In fire safety classes, we’re told about the four1 conditions necessary for a fire to start: Fuel, Heat, Oxygen, and Flashpoint or Ignition. They call it a fire tetrahedron. Without all four conditions, you don’t have a fire. I bring this up because, as I study ecclesial history and the writings of those who wound up separated from the Catholic Church, I’ve noticed that the schismatic movements have similar things in common that brought them about, regardless of what era they took place in. Like a fire, there needs to be four conditions to set a a schism rolling. Using the tetrahedron as an analogy, these things seem to be*:
- Fuel: Some sort of real or perceived scandal that angers a large percentage of the Catholic population in the region where the schism occurs.
- Heat: Some sort of demagogue or symbolic figure who is at odds with the Church on one or more issues.
- Oxygen: A misrepresentation or misunderstanding of what the Catholic Church teaches.
- Combustion or Flashpoint: A point that causes the break in trusting the Church.
Let’s look at each of these:
A Real or Perceived Scandal
The Church, which Our Lord entrusted to sinful human beings, will always have scandals that anger the faithful. Some of these are real scandals. Others are things perceived to be scandals, but are not. The difference between the two is, with a real scandal, the Church needs to clean it up—justly—the sooner the better. The perceived scandal is when the Church has done nothing wrong, but people in some part of the Church think she is to blame for something that has gone wrong. The tricky part is understanding the difference. The Church must discern the two, and deal with it appropriately.
A real scandal is something like the current clerical abuse scandal. It needs to be cleaned up. A perceived scandal is not a scandal, but some people wrongly attack the Church over it. Fr. Adrian Fortescue describes how Photius stirred up a schism in the 9th century by an admixture of condemning differing customs (points 1-2) and stating falsehoods about the disciplines of the Latin Rite which were never imposed on the East (points 3-5):
There are five points: 1. The Latins make the Bulgars fast on Saturday (so they do: that was then the universal custom in the Roman Patriarchate). 2. They eat butter, milk, and cheese during the first week of Lent (that is: we do not begin Lent till Ash Wednesday, whereas the Byzantines do on Quinquagesima Monday). 3. They despised married priests and thereby show themselves to be infected with Manichæan error. 4. They do not acknowledge Confirmation administered by a priest. 5. They have changed and corrupted the Creed by adding to it the Filioque. The doctrine that the Holy Ghost proceeds from God the Father and God the Son he described as “godless, atheistic, and blasphemous.” Photius then declares: “We, by the decree of our holy synod, have therefore condemned these forerunners of apostasy, these servants of Antichrist who deserve a thousand deaths, these liars and fighters against God … and we have solemnly excommunicated them.”
(Fortescue, Adrian. The Orthodox Eastern Church, p. 153)
While the Church must avoid laxity in scandals (the corruption scandals that were fuel for the Protestant Revolt were tragically neglected until they became one of the rallying points), she must also avoid scapegoating or surrendering acts of teaching and governance. If it turns out that the public outrage is directed at something that is not the fault of the Church (usually, this comes over a misperception over what the real problems are), the Church needs to oppose the mob.
Every schism has a leading figure people look to who is at odds with the Church and refuses to admit error when challenged. Some of these demagogues are heretics who obstinately reject what the Church teaches, claiming that she fell into error and until she follows the heresiarch, the Church will remain in error. Others accept the teachings of the Church but reject those who shepherd her, denying their authority or sacramental validity, giving authority to their preferred leaders instead. Patristic era heresies include the Arians and Nestorians. Patristic era schisms include the Novatians and Donatists.
Both heretical and schismatic demagogues provide the heat to go along with the fuel of real and perceived scandal, and the oxygen of misinformation, raising the danger of schism. The more of the other conditions exist in the Church, the more influence the demagogue is likely to have. Luther probably wouldn’t have gotten far if resentments hadn’t made him seem like a potential cure. He wasn’t, but the fact that he was speaking against abuses led people to accept his claims that they existed because of “errors” in Church teaching.
Here we need to make a distinction between a demagogue and a legitimate reformer in the Church. The former eventually rejects the Church (whether by formal schism or simply refusing obedience) if the Church should say something they propose is wrong, and tries to lead others to follow their vision. The latter accepts and obeys the Church when she says a proposal is incompatible with the Church teaching and proposes reform while obedient in response.
The Misinterpretation/Misrepresentation (or Rash Judgment/Outright Lies)
I should start by warning against taking an analogy too far. In the literal sense, Oxygen is something essential for life. In the sense of this analogy, it is only used as one of the things needed for a fire to exist.
The oxygen the fire of schism needs is misinformation# that leads people to think it is an unjust institution instead of the Body of Christ. When there is a movement aimed at undermining the teaching of the Church, it’s not enough for those who lead the movement to say, “this is what we believe.” They have to undermine the Church which tells the demagogue and his followers that their view is false. They don’t do this by saying “the Church teaches X this way, but we think X should be taught that way. You decide for yourself.” Instead, they tend to describe the Church teaching in the worst way possible, accusing the Church of holding errors because the Church doesn’t side with them. In the schisms that exist (Orthodox, Protestant, etc.), the Catholic teaching is misunderstood or misrepresented in such a way that makes us look diabolical while the Catholic reading their claims can only say “what in the hell are you talking about?”
One example is Martin Luther. It was not enough for him to say that he disagreed with the Catholic Church and thought our teaching on the Mass and the Sacrament of Penance was wrong. He had to misrepresent them as purely human institutions invented for corrupt purposes2—saying things the Catholic Church never believed, taking documents out of context to “prove” his point.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of nonsense of this type among Catholics too. When we see Catholics state that a Pope or Council intended to “make the Church Protestant” (actual Protestants I have talked to are puzzled by that claim, recognizing that our teachings and the Ordinary Form of the Mass are nothing like their beliefs and practices), it shows that misinformation is more widely believed than the actual teaching of the Church. Pope Francis is widely accused of “reversing” Church teaching and welcoming “pagan practices” when both claims are based on misinformation.
One can see a lot of this online. I routinely encounter Catholics who tell me to “open my eyes” or say that I’m refusing to consider the “truth” of their position. The problem is, what these Catholics cite as “proof” is misinformation. What they describe is a distortion of the truth. I don’t know what percentage has read but misunderstood what the Pope has taught, what percentage has decided to misrepresent what they dislike, and what percentage is merely “the blind following the blind.” This is why I try to avoid assuming bad will on the part of those I encounter. But the accusations are false. There are a lot of these falsehoods out there, regardless of the motivation. They lead the people astray. Combined with the other aspects discussed, it can cause a dispute to become a conflagration.
Refusal to Believe that the Church teaches with God’s authority and protection
The above three points will always be found in different ways and times in the Church. We’ll always have to deal with scandal, with people at odds with the Church, and with Catholics believing falsehoods about the Church. But the fuel, heat, and oxygen are not enough to have a fire, although if all three are present, we are in grave risk of the fire of schism if the flashpoint is introduced to the mix. That flashpoint is the refusal to accept the Church under the visible head, the Pope, as teaching with the authority given by Christ and protected by error. They might try to argue that they support “the Papacy, but not this Pope” (as Hans Urs von Balthasar warned against3) but Pius XI reminds us:
22. Faith in the Church cannot stand pure and true without the support of faith in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The same moment when Peter, in the presence of all the Apostles and disciples, confesses his faith in Christ, Son of the Living God, the answer he received in reward for his faith and his confession was the word that built the Church, the only Church of Christ, on the rock of Peter (Matt. 16:18). Thus was sealed the connection between the faith in Christ, the Church and the Primacy. True and lawful authority is invariably a bond of unity, a source of strength, a guarantee against division and ruin, a pledge for the future: and this is verified in the deepest and sublimest sense, when that authority, as in the case of the Church, and the Church alone, is sealed by the promise and the guidance of the Holy Ghost and His irresistible support.
Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, #22
We need to make a distinction here. Having a difficulty understanding how something the Church teaches fits in with what actions one sees or with what one thinks Scripture or Church documents say is not the problem if he strives to recognize where he got it wrong. It’s when we say “I’m not wrong, the Church is wrong,” refusing to trust the authority of the Church that comes from the Catholic Church being the Church established by Christ and protected by Him when the Church goes against what we think it should do. If one reaches that point, they risk making a shipwreck of their faith.
We certainly have evidence of bad men becoming Popes in history yet, upon becoming Popes, suddenly refused to carry out the errors they were inclined to do before their election. Consider the case of Pope Vigilius who actually helped get his predecessor exiled and killed with the understanding that when he became Pope, he would return heretical bishops to their sees. But once he became Pope, the Liber Pontificalis tells us he stood up for the Church and would not carry out his task:
But Vigilius replied: “Far be this from me, Lady Augusta. I spoke beforetime wrongly and foolishly; now I do assuredly refuse to restore a man who is a heretic and under the anathema. Although unworthy, I am the vicar of blessed Peter, the apostle, as were my predecessors, the most holy Agapitus and Silverius, who condemned him.”
People trying to discredit Pope Francis by claiming a Pope can teach error should consider this case. In a real case of corruption with the intention to enable heretics, God appears to have prevented him from going ahead with his pre-papal plan, even though he was imprisoned for his refusal. If God should prevent this, isn’t it foolish to think that He would permit a Pope to teach errors?
What these critics don’t seem to consider is that while Popes can change discipline depending on the needs of the Church in a certain time (so a successor could change a discipline enacted by Pope Francis) the Church in communion with the Pope is protected from teaching error. If truth was sometimes found in Rome, sometimes in Constantinople, sometimes in Econe, we could never know for certain when THE CHURCH was teaching truly in any instance. If one would reject Pope Francis when he teaches, why not St. Pius V? If one would reject Vatican II, why not Trent, or even Nicea?
I call this part the flashpoint because of how it interacts with the other elements. This element views the scandals with hopelessness and treats the magisterium as an enemy instead of approaching scandals something to pray about. It looks at the demagogue and thinks “maybe he has a point in his attacks on the Church.” It assumes that the false information about the Church must be true. The person who loses sight of the fact that the Catholic Church, under the Pope as visible head, teaches with Christ’s authority and protection will be tempted to view whatever problems that exist in the Church as places where “the Church is wrong and I am right.”
The Fire of Schism
Each of these conditions are serious and the Church needs to work to eliminate them—the sooner the better. But the existence of up to any three of conditions will not cause a schism. There have always been scandals in the Church or people who wrongly believe that something they don’t understand is a scandal. There have always been demagogues at odds with the Church. There have always been misunderstanding and falsehoods about Church teaching. And there have always been people who lost faith in the Church. But it seems that schism is usually present only when all four conditions are present. The demagogue exploits real scandals or invents false ones. The faithful misunderstand or fall for misrepresentation about the Church. And, even though we have the obligation to trust and obey the Church, under the the headship of the Pope (see canon 752), some of the faithful, facing these problems decide they can’t trust the Church anymore until it becomes what they think the Church should be.
And then you get a schism. Schisms have happened throughout Church history. We need to prevent them and heal those that do start. Not because the Church will fail without those who leave (the Church survived previous schism, and will survive any future schism). But because Jesus doesn’t want us to be satisfied with the 99 sheep who didn’t stray. We need to bring back the 100th. Moreover, the efforts of the Church to go out to the whole world is hampered by the division as she must expend effort to bring back to the fold those who strayed.
Whither the Church today?
Since I’ve been speaking out against anti-Francis Catholics since 2013, and have on occasion expressed concern about schism, you may wonder how I view the state of the Church today under these categories. My opinion is we have three of the four conditions present: the fuel (scandal), the oxygen (falsehoods), and the flashpoint (a loss of belief in what the Church is). What I think we lack is a demagogue. Yes, there are people who refuse obedience to the Church, insisting the Church errs. But we don’t have an Arius or a Nestorius. We don’t have a Luther or a Calvin. We don’t even have a Lefebvre. We do have4 grossly irresponsible websites that are run by disgruntled Catholics who might have the will, but their influence is small. We do have4 some highly placed Churchmen who might have the following and have (in my opinion) used rhetoric I think is imprudent to the point of recklessness, but these Churchmen don’t seem to will an all out conflict with the Pope (though some of their followers from the irresponsible websites seem willing to follow them if they would give the word, thinking it only a matter of time5).
If a schism should come from this quarter, I don’t think it would happen during the pontificate of Pope Francis (though I could be wrong). I think it would happen in the pontificate of his successor who upheld Pope Francis and moved forward on the same path. This would be the end of their false hope that the Church would “go back” to the way that they prefer. If they would not recognize their own error, they might be led to abandon the fiction of “just the Pope’s erroneous opinion,” “prudential judgment,” or the like, but instead of repenting, they risk outright denying that God protects His Church. And then they are in grave danger.
So, that being said, what should we do? First, I think we should look at ourselves. Are we in any danger of making a shipwreck of our faith? We might think not, but I suspect nobody ever joined a schism unless they harbored resentment and defiance that rose from these conditions. We should pray and study that we might understand and remain in full communion with the Church—which means giving religious submission of intellect and will to the Pope, even in the darkest of times. Second, I think we can’t be silent when misinformation, perceived scandals or demagogues shake the faithful. And third, we should pray for those who are struggling, that they might not become demagogues or fall into the traps. After that, we need to have faith in God to protect His Church, come what may.
[*] Assigning these categories to specific elements needed for fire is largely arbitrary. I could have just as easily applied “oxygen” (for example) to scandal as to misinformation. So please don’t draw more from these classifications than convenient illustrations.
 There used to be three. I remember in the Cub Scouts, they used an image of a tripod needing three sides to stand. Modern safety classes now include “ignition” as a fourth condition. It kills the analogy, but is more accurate. That’s why you see signs warning about fire danger in the summer: three out of four conditions are present, waiting only for the ignition.
[#] To clarify the interchangeable usage: The unintentional spread of misinformation can be classified as misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The deliberate spread of misinformation is misrepresentation. But whatever the intent, if what someone spreads is false, it’s misinformation.
 For one example, see (though I don’t recommend it) The Babylonian Captivity. I leave it to God to judge what Luther’s culpability might be, but whether from misunderstanding or misrepresentation, his charges were falsehoods, tragically still believed by anti-Catholics.
 from The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church:
“The papacy but not this pope” is a further step. Beginning with Gerson, Gallicanism attempted this step (with the best of intentions, theologically) by trying to differentiate between the sedes, which is indefectible, and the sedens, who is not. This approach was mistaken and impracticable from the outset, as de Maistre pointed out. Gasser, in his final address at Vatican I, emphasized that infallibility is not a prerogative of an abstract papacy but of the pope actually reigning.
 As usual, no names in these cases. I leave it to God to assess the culpability of individuals. I just try to point out dangers.
 This is why I am cautious about joining in on the attacks some defenders of the Pope make against these high ranking Churchmen. Since some supporters of the Pope misrepresent him to bolster their own ideology, it’s possible that these Churchmen’s supporters are doing the same. I might say on my blog Facebook page that I fear that Cardinal X’s words are dangerous, but I try to avoid violating the Golden Rule in doing so.
That doesn’t mean I give a free pass to what they do say. I recall favoring one cardinal to become Pope in 2013 (I had never heard of Cardinal Bergoglio then), but the experience of the past six years leads me to believe he would not have been a good choice.
Fire image: Adobe Stock