During the pontificate of John Paul II there were recurring complaints that the pope too liberally tolerated heresy within the Catholic Church. Prominent laypeople, priests, and even some bishops advocated practices and beliefs contrary to the Church’s teachings, yet JPII rarely cracked down on such offenses. The pope’s defenders, however, argued that JPII was doing so in order to avoid a formal schism. If he too quickly punished those who advocated heresy, the argument went, then an even worse schism would rupture the Church.
This tension between tolerating heresy or tolerating schism has been with the Church since the beginning, and Church leaders have always had to tolerate one or the other when dealing with those members who promote something against the teachings of the Church. Pope John Paul II obviously leaned towards tolerating heresy more than schism, and in doing so, he stayed within the more common Western tradition. But this is not the way of the East; in fact, if you look at the history of the Church, a general rule of thumb has been that the West tolerates heresy more than schism, and the East tolerates schism more than heresy.
The very names that have been associated with the Church in the East and the West support this rule. The Church in the West has been known as the “Catholic” Church: “catholic” means “universal” and emphasizes the unity of the Body of Christ throughout the world. The Church in the East has been known as the “Orthodox” Church; “orthodox” means “right belief” and emphasizes the correct teachings of the church. Although there are obviously exceptions, this has been the path taken by each throughout the centuries: the Catholic Church has tolerated heresy in its ranks more liberally, but the Orthodox churches have endured more internal schisms than the West. This also partially explains the fact that the drive for reunification between East and West has mostly originated in the West: we are more willing to endure varied beliefs between us for the cause of unity, but the East is more adamant that our beliefs align fully before we talk unity (for example, note the differing receptions between the East and West to the Council of Florence).
Ecclesiology (the theological understanding of the Church) is the fundamental reason for these different perspectives. In the West, the Church is most often seen as a worldwide Body – each diocese is “part” of the one, universal Church. But in the East, each diocese is seen as the “whole,” even “catholic” (which can also mean “full”) church, and the universal Church is the communion of all these local, “catholic” churches. In fact, it is common to use the singular for the “Catholic Church” but the plural for the “Orthodox churches,” reflecting this essential difference in our understanding of what the Church is. So for a Western Christian, the rupture of one part of the Church is a horrendous calamity, but in the East, even if a part of the Church were to go into schism, one’s diocese still fulfills the meaning of being the “catholic” Church.
So, which way is better? Which should the Church tolerate more: schism or heresy? In an ideal (i.e. unfallen) world, neither would need to be tolerated, as neither would exist. But in our fallen world, both do exist and both must be addressed by the Church. For those of us who live in the West and have seen heresy rampant at times among our ranks, it is easy to long for a stricter stand by the hierarchy, schism be damned. But schism is a terrible breach in the Body of Christ, one that often has a long-lasting impact (consider the fact that two of the greatest schisms of the Church – the Nestorian and Monophysite schisms [both Eastern schisms] – are over 1,500 years old). It is too easy to have an attitude of “let them leave, they aren’t Catholic anyway,” but one must realize that a formal schism has the possibility of institutionalizing heresy or at least non-communion for endless generations to come. Of course, tolerating heresy has its limits as well, for what good is it to be in visible communion if we no longer confess “one Faith?”
Ultimately, the Church abhors both heresy and schism and does everything it can to avoid either. In each case the Church hierarchy must do all it can to avoid schism as well as avoid heretical beliefs or practices taking hold within the Church. As members of the Body of Christ, we must pray fervently for our leaders that when such situations arise they follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in doing all they can to resolve both heretical teachings and schismatic tendencies.