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Could a pope be in schism?

Canonical commentators new and especially old are wont to observe that schism, while conceivable in a ‘pure’ form, is in practice almost always bound up with a heresy.

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Concerns that Pope Francis could cause a schism in the Church have been percolating in Catholic circles for some time now: US Catholic,CruxInside the VaticanThe Spectator. More recently, though, a narrower and more technical question has begun to surface, namely, whether a pope himself could be in schism. Following are some initial thoughts on that question.

Canon 751 of the 1983 Code defines schism as “the refusal [detractatio] of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” The first thing to notice here is that schism is defined as a rupture between two persons (a schismatic and the pope qua pope) or as between a person and an institution (a schismatic and a Church enjoying communion with the pope). The Code does not recognize, say, ‘schism from Tradition’ or ‘schism from doctrine’ as schism, even if one’s discord with Tradition or doctrine prompts one’s act of schism.

Schism is, of course, a grave crime under Canon 1364 but, for a variety of reasons (incl. 1983 CIC 331 and 1404) the prosecution of an allegedly criminous pope is not possible and, even if a trial were possible, it is difficult to see how a pope could steadfastly and consistently refuse submission to himself or how one could steadfastly and consistently refuse communion with Churches in communion with himself—at least in any externally observable way as is necessary per Canon 1330. Pio-Benedictine law on schism (1917 CIC 1325 § 2) read virtually identically to the current law, but I’ve seen nothing yet that suggests its commentators had found a way for popes themselves to commit the crime of schism. Note that in the Catholic World Report interview linked above, Cdl. Burke answered  a question about the possibility of a pope being “in schism or heresy” affirmatively only in terms of heresy, not in terms of schismWhich brings us to the next point.

Canonical commentators new and especially old are wont to observe that schism, while conceivable in a ‘pure’ form, is in practice almost always bound up with a heresy, chiefly, it seems, with some variant on the notion that the Church never was, or at any rate no longer is, the Church that Christ founded; in other words, a bad ecclesiology could fester into a heresy strictly speaking (again, 1983 CIC 751 olim 1917 CIC 1325 § 2) and said heresy could in turn manifest itself in a state of schism. Canonical literature, as I and others have noted, finds the possibly of a pope falling into personal (or worse, public) heresy possible if not very plausible—meaning that such a scenario is one among others that centuries of daily Catholic prayers for the pope are offered to prevent.

Bottom-line: as to the specific possibility of a pope himself committing (as opposed to, Deus vetet, causing or occasioning in others) the crime of schism—I’m not seeing it.

About Edward N. Peters 81 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

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