“Heresy,” “apostasy,” “schism.” Do these words seem foreign to you?
They may seem antiquated and medieval; like they represent something the Church used to be, but has long since abandoned.
If that’s what you think, you may be surprised to learn that all three are officially recognized and defined in both the current Catechism and the Code of Canon Law.
These things are still sins – and serious ones at that!
Here’s how the Church defines them:
Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.
Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith.
Schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. (CIC 751; CCC 2089)
There are a few important things to note here.
First, these apply to people “after the reception of baptism.” So, e.g., someone who is not a baptized Christian cannot be a heretic by denying a truth of the Christian faith.
Second, notice that heresy requires “obstinate” denial or doubt of a truth of the faith. If a Christian denies a truth of the faith, e.g., out of ignorance, they are not guilty of heresy.
In such a case, the Church makes a distinction between what’s called material heresy and formal heresy. Material heresy is when a person denies a truth of the faith, though they may or may not be culpable. Formal heresy is when a person denies a truth of the faith and is culpable.
For example, most Catholics, if you asked them enough theological questions, probably believe some material heresy (the Catholic faith is complicated!). They are probably not formal heretics, however, since their material heresy is probably simply due to ignorance. You can’t commit these sins on accident.
Why are these things so bad?
Because committing any of them is ultimately a rejection of Jesus!
God has definitively revealed himself through Jesus Christ. This revelation has been passed down to us in Scripture and Tradition, which is guarded and interpreted by the Catholic Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. So heresy, or denying the truths of the faith presented by the Church, is ultimately a rejection of God.
This also explains why apostasy, or repudiating the entirety of the Christian faith, is a rejection of God.
Finally, schism is a rejection of Christ because schism is a rejection of the Church that was established by Christ, the Church that is, in a mystical fashion, the Body of Christ.
So if a person is guilty of one of these sins, what does it mean for them?
Since these sins are certainly grave matter, if they are committed with full knowledge and full intentionality, they are mortal sins and endanger a person’s salvation. To return to a state of grace, the person needs to confess their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and receive absolution.
Further, they might also incur automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication. Canon law says: “An apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” (CIC 1364)
For this to happen, though, canon law has a few other conditions, which include: the person must know they were breaking canon law, the person must be at least 16 years old, the person must have the use of their reason, etc (cf. CIC 1321ff).
The bottom line, however, is this:
If you are a baptized Christian, you should hold fast to the teachings of the Church, keep practicing the faith, and maintain unity with your bishop and especially the Pope.
Doing anything less is abandoning Christ and his Church!
[See also: “The Very Necessary Minimum”: The Forgotten “Precepts of the Church”]
[See also: Parents, I Need You: A Heartfelt Letter From a Catholic School Priest]