Why is denial of the primacy of the bishop of Rome considered a Schism, not a Heresy?

Disclaimer: I'm interesting only in authoritative answer according to the Roman Catholic Doctrine.

The Papal primacy is essentially dogma of Roman Catholic Church. So why are those who deny this dogma (say, Orthodox Church officials) not formally considered as heretics?

  • Thank you, I've seen this question. But answers are still very blur. I see here some kind of contradiction in term of "heresy".
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 17:41
  • "Papal primacy" as defined by the Roman Catholic Church is rejected by the entire Orthodox Church, not just certain "Orthodox Church officials".
    – user22553
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 19:41
  • @Andremoniy What do you mean "a fantasy"??? I was just trying to help your question make a little more sense. Doctrines can be heretical, but only people can be schismatics.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 7:40
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    @curiousdannii Cathechism is official doctrinal document of Catholic Church. If my question totally relates to Roman-Catholic vision of the problem, so it is naturally understand that all terms used in my question belong to this doctrine.
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:26

3 Answers 3


According to Canon law, it is technically both:

Can. 751 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. - Code of Canon Law

However, an arguable effect of JOINT CATHOLIC-ORTHODOX DECLARATION OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI AND THE ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH ATHENAGORAS I is that it is no longer appropriate to affix the label "heretic" across the schismatic divide:

...in common agreement, declare that:


B. They likewise regret and remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed these events, the memory of which has influenced actions up to our day and has hindered closer relations in charity; and they commit these excommunications to oblivion. [emphasis added]

  • Thank you for your answer, but it is still not fully clear: 1) can really this agreement override Code of Canon Law (in this part)? 2) if it does, so how can be possible that somebody obstinately denies some particular dogma and isn't considered as heretic? Doesn't it abolish this particular dogma itself?
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 17:40
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    It's not in the "authorative answer" class that you were wanting, but there are two main reasons it isn't done: 1) historically the schism pre-dates the dogma - retrospective application of a ruling is a denial of natural justice. 2) the RCC has an interest in healing schisms if at all possible. When it seeks "closer relations in charity", tefraining from applying the label "heretic" to "separated brethren" serves that end. Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 18:03
  • This is very interesting idea about pre-dating dogma, thanks.
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 18:05
  • The document you quote refers to the specific excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius by Cardinal Humbert, and of Cardinal Humbert and his fellow legates by the Patriarch, and not to some general reconciliation. The 1054 excommunications were a key event in the division between the See of Rome and the four Sees of the east, but it was not the only point of dispute. Starting from before the 1054 Schism and extending to today, much theology has emerged in the Roman Catholic Church that is, in fact, viewed as heretical by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    – user22553
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 1:17
  • And again, I don't quite understand: if somebody at present time, let's say some Orthodox priest/bishop, denies Papal primacy, is he considered as heretic?
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 7:33

St. Thomas Aquinas answers this well in Summa Theologica II-II q. 39 a. 1 ("Whether schism is a special sin?") ad 3:

heresy is essentially opposed to faith, while schism is essentially opposed to the unity of ecclesiastical charity. Wherefore just as faith and charity are different virtues, although whoever lacks faith lacks charity, so too schism and heresy are different vices, although whoever is a heretic is also a schismatic, but not conversely. This is what Jerome says in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians [In Ep. ad Tit. iii, 10]:

I consider the difference between schism and heresy to be that heresy holds false doctrine while schism severs a man from the Church.
Nevertheless, just as the loss of charity is the road to the loss of faith, according to 1 Tim. 1:6: "From which things," i.e. charity and the like, "some going astray, are turned aside into vain babbling," so too, schism is the road to heresy. Wherefore Jerome adds (In Ep. ad Tit. iii, 10) that
at the outset it is possible, in a certain respect, to find a difference between schism and heresy: yet there is no schism that does not devise some heresy for itself, that it may appear to have had a reason for separating from the Church.

  • In other words, you're saying, they are schismatic rather than heretical because their main point is to separate from the Church; any heretical doctrine they espouse is essentially in service of this desire. Yes? Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 3:19
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    @MattGutting Yes, usually schism comes first, then they invent heresy to rationalize their schism.
    – Geremia
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 15:47
  • I don't quite understand: if somebody at present time, let's say some Orthodox priest/bishop, denies Papal primacy, is he considered as heretic?
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 7:33
  • @Andremoniy Yes, denial of papal primacy is a heresy. The First Vatican Council (Pastor Æternus ch. 4) said: "If any one, therefore, shall say that blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of all the Apostles and the visible Head of the whole Church Militant; or that the same directly and immediately received from the same our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honor only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema" (anathema sit), viz., he is a heretic, excommunicated.
    – Geremia
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 13:57

Refusal of submission to the Bishop of Rome is schism, not heresy, because the nature of schism and heresy are different.

Heresy always entails proposing a false doctrine, or else denying or (expressly and persistently) doubting the truth of a doctrine that must be believed. As other posters have pointed out, the Code of Canon Law defines heresy as

the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith (Can. 751).

Schism, on the other hand, means a wilful separation from the Church:

schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him (ibid.).

Schism does not necessarily entail false doctrine or the denial (or doubt) of true doctrine; therefore, it does not necessarily imply heresy.

For example, most sedevacantist groups (those who deny that the current Pope is legitimate) do not deny that there is a Petrine office (which would be a heresy); they merely say that the current claimant to that office is illegitimate.

It should be observed, regarding heresy, that a distinction should be made between material heresy and formal heresy. The former occurs whenever someone affirms a doctrine that, objectively speaking, is false (contrary to a doctrine that must be held with divine and Catholic faith), or else denies or doubts one that is true.

Formal heresy, however, only occurs when this affirmation, denial, or doubt is wilful.

For example, I think it is unlikely that the vast majority of Protestants have committed formal heresy, even though Catholics would consider some of the doctrines they affirm to be materially heretical.

The Catholic Church would consider a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church who denies the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (which would be a material heresy) in a similar light.

Having said that, the Eastern Orthodox Church remains fully orthodox in essentially all of the most fundamental doctrines (Trinitarian theology*, Christology, sacraments, etc.). For this reason the situation of the Eastern Orthodox Church is, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, more schismatic than (materially) heretical.

Note that, in order for a person to incur the censure of heresy or schism (which is what this canon contemplates), he must be formally a member of the Catholic Church. That does not apply, evidently, either to Protestants or to the Orthodox.

* The Catholic Church considers the Eastern Orthodox fully orthodox in Trinitarian theology, notwithstanding the controversy over the Filioque. Regarding this, I suggest reading my answer to the question What are the theological implications of “filioque”?, which explains more fully.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. "Filioque" actually isn't serious splitting argument between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. There are orthodox theologians who explains why "filioque" is not heresy from orthodox point of view.
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:29
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    So, do I correctly understand, that if some Orthodox person (let say bishop or priest) denies Papal primacy, he can not be considered as heretic because he doesn't belong to Catholic Church?
    – Andremoniy
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:31
  • You might underestimate how many Protestants wilfully reject the primacy of the Bishop of Rome ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:32
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    @Andremoniy The Filioque is, unfortunately, still a bone of contention. However, I agree that, theologically speaking, there is complementarity, not contradiction, between the Eastern and Western approaches to the Trinity. Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:33
  • @Andremoniy Regarding the Orthodox, they cannot incur the censure of heresy. (Whether they are formally heretical or not depends on each one. If they are simply repeating what they have always been taught, I would say no.) Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 8:35

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