Membership of the Church: Part I – Visibility

This is the first part of a series which will explore in detail the question of membership of the Catholic Church and the implications of this doctrine for the present crisis facing the Church.

The Catholic Church teaches that the following, and the following only, are members of her visible body:

“[those] 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.”[1]

Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi 22

In parts II, III, and IV of this series we will consider in turn the conditions of (i) baptism, (ii) public profession of the true faith, and (iii) lawful union with legitimate authority. However, in this first part we will seek to place the Catholic doctrine on membership in the context of the Church’s wider teaching on her necessary properties and attributes, and especially its close connection to her perpetual visibility.

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What is the end for which the Catholic Church was founded?

The Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord for the salvation of mankind.

As Fr Sylvester Berry wrote in his work The Church of Christ (reminder – The WM Review earns through purchases made with these links.):

“Christ’s greatest work was accomplished when He offered Himself on the Cross for our redemption and therefore merited for us every grace. This work, known to theologians as Redemption in actu primo, was personally wrought by Our Lord for all time… But the price of our redemption being offered, there was still a further work to perform; the merits of Christ’s suffering and death must be applied to individual souls through all the centuries. This is known as Redemption in actu secundo. Since Our Lord was not to remain upon earth in His bodily presence, there was a need of some agency to carry on this work; therefore, in the words of the Vatican Council, ‘the eternal Pastor and Bishop of souls decreed to establish a holy Church to perpetuate the saving work of Redemption.’ 

He continued:

“Christ proclaimed His doctrines, gave His precepts, and instituted the Sacraments to enable all men to participate in the fruits of the Redemption. He then instituted the Apostolic ministry to perpetuate this work to the world. He sent forth the Apostles with authority to teach and govern all men and to administer to them the means of salvation. It follows, then, that the Church was established to perpetuate the work of Redemption by applying it to the souls of men. In a word, the Church was instituted to save all men”.[2]

Since Pentecost Our Lord has, through His Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and through the college of bishops in union with him, exercised the threefold ministry of Priest, Prophet and King. As Priest he offers public worship, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and celebrates the other sacraments; as Prophet he teaches infallibly the true doctrine of the Church, and as King he exercises jurisdiction over the baptised in order to lead them to Heaven.

The Catholic Church is, as Berry notes:

“the only means established by Christ to teach His doctrines, to inculcate His moral precepts, to administer the Sacraments, and to regulate and direct divine worship. No one can practice the Christian religion otherwise than as Christ Himself has ordained; whoever would be His disciple and embrace His religion must submit to the authority of His Church, be taught and ruled by it, and receive through it all the means of salvation.”[3]

True doctrine, true sacraments and the exercise of jurisdiction by true pastors, are so necessary to our salvation that when Our Lord established the Church, he made it as easy as possible for all men and women of good will to find her and enter into her:

“The Church is eminently fitted to give glory to God by its wonderful manifestation of His power, wisdom and goodness in providing such efficacious means of salvation for all men, at all times, whatever be their condition or state of life.”[4]

The Church can only be the Ark of Salvation for all men, at all times, if she can be easily recognised by all people of good will. This must be so even for those who might be uneducated, illiterate, of low intelligence, deeply embedded in other religious and philosophical traditions, and so on. In Canon Smith’s volume The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Dom Aelred Graham expressed it in this way:

“Just as all men of good will who came into contact with Our Lord were able to know him for what he was, the Son of the living God, so it must be equally possible for them to recognise his Church as a divine institution. For the claims of the Church upon the world’s attention are no less imperative than of those of Christ himself. Indeed, it is the Church’s boast that she is, in her very constitution, ‘a perpetual motive of credibility and unassailable witness to her own divine mission.’ [Vatican Council]. Whence it follows that she must be a society visible to all as an unmistakable concrete fact.”[5]

The imperative claims of the Church were made clear by Our Lord Himself:

“All authority in heaven and on earth, he said, has been given to me; you, therefore, must go out, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all the commandments which I have given you. And behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:18-20)


“Go out all over the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation; he who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who refuses belief will be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)

If the means of salvation are to be found only in the Catholic Church – and if all who do not believe are to be condemned – then it must be reasonably easy for all men and women, in all places and at all times, to identify the Church. If this were not so Our Lord would have laid on our shoulders a burden too heavy to bear, yet he has assured us of the contrary:

“At that time Jesus said openly, Father, who art Lord of heaven and earth, I give thee praise that thou hast hidden all this from the wise and the prudent, and revealed it to little children.  Be it so, Father, since this finds favour in thy sight…

“Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon yourselves, and learn from me; I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:25-30)

Therefore, we may be assured that it is possible for all men and women of good will to recognise the true Church of Christ, without the need for any special abilities or circumstances on their part.

The necessary qualities of the Catholic Church

We have established that all are called to membership of the Catholic Church and that no other society possesses all the means by which men are to be saved. 

“As a society instituted to perpetuate the Mission of Christ on earth” writes Berry, “[the Church] must be endowed with certain qualities necessary for the proper performance of that work.” [6] 

He continues:

“Necessary qualities are those so essentially bound up with the Church that the loss of any one of them would make the Church other than that established by Christ and render it incapable of accomplishing the purpose of its existence.”[7]

These qualities are identified by theologians as[8]:

  • Unity
  • Sanctity
  • Catholicity
  • Apostolicity
  • Perpetuity
  • Indefectibility
  • Visibility
  • Infallibility

The first four of these necessary qualities are called the “marks of the Church”. These are those qualities, or properties, which manifest themselves externally and serve as means of identifying the Church. That is to say, we can identify which of all competing claimants is the true Church of Christ because she alone is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

The Church always possesses these marks. She is necessarily One, that is, she is always united in faith, worship and government. She is necessarily Holy, that is, she perpetually possesses the doctrine and sacraments that sanctify, and she brings forth heroic virtue in numerous souls in every age. She is necessarily Catholic, that is, she is ever dispersed across the world and is never restricted to any particular race or nation. She is necessarily Apostolic, that is, she is perpetually governed by bishops who have received both the power of orders and the power of jurisdiction in direct succession from the Apostles.

There is not space here to examine these marks in detail but the mark of unity has been explored in depth by my colleague and co-editor S. D. Wright in a series of articles already republished in this review.

The final four qualities – perpetuity, indefectibility, visibility and infallibility – are called attributes. These do not manifest themselves externally in the same manner as the marks of the Church, but they are permanent qualities that the Church must necessarily possess if she is to fulfil her mission among men. 

As stated above, it is the attribute of visibility that concerns us most in our discussion of membership of the Church.

The Visibility of the Church

We must begin any discussion of the visibility of the Church by emphasising that visibility primarily concerns the identification of the Church through the use of the senses.

Fr Sylvester Berry wrote of the term “visibility” in general:

“Visibility primarily signifies the capability of being perceived by the sense of sight; then, by extension, it refers to the capability of being perceived by any of the five senses. Finally, it means the capability of an object being perceived or known by the intellect because of the sensible qualities adhering in that object.”[9]

Visibility can be both material and formal.

A thing is materially visible in those qualities which can be perceived directly by the senses. Thus, a man has skin, hair, a particular shape, a particular kind of voice and so on.

A thing is formally visible when it can be recognised as having a certain nature i.e. through the above sensible qualities one determines that the creature is a man.

We can see how this applies to men gathered together to form a society. Berry writes:

“A society is materially visible because its members, its rites and ceremonies, and its places of meeting can be seen or perceived by the senses; when through these external signs, it may be known that certain individuals are thus banded together, the society is formally visible as a society.”[10]

It follows that:

“When we say that the Church of Christ is visible, we mean primarily, that it is a society of men with external rites and ceremonies and all the external machinery of government by which it can easily be recognized as a true society. But we further maintain that the Church of Christ also has certain marks by which it may be recognized as the one true Church founded by Christ when He commissioned the Apostles to convert all nations. In other words, we maintain that the Church of Christ is formally visible, not only as a society known as a Christian Church, but also as the one true Church of Christ.”[11]

As the Vatican Council taught:

“to enable us to fulfil the obligation to embrace the true faith and to persistently persevere in it, God has instituted the Church through his only-begotten Son, and has bestowed on it manifest marks of that institution, that it may be recognised by all men as the guardian and teacher of the revealed Word; for to the Catholic Church alone belong all those many and admirable tokens which have been established for the evident credibility of the Catholic faith. Nay, more, the Church itself, by reason of its marvellous extension, its eminent holiness, and its inexhaustible fruitfulness in every good thing, its Catholic unity and its invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility, and an irrefutable witness of its own divine mission. And thus, like a standard set up amidst nations, it both invites those who do not yet believe, and assures its children that the faith which they possess rests on the most firm foundation.”[12]

The visible nature of the Church is, as Mgr Canon Myers noted, yet another evidence of God’s love and mercy:

“Man is a sense-bound creature and the appeal of sense is continuous. Our Lord has taken our nature into consideration. The merely invisible we can accept on his authority. But he has given us a visible Church, with recognisable rules and laws and doctrines and means of sanctification, in which man is at home. We accept Our Lord’s gift to us with gratitude and strive to avail ourselves of its visible and invisible character. He has willed that as individuals we should be united to him by sanctifying grace, and that at the same time we should be united to one another with a unique collectivity, an unparalleled solidarity, which is the reality designated as the Mystical Body of Christ. And he has further willed that all the members of that Mystical Body should be members of the visible, organised hierarchical society to which he has given the power of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. The visible Church is to be the unique indefectible Church which is to last until the end of time, and in its unity to extend all over the world.”[13]

The ease with which the Church can be recognised by men and women of good will can be seen in the “moral miracle” of the rapid spread of the Catholic faith in many parts of the world, for example in fifth century Ireland in the decades following the preaching of St Patrick, in seventh century England after the arrival of missionaries from Rome and Ireland, and in sixteenth century South America after the Spanish conquest. 

However, the obvious nature of the marks does not lead to the conversion of all, as Berry states starkly:

“those blinded by passion and prejudice can no more recognize the true Church than the Pharisees of old could recognize its Divine Founder. The man who closes his eyes cannot even see the sun in its noonday splendor.”[14]

Membership of the Church

In the sections above we have explained that the Catholic Church is a visible society that can be easily identified by all men and women of good will, through the marks of unity, sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity.

But it is not enough to know which institution among others is the true Church, we must also know where this Church is, and where she is not; who remains in her, and who has become separated from her. 

We could hardly call the Church visible, if her members could not be identified by the application of reasonable diligence. We must be able to attain moral certainty as to where the Church is, and this means being able to recognise who is a member and who is not. A state of doubt on this question would not be compatible with Our Lord’s command that all enter the Church as an absolute requirement for salvation.

The Church teaches us very clearly that the members of the Church are those who are:

  • baptised
  • publicly profess the Catholic faith
  • and are in lawful union with the hierarchy of the Church (that is, are not separated by schism or excluded by sentence of major excommunication).

This doctrine, which has been consistently taught by the Church through many centuries, received a particularly authoritative formulation by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Mystici Corporis Christi:

“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. ‘For in one spirit’ says the Apostle, ‘were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.’ As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.”[15]

His Holiness Pope Pius XII (1876-1958)

These three conditions of membership are in fact reflected in the very definition of the visible Church, as in this formulation taken from a standard text by Mgr G. Van Noort:

“The Church may be defined as follows: The society of men who, by their profession of the same faith, and by their partaking of the same sacraments, make up, under the rule of apostolic pastors and their head, the kingdom of Christ on earth.”[16]

Van Noort explains the intimate connection between the conditions of membership and the existence of the Church as a visible society:

“It is due to the institution of Christ Himself that the Church is visible… Proof: 1. From the threefold bondwhich Christ Himself imposed. It was indicated above how Our Lord founded the Church by enjoining on His disciples the profession of the same faith, participation in the same rites, and obedience to the same authority. It is by these bonds that the Church is drawn into unity and held together; without them there simply is no Church of Christ. Now, since these bonds are external things which people can see, they necessarily make the Church an external, visible society. One can discern, using one’s external senses, which men profess the same doctrine, frequent the same sacraments, and obey the same rulers.”[17]

Each and every human being who fulfils all three of these criteria – baptism, profession of the faith, lawful union with the hierarchy – is a member of the Catholic Church. 

Nobody else is. 

Neither the unbaptised, nor the public heretic, nor the public schismatic, can ever be considered a member of the visible body of Christ’s Church.[18]

This doctrine has profound implications for the Church today. It is these implications that we must examine in more detail in the weeks ahead. 

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[1] Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, No. 22.

[2] Rev E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, (Mount St Mary’s Seminary, 1955), p21-22.

[3] Berry, Church of Christ, p23.

[4] Berry, Church of Christ

[5] Aelred Graham O.S.B, “The Church on Earth”, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, ed. Canon George Smith, (2nd edition, London, 1952), p701.

[6] Berry, Church of Christ, p29.

[7] Berry, Church of Christ, p29.

[8] See, for example, Berry, Church of Christ, p45.

[9] Berry, Church of Christ, p36.

[10] Berry, Church of Christ, p36.

[11] Berry, Church of Christ, p37.

[12] Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith”, 24 April 1870. As translated in Myers, `”Mystical Body”, p660.

[13]Mgr Canon E. Myers, “The Mystical Body of Christ”, The Teaching of the Catholic Church, ed. Canon George Smith, (2nd edition, London, 1952), p662.

[14] Berry, Church of Christ, p37.

[15] Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, No. 22.

[16] Mgr G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Volume II: Christ’s Church, No. 2. It must be understood here that baptism is the essential precondition for the reception of the other sacraments.

[17] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, No. 12.

[18] “Only those who fulfil the three conditions mentioned above, enjoy the privilege of membership of the Church; therefore all unbaptized persons, whether infants or adults, all manifest heretics and schismatics, and those excommunicated as vitandi are excluded.” Rev. Sylvester Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 1, No. 193.

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