On Sept. 10, while flying back to Rome from his apostolic visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, Pope Francis was asked about schism in the church, and he replied: “There always is the schismatic option in the church,” and said, “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom. I am not afraid of schism … I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.”
With that in mind, we may ask, what is a schism? And two further questions: Where does the pope think that this possible “schism” is coming from, and why would he say he is “not afraid of schism”?
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Schism (from the Greek schisma, rent, division) is, in the language of theology and canon law, the rupture of ecclesiastical union and unity, i.e. either the act by which one of the faithful severs as far as in him lies the ties which bind him to the social organization of the Church and make him a member of the mystical body of Christ, or the state of dissociation or separation which is the result of that act.”
There have been several schisms in the history of the church, and all of them have been serious. The schisms have resulted in the Orthodox Church, the Avignon Papacy, the various sects of Protestantism and more recently, after Vatican II, a movement begun by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Schism is a wound on the Mystical Body of Christ, a blemish on the beautiful Bride of Christ and, at its essence, an attack on the People of God.
Second, who is “behind” this schism? Well, it’s not that simple. In his press conference, Pope Francis didn’t blame “the Americans” exclusively as some in the Catholic and the secular press have reported. The Vatican’s press office also later clarified that Pope Francis didn’t mean all U.S. citizens when he said that he was “honored” by all the criticism that comes from “the Americans.”
In fact, the pope added: “Criticism comes not only from the Americans; they’re coming from all over, including the Curia.”
Third, the Holy Father stated that he is “not afraid” of schism. Nor should he be, because, as the old expression goes: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia,” or “Where Peter is, there is the church.” The pope is the visible sign of unity in the church. He is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, on whom the Lord built his church. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” states:
“The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.
“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
It is God’s church, and we are under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The flock needs a faithful and courageous shepherd, and the shepherd needs an obedient flock. Pray for the unity of the church.