Our Lady of the Rosary
February AD 1996
Our Sacred Faith - Part IX
Revised: 17 March, A.D. 2001,
The fact that we can speak of "belonging to the Catholic Faith" suggests the first and most important characteristic of those who are members of the Church: they believe and profess the truths revealed by God, handed down to us through Scripture and Tradition, and taught through the authentic exercise of the Church's teaching authority or "magisterium." Pope Leo XIII tells us:
[Jesus Christ] ordained in His Church Unity of Faith; a virtue which is the first of those bonds which unite man to God, and from which we receive the name of the faithful -- one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.(2)
Such belief comes through the divine gift known as the virtue of faith. It may be strengthened through natural study and reason, but faith is ultimately a gift from God. It is a gift absolutely necessary to salvation, for, as the Apostle tells us, "without faith it is impossible to please God."(3) So dangerous is the loss of faith that Paul cautioned the Galatians not to believe any other Gospel than the one he had already conveyed to them:
"If we, or an angel from heaven preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema."(4)
"Don't believe me, don't believe an angel, don't believe anyone who is trying to take away the faith given to you by Jesus Christ." Of such a one, Paul is saying, literally, "let him be damned."
Under normal circumstances the outward expression of receiving the gift of faith is the reception of sacramental Baptism. Our Lord tied faith and Baptism together when He commissioned His apostles to:
Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned.(5)
Through Baptism, Catholics ...
... are not only born again and made members of the
Church, but being stamped with a spiritual seal they become
able and fit to receive the other Sacraments. Through the
chrism of Confirmation, the faithful are given added
strength to protect and defend the Church, their Mother, and
the faith she has given them. [Note well the obligation to
defend the Church and the Faith!]
Infants may be Baptized (and Confirmed) because their minds are not capable of denying the truths of the Faith. In the Sacraments, Christ functions through the ministry of the Church, flooding the soul with sanctifying grace; faith, hope, and charity; and the gifts of the Holy Ghost. "The sacramental rite imprints a character whenever it does not encounter the resisting obstacle of a contrary will."(7)
In his encyclical on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, Pope Pius XII enlarges on the need for orthodox belief and baptism:
Actually, only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.
Lest he be misunderstood, Pope Pius was quick to emphasize that the Church includes even sinners:
For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.(8)
As the need for receiving the Sacrament of Baptism and professing the true Faith is rather straightforward, we will examine the ways in which Pope Pius tells us that one may cut one's self off from the Church. And a bit later on we will get to exclusion "by legitimate authority for grave faults committed."
Schism or Heresy or Apostasy
Apostasy is the easiest to understand, as an apostate is one who "falls entirely away from the Christian faith."(9) The apostate simply quits the Church. The honest apostate would make no claims to being a Christian; he would say, "no, I have become a Jew," or "a Moslem," "an atheist," or whatever. Of course, not all apostates are honest, and some pretend to practice the Catholic faith in order to retain positions useful to their new masters.(10) It is not always possible for the Church to identify the apostates, heretics, and schismatics -- but Pope Pius was talking about people "separating themselves" in the sight of the "Judge who knows what is written in every heart." At least in the sight of God, apostates, heretics, and schismatics are already judged for their self exclusion, even without the need of a formal case in a Church court.
Heresy is a bit harder to deal with; a bit more slippery. The honest heretic can still tell you that he is a Christian; he will say that "its your version of Christianity that is lacking." Canonically, a heretic is "nominally a Christian, who pertinaciously [knowingly and intentionally] denies any one of the truths which must be believed de fide divina et catholica."(11) That is, he is one who denies truths declared by the Church to have been revealed by God. Again, it is not always immediately clear from a person's external behavior that he is a heretic. Presumably, he is sincere in his errors and feels that it is his duty as a "Catholic" to convince other of what he thinks is the truth.
Schism is a sin against fraternal charity and the unity of the Church. Aquinas quotes Augustine in saying that a "schismatic is one who holds the same faith and practices the same worship as others and takes pleasure in the mere disunion of the community."(12) (Remember the word "scissors" to help both understand and pronounce the word "schism.") In canon law it is convenient to evaluate the required unity in terms of one's attitude toward the Pope and those subject to him: "Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him."(13) One who refuses to acknowledge that the Pope is the supreme head of the Church or who refuses to associate with others in the practice of the Catholic Faith is schismatic. Schism is more radical than mere disobedience, for not everyone who violates a law of the Church is in schism, only those who desire its disunity. Refusal to associate with heretics or to obey commands that would endanger one's salvation is every Catholic's duty, and is in no way schismatic.
"Exclusion by Legitimate Authority for Grave Faults Committed."
Pope Pius spoke of people excluding themselves from the Church through "schism or heresy or apostasy." He also spoke of the governing authority of the Church excluding grave sinners from the Church by means of Church law. In some cases, this exclusion by legitimate authority is simply an official statement that the sinner has excluded himself. In other cases it is a "medicinal penalty" for serious wrong doing. The penalty is called medicinal because it is intended to get the sinner's attention and persuade him to mend his ways. In all cases, one must have sinned seriously in order to incur excommunication. The number of crimes for which one may be excommunicated is greatly reduced in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. It retains apostasy, heresy, schism, violence against the Pope, violation of the seal of confession, and abortion from the 1917 Code, and adds the consecration of a bishop without a papal mandate.
All of these excommunications occur automatically upon commission of the crime. One is legally excluded from the Church, even if the authorities of the Church are unaware that the crime has taken place. At a later time the Church may issue a public declaration of excommunication in order to reinforce the medicinal nature of the punishment and to remove any public doubt about the sinner in question. Childhood, accident, ignorance, physical duress, grave fear, self defense, and irrationality are factors which may mitigate an offense that would normally be punished by excommunication, reducing the crime or making it no crime at all.(15) If you have read the Baltimore Catechism's explanation of what is necessary to commit a mortal sin you will have no trouble understanding what is necessary for someone to be excommunicated.
Juridical? Mystical? Both!
The Church, then, has a twofold aspect: it is "mystical" in that anyone may admit themselves to membership by belief in what our Lord has revealed and by receiving Baptism. It is "juridical" in that its members submit themselves to the legitimate direction of its authorities. These two aspects are intimately related, as Leo XIII says:
Those who arbitrarily conjure up and picture to themselves a hidden and invisible Church are in serious and pernicious error, as also are those who regard the Church as a human institution which claims a certain obedience in discipline and external duties, but which is without the never ending communication of the gifts of divine grace, and without all that which testifies by continual and unquestioned signs to the existence of that life which is drawn from God. It is undoubtedly as impossible that the Church of Jesus Christ can be the one or the other as that man should be a body alone or a soul alone.(16)
Pius XII expresses the same idea:
Now since its Founder willed this social body of Christ to be visible, the cooperation of all its members must also be externally manifest through their profession of the same faith and their sharing of the same sacred rites, through participation in the same Sacrifice, and the practical observance of the same laws. Above all, it is absolutely necessary that the Supreme Head, that is, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, be visible to the eyes of all, since it is He who gives effective direction to the work which all do in common in a mutually helpful way towards the attainment of the proposed end.(17)
Thus the Church is both the sum of all of its believers and the corporate society chartered by Jesus Christ. This was, of course, obvious during the pontificates of Popes like Leo XIII and Pius XII. Yet, in recent years, this dual aspect of the Church has raised a serious question: "Since the two are linked, what happens if an officer of the "juridical church" has, by heresy, schism, or apostasy excluded himself from the "mystical church"? In other words, if a pope or a bishop holds heretical or schismatic beliefs, what happens to the corporate existence of the Church?
Not surprisingly, the answer is twofold: the Church will always continue to exist in the total of those who believe what Christ taught, who preserve His words untarnished, who offer His true Mass, and who confect the Sacraments according to His will -- and -- the Church will continue to exist juridically, making use even of those who are spiritually dead to preserve the integrity of the "corporation." It must be this way, for the corporate existence of the Church could never be certain and secure if somehow the bishop, or even the pope. could remove himself with nothing more than an heretical thought.
In Canon Law this idea is expressed in canon 2227, which dictates that bishops and cardinals (and, a fortiori, the Pope) are not subject to the automatic penalties of the law. As private persons before God they are spiritually liable to the same penalties as anyone else, but in their official capacities they can be judged only through canonical process, and not by their public or private thoughts. The appropriate procedure for removing a Pope is the subject of some debate; in the past it has always been done on a more or less ad hoc basis, carried out by whoever had enough political or military power to accomplish the task. Yet, it is the Church that must judge, not the opinion of private individuals.
Practical Implications: Just Who is "Out of the Church"?
Given the chaos of the past thirty years, it is not surprising that many Catholics have an erroneous notion of what it means to belong to the Catholic Church. Some think of the Church as its buildings, the occupants of which are vested with unquestionable authority. Others think of the Church as a terribly complex system of conflicting human and divine rules, almost impossible to obey, but which must be outwitted to attain salvation: "I must not follow the new ways but I also must not break any of the Modernists' rules, lest they expel me from the Church." Their over-emphasis is on "obedience" to human authority, even though such "obedience" may require violation of divine law. Some go a step further, and hold the notion that the Modernist bishops and popes can actually change the Faith and demand beliefs contrary to the unchanging magisterium of the Church. The over-emphasis here is attributing to the Pope and bishops powers never even claimed for them by the Church; "infallibility" in everything, at all times, even in clear contradiction of previously defined dogma. While invincible ignorance might excuse Catholics with such ideas, all too often the ignorance is purposefully affected in order to avoid conflict or personal responsibility. This becomes additionally sinful as it is compounded by schism: criticizing and trying to demoralize Catholics who remain faithful to the unchanging Faith.
Appearances can be deceiving. Many indifferent Catholics confuse the Church with her buildings. They falsely reason that the man sitting behind the desk in the $3,000,000 church must be a Catholic and a teacher of the Catholic Faith. (After all, the sign outside says "Catholic Church" and the man still wears most of the vestments that priests wear!) But "obedience" to human authority is no excuse for betraying the Faith which comes to us from God, the ultimate authority. The human authority of popes, bishops, and priests is a means to an end; to orthodox belief, and, ultimately, to salvation. When it works against these ends it ceases to be legitimate authority.
All baptized Catholics have an obligation to know their Faith accurately and to act upon this knowledge to the best of their ability. Those who avoid learning about the Faith out of laziness, or because they do not want to accept their responsibilities as knowledgeable Catholics are guilty of serious sin. There is an obligation to "profess" the Catholic Faith. In times like ours, when the Faith is denied and contradicted at the highest levels of the Church, an explicit profession may be required from time to time. Those who know better but yet profess heresy or cooperate in the spread of heresy exclude themselves from the Catholic Faith.
There is an obligation to "profess" the Catholic Faith. Ordinarily it would be minimally sufficient to profess a statement of belief such as the Apostles' or Nicene Creed at the time of Baptism. But in times like our own when the Faith is denied and contradicted even by those in the highest position of the Church, a more explicit profession of Faith may be required from time to time. At such a time, no one may deny the Catholic Faith either by action or omission without incurring grave sin.
Heretics separate themselves from the Church even if they retain the use of her buildings and remain canonically in office. It matters not that they offer Mass reverently, dress conservatively, or behave like gentlemen. The use of the traditional Mass does not guarantee their orthodoxy; indeed one of the first conditions imposed on New Order priests celebrating the true Mass is loyalty to the "reforms" of Vatican II. They use the appearances of tradition to "sugar coat" their Modernist beliefs. Excuses like the loss of a pension or having to take a job to support one's self do not justify continuing in heresy; particularly among priests whose bad example may cause the loss of many souls.
Modernists glibly label traditional Catholics "schismatic." This is absurd in the moral or canonical sense. We are required to separate ourselves from error or sacrilege, not to embrace them! Even among those zealots who hold that the Pope has removed himself from office through his odd behavior, there are none who reject the papacy or would want to separate themselves from its legitimate exercise. Modernist authorities who falsely attempt to excommunicate those trying to preserve the Faith are schismatic by any reasonable definition of the term.(19)
If there has been any schism among traditional Catholics it is among those who act as though there is "no salvation outside of the particular group to which they belong." Some of these folks have changed loyalties several times since Vatican II, and feel quite justified in using duplicity, exaggeration, and double standard to make themselves look good at the expense of their perceived "enemies."
No organization of traditional Catholics, no matter what it calls itself, wants to split the Church into factions, or considers itself as somehow a separate "Church." Indeed, the idea that there can be a plurality of "Sister Churches"(20) is one of the errors of Vatican II(21). It is not one held by traditional Catholics. Traditional organizations are structured around priests and bishops -- not because of any desire to form a "counter-Church" -- but because the preservation of the Mass and Sacraments threatened by Modernism is an essential part of sustaining the Catholic Faith. A plurality of beliefs is the hallmark of Modernism and its leaders -- not of Catholicism. Blaming traditional Catholics for a lack of unity under the Pope is like the bank robber blaming the bank because he hurt himself while robbing it.
Catholics are those who believe the teachings of Jesus Christ given through the Catholic Church, who have received Baptism, and who have not sinned against the Faith. Appearances can be deceptive, so even if "an angel from heaven preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema."
1. Denzinger 787.