How easily, even cavalierly, the critics of traditional Catholicism, and paradoxically, even a few traditional Catholics themselves, will bandy about the words "schism" and "schismatic" at each other, often I think, without the slightest inkling of what the word really means and entails. It would be a serious charge indeed, were there any substance to it. Would we be so ready to call the police and accuse each other of murder, grand theft, or child molestation? Yet schism is far more serious than murder, grand theft, and child molestation put together.
The common definition for the word has two parts to it, one being a refusal to submit to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, and the other being a refusal to associate in spiritual fellowship with others who are subject to the Supreme Pontiff. The latter part of that definition is actually more ancient and basic, and one cannot really understand the word without focusing first on that part. Later on, we will circle around back to the first part and show where it fits in, and why it is mentioned first in that definition.
So, starting with the part of the definition of schism as being a refusal to associate in spiritual fellowship with others who are subject to the Supreme Pontiff, what does this really mean? It means that schism, unlike heresy, is not a crime against Faith, but against Charity. Of the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity), it is Charity that Sacred Scripture holds out as the very most essential of all three (1 Corinthians 13:13).
To what extent the Virtue of Charity would be more important even than that of Faith, so is the sin against that virtue (schism) even greater than the sin against Faith (heresy). What it refers to therefore is one's refusal to get along with one's fellow Catholics, on a spiritual level.
In the early days of the Church, when schism was mentioned in the Bible, all then known schisms were between individuals, in particular, members of a particular congregation who, for whatever reason or "personality clash" or whatever, simply could not get along with each other. Furthermore, this would be on the spiritual level, that is to say each could say of the other "Heaven would not be Heavenly if that So-and-so were admitted there."
In every schism therefore, you have two (or, on rare occasions, more) "sides" where before (or ideally and properly) you would have instead a unified whole. I would now like to introduce a few distinctions, first of all between the "fact" of a schism, the "act" of schism, the "crime" of schism, and the "sin" of schism. When A cannot get along with B, you have before you a "fact" of schism. At least one of them (either one) is causing it, or perhaps both. But to speak of the mere "fact" of a schism between A and B carefully avoids placing any blame on either of them, or indeed even any assignment of causation.
The "fact" of a schism therefore requires two or more at odds with each other. It cannot exist otherwise. It refers to neither to A nor B, but to the relationship between A and B, and in particular the fact that their relationship is not good. When one starts talking about the "act" of schism, one now refers to the behaviors of A and/or B that have brought about the fact of the schism that exists between them.
A single side can commit the "act" of a schism. For example, where the "fact" of a schism exists between A and B, it could be caused by A alone, B alone, or both A and B. For example, A may refuse to have anything to do with B, but B is still perfectly willing to be friendly and supportive to A. Though the "fact" of a schism exists between A and B here, only one of them, A is actually the cause of the schism, namely by committing the "act" of schism. In that example, B might commonly feel inclined (having been snootily snubbed) to return the compliment and join in the "act" as well, but as we are beings with free wills, B has the power to avoid responding in kind, should he so choose.
But is A necessarily to blame in this scenario? Suppose his "act" of schism against B is motivated by the fact that B is a lecherous, drunken reprobate who can only get A in trouble if A is stupid enough to hang around with B. In a perverse show of satanic saintliness, B might be so bizarre as to refuse to fault A or hold anything against A as to be in no way guilty of any schism (only of being a drunken lecherous reprobate), so it is only A who commits the "act" of schism which creates the "fact" of a schism between A and B.
Obviously, in such a case, even the "act" of schism need not be a crime, in certain instances. To explore this, I must introduce another distinction. This is between an "internal" schism and an "external" schism.
The first schism ever to exist was an external schism. This occurred in the Garden of Eden when formal and permanent enmity was decreed between the "Seed of the Serpent" and the "Seed of the Woman." It is that enmity that eternally exists between God and Satan, between good and evil, between light and darkness. In Church history, the schism between the Roman Church and the East Orthodox is also an "external" schism. Granted, we all desire its healing, but so long as it exists, one side is "in" the Church and the other is "out." One side can have canonizeable saints, and the other cannot.
An internal schism is that which occurs between entirely within one side of that great external schism. When there were two and then three viable papal claimants residing in Rome and Avignon, and later Pisa, all at once, this "Western Schism" (properly now known as the First Great Western Schism, today's situation being the Second) had the Church herself divided, with canonizeable saints on all sides. It is an internal schism that existed between Paul and Barnabas, Augustine and Jerome, and Epiphanius and John Chrysostom, since each of these were saints.
So, back to the illustration of A having to separate himself from B due to B's drunken reprobate lechery, this reflects that external schism between light and darkness. With A in God and B not in God, it is right and correct that A should separate himself from B. He might still pray for B and want to help B repent and so forth, but A cannot associate with B in any manner that would allow B to lead A into sin. So here, we would have an example where an "act" of schism would not be the "crime" of schism (returning to my first distinction).
But now we move into the third basic category, that of the "crime" of schism. Whenever saints opposed saints, one (or both) committed the "act" of schism, and since it was a fellow saint equally on God's side whom they rejected, this is clearly and indisputably a show of a lack of charity on the part of whoever among them commits the "act" of schism. We see it today when Catholic A gets all snooty and says of Catholic B that B is not a Catholic and hell bound when in fact Catholic B is clearly in a state of sanctifying grace, by any objective standard. In this example, Catholic A has committed the crime of schism, and is objectively acting in error, or sin.
Very often, this must eventually lead, if not to A's repentance, then to A's departure from the Church. If B acts in a like manner, then perhaps they must both eventually be put out of the Church. But let us again suppose that B rises above that uncharitable act and continues to be a friend to A, who is his enemy. Then B remains in the bond of charity while it is A who purely separates himself. In such a separation from B, A must logically also reject all those who accept B's company, and in so doing passes across that great divide into the wrong side of that great eternal external schism. Such would indisputably be the matter of a mortal sin, i. e. a crime.
This takes us to the final category of our first distinction and that is the question of the "sin" of schism. Subjective and real guilt exists to the extent that one realizes that what they are doing constitutes the matter of a sin, their voluntary participation in it, and their unwillingness, as they come to realize what they are doing, to back down and repent of it. The "crime" of schism is only material if it is the consequence of a misunderstanding or mistake or even by one's being the victim of the maneuverings of others. It becomes formal and mortally sinful where there is no accident but that the person does intentionally desire to separate himself from another person.
So, as one can see, several things must all be present before someone can be considered sinfully guilty of the heinous crime of schism, canonically speaking:
1) There must factually exist a schism. Obviously. If everyone is totally getting along in true and full Christian charity, there is no schism.
2) A person must be the one (or at least one of those) who actually causes the schism by rejecting and refusing the company of the other, by throwing up all the walls and barriers and burning the bridges.
3) The one rejected must be unjustly rejected. To refuse the company of one who only gets one in trouble is not a crime but actually the virtue of prudence. But to refuse the company of a saint is to refuse the communion of the saints and commit the matter of a grievous mortal sin.
4) One must be knowing, willing, and pertinacious in one's participation in the crime of schism, and their sin will be measured accordingly. While it is theoretically possible that one might commit the matter of the crime of schism in complete innocence, in all known cases at least some degree of sin, at least venial, is always seen to be present.
So let us take the case of St. Joan of Arc. She had done a good and saintly deed, that which Divine Providence had somehow empowered her to do through some extraordinary miracle. Certain corrupt bishops, for selfish and political reasons, had sought her excommunication, and even decreed such. So, there was the "fact" of a schism between her and these bishops. The bishops were in this case, though personally corrupt, nevertheless legitimate bishops of the Church, thus possessing authority of this kind in the Church, and over her. However, it was not she who threw up any walls and barriers. She did all she could to remain peaceable with them, but they would have none of it. Therefore, even though there existed a schism between her and the bishops of the Church, she could not have been guilty of schism since she did not commit the act of schism. The guilt of those bishops on the other hand is quite another matter.
Moving up to today, we Traditional Catholics dare not stoop to responding in kind to the numerous and vacuous accusations hurled in our direction. We must be as Catholic B in the above last example. Leave it to THEM, the accusers, to throw up all the walls and barriers and burn all the bridges. We have nothing to fear from them for we have done no wrong. Of those in the Novus Ordo who are truly sincere and Catholic-at-heart, they really have nothing to fear from us. We merely personify and represent their deepest and fondest desire, namely to be Catholics in the fullest sense of the word.
Of course the villainous perpetrators of the Vatican II heresies most certainly DO have much to fear from us, and it is THEY who will (and must) throw up all the walls and barriers against us, and maneuver as many as are deceived by them into doing the same. But this puts the "act" of schism entirely on their side, and with it the guilt.
It is not so much us personally that the villains have to fear, but that which all know stands behind us, the Truths of the Gospel, the Holy Saints of the Church all of whom we are in full communion with, 2,000 years of Church history and a well-established and fully documented Magisterium that supports our position wholeheartedly and just as wholeheartedly rejects theirs, and most of all God Himself Whom it is that they really seek to fight.
This of course leads to another point: There is another way to be guilty of the crime of schism besides wrongfully withholding spiritual association from a fellow Catholic in good standing, indeed without seeming to be on any side at all. That is when someone whispers in the ear of A "B has been saying terrible things about you; don't let B get away with saying that about you" and then whispers in the ear of B "A has been saying terrible things about you; don't let A get away with saying that about you." Carefully done, this can easily set A and B at each other's throats even though there exists no real disagreement between them.
Such an action proves bad faith on the part of the one committing it; indeed this is precisely what is spoken of in Scripture as "sowing division." Such is intrinsically a formal "crime" and "sin" of schism. We see this frequently in the "divide and conquer" tactics used by the Church's enemies in every era. It lies at the root of the present internal schism that chews up the Church (Traditional Movement taken as a whole) today in this "Second Great Western Schism."
It is merely and purely this that keeps Bishops de Galarreta, Davila, Dolan, Fellay, Kelly, Main, McKenna, Oravec, Piverunas, Rifan, Sanborn, Tissier de Mallerais, Vezelis, Williamson, and so many others from recognizing each other as the canonical equals that they in fact are, and from cooperating together as the Church's bishops ought. Seat them all in a single room for a single hour and they would all iron out their differences. But keep them at a distance from each other and continue hurling bombs over the wall, supposedly on behalf of one as against another, and the internal schism continues.
It is so easy for those who sow division to say to us "boycott So-and-so" and given the often immense geographical distances between one and another, few of us will take the bother to go against that boycott and discover that Lo and Behold! That other group is every bit as Catholic as we ourselves. But as there comes to be more and more Traditional Catholics, and as all groups continue to grow, this geographical barrier will gradually dissolve, and this in and of itself could quite easily bring about a natural end to the current internal schism.
On rare occasions, traditional chapels answering to different bishops have happened to be in sufficiently near proximity to each other that both soon had to turn to a kind of "competition in holiness and saintliness" as that alone wins converts from one to another. And how far can such holiness and saintliness progress until they also end up treating each other in a manner that becomes saints in their holy reflection of our holy and Divine Master? By my own personal observation, relations between Mount Saint Michael's (in Spokane, Washington), representing the sedevacantist CMRI, and Immaculate Conception Priory (in Post Falls, Idaho, only 30 miles away), representing the non-sedevacantist SSPX, are at worst coolly polite and cordial and at best positively warm and friendly. Love does triumph over all, for of course against such Divine love there can be no law. Would that such localized solutions be broadened the whole world over. And it will eventually, as indeed it must.