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In various places we have pointed out the reasons why the anathema has been brought into disrepute: false irenicism, reluctance to make full use of authority, human respect, placing unity over truth.
But one factor which also plays a large role in all this is the fear of schism. The condemnation of a prominent heretic can naturally lead to a schism. His adherents, as well as many who view the anathema as medieval fanaticism, can make such a condemnation the occasion for falling away from the Church and becoming an independent sect.
But is a schism truly the greatest evil? The falling away of each individual person who ‘leaves the Church is a great evil in itself, and especially for his soul, endangering his eternal salvation. But it is much worse when, although he has lost the true faith, he remains within the Church and poisons the faithful through his influence. This is worse for him too, because he adds to the awful sin of heresy that of lying, deceiving others, abusing his dignity as a Catholic, and, in the case of a priest, abusing the trust which he possesses as a spokesman for the Church. But schism is more than the falling away of a single Catholic. It is the separation of a part of the Church from Rome, the refusal to recognize the pope as the head of the Church, the establishment of a separate, independent church.
Schism can also be coupled with an apostasy from the teaching of the Church — as, with heresies — but it need not be. There may be a separation which is not brought about by dogmatic differences. This is the case, for example, with the Orthodox Church. Only in the eleventh century did it come to a definitive separation, that is, the severance of the Eastern Church. Certainly there had also been theological differences before this. But the dogmatic distinction of “filioque” was more an excuse for the schism, which came about essentially for political reasons. This schism was a great evil, and the destruction of unity was a great catastrophe, which from a dogmatic standpoint was unnecessary. It was a pure evil.
In the case of the schism of the Reformation, on the other hand, the dogmatic differences were decisive. This was an apostasy from the depositum catholicae fidei: heresy, the greatest evil. Thus this schism, this destruction of unity, was an unavoidable, indeed necessary consequence of the heresy. In this case, it was better that a schism occur than that the heretics remain within the Church and endanger the true belief of all the faithful. It was to the great merit of the Council of Trent that it clearly emphasized the heresy of the Protestants, and that it saved the holy Church from inner disintegration. The great tragedy here lay in the heresy, and not in the schism which was connected with it. In this case it would have been incomparably worse if, for the sake of maintaining unity, one had compromised with the Protestants, if one had blurred the dogmatic division, and had thus permitted a destructive poison to remain within the organism of the Church.
Unity is of great value, but only unity in truth. This is also the only true unity. Fidelity to Divine Revelation, which is fidelity towards God, is infinitely more important than all unity.
Another view often comes up in the discussion of schism, however, which has a meaning in relation to a natural community, but which is completely irrelevant to the supernatural community of the Church. In many natural communities size plays a decisive role. The effectiveness of a political party in achieving its goal is dependent upon its size. The number of members therefore has a decisive importance for the party (but not for the individual). Its size is decisive for its power, and in this case the question of power is a highly significant factor.
But in the case of the Church the question of power in this sense becomes irrelevant. Her goal is that all men find the way to truth and to eternal beatitude. Membership in the Catholic Church is an absolute value for every individual soul, indeed the highest good on earth. When I say membership, I mean thereby integral faith in the Revelation of Christ, as it is laid down in the depositum catholicae fidei, the love for Christ, obedience to the commandments of the Church: in short, not merely the baptismal certificate. To this is added a second high value: the spreading of the Kingdom of God. The conversion of every individual is not only primarily a glorification of God and secondarily the highest good for his soul, but it is also a glorification of God through the growth of the Mystical Body of Christ.
It is a greater evil for a heretic to remain in the Church, however, than for the Church to become poorer by one member. It is better that he leave the Church, or be excluded from her by anathema or by excommunication. This is not only better from the standpoint of the Church and all the faithful, but also for the soul of the heretic, because he becomes more conscious of his apostasy from the true Faith, and can thereby possibly be brought to his senses.
The view that a natural community is weakened — indeed declines and even disintegrates — when it loses members has unfortunately crept unconsciously even into our judgment of the evil of schism, causing many compromises to be made at the expense of orthodoxy for no better reason than to avoid a decrease in size.
Are not these words of Christ true analogously for the excommunication of a heretic:
“But if thy hand or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off and throw it away! It is better for thee to enter into life crippled or lamed than to be cast into the eternal fire with two hands or feet. And if thine eye scandalize thee, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into hell with two eyes” (Mt. 18:8-10).