Clare nuns in Belorado, Spain, who have been declared excommunicated by their local bishop because they have “incurred schism.”

But what is schism?

Most fundamentally, schism is a canonical crime. It is important to note that while the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law is based on faith and morals, it is still a legal system rather than a purely moral one. That is, canon law is practically ordered to the good governance of the institutional Church, setting the stage for the faithful to have the proper environment to grow closer to God, rather than directly setting out the principles for a good relationship with the Lord. So, while all canonical crimes are sins, not every sin is a crime in canon law. Generally, sins are put into law as canonical crimes when they more outwardly affect sacramental discipline or the good governance of the Church.

Canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law tells us that schism “is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” This is in contrast with heresy, which the same canon defines as “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” It is also different from the crime of “total repudiation of the Christian faith,” which we call “apostasy.”

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