St. Paul uses the term schism (σχίσμα, literally, a split, crack, or tear) metaphorically to designate the coteries and factions plaguing the Church at Corinth (1 Cor1.10; 11.18; 12.25). These rival parties, arising from personality cults within the community (1 Cor 1.12), menaced the Church's unity but did not fracture it. Hence the Pauline use of schism, while providing the remote background for the later introduction of the term into the Christian vocabulary, does not yet bear a specifically Christian sense.
Fathers of the Church. Insofar as the Fathers distinguish schism from heresy, schism means any sinful splitting off of a group from the Catholic Church without, however, manifest heterodoxy as yet worsening the division. Schism is a sinful breach of Church Communion, at once orthodox and collective. St. Isidore of Seville passed on to the Middle Ages this understanding of schism, which he in turn had quarried from St. Augustine. "For together with the same worship and rites schism has the same faith as the rest; what it delights in is simply the division of the congregation" (Etymologiae 8.3.5; Patrologia Latina 82:297). Isidore noted that the practical posture of schism is often a puritan or rigorist separatism, embraced to escape the contagion of the unclean. For this general view of schism, see Augustine, Fid. et symb. 10.21, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum 41:27; C. Gaud. 2.9.10, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum 53:267.
St. Jerome held that schism, begun as an orthodox breach of communion, is so unstable that it will, if continued, wind up in heresy. "There is no schism," he wrote, "which does not invent some heresy for itself in order to justify its departure from the Church" (In Titum 3.10–11; Patrologia Latina 26:598). Augustine shared Jerome's viewpoint; indeed, he would seemingly go farther than Jerome in this direction and reduce the difference between schism and heresy to a question of degree and not of kind. Arguing against the Donatist Cresconius, Augustine held that some kind of wrongheadedness or error is at the root of schism (C. Cresc. 2.7.9, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum 52:367). Donatists, so Augustine reasoned, split off from the Church because they interpreted the Scriptures wrongly, not entering into the true sense of the prophecies bearing on the nature of Christ's Church. This attitude, which sees error either at the root of schism, or else quickly supervening, may explain in part why the Fathers were often incurious about distinguishing schism and heresy.
To the Fathers the great malice of schism was the abandonment of the one Body of Christ in defiance of the one Spirit of Christ, with the setting up of a rival altar and a rival Eucharist, focusing another assembly of believers which could be only a counterfeit communion.
Scholastic Theology. St. Thomas Aquinas, treating schism from the viewpoint of a moralist, defined it as a gravely sinful act directly and essentially opposed "to the unity of ecclesiastical charity" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 39.1 ad 3), a charity that "unites the whole Church in the unity of the Spirit" (ibid. corp.). Schism by its nature aims at violating "the fraternal grace by which the members of the Church are united" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 14.2 ad 4). St. Thomas considered the unity of communion that schism outrages in two integrated factors: (1) the communion of the members, one with another, in the interdependence of common life and (2) the dependence of the members on the Head—i.e, Christ invisibly, and the hierarchy visibly and vicariously—as regulating the common life of the members (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 39.1). St. Thomas also noted that schism tends to form a countercommunion, a church apart, challenging the unique role of the Catholic Church:" schismatics … wish to form by themselves a particular church" (In 4 sent. 13.2.1).
Cajetan, commenting on Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 39.1, emphasized that the Holy Spirit moves all members of the Body to "act as parts of the one whole" and to act "for the good of the one whole and in accord with the one whole." One becomes a schismatic in rebelliously flouting the precise union that the Holy Spirit brings into being by inspiring all the members to act in love as parts of the one Body. A schismatic who "refuses to act as a part of the Church" becomes a pseudo-whole, a "kind of a whole apart," over against the true whole that is the Catholic Church.
Schism is then a rebellious defiance of the brotherly love in the Christian community that the NT calls philadelphia (ἡ φιλαδελφία). The Eucharist, "the Sacrament of ecclesiastical unity" (St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 3a, 80.5 ad 2), is the sign-reality in which each member is fully made a part and fully acts as a part of the whole Body. The unity of communion in love, from which schism segregates itself, is in its central focus and reality a unity of Eucharistic Communion, hierarchically directed and dispensed.
The Code of Canon Law defines schism as "the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (Codex iuris canonici 751). In light of Vatican Council II, it is evident that the term is applied canonically only to those baptized or later received into the Catholic Church. It does not apply to persons born and baptized into communions that are separated from the Catholic Church (Unitatis redintegratio 3).
See Also: apostasy; branch theory of the church; communion of saints; mystical body of christ; soul of the church; unicity of the church; unity of faith; unity of the church.
Bibliography: y. m. j. congar, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50) 14.2:1286–1312. c. maurer, in g. kittel, Theoligisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament 7:959–965. m. meinertz, "Σχίσμα und αἵρεσις im Neuen Testament," Biblische Zeitschrift 1 (1957) 114–118. s. l. greenslade, Schism in the Early Church (New York 1953). j. dupont, "Le Schisme d'après Saint Paul," in l. beauduin, L'Église et les églises, 1054–1954, 2 v. (Chevetogne 1954–55) 1: 111–127. m. pontet, "La Notion de schisme d'après Saint Augustin," ibid., 1:163–180.
[f. x. lawlor/eds.]
A schism (saṃghabheda) is defined as occurring when nine fully ordained monks leave a community together, as a result of dissent, and perform their own communal services apart. If the number is less than nine, there is ‘dissent’ rather than schism. To cause a schism maliciously or from selfish motives is considered a grave offence and one destined for swift retribution (anantārya).
schism / ˈs(k)izəm/ • n. a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief. ∎ the formal separation of a church into two churches or the secession of a group owing to doctrinal and other differences. ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French scisme, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek skhisma ‘cleft,’ from skhizein ‘to split.’
So schismatic XIV (sb.) — (O)F. — ecclL. — ecclGr. schismatical XVI.