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What does it mean to be an apostate, heretic or schismatic?
Question: How can we distinguish between those who are apostates from those who are schismatic or heretical?
— Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: These terms are related in the sense that they are all attacks to some degree on the unity of faith and the Church. But each term is also distinct. We can look at each and then make some general observations.
Schism (from the Greek schisma, a cutting or division) is the cutting off of ecclesiastical union and unity. It is the breaking of the bond of subordination to Church authority usually along with a persistent error directly opposed to a clear dogma. A person is considered a schismatic when he disregards the authority of his own bishop or by extension the pope. We can also distinguish “active” and “passive” schism. “Active schism” is understood as a detaching of oneself deliberately from the body of the Church, freely renouncing the intention to be a part of the Church. “Passive schism” refers to the condition of those whom the Church herself rejects by formal excommunication.
In the Summa Theologiae, heresy is defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, later corrupt its dogmas” (II-II:11:1). Generally it is restricting belief to certain points of Church doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure. This is what makes it heresy, because the Greek root word means “to choose.” Heresy must touch on the deposit of the Faith, that is, the body of truths revealed by God in Scripture and Tradition and proposed to our belief by the Church. The believer is called to accept the whole deposit as proposed by the Church; but the heretic accepts only certain parts that meet with his own approval.
We can also distinguish between formal and material heresy. Formal heresy is when one freely and obstinately clings to an error or false teaching even after it is called to their attention. Material heresy refers to an error regarding the Faith that one holds but is to a large degree unaware that it is an error. Many people enter into formal heresy for reasons of pride or illusions of religious zeal. Others are allured to it by political power or worldliness, preferring the world to the truth of the Gospel.
Thus heresy perverts dogma, while schism, through rebellion against the bishop or pope, separates one from the Church. Nevertheless there are few schisms which do not use heresy to justify the departure from the Church. Practically and historically, heresy and schism nearly always go hand in hand, though they are distinct.
Then we have apostasy. Apostasy in its root-Greek meaning refers to deserting one’s post. There are three kinds of apostasy. Apostasy from the Faith is when a Christian gives up his faith. And this is the most common meaning of the word. There are, however, two other kinds: apostasy ab ordine, when a cleric abandons the ecclesiastical state of holy orders, and apostasy a religion vel monachatus, when a religious leaves the religious life.
And thus we distinguish these terms.
Today there is a tendency to hear these terms freely bandied about. We must be careful, however, to remember that the formal declaration of such categories as applied to a person or group can only be made by proper ecclesial authorities. It is possible for us to realize that a certain view is heretical. For example, if one were to deny the existence of hell or assert that Jesus is a human (rather than a divine) person, we could easily say that these views are heretical. However, for a person to be formally declared a heretic requires that the Church do this by formal decree and that they personally, knowingly, obstinately persist in these views despite attempts at correction by lawful authority.
Canonists are very careful to insist that proper procedures be followed to declare one in a state of heresy, schism or apostasy. This protects both the rights and reputation of the individuals as well as the common good of the faithful.
While many Catholics are rightly troubled that discipline of any sort is rarely and selectively administered by the hierarchy, this still does not convey the right to laity and clerics of lower ranks to merely assert that someone is an apostate, heretic or schismatic. We are, to be sure, facing difficult days in the Church, and actual schisms rooted in heretical views are a real possibility. All the more reason for us to be careful not to corrupt the terms through overuse.