Periodically this question erupts in comboxes

A reader asks:

First needs to be answered the question “What is a Catholic” – and the answer needs to be canonical, not just various shades of philosophical. Is heretical the opposite of Catholic?

Mark – I’d love it if you would weigh in here a bit (not a jolly joke I promise ) since my knowledge of the issue is rather slim once I started to think about it for longer than a moment….

Heretical is a piece of Catholic. Catholic is believing and trying to do what the Church teaches. As far as I know, nobody is Catholic, including, emphatically, me. That’s why I judge *ideas* as Catholic or non-Catholic but don’t waste time judging people as Catholic or non-Catholic. As I say, There Ain’t No Pure Church

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  • Brad

    Mark said “Catholic is believing and trying to do what the Church teaches. As far as I know, nobody is Catholic, including, emphatically, me.”

    I fully believe what the Church teaches. I try to follow and understand, albeit imperfectly, what the Church teaches. I often fail, thus I frequent the confessional. That doesn’t make me “non Catholic”, it makes me a sinner.

    • Mark Shea

      Same difference. When we sin, we reveal, in that moment, that we don’t *really* believe what the Church teaches. If we did, we would obey the Revelation and not the little voice saying, “What are you? Crazy? Don’t listen to *that* nonsense. Play it safe. Or do what’s fun. Or don’t risk your neck for some stupid ivory tower abstraction. Or bravely ignore the pedantries of the theologian and courageously do evil that good can come of it” or whatever other rationale we come up with ignoring the Church’s teaching.

      • mayhaps

        I disagree. You can believe in something while acting against it. Have you honestly never done something knowing it was 100% wrong? I have. I never doubted the Church’s teachings about it, nor did I think the Church taught “some stupid ivory tower abstraction”. I didn’t try and rationalize it by thinking I was brave or cool or smart. No, I knew I was doing something wrong, which is why I felt so guilty about it. I knew I was acting against God and the Church. That put me in mortal sin and cut me off from communion with the Church, but I was still Catholic. And anyone who tries to do what the Church teaches and is not in mortal sin is very, very Catholic. I would say one is not Catholic if they habitually and remorsefully, with full knowledge, choose to deny and go against Church teaching. When does one cross the line from being a heretic to being non-Catholic? Now that’s something that can be further discussed.

  • Well said. Judge the idea, not the person; judge the behavior, not the motive.

  • Sally Wilkins

    Hmm. Not to be too picky, but did the OP mean “is heretical the opposite of catholic,” or “is [a] heretic the opposite of [a] Catholic?” Because one speaks of teachings or beliefs, while the other speaks of persons.

    To be a Catholic is to be a member of the Body of Christ (there is only One Body, and so only One Church). Within that Body there are members who are more and less perfectly conformed to the Head, who is Christ. There are plenty of practicing, even devout, Catholics who hold, unwittingly, heretical ideas. There are even whole branches of the Church which teach heretical ideas. But the Church has formally taught (Lumen Gentium) those members, too, are joined to the Church. So to be a heretic does NOT necessarily mean one is not a Catholic – it may mean one is a confused Catholic, or a rebellious Catholic, or a misinformed, poorly catechized Catholic. (Even an excommunicated Catholic is still a Catholic, after all . . .)

    In the matter of teachings, however, or statements of belief, one could say that “heretical” is the opposite of “catholic,” although that implies a black-and-white duality which is seldom true of heretical beliefs, they are far more frequently slightly askew versions of truth than they are complete denials of it.

    • Mark Shea

      That’s why I say Heretical is a *piece* of Catholic.

    • I meant it in the teachings/belief’s sense but your clarifying question of my clarifying question speaks to the confusion surrounding the issue.

      And I agree with Mark’s answer as well. I think the trouble comes in when someone (usually in a combox) admits to disagreeing with the Church on some settle point of doctrine but still call themselves Catholic. The question of the moment had to do with abortion but there are other issues (perhaps lying? 😉 ) that could raise the same issue.

    • Rade Hagedorn

      In a sense, an apostate could be considered the opposite of a Catholic.

  • Brad

    In the exact moment of sin, we all turn away from God. Is that what you mean by “nobody is Catholic” Seems to me an odd way of putting it…

    • Mark Shea

      It is an odd way of putting it. But since my point is that peering around us looking for people who “aren’t really Catholic” is essentially the same as peering around us to find who is sinless, I prefer to put it that was for this discussion.

      • mayhaps

        Except that Catholics, by definition, are sinners (that’s kind of why we needed a messiah… well, all humans did, and Catholics are human, so…). Don’t change words to change discussions. This makes communication difficult and obscures meaning, which will never help in any discussions.

        It just bothers me that you say there are no Catholics, because you are basically claiming a word with no definition (at least you are claiming that Catholic as a noun has no definition). Would you please define what a “Catholic” would look like in your definition?

        • Mark Shea

          My point is not “No one can claim the name of ‘Catholic'”. It is rather that the fruitless conservative lay Catholic habit of trying to read people out of the Church for failure to measure up is a gigantic waste of time.

  • Brad

    Well then it sounds like it is settled… the new title of this blog should be “Not Catholic and Enjoying It?”

  • Brad

    “peering around us looking for people who “aren’t really Catholic” – isn’t that the mission statement of this blog, Mark? Wow… own what you are.

    • Beadgirl

      While I can think of a number of instances where Mark vehemently told someone he was wrong, I can’t think of a single time he told someone that he wasn’t Catholic.

  • Matt

    A Catholic is one who was baptized into the Catholic Church or received into the Church after baptism from some other Church or Ecclesial Community. Yes the definition has a lot of various usages but at least from the angle of Canon Law it is fairly clear who is or isn’t considered a Catholic. Unfortunately there are bad Catholics out there. People have recently taken to referring to them as not Catholic, this is an incorrect usage. As Mark pointed out there are Catholics and Catholic behavior. We should be saying stuff like Sebillius is a bad Catholic or an apostate Catholic or an anti-Catholic Catholic, not saying she is not really a Catholic. It confuses the language.

    • Rade Hagedorn

      This might be overly technical but do Roman Catholics teach that there is more than one Church? I had thought not but your answer seems to imply differently — I may have misunderstood you though. As an Othodox Christian we teach that there is only one Church.

      • Bill

        The Catholic Church teaches that the fullness of the Church of Christ subsists in the 22 sui iuris Churches in communion with the Chair of St. Peter.

        Orthodox Churches are actual churches to us, but have an imperfect communion.

        Protestants are members of ecclesial communities. They are church-like structures, but do not possess valid sacraments/mysteries, and do not have apostolic succession. There is holiness there, but not oneness, apostolicity, or catholicity.

        Catholicism has the four marks of the Church. Oneness, Holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity.

    • Sally Wilkins

      “at least from the angle of Canon Law it is fairly clear who is or isn’t considered a Catholic”
      It is fairly clear – all the baptized (Canon 204 §1) and catechumens (Canon 206 §1). Canon 205 specifically speaks of “those baptized are fully in the communion . . .who are joined with the visible structure” which makes it patently clear that there are baptized who are not joined with the visible structure who are still “Christian faithful” (the preferred term, as Kirt points out below). There is, in fact, only One Church. Christ is not divided.

  • Kirt Higdon

    Use of Catholic as a noun rather than an adjective is strictly post-Reformation. Prior to that members of the Church were simply called Christians. The Protestants hijacked the term Christian and many Catholics let them get by with it to this day. Many times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not a Christian; I’m a Catholic”. This only confirms the belief of many Protestants that Catholics are not real Christians. In Papal encyclicals and similar documents, members of the Church are referred to as “the faithful in Christ”. And I detest the term Catholicism, which manages to make our faith sound like a political ideology. Pius XII once said, with typical Papal understatement, that Catholicism is “neither a customary nor adequate term for what we mean by the faith of the Church”.

    • Amy Gaiennie

      Very well said…

  • Deacon Nathan Allen

    The questioner says, “[T]he answer needs to be canonical, not just various shades of philosophical.” The basic rule canonically on what makes a person a Catholic is found in Canon 205: “Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.” Once in, it’s very hard canonically for someone to cease being a Catholic, especially after the changes in the Code of Canon Law the Holy Father made in his Apostolic Letter Omnium in mentem (October 26, 2009). You can be a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, a faithful Catholic or an unfaithful Catholic, a believer or a nonbeliever, but speaking canonically (as the questioner asks), the Catholic Church is rather like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

  • John H.

    Is the Pope Catholic?

  • Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered

    “But since my point is that peering around us looking for people who “aren’t really Catholic” is essentially the same as peering around us to find who is sinless, I prefer to put it that was for this discussion.”

    I don’t think this quite does it. Catholics have always admitted that sin and human frailty are part of the human situation and this includes Catholics. Sin is the not divider here. And it’s not simply ideas or abstractions to which we conform or not. Church teaching is embodied and I think you’re missing that piece of being Catholic. It’s not just obeying Church teachings, it’s also conforming oneself, both mentally and physically to the disciplines and practices of the Church, particularly the way in which we worship.

    • Mark Shea

      I don’t think we are really disagreeing here.

  • I always thought that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. You can lapse into schism, heresy or apostasy, but that doesn’t make you any less Catholic. You’re just in rebellion (though in cases of heresy, it can be based on misunderstanding). There’s a difference. You still have a place at the communion table, after you repent and go to confession. You don’t have to be “received” into the Church again or re-do RCIA. Note that if you are a Catholic and you commit other kinds of sins, you have to go through the same reconciliation process.

  • Joannie

    I have recently saw (or heard somewhere) where the Pope has said in a certain way “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” I think this is in response to certain of the Faithful in European Countries like Germany or Austria who were declaring themselves out of the Church by some form or action done publicly but I had read that this cannot be done because in the cases of Baptism and Confirmation as well as Holy Orders the Sacrament actually leaves an special mark or character (or seal) that cannot be negated or erased somehow. Whether the person practices or not they stay Catholic.

    • Imrahil

      The question this was all about the canonical term of formal defection. There could, at any rate, be a material defection.

      The Baptismal character never has been in doubt; but that is the Baptismal character. As concerns membership in the Church, it was taught by the Magisterium (Pius XII, in an encyclical) that the Church consists of such and such persons “minus those who, to their detriment, have withdrawn themselves from the Catholic Church or, for their grave crimes, have been thrown out of it” (no accurate quote) do not belong to the Church. The grave crimes thing is explicitly not normal excommunication; so the theologians say it is vitandus excommunication.
      It is neither helpful nor, in the light of this, accurate, to hold a baptized person a Catholic Christian no matter how much against her explicitly asserted will.

      What concerns the German church-leavers, we have to distinguish: There are “I have decided not to believe, or also not to belong to this Church because there are sinners in her”-churchleavers, there are “I do not care about religion”-churchleavers, there are “The Church is fine in her place I guess (though I do not necessarily share her opinion) but I do not want to pay”-churchleavers and there are “I’m religious and Catholic and do not want them to use my money for what I consider bad ends”-churchleavers.

      I’m personally sure that the first kind neither can nor should be called Catholics. As concerns the rest, what they do is say “I have left the Catholic Church” to a state office, and then do no longer have to pay the Church tax. It is, of course, out of question that taken literally this constitutes a schismatic act. The question, so to speak, is, whether not this should be taken as what perhaps is intended, which is “I do not want to pay the Church tax”. On this topic, there may be different opinions and I do not want to go into detail, nor am I altogether clear myself.

  • Imrahil

    I go for the good old explanation of Ludwig Ott:

    Catholic is one who is baptized, is not publicly in either apostasy, heresy, or schism, nor in excommunication if the excommunication was declared as that of a vitandus. (Normal excommunication does not affect being a member of the Church.) (See: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma IV/II § 19).

    With all due respect, we need the terms, we can’t yet again lose one term. (And this term, “Catholic”, which empirically has shown to be really ours in a way – from Christian to Church to Idontknowwhat any term has been used by non-Catholics, but even the World will deny that, say, the Old Catholic Church is Catholic). That we’re all sinners is a thing pretty much well-known. But to be Catholic or Christian is something quite concrete, as much as the Church as is concrete. At any rate, I think I can appeal to Chesterton: it is more true to say, he says, that St. Francis was the only Franciscan than that Christ was the only Christian. I take that to mean that with all the points that can be made for the latter (which points I do not dream of denying), the latter is, in pure content, not accurate.

    And however true it may be most of the time for most of the sins (not always for all sins) that they mean we do not really believe, actually I think the point of really/i> in “do I have really believed” is better left uninvestigated. This is, you might say, psychological. I know that I sinned, which is hard enough to bear; I know (by hypothesis in the specific hypothetical case) that I have not formally decided to disbelieve – – – one can always make one’s life even more hard as we say around here, but I’d go for confessing the first and not investigating the “really”-point.

    How good or bad I am in fulfilling what a Christian, a Catholic, or a man (for that matter) is supposed to fulfil is no business here. But that I’m a Christian and a Catholic, let me say it with fear from what this means but also with some boldness, I know as much for sure as that I am a German. By the grace of God, the first and second; I’ll hopefully see in next life whether by His grace or by His permission as regards the third. [But that, of course, was rather a joke and I do not mean to be ungrateful as regards my fatherland…]

  • thomas tucker

    Interestng discussion.
    I have to say, I would like it to be the case that when someone says that they are Catholic, then at least you have a pretty good idea of what their beliefs are.
    Unfortunately, tha is not the case these days.