Membership of the Church: Part IV – Schism & Excommunication


In the first three parts of this series, we have seen that:

  1. The Catholic Church is a perpetually visible society which must therefore consist of members whose identity is discernible by the senses;
  2. The sacrament of baptism is necessary and sufficient for constituting an individual as both a subject and a member of the Catholic Church; and
  3. Authority is the formal element of the Church and consequently all the baptised who, in a fundamental way, refuse submission to the legitimate authority of the Church cease to be members, while nonetheless remaining subjects. 

In particular, in Part III, we examined the problem of public heretics and saw that as a result of their refusal to submit to the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church they separate themselves from membership of her visible body.

In the fourth part of this series, we will examine the question of those who (i) refuse submission to the governing authority of the Church, that is, public schismatics and (ii) those who are excluded from membership by the lawful authority of the Church by sentence of excommunication.

It is recommended that readers familiarise themselves with the arguments presented in the first three parts, as the conclusions reached in those articles are assumed in what follows below. In particular, this part takes for granted what is demonstrated in part III regarding authority as the formal element of the Church.  

Image above: Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter

Authority the formal element of the Church

In Part III of this series we saw that authority is the formal element of the Church. 

We may summarise briefly:

  • Every society is established for the attainment of some good end.
  • The Church and the State are perfect societies which possess all the means necessary to attain their proper ends.
  • The State acts for the common good of some particular community, with reference to man’s natural end. The Church acts for the common of good of all mankind, with reference to man’s supernatural end. 
  • Every society consists of a material element – its members – and a formal element – the union of wills towards the common end.
  • There can be no lasting union of wills towards a common end unless a society is directed to that end by authority. 
  • Therefore, “practically speaking, authority is the formal element of every society since it is authority that preserves and strengthens all the bonds by which members are held together.”[1]
  • In the Catholic Church, Our Lord Jesus Christ exercises a threefold authority – of teaching, governing and sanctifying – through His Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and the bishops in communion with him. 

In Part III we established that the rejection of the teaching authority of Christ – exercised by the ecclesiastical hierarchy – is incompatible with membership of the Church. He who departs from the visible unity of faith departs also from the visible body of the Church.

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Public schismatics are not members of the Church

The Catholic Church, subject to the threefold authority of Christ, enjoys a threefold unity: unity of worship, unity of faith and unity of government.

As Rev. Sylvester Hunter S.J explains, the “necessity of unity of government” follows from “the existence of the Church as a visible organised society”.[2]

He continues:

“It follows from the nature of a society that there must be some government to direct the members to the end and if there is more than one supreme governor recognising subjection to no one, there is more than one society: there is nothing to give unity to these governors.”[3]

The “form of government established by Christ in the Church is monarchical, the Roman Pontiff being the Monarch”.[4]

As a heretic separates himself from the Church by refusing submission to the teaching authority of the Church, so does the schismatic by his refusal of submission to the governing authority of the Church.

This is the teaching of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Mystici Corporis Christi (our emphasis):

“Only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed… As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.”[5]

The Supreme Pontiff continued:

“Not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.”[6] 

The nature of schism

St Thomas Aquinas defined schism in the following manner:

“Schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy.”[7]

This must be so because:

“The unity of the Church consists in two things; namely, in the mutual connection or communion of the members of the Church, and again in the subordination of all the members of the Church to the one head… Now this Head is Christ Himself, Whose viceregent in the Church is the Sovereign Pontiff.”[8]

The “sin of schism” asserts St Thomas “is one that is directly and essentially opposed to unity”.[9]

There are forms of disobedience to legitimate authority which do not comprise rejection of the authority itself. Hunter writes:

“The sin of schism specially so called is committed by one who, being baptised, by a public and formal act renounces subjection to the governors of the Church; also by one who formally and publicly takes part in any public religious worship which is set up in rivalry of that of the Church. It is not an act of schism to refuse obedience to a law or precept of the Supreme Pontiff, or other ecclesiastical Superior, provided this refusal does not amount to a disclaimer of all subjection to him…”[10]

Doubtful Authorities

Hunter continues by pointing out that one has no obligation to obey a purported superior if there is some reasonable doubt of his position:

“If there be any doubt of his authority, as when two or more persons have plausible claims to the position”.[11]

In their commentary on the 1917 Code of Canon Law Wernz and Vidal explain this point with reference to the papacy:

“The ancient authors everywhere admitted the axiom, ‘Papa dubius est papa nullus’, [A doubtful pope is no pope] and applied it to solve the difficulties which arose from the Great Western Schism. Now this axiom could have several meanings. […]

“Jurisdiction is essentially a relation between a superior who has the right to obedience and a subject who has the duty of obeying. Now when one of the parties to this relationship is wanting, the other necessarily ceases to exist also, as is plain from the nature of the relationship. However, if a pope is truly and permanently doubtful, the duty of obedience cannot exist towards him on the part of any subject. […]

“The same conclusion is confirmed on the basis of the visibility of the Church. For the visibility of the Church consists in the fact that she possesses such signs and identifying marks that, when moral diligence is used, she can be recognised and discerned, especially on the part of her legitimate officers.

“But in the supposition we are considering, the pope cannot be found even after diligent examination. The conclusion is therefore correct that such a doubtful pope is not the proper head of the visible Church instituted by Christ. Nor is such a doubtful pope any less compatible with the unity of the Church, which would be in the highest degree prejudiced in the case of the body being perfectly separated from its head. For a doubtful pope has no right of commanding and therefore there is no obligation of obedience on the part of the faithful. Hence in such a case the head would be perfectly separated from the rest of the body of the Church”[12]

However, one who claims to exercise an office he does not possess, may himself be a schismatic, as Hunter explains:

“Formal schism may be committed by one who claims to exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction which has not been conferred upon him by proper authority.”[13]   

Lessons of the Great Western Schism regarding material disunity and doubtful authorities

The Great Western Schism, when there were two, and at times three, claimants to the Roman Pontificate, illustrates the difference between the sin of schism and the consequences of doubt regarding the identity of a superior. Rev. Joachim Salaverri explained as follows:

“For, during those controversies, when all were trying to discover who in fact really was the legitimate successor of St. Peter so that all might give him the obedience due to him, there was no formal schism or one coming from an attitude of secession; in fact there was not even a material schism in the proper sense”.[14]

Further discussion of this “schism” will shed some light on the situation in which the Church finds herself today, when members of the Church – that is the baptised, who publicly profess the Catholic faith and are submissive to legitimate authority (where it can be identified) – are often divided from each other, often with mutual recriminations and even accusations of schism. 

The so-called schism lasted from 1378 until 1417, and throughout that time the Church was “divided” between obedience to two competing papal claimants, based in Rome and Avignon respectively. From 1409 there was also a third claimant. 

This crisis raises important questions about the unity of the Church’s government, which as we have already seen in part I, can never be lost.

Theologians have, broadly speaking, proposed three solutions to this problem:

  • The adherents of the false claimants were formal schismatics and were thus separated from the unity of the Church.
  • The adherents of the false claimants were materially schismatic but not formally schismatic, and – according to these theologians – material schism did not suffice to separate them from the unity of the Church.
  • The adherents of the false claimants were neither formally nor materially schismatic as they fully intended to be submissive to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff. They were however factually mistaken as to which of the claimants was truly pope.  Thus, they were not separated from the unity of the Church.   

Of these theories the third is the most convincing. 

As Salaverri writes (emphasis as in the original):

“The so-called Western Schism cannot be said to be a formal and proper schism, because, according to the ancient notion of schism which St. Thomas has trans­mitted to us in his Summa, more than a hundred years before the beginning of the so-called Western Schism; he says that in the proper sense ‘schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy.’ Now at that time no one refused to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and in fact everyone was trying to find out who really was the legitimate Sovereign Pontiff, so that they could be obedient to him. Therefore there was not a voluntary separation from unity, but merely a disagreement concerning a question of fact, namely, whether this man or that man was the true Sovereign Pontiff. This controversy surely obscured the visibility of unity, but it by no means destroyed it, because it openly revealed the desire for unity common to all. It was like the situa­tion in a Kingdom, during a struggle and civil war among factions disputing about the legitimate successor, when no one says that the Kingdom itself is divided or that the visibility of unity has disappeared; rather, the situation is that the various factions of one and the same Kingdom are fighting over the legitimacy of the person who should legally be ruling over them.”[15]

So, in the Church today disagreement among Catholics regarding the present vacancy of the Holy See, and other aspects of the crisis, while surely obscuring the visible unity of the Church, does not destroy it. There is not necessarily more than an apparent disunity of government amongst those who disagree about certain questions relating to the current crisis.

 Theological note of this doctrine

Mgr Van Noort summarises the teaching of Catholic theologians on this question:

Public schismatics are not members of the Church. They are not members because by their own action they sever themselves from the unity of Catholic communion. The term Catholic communion, as used here, signifies both cohesion with the entire body catholic (unity of worship, etc.), and union with the visible head of the Church (unity of government).”[16]

As in the case of heresy:

“it makes no difference whether a person who breaks the bonds of Catholic communion does so in good faith, or in bad; in either case he ceases to be a member of the Church. The innocence or guilt of the parties involved is purely an internal matter, purely a matter of conscience; it has no direct bearing on the question of one of the external and social bonds requisite for membership.”[17]

He concludes:

“(1) It is certain, that a public, formal schismatic is not a member of the Church; (2) it is the more common and more probable opinion that a public, material schismatic is not a member of the Church.”[18]

See Part III for further discussion of this question. What we say there of the distinctions between public and occult heretics, and formal and material heretics, applies also to the question of schismatics.[19]


Pope Pius XII taught:

“Only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed”.[20]

Just as individuals can separate themselves from the Church by heresy or schism, so the Church can separate individuals from her visible body by her own authority. She does this through excommunication:

“An excommunication is a censure or penalty whereby a delinquent or obstinate person is excluded from the communion of the faithful, until after abandoning his contumacy he is absolved.”[21]

 Van Noort explains:

“Excommunicated people, unlike schismatics, are separated from the unity of Catholic communion not directly by their own action, but by the judgment of ecclesiastical authority. For the rulers of the Church, like the rulers of any other genuine society, have the right to cut off obstinately rebellious members and to separate them from the social body until they come to their senses again.”[22]

He continues:

“This exclusion from the body-unity, brought about by the sentence of ecclesiastical authority, can be total or only partial. A member may be prevented from exercising a few or even many of the rights which belong to him as a member in that society, without being erased from membership. That is why there have been in the past, and still are, various degrees of excommunication. Excommunicated people are to be divided into two main classes: tolerated excommunicates and to-be-shunned excommunicates. […]

“Concerning membership of the Church, the more probable opinion is that to-be-shunned excommunicates are excluded from membership in the Church; tolerated excommunicates – provided no condemnatory or declaratory sentence has been passed on them – seem to remain members of the Church. One point to be noted is that it must be clearly shown in the decree of the Apostolic See that the Church intends to cut off such persons from Church membership.

“That the Church has the right and the power to deprive men of membership in the Church is clear from the fact of its constitution as a perfect society.”[23]


We may summarise parts II, III and IV of our series on membership of the Church with the following words of the Catechism of the Council of Trent:

“There are three classes of persons excluded from the Church’s pale: infidels, her­etics and schismatics, and excommunicated persons. Infidels are outside the Church be­cause they never belonged to, and never knew the Church, and were never made partak­ers of any of her Sacraments. Heretics and schismatics are excluded from the Church, because they have separated from her and belong to her only as deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted. It is not, however, to be denied that they are still subject to the jurisdiction of the Church, inasmuch as they may be called before her tri­bunals, punished and anathematized. Finally, excommunicated persons are not member of the Church, because they have been cut off by her sentence from the number of her children and belong not to her communion until they repent. But with regard to the rest, however wicked and evil they may be, it is certain that they still belong to the Church.”[24]

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[1] Rev E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise(Mount St Mary’s Seminary, 1955), p6. [As Amazon Associates the WM Review earns on all book purchases through Amazon)

[2] Rev. Sylvester Joseph Hunter S.J., Outlines of Dogmatic Theology(London, 1896), No. 224. 

[3] Hunter, Outlines, No. 224.

[4] Hunter, Outlines, No. 200.

[5] Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis Christi, No. 224.

[6] Pope Pius XII, MCC, No. 23.

[7] ST II.II q.39 a.1.

[8] ST II.II q.39 a.1.

[9] ST II.II q.39 a.1.

[10] Hunter, Outlines, No. 216.

[11] Hunter, Outlines, No. 216.

[12] F.X. Wernz S.J & P. Vidal S.J., Ius Canonicum, No. 445; translation as found in “Archbishop Lefebvre and the Conciliar Popes”, John Lane (2012),

[13] Hunter, Outlines, No. 216.

[14] Rev Joachim Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IBp432-33.

[15] Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, 

[16] Mgr G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Volume II: Christ’s Church, (6th edition, 1957trans. Castelot & Murphy), p243.

[17] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p244.

[18] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p244.

[19] “A schismatic is someone who, after receiving Baptism, refuses to submit to the Supreme Pontiff or refuses to communicate with the members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy. A schismatic person can also be material or formal, occult or manifest, private or public. The definitions of these various types are the same as those we just gave about heretics, but by replacing the notion of a heretic with that of a schismatic.”  Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, p423.

[20] Pope Pius XII, MCC, No. 22.

[21] Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, p423.

[22] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p244.

[23] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p245.

[24] Catechism of the Council of Trent as quoted in Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, p426-27.

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