The Sin of Schism

Mohammed by Salvador Dali

I’m still working my way through Anthony Esolen’s excellent translation of Dante’s Inferno, and have walked through the ninth ditch of Malebolge–which holds the schismatics. They are tortured by being split in half by a demonic sword. It’s a harsh image and Esolen captures the earthy Italian of Dante describing one of the schismatic souls as a barrel with the “midstave split apart…so burst wide from the chin severed down to where we fart.” Yucch.

It is interesting that Dante puts Mohammed and his son Ali into the circle of schismatics. He follows the medieval understanding of Islam as a Christian schism. The imagery is violent because schism eventually leads to violence. Notice the violence of Islam. Notice the violence of the wars of religion and centuries of revolution and bloodshed after the Protestant Revolution in Europe. When Christendom is broken heads must roll.

As usual, in Dante’s vision the punishment fits the crime. Schismatics sin against unity and so they themselves are split asunder, and as usual, the visual and violent imagery that Dante uses reflects an inner, psychological and spiritual reality. Schism splits us asunder. It divides the church. It divides families. It divides communities. It divides the individual. We cannot have unity within ourselves if we are out of unity with one another and with Christ’s church.

Schism, in all its forms, is simple assumption that “I know best.” My own opinion becomes the truth. My own Biblical interpretation becomes dogma. My own limited understanding becomes the benchmark for all knowledge. My own private interpretation or personal revelation is the only truth and all the truth. The kind of individualism which our society exalts is simply the sin of schism writ large. Each man and each woman a law unto themselves with no unifying factor, no unifying belief, no unifying set of morality, no unifying authority structure.

The result of this schism for the individual is modern man’s search for identity–his search for a soul. We don’t know who we are, so consequently we make an image for ourselves. We are ‘self made men’ and proud of it. We try on different persona. We re-invent ourselves. We are cut off from the source of unity and we suffer from an inner schism which has become a chasm of emptiness within.

On a societal level (and I feel this living in the USA) we are just as divided and broken, with no real shared sense of religion, values or goals. We have no shared culture. It is visible in the shallow, diffuse and superficial American society. It seems that nothing is real. Nothing has an inner integrity. When you go down the shopping street it is like Disneyland. Here a Mexican restaurant made to look like a hacienda. There an Italian restaurant which is a fake Tuscan villa. Here a church built in Gothic style and next to it a fake neo classical style church. The schismatic society is one big smorgasbord of quality and trash all thrown together buffet style for each individual to sample and then move on to the next artificial experience.

These are surface observances from a schismatic society. We’re split up into millions of little groups with no real connections between them. We’re a confederation of contradictions: ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups, broken families, broken lives–all the result of schism and a flight from unity. In fact, the only thing these groups seem to have in common is a shared hatred of any authority or any system that might provide unity in the midst of sectarian chaos.

This is why, increasingly, my Catholic faith is so vitally important. There is nothing else in this modern society which can give anyone a connection with the deepest sources of unity. All other religions are themselves schismatic and sectarian. No other philosophy or culture can transcend all the plethora of divisions except the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith provides the source of unity for the individual and the society. We draw together around the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith and this leads us to an inner unity as individuals, but as each individual approaches unity they also come closer to one another, and so societal unity begins to come about.

This is difficult to articulate, but I realize that through the unity of the Mass, through the unity of the church, by being part of one flock following one shepherd, my own tendency to schism and individualism is corrected. There is a deep sense in which, the more I make a loving submission to the church, the less I matter, and the more I am being gathered up into a far greater cosmic unity than I could ever have imagined.

This unity obliterates my shallow individualism, but it does not obliterate my personality. Instead it fulfills my personality. Instead of being in pieces it brings me to a place of peace. Searching for, and living in the Unity brings me at last to the place I ought to be. This is one of the greatest and unexpected blessing of becoming a Catholic–that I am called to mover further up and further in to the Unity. Bit by bit I take my place within the ranks of the blessed and find “my peace in his will.”

I do not profess to have attained this, I feel like I have only begun the journey, but at least I believe I can see the destination.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06223235205492924930 Anil Wang

    I could not agree more, but I have a sense that God is using that disunity for his purposes. Look at cultures like India and China and Islamic countries. They have unity by fiat and have been resistant to even consider the Catholic faith because of that unity. The "I decide truth" issue has affected even these cultures and now there is an openness to other religions that was not there before. True, the traditionalists of these faiths aren't going down without a fight, but because these faiths are not built upon the rock, these faiths will crumble after the storm of relativism does its worst. The Catholic faith will remain as the last refuge, even if it suffers some loss in the process.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01178165138739188063 Tiberian

    Took me nearly 25 yrs of being a Catholic for this to sink in:"This is difficult to articulate, but I realize that through the unity of the Mass, through the unity of the church, by being part of one flock following one shepherd, my own tendency to schism and individualism is corrected. There is a deep sense in which, the more I make a loving submission to the church, the less I matter, and the more I am being gathered up into a far greater cosmic unity than I could ever have imagined."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05336781734419554046 broken

    Wow! You are a mystery to me just when i arrogantly believe i've got you figured out. I have often thought schism starts from within. Perhaps it started with Adam and Eve. I started to notice a few years back how disconnected people are from themselves. It seems to be getting worse. It is rare to find an integrated person. In fact i'm not sure if a completely integrated person exists. I believe we have moments of wholeness and clarity. Some more than others. Adoration is where i have experienced union within myself and with others. I identified it as communion. A glorious moment. A taste of heaven. It happened one other time while singing with my brothers and sisters in Christ @ Mass. Maybe to heal schism each individual must heal the schism within themselves through the power of Christ.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14833922604348675477 Tina

    Very well said, Fr. Dwight. I don't believe that perfect unity will exist before heaven; even our Lord Himself didn't bring that. As you mentioned, it starts within ourselves, which is always a work in progress and everyone at a different place.Thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12905007433015127062 Chilly Guess

    I just bought the three books (inferno, Purgatory, Heaven) (Asolen translation), waiting eagerly for them to arrive! :) Alongside LOTR these two literatures are probably must read for any creative artists wanting to draw on their Catholic faith in their works, IMHO.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08872352849483919650 peskemom

    Bingo Father! I feel the exact same way at Mass. I belong to the largest parish in San Diego and it is a blend of 3 distinct ethnic communities. At every single Mass, daily or on Sunday I see repeated before me the glorious vision of John in Revelation: people of every nation, and language and color…coming together as brothers and sisters at the Celebration of Mass and receiving Communion as One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church. It touches my heart each and every time. The Catholic Church truly is ONE.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05477541734518550697 Judy

    Excellent article; thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    "midstave split apart…so burst wide from the chin severed down to where we fart." reminds me of 'Horatio at the Bridge' and the 'Song of Roland.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02082723705687057148 justamouse

    Wow. There was a day while I was yet a Protestant, where I looked at the 33k denominations and asked God how many more? How is this right? How is this right? Look at what pride has done. And that was the day I started to turn back to the RCC.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16751516602395247675 Randy

    It does make one wonder. As a protestant I seriously wondered whether schism was sin. Actually the question I asked was when was it sinful and when was it good. Kind of like a just war or maybe a divorce. You want to avoid it but there are times when it is right. The idea that schism is never right is hard to even contemplate for a protestant. The sin goes so deep you cannot even imagine life without it. Pride is like that. It is the sin we most easily justify.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14729612779930162079 Dymphna

    "On a societal level (and I feel this living in the USA) we are just as divided and broken, with no real shared sense of religion, values or goals. We have no shared culture. It is visible in the shallow, diffuse and superficial American society." You are absolutely right, Father. Whatever tiny amount of shared culture we had 50 years ago when we all watched the same television programs and trusted what we heard on the news, is now gone, each of us searching for something individual. As flawed as the people in the Church sometimes are, Catholicism is the only thing that makes sense and truly unifies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11740482509910163332 Gail F

    Broken: Perhaps you would enjoy Walker Percy's quirky but profound little book "Lost in the Cosmos," which is about how people are disconnected from themselves and the only answer is God and the Church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16699227938165106710 Little Black Sambo

    … the shallow, diffuse and superficial American society …There is surely a job waiting for you at the BBC.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06686111088550049221 Alex Zimmerman

    This comment has been removed by the author.


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