ASK FATHER: Can a person commit a schismatic act and not be in “full” schism? “Schroedinger’s Excommunication.”

From a reader…


Thank you for all of your wonderful, and sometimes saddening articles. They are truly a joy and blessing to read. They have helped me to educated myself in my faith better as well.

I was wondering, many times, I have heard that “a schismatic act (such as the illicit consecrations of the SSPX bishops in 1988) does not constitute full schism.” I have tried to research this, but I cannot find anything that is not written by sedevancantists, which I don’t trust to read. Therefore, assuming that the statement is true, what does an order/group/individual have to do to be in “full” schism. Can a person commit a schismatic act and not be in this “full” schism? Is there such a thing as partial schism, and should it be avoided like full schismatics (such as the orthodox?)?

If you are able to answer my questions, I would greatly appreciate it. I have a large group of friends who are also wondering. We would all appreciate understanding this topic a little better.

Once again, the problem with latae sententiae penalties.

It is hard to “understand this a little better”.  It is a question that will involve real experts and lots of research and thought and then a Lawgiver to bring clarity.  Hence, a little understanding can be a dangerous thing.

Bluntly, you are either in schism or you aren’t.  There is no partial schism.  Unfortunately, the situation is murky because people who have committed schismatic acts have not been declared to have done so by competent authority.   There is a new Book VI, about penal law, in the Code now, which helps, but it doesn’t resolve the “murk” in this case.  Hence, whatever penalties there may be for schism, most of the time they are just floating out there, like dandelion seeds waiting to land.  Or, as one of my canonist friends put it:

Schroedinger’s Excommunication.

So, what we take away from this is that people or groups can only be viewed as truly being apostates or heretics or schismatics when the competent authority of the Church declares them to be.

Therefore, with the greatest care for what preceded, an isolated act might be a schismatic act, but it really take more than that to create a true schism.   Time has to pass.  Consequences observed and weighed over time.  Verification of other acts of schism should be undertaken: a one-off is one thing, but more acts are another.

There are events in the Church that can be understood only in retrospect.  An example in the history of the Church is when Card. Humbert placed a Bull of Excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia on 16 July 1054.  Only much later was that moment taken to be break between the Latin and Eastern Churches.  It took time to assess the event and subsequent consequences.  Moreover, the mutual excommunications were lifted by Paul VI and Athenagoras nine centuries later.

John Paul II stated clearly in the 1988 Ecclesia Dei adflicta that Archbp. Lefevbre, because of the act of disobedience he made publicly in consecrating bishops without the needed mandate, committed a “schismatic act”.   He was declared by the Congregation for Bishops to have been excommunicated for the consecration and for schism.   Reasonably, one can understand the penalty for the consecration (though some argue that because he sensed himself to be compelled, he didn’t incur the penalty) but it is hard to justify the penalty for schism, because one act of schism hardly establishes a true schism.

The subsequent history of the SSPX after the consecrations in 1988 – seen fairly – shows that it was not their intention to start a new Church or to be schismatic.  Moreover, the priests of the SSPX have faculties to receive sacramental confessions.  So how does that work?

Moreover, if the faithful are admonished not to adhere to schism, it is hard to understand what adherence to schism means.  If the SSPX is truly a schism – and it is NOT – when does one “adhere”?  How?  Especially for lay people who do not seek orders from the SSPX or employment.  By going to an SSPX chapel?  Once? 100 times?  By giving money?  Once? A little?  A lot?  Murky.

People who leap to opine in the worst way about the SSPX should engage in prayers for the unity of the Church.  They should remember that the SSPX’s status has had interesting developments since 1988.  They might also include the Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
    like a child that is quieted is my soul.
 O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and for evermore.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Discipula says:

    Regarding the SSPX being in schism, I have a very simplistic line of reasoning which may, or may not, be helpful:

    The Pope would not (cannot?) give faculties to known schismatics.
    Pope Francis has given faculties to the SSPX.
    Ergo, the SSPX cannot be schismatic.

    Perhaps too simplistic, but good enough for me. I do not attend an SSPX chapel, but would not hesitate to approach one of their priests for the Sacraments if in need.

  2. OneTradMale says:


    I myself actually follow a similar line of thinking. It just makes sense. They are definitely not in schism.

    Another interesting thought that I have had is that the SSPX has been mostly “regularized” but not officially. Is it possible that they are so close to undisputable union with the Church that they are in fact, just really in union with the Church? I wonder sometimes. I think that they are so close to union that they are pretty much in union, but perhaps I am wrong.

    I, like you, do not attend an SSPX chapel, but I would have no issues if I ever had to turn to them for the Tridentine Mass or needed something else. “You shall judge them by their fruit” said Jesus. I see that the SSPX has more good fruit than most other parishes (even though they themselves are not a parish). They aren’t perfect, but neither is anyone else.
    The whole situation is so complicated, but it’s very helpful to find some clarity on the society (Thank you Fr. Z!). Some of your articles have helped me to see that I can attend an SSPX Mass if the situation ever arose. I am quite thankful for your help.

    I hope and pray that I will never have to attend the society (just in case I made an error somewhere) and that I will always have better options. Keep praying that this attack on the heart of the Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, will end soon.

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